I’m in constant conversation with pastors who are trying to faithfully navigate the intense debate around race and justice. No one, it seems, is dispassionate about the topic today.
Most of the leaders we currently serve at the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission (ICCM) are in majority white or diverse churches. They have a particular intent to lead their churches into a more robust pursuit of unity in diversity. And without fail they describe feeling pressure from two opposite directions, or what I call “the vise effect.” Some congregants, with a high degree of excitement and impatience, are saying, “It’s about time that we’re addressing the problems of race and justice in the church and society! How can we expect to truly love and welcome our diverse neighbors if we do not engage the issues that are affecting their lives?” Another contingent of congregants are pushing from the other end: “Wait a minute! This feels like we’re buying into the culture’s narrative on these issues. Slow down. Let’s make sure that our church is not forsaking the gospel for social relevance.”
Now, I’ve just given you a charitable recitation of those positions. The actual language people use often sounds much more pejorative than that. Pastors are caught in this vise, and many wonder whether they ought to go back to the days of not focusing on the pursuit of unity in ethnic diversity under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Why Is This So Hard?
Why is this conversation so hard? Why are churches in the United States so polarized, along with their society? The sad truth is that many churches have not only been content with division and stratification across racial, ethnic, and economic lines, but have been complicit in fostering that division. We have not, in the main, embraced the pursuit of what I call beautiful community. Indeed, pastors of various ethnic backgrounds — in majority white churches, majority black churches, and majority Asian churches — have expressed to me the sentiment that they believe the visions of Revelation 5:9–10 and 7:9–12 will come to pass one day, but they do not expect to experience the reality of it in their local churches today.
“God is going to knit the human race back together in his Son, as sure as night follows day.”
Admittedly, I go through seasons of doubt and discouragement here myself. I long for the Lord to show the world more of his glory by moving his people toward a neighborly love that, as George Hendry put it, “overcomes division and reconciles contraries, bringing into communion those who have nothing in common except the fact that Jesus gave himself for them” (The Westminster Confession for Today, 219).
You could build a small library with all of the books that convey the causes of our polarization in the church and society. The example I provide below is not an isolated incident in United States history. I include it here because it speaks to the current challenge, and it has personal relevance to me.
My mother migrated from Wilmington, NC, to Harlem, NYC, as a teenager in 1952. She was a part of the Great American Migration, the mass exodus of African Americans out of the southern states from 1900–1970. In my opinion, the 1898 murderous coup in Wilmington set the conditions that led to my grandmother and her children leaving a few decades later. David Zucchino, in his book Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, details the tragic, armed, hostile coup of the city government in November 1898. The violence left upwards of three hundred African Americans dead and led to the overthrow of the city government and the installation of the coup leader as mayor. The reason for the coup? A flourishing and growing black community in a city that was becoming a post-Civil War model for black and white cooperation.
In the lead up to the coup, Rev. Peyton Hoge, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, preached white-supremacist messages to his congregation. On the Sunday following the coup, Rev. James W. Kramer, of Brooklyn Baptist Church in Wilmington, declared to his congregation, “God from the beginning of time intended that intelligent white men should lead the people and rule the country.” Rev. Hoge himself carried around a Winchester rifle during the overthrow. Rev. Kramer said in his post-coup sermon, “I believe that the whites were doing God’s services, as the results for good have been felt in businesses, in politics, and in the church. We will give the negro justice and will treat him kindly, but never again will we be ruled by him.” In the Sunday after the coup, Rev. Hoge opened his sermon saying, “Since we last met in these walls, we have taken a city.”
On Whose Terms?
Why bring up the coup of 1898? That was over 120 years ago. Well, the coup set the city on a course from which it has not yet recovered. In 1898, Wilmington’s population was 56 percent black. Today it is 18 percent black. Earlier this year, I met and interacted with a racially and denominationally diverse coalition of pastors who are striving to bear witness in the city of our unity in Jesus Christ. For them and the city, the coup is not ancient history. It still casts a shadow, even over the church. They know that engaging the lasting effects of this historical event may serve as an avenue to experience the intimate communion the Scriptures describe for God’s people.
You see, it may seem easy for us to see and condemn the overt systemic racism at work in the coup of 1898. It can be much more difficult for us to identify in the present what informs our responses to the polarizing issues of our own day. What I am driving at is this: we do not know fully how much our understanding of what it means to be human, to be a Christian, to live a good life, to experience love, to be friend, husband, wife, and worker is shaped by the groups to which we belong. We may be blind to some of its facets because it is the water that we swim in. We may have an idea of, or a desire for, experiencing intimate communion under the lordship of Jesus Christ across lines of difference, but at the same time, we want that communion on our own terms. What happens, then, is that we end up talking past each other and impugning evil motives to those who see differently than we do. We violate the ninth commandment, refusing to uphold and promote the good name of our neighbors.
With all of this difficulty, is it worth it, or even possible, to press through the polarization? Well, here is another truth, and this one is glorious. Beautiful community is already a reality. The redemption of the world has been accomplished by the victory of God when Christ rose from the dead.
“Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, “Pied Beauty.” To be dappled is to be variegated, exhibiting different colors. All of the created variety in this world points to the glory and grandeur of God. Our God loves difference. He is the author of dappled things, who spoke the delightful benediction, “Very good,” over the beautiful, diverse creation at the end of the sixth day. It is no minor point that humanity crowns the creation account in Genesis 1. From the beginning, humanity was destined for beautiful community. This is because God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the Beautiful One. Humanity, made in his image, was created to reflect his glory to the world as beautiful community — unity in diversity, diversity in unity.
The church is called to be a sign of the unity of the human race that will one day be perfectly achieved in the Son of God. What the fall destroyed was union and unity with God and each other. Reunion is the story of Scripture. Words like renewed, reconciled, and united proclaim the reversal of the fractures, divides, breaks, partitions of life in this world and before God that we so desperately need. We are truly stamped from the beginning for beautiful community — for unity and union, for wholeness and true peace.
“Our hope is not based on our progress. Our hope is based on God’s promise.”
God is going to knit the human race back together in his Son. It is going to happen as sure as night follows day. In God’s economy, bringing to the surface the real-life dehumanizing and oppressive conditions that have contributed to the ongoing racial and political divides we experience today can serve as an aspect of effectively promoting a vision for the beautiful community that God is committed to cultivating for humanity.
Promise of Progress
What will enable us to commit to the pursuit of beautiful community, seeking the unity of the Spirit across lines of ethnic difference? It will not be the fact that diversity is a hot topic in the culture today. It will not be the pressure to appear viable or acceptable to the world. The pursuit is too hard. It is too perplexing, and often too painful, if our commitment is not drenched in the beautiful truth that we are participating in the beautiful plan and purpose of our beautiful God.
The notion of beauty invites us into mystery. We cannot quantify or codify everything when it comes to beauty. This is important because we will regularly feel like our ecclesial efforts toward beautiful community have us spinning our wheels. Our hope, however, is not based on our progress. Our hope is based on God’s promise. We press on by promise, entrusting the progress to God.