Preempt the Next Newsflash: Overflow from #ATimeToSpeak

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On December 16, 2014, I was part of a conversation on racial harmony gathered by Bryan Loritts at the former Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee. In preparing for this event, I jotted down notes on an array of related issues. As I looked over these notes on the way home, and reflected on some takeaways from the gathering, it occurred to me that some of them might be useful as talking points for those who are leading discussions or perhaps preaching or teaching on related matters.

So what follows are seed-thoughts that I hope will sprout into fruitful biblical reflection that bears fruit in Christ-exalting obedience.

1. Preempt the next newsflash with prior teaching on how God views race.

This relates to other issues besides race (education, poverty, hunger, abortion, crime, drugs, gambling, homosexuality, greed, and more). The point is general. If we preach, teach, and discuss God’s word on issues only as they arise in the news, we will inevitably be playing catch up. We will always be reacting, rather than constructing.

One of the effects this has is to make us feel like we are only speaking because everyone else is, or because we are being pressured to. But if we discern from God’s word what matters in life, and see what God has said about it, we can take the initiative to talk about these things in the course of our exposition, or in a way that covers a wide range of life issues over time.

2. Proactively instill biblical categories so that your people are not limited to the political and ideological categories of the media.

For millions of Americans — mostly of the majority ethnicity — race is a non-issue, until the media forces it on us. At that point, we are often unprepared to think and feel biblically about what’s happening. The result is that then all the categories of thought are provided by the media, rather than the Bible. That means that Christians are often ill-prepared to express themselves helpfully. Hence we find ourselves feeling caught in the secular categories and forced to line up ideologically or politically with one “side” or the other.

What I have in mind, for example, is this: Before we start thinking in terms of welfare, crime, education disparities, affirmative action, civil rights, quotas, and housing barriers, with all the related ideological pressures, we should be thinking in other categories — humanity in the image of God, a common origin from one pair of parents, Jesus Christ crucified to reconcile people by his blood, a single new family of all who are in Christ, the biblical commands to do unto others as we would have them do to us, to be long-suffering, slow to speak, and quick to listen.

3. The command of Jesus to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is universally relevant and deeply transforming.

Your wife and your neighbor don’t have to be your enemy for this command to apply to the relationship. The command applies all the more, the less enmity there is. “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). The point is it doesn’t matter how sinfully or culturally offensive someone may be to you, Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). Settling it beforehand that there is no one disqualified from my love will have a huge effect on what we say and do racially.

4. Christ-exalting, Spirit-given heart-change, attitude-change, and relational-change are linked essentially.

Sometimes people stress conversion and heart-change to the exclusion of behavioral, relational, and social change. The problem with this is that people don’t go to heaven immediately when they are converted. They live on earth in hundreds of relationships and cultural contexts for decades. This experience is called sanctification. Most of the New Testament addresses this season. Progressive change is not optional. “Every healthy tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17). “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).

The New Testament makes clear that sanctification is not automatic, and comes about through means. Those means include Bible reading, prayer, and the other spiritual disciplines, especially the refining effect of fellowship in the diversity of the church. But they also include life crises (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). We all have blind spots — parts of our lives in which our behavior does not line up with our faith. Social crises are often used by God to expose attitudes and behaviors in us that need changing. They are a means of grace. Paradoxically, then, social upheaval can have a heart-transforming effect, not just the other way around.

5. Christians should care about changed lives and changed laws.

Jesus said that anger is motivationally equivalent to murder (Matthew 5:21–22). But he did not say the outcomes are equivalent. After murder somebody is dead, but not necessarily after anger. According to Romans 13:1–7, God put government in place not to remove the anger, but to keep it from becoming murder. He put the gospel of Christ in place to transform anger into love. This double divine work of government and gospel is also true in regard to lust leading to rape, greed leading to stealing, fear leading to perjury, intrigue leading to treason, and racial prejudice leading to racial injustice.

Laws don’t save souls. But they do save lives and livelihoods. And that matters for those of us who want to reach people with the heart-transforming gospel. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.”

6. Don’t expect remedies from secular institutions that can’t even name the disease.

The entitlement mindset is ubiquitous in America. We all have it. I feel entitled to fire trucks at my burning house in minutes. Police protection at the dial of 911. Ambulance service for the touch of three buttons. Clean water. Sewer disposal. Electricity to my stove. No noise at three in the morning. And on and on.

When it comes to social problems, we have come to expect remedies from public agencies — welfare, education, neighborhood protection, detox, roads, and hundreds of rules and policies that make the wheels of society work. The problem is that secular institutions cannot see or name the deeper roots of racism and criminal behavior, let alone deal with them.

For a brief three centuries, Americans could assume some significant, but flawed, overlap of biblical wisdom and governmental policy. Carl Ellis reminds us that “appealing to these essentially biblical core values made the Civil Rights Movement possible.” But then he warns, “We are increasingly losing the basis for building a consensus to distinguish right from wrong, and justice from injustice.”

Therefore, our tendency to look to government for the remedy for sin-rooted social ills has the paradoxical effect of putting the remedy further and further out of reach.

7. Beware of saying that the condition of society is the report card of the church.

This is not a pass for our weakness. As a sinfully flawed community, the church will never have done all it could do to bless the world. We could always do more to impact the world. But the point is this: There are always other factors involved in the corruption of society, so that it is never so simple as to say the failure of the church is the reason the world is corrupt.

The apostasy, the rebellion, the lawlessness, the explosion of antichrist at the end of this age is God’s mysterious plan, not the church’s failure (2 Thessalonians 2:3–12). Jesus will not say to his suffering church, as he rescues her from her oppressors at the second coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5–10), “You know, there would have been no man of lawlessness and great rebellion if you had been a faithful church.” In fact, it is only a strong, pure, and faithful church that will survive those days.

8. Ethnic and religious conflict is intensifying globally.

We have a painful history of ethnic oppression in America. But it is not unique. It is the sad story of the whole world — past and future. Listen to the kinds of words Paul says are now marking the last days — the days in which we live, and worse days at the very end: “People will be lovers of self, . . . proud, arrogant, abusive, . . . ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, . . . brutal, . . . treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1–5). This is the making of global racial and ethnic hatred and conflict.

Therefore, we would do well to see the conflicts in our own land as a testing ground. How are we dealing with it now? What are we learning? How are we growing? Are we being prepared for challenges even greater?

9. Beware of false alternatives: Assimilation vs. Balkanization.

God-given culture and ethnicity are precious but not perfect. Preservation of the cultural good need not imply alienation from other cultures. Balkanization is not the only answer to the threat of total assimilation.

Some measure of assimilation and separation are essential for multi-ethnic, national harmony and flourishing. For example, limited assimilation might mean that when you apply for a job at a company, you adapt, as needed, to their ethos. If you work for Chick-fil-A, you assimilate to the culture that says, “It’s my pleasure,” even if you have never said that in your life. Whatever the company, you wear what the management says to wear. You punch in and out by company standards. You return calls the way the company returns calls.

But you preserve the ethos and identity of your family and your church that you think is good. And you are guided by biblical impulses in both these directions: assimilation and preservation. For example, Paul says, “Love doth not behave itself unseemly” (1 Corinthians 13:5 in the KJV, a good, if dated, translation) — meaning love adapts to cultural mores and manners for the good of others where it can. But Paul also says that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to belong to the Jewish-dominant church (Galatians 2:14). Cultural assimilation and preservation.

10. Never drive a wedge between the call for personal responsibility and structural change.

Structures are inhabited by morally responsible persons. And persons create rules and policies and laws. Every parent aims to see his children changed on the inside so that he loves to do what is right. And every parent puts rules in place that require obedience of children even before their heart is right. So it is with society.

Aim to be thoughtful, biblical, and creative in both directions. Richard John Neuhaus gave us a clear example of this. On the social responsibility side, he said,

If we understand what is at stake, in every forum on every subject there will be zero tolerance of the abdication of personal responsibility. Nothing will do but a frankly moral condemnation of crime and vice, whether the vice be drug addiction or everyday sloth. The old excuses are out. Victim politics is finished. The American people have simply turned a deaf ear to all that. They’ve had enough, they’ve had more than enough. That seems harsh, and it is, unless joined to the hope that there is still a will to overcome the American dilemma, as in “we shall overcome.” (“Counting by Race” in First Things, February 1996, 78)

Then having said that, he gives strong exhortations on the specifics of welfare reform and school choice.

We can institute real school choice. Parental choice in education is a matter of simple justice and for many poor parents it is a matter of survival. Government monopoly school systems in New York and every other major city are an unmitigated disaster. They cannot be fixed, they must be replaced.

The point is not the specifics, or even if he is right. The point is that he would not let a wedge be driven between personal responsibility and structural advocacy.

11. Common grace calls for reflection and celebration over ways police can do better.

Richmond, California had traditionally been marked by high rates of crime and violence. But things began to change in 2007. No one has been killed by an officer since these changes were implemented: 1) an emphasis on alternatives to bullets, like tasers and pepper spray; 2) an ethos of accountability — “Every bullet has your name on it”; 3) monthly firearm training, quarterly roleplaying of hard situations; 4) a strong force with manpower and money to deploy and train wisely (twice the size of what one similar neighboring community has); 5) a change in culture from the top down; 6) strong efforts in neighborhood relations; 7) all of this flowing from a new culture-changing leader.

My point here is that Christians may assist and celebrate this as an expression of God’s common grace, even if none of these police officers is a Christian. And beyond that, God may grant, by his special favor to his people, insights and breakthrough ideas that could turn things around dramatically.

12. One flesh-and-blood relationship with another ethnicity is worth a hundred conferences and panels and books.

One of the clearest outcomes of the two hours of panel discussions in Memphis was that to have a true friend of another ethnicity, with authentic give-and-take, is a powerful transformative action. This is what the gospel frees us and inclines us to do as a means of revealing our blind spots and creating real empathy with others.

Christ-exalting relationships at this deeper level are the means and the goal of racial harmony. They protect us from what Pastor Rick Villojas of Queens, New York calls “Esthetic multi-ethnicity” — that is, the kind you have on the subway. Lots of diversity, lots of proximity, but no relationships. It can even be that way in the church. But that is not the goal. Intentional, authentic friendships go beyond “esthetic diversity.”

13. Generalizations from specifics are necessary for life, but we need not act on our stereotypes.

Don’t demand the end of what God has made essential. God has wired our brains to move from specifics to generalizations. If you see three startled squirrels run up a tree, your brain assumes the likelihood that the fourth startled squirrel will run up a tree. This is how we live. And we can’t live without such generalizations. We make our choices all day long on the basis of more or less reliable generalizations from observed specific instances.

The downside to this is captured in the word, “stereotype.” It is usually used in a negative way, referring to a generalization about a person that dictates how you treat them (usually negatively) as a member of a class. My point here is that, while generalizing is inevitable and even necessary for life, treating individuals with rigid expectations based on a class perception is both unnecessary and unloving. We can consciously suspend our biases and expectations. Love hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

14. Cultivate coronary Christians, not adrenaline Christians.

The human heart is a faithful friend that keeps on lubbing and dubbing whether we think about it or not, whether we treat it well or poorly, no matter what our attitude is, no matter whether we wake or sleep, rest or work, love or hate. It just keeps on lub-dubbing without a break. Adrenaline, on the other hand, pours into our veins only in a crisis. It provides super-human strength for a moment. Then it leaves, and we are exhausted.

In the cause of racial harmony, we need coronary Christians, not adrenaline Christians. Lots of people show up for the rally, then disappear. Few topics require thicker skin. Everyone gets offended. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone gets misunderstood. Everyone gets ridiculed. If you only have the moral adrenaline to stand a few relational crises, you will go back to your den and watch videos. But if you have a Christ-modeled and Christ-empowered coronary love, you will come back to the conversation until you’re dead. That is what we need.

15. Racism is part of the seamless fabric of sin in human life.

Sometimes I get the impression that the way we demand an end to racism, we give the impression that it is a kind of sin disconnected from other sins and from the fathomless root of corruption in the human heart.

Do we realize the difficulty of expecting people to have high moral standards regarding race when they are feasting every night on immorality in movies and television? Yet we seem to abstract this sin out of the cesspool of entrainment and hope for a fragment of holiness. Of course, we should call everyone to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). But that phrase signals the key: Repentance toward God and faith in Christ is the root of that fruit. And it affects everything.

16. Only the gospel of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, severs the roots that feed racism.

Racial discord is not a stand-alone sin. It has roots that feed its life and strength. It is fed by guilt, pride, greed, fear, shame, hate, hopelessness, apathy, and, in them all, Satan. These roots grow in the native anti-God soil of the human heart. Without the blood-bought Spirit of God, the human mind has no power to rise out of its anti-God bondage (Bloodlines, 87–106). It is “the mind of the flesh.” And Paul says that “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).

The only remedy for the mind of the flesh, and the supernatural power of Satan, is Spirit-given faith in the finished work of Christ and the Spirit-empowered promises he purchased. Christians have failed often to trust fully in these transforming promises. But Christ is still the only answer.

If you desire to preach or teach or lead a discussion on these matters, some of the foundational texts you might use would include: Genesis 1:27; 12:1–3; Matthew 5:43–48; Luke 10:25–37; John 1:46; 4:1–42; Galatians 2:11–16; Ephesians 2:11–22; James 2:1–7; Philippians 3:7–8; Revelation 5:9; and countless more.