Racial Reconciliation

Unfolding Bethlehem's Fresh Initiative #3

Racial Harmony Sunday

Fresh Initiative 3. Racial Reconciliation. Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God's love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church

The more I ponder what the nature of the church is to be, and the more I watch the turmoil of our multi-cultural society, the more amazed and thankful I am that God moved the Master Planning Team and the elders to elevate Racial Reconciliation to one of our six fresh initiatives.

In Wednesday's paper I read these words,

There is strong evidence that stressing differences does little to improve race relations, and may even exacerbate them.

For example, the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have made costly diversity education a top priority for decades. Nevertheless, the Minneapolis district recently announced that "embedded racism" continues to permeate its schools, while a 1994 study by People for the American Way found that "race relations and tolerance" in St. Paul high schools are "crumbling." (Katherine Kersten, "'Diversity Training' Efforts Proceed from False Premise," StarTribune, January 10, 1996, p. A13)

And the situation is not good in the churches either. I have heard of demeaning and damaging remarks in our own church about minority groups. And a black pastor told me recently that one of his black members was provoked at a new white attendee and said, "I have to hassle with white people all week long; I don't want to have to in the church on Sunday."

So the time is ripe for us as a church to put some fresh energy behind this issue and work on it. To that end I want to lay a biblical foundation in the form of eight theses.

1. God made all ethnic groups from one human ancestor.

Acts 17:26:

[God] made from one, every nation [pan ethnos = every ethnic group] of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation.

Notice two things from this text.

First, notice that God is the MAKER of ethnic groups. "God made from one every nation." Ethnic groups do not just come about by random genetic change. They come about by God's design and purpose. The text says plainly, "GOD made every ethnos."

Second, notice that God made all the ethnic groups from one human ancestor. Paul says, "He made FROM ONE every ethnos." This has a special wallop when you ponder why he chose to say just this to these Athenians on the Areopagus. The Athenians were fond of boasting that they were autochthones, which means that they sprang from their native soil and were not immigrants from some other place or people group. (See Lenski and Bruce, ad. loc.) Paul chooses to confront this ethnic pride head on. God made all the ethnic groups—Athenians and Barbarians—and he made them out of one common stock. So you Athenians are cut from the same cloth as those despised Barbarians and Scythians.

2. All members of every ethnic group are made in the image of God.

Genesis 1:27:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

When you put this teaching of Genesis 1 (that God created the first man in his image) together with the teaching of Acts 17:26 (that God made all the ethnic groups from this first ancestor), what emerges is that all members of all ethnic groups are made in the image of God.

No matter what the skin color or facial features or hair texture or other genetic traits, every human being in every ethnic group has an immortal soul in the image of God: a mind with unique, God-like reasoning powers, a heart with capacities for moral judgments and spiritual affections, and a potential for relationship with God that sets every person utterly apart from all the animals which God has made. Every human being, whatever color, shape, age, gender, intelligence, health, or social class, is made in the image of God.

3. In determining the significance of who you are, being a person in the image of God compares to ethnic distinctives the way the noonday sun compares to a candlestick.

In other words, finding your main identity in whiteness or blackness or any other ethnic color or trait is like boasting that you carry a candle to light the cloudless noonday sky. Candles have their place. But not to light the day. So color and ethnicity have their place, but not as the main glory and wonder of our identity as human beings. The primary glory of who we are is what unites us in our God-like humanity, not what differentiates us in our ethnicity.

This is the most fundamental reason why programs of "diversity training" usually backfire in their attempt to foster mutual respect among ethnic groups. They focus major attention on what is comparatively minor, and virtually no attention on what is infinitely, gloriously major—our common, unique standing among all creation as persons created in the image of God.

If our sons and our daughters have a hundred eggs, let us teach them to put ninety-nine eggs in the basket called personhood in the image of God and one egg in the basket called ethnic distinction.

4. The prediction of a curse that Noah spoke over some of the descendants of Ham in Genesis 9:25 is irrelevant in deciding how the black race is to be viewed and treated.

Over the centuries some people have tried to prove that the black race is destined to be subservient because of Noah's words over his son Ham who was the father of the African peoples. Let's look at the actual text of Scripture and then I will give three reasons why it does not prescribe how the peoples of Africa are to be viewed and treated. Recall that Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Genesis 9:21–25:

And [Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said, "Cursed be [or: "will be"] Canaan; a servant of servants He shall be to his brothers."

Now notice three things:

Noah's Curse Falls upon Canaan

First, Noah takes this occasion of the sin of his son Ham, and uses it to make a prediction about the posterity of Ham's youngest son, Canaan. Basically the prediction is that the Canaanites will eventually be overpowered by the descendants of Shem and Japheth.

Now there are many questions to ask here. But I only have time to point out a few things relevant to our main point. Ham had four sons, according to Genesis 10:6. "The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan." Now broadly speaking Cush is probably the ancestor of the peoples of Ethiopia; Mizraim is the ancestor of the Egyptians; and Put is the ancestor of the peoples of northern Africa, the Libyans. But Canaan is the one son of the four who is the not the ancestor of African peoples. Genesis 10:15–18 names the descendants of Canaan: "And Canaan became the father of Sidon, his first-born, and Heth 16 and the Jebusite and the Amorite and the Girgashite 17 and the Hivite and the Arkite and the Sinite 18 and the Arvadite and the Zemarite and the Hamathite." All those peoples were the inhabitants of Canaan and its vicinity, not Africa. And the prediction of Noah came true when the Canaanite nations were driven out by the Israelites because of their wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4–5). So the curse doesn't fall on the African peoples but on the Canaanites.

Noah's Curse Is Not About Individuals

Second, the predicted curse of Noah does not dictate how God's people should treat individual Canaanites. For example, five chapters later in Genesis 14:18, Abraham, the descendant of Seth, meets a native Canaanite, named Melchizedek, who was a righteous man and "priest of God Most High" and who blessed Abraham. Abraham gave him a tenth of his spoils. So not even the fact that God ordains to bring judgment on evil nations dictates for us how we are to treat individuals in those nations.

God Plans Redemption for All Nations

Third, in Genesis 12 God sets in motion a great plan of redemption for all the nations to rescue them from this and every other curse of sin and judgment. He calls Abram from all the nations and makes a covenant with him and promises, "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." "All the families of the earth" include the Canaanite families.

So what we see is that with Abraham God is setting in motion a plan of redemption that overturns every curse for everyone who receives the blessing of Abraham, namely, the forgiveness and acceptance of God that come through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:13–14). Which leads us to the fifth thesis:

5. It is God's purpose and command that we make disciples for Jesus Christ from every ethnic group in the world, without distinction.

Matthew 28:18–20:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Make disciples of "all nations"—that is, every ethnic group. It's the same phrase as in Acts 17:26, where it says he made from one "every nation"—every ethnic group. Just as all ethnic groups are created in the image of God, so God aims to redeem people from every ethnic group. Being in God's image doesn't mean we are saved. We are all distorted by sin. The unique ways that we were created to reflect the glory and worth of God have been largely ruined. So God has sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to die for us so that we might believe on him and be forgiven and cleansed and restored, and become trophies of his grace.

6. All believers in Jesus Christ, of every ethnic group, are united to each other not only in a common humanity in the image of God, but even more, as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the same body.

Romans 12:4–5:

Just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

The body of Christ has a black hand and white wrist and yellow arm and a red shoulder. And the white wrist cannot say to the black hand, "I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12:21). And the yellow arm cannot say to the red shoulder, "Because I am not a shoulder, I am not a part of the body" (1 Corinthians 12:15).

The other image besides one body is one family.

1 John 3:1:

See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.

In other words, if our identity as human persons created in the image of God is greater than all ethnic distinctives (#3 above), then our identity as re-born children of God is even greater still than all ethnic differences. I would put it like this: The glory of our family likeness in Christ is as much greater than our ethnic differences as the ocean is greater than a thimble.

It was a great truth that we saw earlier—that we are more united by our humanity than separated by our ethnicity. But it is an even greater truth that in Christ we have unity upon unity. On top of a common human personhood in the image of God, we have a common redeemed personhood in the image of Christ. And how much less are we to be divided by our ethnic differences! "[There is not] Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11).

7. The Bible forbids intermarriage between believer and unbeliever but not between members of different ethnic groups.

1 Corinthians 7:39:

A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

"Only in the Lord." The Bible directs us plainly not to marry unbelievers. If we are already married to an unbeliever, we are to stay married (1 Corinthians 7:12–13; 1 Peter 3:1–6). But if we are free to marry, we are to marry only one who shares our allegiance to Jesus.

This was the main point of the Old Testament warnings about marrying those among the pagan nations. For example, Deuteronomy 7:3–4,

You shall not intermarry with [the nations]; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. 4 For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you.

The issue is not color mixing, or customs mixing, or clan identity. The issue is: will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage or will there be divided affections? The prohibition in God's Word is not against interracial marriage, but against marriage between believer and unbeliever. And this is exactly what we would expect if the great ground of our identity is not our ethnic differences but our common humanity in the image of God and our new humanity in the image of Christ.

8. (Initiative #3) Therefore, against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation, and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God's love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church.

Let us banish every belittling and unloving thought from our minds.

Let us put every word or tone of ridicule or disdain out of our mouths.

Let us go out of our way to show personal, affectionate oneness with Christians of all ethnic backgrounds.

Let us be the salt and the light of our hostile and fearful society with courageous acts of inter-racial kindness and respect.

In short, let us look to Christ and be forgiven and cleansed and healed and empowered to love.