Why Deal With Racial Issues?

Session 1

Racial Harmony

There are biblical reasons for tackling the issue of racial harmony, and if I were to start walking through them in detail, it would be the whole seminar, and it would be hours. So I will just bullet them, and maybe make a brief comment as we walk through.

Biblical Reasons to Deal with Racial Issues

1. God as Absolute Reality

God is absolute reality. All things relate to God. Race relates to God, race gets its meaning from God. Race has no proper understanding apart from God. We must start with God.

2. The Image of God

Man is in the image of God. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The meaning of human personhood is rooted first in who we are as created in the image of God.

Our physical distinctions, male, female, and various races and sizes and all kinds of things, these distinctions are secondary compared with the rational, volitional spiritual aspects of our being persons. I believe, though sometimes the rhetoric will contradict this, race is a profoundly non-essential issue to personhood. Whiteness, blackness, yellowness, whatever, is profoundly non-essential to personhood.

Now, I’d like feedback on that as to whether that’s getting it wrong. But the more I ponder what it means to be a person in the image of God, just a person, these distinctions that are so utterly important culturally, socially, personally, familially are not of the essence of personhood before God.

Yet real, crucial, and I think will always be there for all eternity enriching our worship. So if you can handle both of those sides, you might feel some of the weight that I feel of the wonder of being created in the image of God. And you should be staggered at any human being you look at, not first by color, shape, but by the wonder that they’re created in the image of God. That should be the staggering reality that holds us.

3. Sin Dishonors and Depraves

Sin is a reality. I call it dishonoring God and depriving man, and the irony of sin is that it is the reason we are hurtful to each other. I’m almost going to try to avoid the word racism at the beginning. I almost said racist there. But until I’m prepared to define that with crystal clarity so that we don’t have 150 different ideas, I’m going to say things like we are racially unloving and disrespectful and fearful and suspicious because of sin. Sin is the origin of that stuff. And ironically, sin is one of the reasons it shouldn’t exist.

I wonder if you know what I mean when I say that. I mean the way Paul argued like this in Romans 3:9: “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Sin’s the reason there should be no disrespect and fear and belittling of others. You’re as bad as I am, I’m as bad as you are. If you want to check out badness or worthiness of disrespect, look in the mirror. That’s the point of Romans 3:9. So sin is the explanation of why we are that way, and it’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t be that way.

4. Jesus as the Example of Perfect Humanity

Jesus is the example of perfect humanity, never treating anybody disrespectfully. His focus on the lost sheep of the house of Israel was a divine strategy to reach the nations in the most roundabout, unthinkable way so that all the peoples would be dependent utterly on mercy, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 11:30–32).

He made a Samaritan, that despised half-breeds, the model of compassion in the parable. Could have chosen anybody. Could have had a reverse, the good Jew and the Samaritan on the road. And he did it just the opposite. And to get in their face, to get in the face of the people he’s talking to, he made the despised half-breed the model in his parable. That’s the kind of thing Jesus did.

5. Jesus’s Sacrificial Love

Jesus is the revelation of sacrificial love. He died to show us how to love each other.

6. Jesus as the Universal Savior

Jesus is the universal savior. “They sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (Revelation 5:9). Christ died to buy people of every color, shape, language. He died to buy us and pull us together.

7. Justification by Faith Alone in Jesus

Jesus is the ground of our justification by faith alone. Everything I’ve been seeing on Sunday morning’s relevant here. Massively relevant. Jesus is the one righteousness that will commend any human being to God. And there is one way to get united to Jesus. It has zero to do with race. Everything to do with faith, and the reason it’s faith and not works and not distinctives of any kind is so that everybody has the possibility of doing it.

That’s the reason it’s faith and not intelligence, or faith and not wealth, or faith and not performance, or faith and anything. It’s just faith. And when you have faith, you’re united to Christ. He’s the one righteousness. And therefore all those distinctives, as culturally significant as they may be, and as much pain as they are causing, don’t have anything to do with how you get right with God.

8. The Holy Spirit’s Work at Pentecost

The Holy Spirit, just going through major doctrinal focuses of systematic theology here, poured out on all races at Pentecost, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the districts of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Jews, proselytes, Cretans, Arabs, they all hear these folks speaking in tongues. What does this mean?

Here’s what it means. “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). That’s the meaning. The reason all those people were gathered there on Pentecost from all those different countries, all those tribes, all those racial dimensions, probably. I know they were mainly Jews, but a lot of God-fearers had happened in the synagogue, and from all over the world, they’re coming together. And Peter’s interpretation is, in the last day, the Holy Spirit’s going to fall on all flesh — the church, one body of saved sinners reconciled to God and each other in him. We’ll deal in some detail with Ephesians 2 and so on.

9. Rehearsing End-Time Worship

Eschatology. Is eschatology about race?

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne!” (Revelation 7:10)

So all the tribes, all the peoples, all the tongues, all the races, all the languages are saying in the last day — this is eschatology — “Our God.” Not “Your God, and this is my God.” But “Our God.” And Sunday morning at Bethlehem should be a rehearsal for that.

10. Commands Against Disrespect

Lastly, the commands of Jesus and his apostles. This could go on for weeks. If you ever wonder does the Bible speak to race, the answer is on every page. If you look up race in the concordance, you get a totally distorted idea of what the question really is. For example, when Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he’s quoting the Old Testament there. And they’ve turned that into love your neighbor and hate your enemy. And he expands it. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43–44).

So even if because of sin you consider some race an enemy, you’ve got no right not to love them. If you’re a Christian, if you’re a Jesus follower, you’ve got no right to disrespect them. You’ve got no right to put them down, tell jokes, use language that’s belittling, or slurs, or participate in jokes, or anything like that. You have no right because your Lord said, “Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you.” And that’s putting it in the worst light of enmity, and it isn’t in that light I hope for most of us.

Matthew 7:12: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” And the stories that will be told about the kinds of prejudices that have been exercised should shame all Christians who participate.”

First Peter 2:12: “Honor everyone.” Okay, that’s the end of my doctrinal section. Why are we addressing this? Because as I read the Bible, everywhere you look, it teaches things or reveals things that impinge on this issue. Okay? That’s my first point.

Experiential Reasons to Deal with Racial Issues

Now, the rest is a kind of shotgun from John Piper’s experience and assessment of today’s situation, okay? And I’m sure it bears all the witnesses of my sin and narrowness of vision and historical position. I don’t have these numbered either.

1. Racial Struggles Persist

So first, we deal with the issue because it is an ever-present issue, right? Front page this morning, “Minneapolis Schools Face Wider Racial Learning Gap.” And I won’t read the content of it because the very reporting is a problem. There’s no way to satisfy anybody in this issue. But praise God for anybody who will address the issue and risk it. Because I’m sure there’ll be people who read this and say, “That Tribune.” And yet it’s there. Needs to be said.

So here we are in the 20th century, what, 50 years after civil rights? And according to this book, one that I found it hard to put down the other day, Winning the Race to Unity: Is Racial Reconciliation Really Working? by Clarence Schuler, he’s black. He says, “The race problem in our country is getting worse, not better” (20). As long as I’ve got this book open, you got to realize how short 140 years is. You know this is short, don’t you? You know what happened? You know 140 years, we’re talking Civil War. What’s the Civil War all about? It’s about the economic realities of the South. Slavery, just 140 years ago.

Now this man’s in his ‘40s, I would guess, just by looking at him. I don’t know how old he is. “My father told me that in South Carolina more than forty years before he had seen one of his boyhood friends lynched because he dared look at a white girl” (22). Now get this. This is a man a little younger than I am talking to his dad who saw a black man lynched for looking wrong at a white woman. That’s yesterday. That’s yesterday in the black experience.

So don’t think, oh my goodness, can’t we let bygones be bygones or something? And then you look all around and you find the ongoing, I’ll just list off some things now, ongoing segregation of the churches. So we got Bethesda down the street, five blocks. Love Arthur Agnew. There they are. And here we are with a sprinkling of color on Sunday morning and here tonight.

What is that? What is that? It’s very complex. No easy solutions. Nobody on the racial task force would say, “Oh, we got this figured out. We know how to fix that.” Nobody’s talking that way. We just know when the world looks at that, I say, what is it? What’s that mean? It doesn’t carry a very clear, helpful message. Whatever the explanation, it’s just not a clear helpful message about what we are.

Examples of economic inequity remain and have racial significance.

From an ethnic view, 14 percent of the overall population lives in poverty; 33 percent of African Americans live in poverty, 29 percent of Hispanics live in poverty; 12 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders live in poverty; 11.6 percent of all whites live in poverty. Nearly half — 46.5 percent — of the nation’s black children live in poverty.

Now, just leave off explanations for a minute. That’s a lot. That issue’s there. It’s there. It’s racially connected. Poverty is racially connected.

Or take examples of legal inequities with racial components. Dallas Times, “At one point in our history, rapes were treated differently by law. If a black man raped a white woman,” let me stop here. I know that I’m talking black and white, and I know the issue is yellow and red and brown. I’m going to keep talking mainly black and white. And assume it has applications to all. We’ll get representatives here of varied groups, so they can give their vision.

But there’s a couple of reasons for this. One is my personal history. Two is we have a history in this country that is so uniquely horrific with regard to black-white relations that it simply stands forth with greater urgency than any other group. And there are other reasons. But know that I’m aware that the issue is Asian, it’s Native American, and it is Hispanic and so on. Continuing the quote,

I think you still have lingering effects of that, namely different laws for black and white in rape accusations. A study done before the US Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for rape in 1977 found that a black man convicted of raping a white woman was 18 times more likely to be sentenced to death than men convicted of rape in any other racial combination. In Dallas Park, the median sentence was one year when a black man raped a black and 19 years when a black rapist’s victim was white.

Now, these are just a little smidget of the kind of legal things that are just yesterday and still today. Of course, you read the papers as well as I. You know about US prisons and you know all kinds of things. In other words, the issue of race is so present and so big that to say it’s a non-issue is to live with your head in the sand.

Another quote, a 1986 study in the Dallas Morning News. I think these quotes are coming from Dallas because I got them from an article written by a Dallas seminary professor four years ago.

In a 1986 study by the Dallas Morning News found that Dallas County prosecutors routinely found that peremptory challenges were used to remove more than 90 percent of the eligible black jurors in 100 criminal trials.

And so on. Examples could be given from educational inequities, political inequities, healthcare provision inequities and so on. Huge issues.

Another issue, reverse discrimination and racism is also alive and well. That was one of the most winsome things about this book. This man is smart. He knows how to keep white people reading. Namely, he begins with reverse racism, and it makes us feel a little bit understood. And the story he tells is simply that he grew up black in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And for whatever reason, he had several very close black friends. This is now what, ‘70s? I don’t know how old he is, or if he even gave the dates, but thirty years ago maybe.

And he played ball, and people kind of look askance at this, and then he takes his white friends to his hood to play basketball in his gym where no white people ever come. This is just the boys that play together. And he brings this kid in here to play ball with him. And he’s good, and they treat him like dirt. They foul him all over the place. The refs don’t call any fouls. They make fun of him. And his mouth drops open, he says, at the first recognition of what he calls in the book reverse racism. There’s no innocent people here.

2. Confusion Over Diversity

Another reason: confusion over diversity issues in our day, because of male-female issues and homosexual issues. This should make blacks very angry, and every other race. And it does make them angry because I’ve seen them interviewed in San Francisco.

When the gay pride movement — and here, let me just say a softening, winsome, hopefully compassionate word that in this church we want people here wrestling with homosexual struggles. We want them here. What we will preach against is not that people are like that, or that they can’t be helped or loved or folded in like that. We’ll preach against it if you’re wrestling at that level, God’s call to you is chastity. And a resolution not to live it out as though it doesn’t matter who you have sex with.

Well, when the militant gay side, who not only recognizes that some people wrestle with that, but condone it and praise it, and push it, and do it under the banner of the same diversity that the black and white and red and yellow are trying to get together under, it ought to make people upset because it isn’t the same thing with male and female.

There is a real difference between male and female that ought to be honored. And therefore to lift the banner of diversity as though you can treat male and female the same way you treat race, that’s wrong. That’s one of the foundation stones of this church is that to be male and female means there are unique things, like separate bathrooms, to put it bluntly at the bottom. Separate locker rooms at school.

Separate motel accommodations when a debate team goes to Colorado. Blew me away when one of our guys came to me and said they shipped out the debate team from the university, this is about ten years ago, and housed them together in rooms. Well now, I would not say the same about race. See, so we getting that? You shouldn’t put black and white in separate rooms if they’re on the debate team, but male and female, yes.

And so this confusion of the difference we’re talking about here is one of the reasons we got to address it. Because the church, you can’t be sucked into the secular diversity movement without some clearheaded distinctions. You got to make some distinctions here. Otherwise you’re going to join the multiculturalism thing, and there’ll be a big rainbow hanging over your kid’s door at the high school. And it’ll say like Benjamin’s did a few years ago, said, “Celebrate diversity, respect all. black, white, men, women, gays. Your mother could be one.” Now that just lumping together like that is deadly in our high schools. So that’s one of the reasons we need to talk about this, I think.

3. Inadvertent Discrimination

Inadvertent discrimination. See, one of the things we’re going to learn here, I hope, over the months is that Bethlehem does things, says things, I probably say things that to me don’t carry any racist, any connotations of disrespect at all. And yet, it’s heard totally differently by people of color. So as a church, we got to just say, “Okay, it’s going to be frustrating. I didn’t mean that.”

Okay, just relax. The doctrine of justification can really give a lot of peace here. This is a great foundation to stand on. What we’re doing on Sunday morning is a great place to stand. Loved and accepted by God, apart from works through faith alone. Now stand there and take it. Eat it. It’s okay. You don’t need to be defensive. You can learn. And if you think it’s been overstated, you say that to yourself and you adjust, and you do what you believe is right to do. But we all commit inadvertent discrimination of various kinds.

4. The Disagreements About Affirmative Action

Here’s another one. What about affirmative action? That’s a complex issue, right? You got non-Christians and Christians saying the right thing to do is affirmative action to remedy long histories of racism, and you got others saying that’s just another form of it. So what are we going to do? How do we figure that one out?

5. In a Diverse Neighborhood

Another reason, our presence Downtown Minneapolis in a diverse area like ours calls us to something maybe more powerful, how to say it, it seems like there’s an urgency for us that might be different from a church that doesn’t have color in its neighborhood for, say, 10 miles. You live in Dalbo, Minnesota. I have no idea what the racial mix is in Dalbo, Minnesota.

But I do know, I can say this. We got a Christmas card from the Wodsters today. Some of you may remember he was here for a year. They live in Orange City, Iowa. One black family. There may be more now. I was there a couple of years ago. One black family out of 5,000, and a college. Now what racial harmony looks like in Orange City, Iowa, is going to be a different burden and actuality than it ought to be here. We’re smack in the middle of Minneapolis. And if we don’t make an attempt at it, why should we expect anybody to make an attempt at it? So I think our presence is crucial. Two more, and then I’m done.

6. The Need to Address Worship Style Issues

Worship style issues are now and always will be critical, and I know no solution. Because it’s not just two races or two forms. It’s whites who can’t get on the same page. And it’s a terrible, terrible abuse. My wife is constantly cautioning me on this issue to talk about the black anything. Blacks are as diverse as whites are diverse. There’s not the black this or the black that any more than the white this or the white that.

So you got blacks all over the page, you got Asians all over the page, you got Hispanics all over the page on worshiping God. And you got whites all over the page. There is no solution to this except a miracle of grace, and talking to one another and working at it and forgiving each other for every Sunday morning. That’s the only solution I know. And finding a place to move together on the continuum of infinite diversity.

7. Navigating Divided Faith and Church’s Vision

Last point. Let me show you another book before I quit and give you that last point. Divided by Faith is a new book. It was just dealt with in Christianity Today with a symposium with J.I. Packer as the chairman, and is stirring up a lot of talk because of this thesis: “Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down” (ix).

The thesis of the book is the best-laid plans of evangelicals are counter-effective right now. Now I have not read this book. I’ve only read this much of it. That much right there — thirteen pages. But I’m hoping to move through it. And I hope they’ll say something hopeful about that and helpful. And I hope I can.

Last point. This old mustard-colored book has proved in the last five years of our church’s life to be a wonderful work of God. Took a year and a half for a group of 23 people to put this together. That banner up there spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples is on the front. That’s the mission statement of our church. It may be till I retire. I don’t know. We may be able to say it better. We may want to tweak it. We may junk it and say something else. But that’s the mission statement.

Now inside are a spiritual dynamic on page 2, and then six fresh initiatives, and as inadequate at this point as some of our responses to these are, I praise God, this is in black and white, or brown and beige. I praise God because the racial harmony task force, and any of you can take one of these off that folder out there, lay it down in front of the elder board, and say, “What are you doing about that?” Like number three. Six fresh initiatives. Interracial 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.

So this tonight, and the subsequent nights that I deal with this, is one attempt to put action behind that fresh initiatives, which was written five years ago. Now there have been other things done, but there’s so much more to do.

Okay, we’re done. And it’s time for you to eat bagels with each other and get to know each other better. And we’d like you to pray. I suppose that one of the things Ken saw as he looked out on us is 20 percent of our people here. And how will the other 80 percent ever get on board? So pray about that, would you? Pray about that.

In January, I will address the issue on Sunday morning. I always do on that Sunday right around Martin Luther King. And maybe there are other ways we can get it more on the front burner of more people, but invite people to come. We’ll try to keep you posted. You know next week is Millard Erickson. That’s relevant. That’s relevant. And then the following, I’ll get 30 minutes, and then we’ll do our business together. And we’ll try to keep you posted when these are coming, so those who would be especially interested can be invited. I know you got questions, so I won’t take time to answer them now. I’ll close and stand here, and if you want to come up, that’s great.