Thoughts on Becoming a Reconciling Community…

If there was only word to describe what it means to be a Christian, I believe the word would be reconciliation.  Consider the book of Acts, which is the blueprint for living the Christian life in community.  Acts was written by the Apostle Luke, the only non-Jew in the 12 disciples.  Luke wondered if the Gospel of Jesus Christ could truly cut through the gender, racial, and economic divides (yes, they were just as bad then!) This marks every chapter of the beginning of the book of Acts:

  • In Acts 6 we see the first sign of racial tension break out between the Hebraic and Grecian widows.  One group was from the dominant culture and one group was from the minority culture that had been historically treated as second class.  The widows from the sub-dominant culture felt like they were being mistreated when it came to the distribution of food and funds.  Luke watches carefully.  Will the Gospel of Jesus Christ be big enough to address this?
  • In Acts 7 we see the account of Stephen, who was stoned to death mostly for speaking against the dominant Jewish culture.  It was a 4-point sermon.  Point 1 was that all of God’s great acts happened outside their great country.  Even their great laws came from Sinai, which was outside of Israel.   This prophetic voice got Stephen killed. Would this slow down the spread of the message of Jesus to non-Jewish groups?
  • In Acts 8 Luke records a development that would have been shocking.  The message of the Resurrection had been brought to Samaria, and was received there!  Jesus had spent an incredible amount of energy trying to train his disciples to carry what they were learning and head towards the greatest racial divide of that time.  Samaritans were hatefully called “half-breeds” by the Jews, because they were half-Jewish and half-Assyrian (modern day Iraq interestingly).  The Samaritans had adopted the Assyrian customs and gods and there was historical enmity because of that.  The disciples never caught this heart for reconciliation, but the early believers did.  Perhaps the energy of Heaven was indeed being set loose!  We also see the conversion of an African finance minister in this chapter, and church legend believes he may have brought Christianity to Ethiopia.
  • In Acts 9 we see the conversion of the greatest bigot of that time – Saul (who would be the Apostle Paul after his conversion).
  • In Acts 10 we see another extraordinary twist.  Peter – the first leader of the church – was still carrying an ethnocentric framework when it came to this relationship with the God that he so cherished.  In this chapter we see the good news of the Gospel affects not only social systems but also individual hearts.  God comes to Peter and breaks him from this limited view, and in a sense Peter undergoes a second conversion. He immediately is led by God to a man named Cornelius, who was not a Jew, and Cornelius and his entire family place their faith in Jesus and are baptized.

The book of Acts crescendos with the account of the church of Antioch in Acts 11. Biblically this church was really important for a couple of reasons. First, we know far more about this church than any other in the Bible. Second, it is the church that every other church in the New Testament was patterned after. The way God moved in this church became the paradigm by which every other church would be emulated.

It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire but by far the most ethnically diverse.  Because of its location you had large numbers of Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  This led to predictable tension in that city. Because there were so many different races, the atmosphere was always brewing with the potential of tribal warfare.  Therefore the city planners of Antioch designed it in a way to keep everyone away from each other.  We know from historical records that there were at least 5 different sets of walls that were erected to keep the races away from each other (African, Asian, Latin, Greek, and Jews).  But it is estimated that there may have been as many as 18 different ethnic quarters within the city, with each group literally separated from each other by a wall.  Sounds a lot like Chicago, doesn’t it?

Yet in Acts 11 Luke reports with great enthusiasm that this has all changed.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ has cut through these racial-cultural walls, and for the first time in the history of the world it is proven that the God of the Bible is not a tribal God.  The energy of Heaven has been set loose in a powerful way that all could see.  For the first time people were crossing over racial-cultural walls to hear about Jesus and forming a bond and fellowship around the goods news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The good news of the Resurrection was bringing people into common fellowship under Jesus Christ, and this in turn also became the authentication of the good news.

Now the question became – what to name this phenomenon? Nobody in biblical times would have known how to describe such a thing as a multicultural body (now we have dozens of names for it!) so they had to invent a word.  What should the early church call this thing that was bringing people from all different sectors of the city across the interior barriers into a common fellowship in Jesus Christ? They had to invent a name, and what was the name they coined in Acts 11?

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11.26)

The word Christian was not devised to describe individuals who had jeweled crosses around their necks or ‘Jesus’ bumper stickers on their cars.  The word Christian was invented to describe the multicultural church that first developed in Antioch.

To ensure that the authenticity of the ministry of reconciliation at the church of Antioch was not missed, Luke gives a detailed description of the leadership team of this church.  We do not have an account like this for any other church in the Bible so it is important for a variety of reasons:

“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” (Acts 13.1)

First we have Barnabas, who was from Cyprus (Asia).  Next is Simeon called Niger. This is both the Greek and Latin word for black, meaning he was from somewhere in Africa.  Next is Lucius of Cyrene, a brown man from the North Coast of Africa. Fourth is Manaen, who interestingly came from the backroom power politics of Rome.  And last is Saul, a European-trained Jew.  The first city church we know anything about had 5 pastors from 3 continents on the pastoral leadership team.

One of the tragic omissions of the Christian church today (particularly within the Evangelical swath, of which we are part) is the ministry of reconciliation.  I believe there should be a lot of grace and liberty how each group of Jesus followers plays this ministry out in their context, but to not have it central to your theology and expression is Biblically irresponsible.

Every church in the New Testament was planted according to the design and value system of the Church of Antioch.  Those churches would have known nothing but reconciliation as the core call of their expression and extension of Jesus Christ.

And more specifically, the most prolific leader in the New Testament was identified, trained, and developed within this church.  How central was reconciliation to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel?

Consider how he fused it into every church he planted:

  • To the church in Ephesus he said: “The blood of Christ breaks down the dividing wall of hostility.  Jesus is creating one new humanity, making peace, reconciling all people to himself and to each other through the Cross.”
  • To the church in Colossi he said: “Jesus is the invisible image of God and is the ruler over everything on earth and in Heaven.  Jesus is working to reconcile all things to himself on earth and in heaven through his shed blood on the cross.”
  • To the church in Galatia he said: “Through Jesus we are all reconciled to God through faith, so therefore there is now no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male nor female.  We are one with God now.”
  • To the church in Corinth he said: “The love of Christ compels us to pursue reconciliation.  God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and we have now been called to carry that message of reconciliation to the world.  We are ambassadors of reconciliation.”
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5.18-19)

Summary: The ministry of reconciliation is not easy, but we see clearly throughout the Bible that it is central to the Christian life and witness.  Reconciliation is how we become One with God.  Reconciliation is the overarching theme of our mission.  Though there should always be great liberty with how this ministry is played out in each context, it should always be in the center of our Christian experience.

Below is a Q & A on racial reconciliation specifically that is handed out during the membership class at River City:

Q1: Why Racial Reconciliation?

Here are a variety of responses to this crucial question that I have come up with over the years as I have revisited the call to this type of ministry (the answers are not in any particular order):

Because God demonstrated the importance of it in the life of Jesus

It is often said that if you want to clearly see the heart of God then you should look at the life of Jesus.  Jesus was the flesh and blood incarnation of God in human history, and his life alone should show us the importance of racial reconciliation to God.

Before Jesus breathes his first breath we see God’s heart for all races.  The opening stanza of the Christmas story shows a God who choreographed his entry into the world in perfect Sovereignty.  Included in the bloodline of Jesus was not only some of the most scandalous sinners in Biblical history, but the blood of numerous nation groups.  Jesus came not only to spill blood for Canaanites, Moabites, Hittites, and Jews, he inherited his blood from them.  Jesus was born a mestizo.

Jesus continued to display God’s heart for racial reconciliation throughout his ministry career.  In the opening chapters of John he is training his disciples in ministry, and intentionally takes them through Samaria (ch.4).  Samaritans were not just any racial group – they were the hated rivals of the Jews.  Because Samaritans were half Jew and half Iraqi (Assyrian back then) and because they turned their back on the God of Israel the Jews wanted nothing to do with them.  But here is Jesus stopping in Samaria to invite an ethnic woman into a saving relationship with God.  This was not the only time that Jesus would use the Jewish-Samaritan rift to show the importance of the Gospel and racial reconciliation (i.e. Luke 10).

In Mark 11 Jesus displays God’s heart for racial reconciliation from an opposite angle.  During Passover Jesus comes to Jerusalem and sees the locals abusing the various ethnic groups that were coming to worship at the temple.  He becomes so irate at this racial exploitation that he begins to flip the merchant tables over.  He then quotes Isaiah 56, reminding everyone there what God’s heart was: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

And then, just to be sure that this message was clear, Jesus reiterated it multiple times after his Resurrection from the dead.  In Matthew’s words the disciples are told to bring the Gospel to all of the nations, the literal word for ethnics (ch.28).  In the words of Luke in Acts 1, Jesus tells the disciples they are going to be his witnesses not just in Jerusalem, but in Samaria and to all ends of the earth.

Because God demonstrated the importance of it in the NT accounts of His church

The book of Acts is one long trail of insights into God’s heart for racial understanding and righteousness.  In chapter 2 the dawning of the church happens in a multicultural context.  In chapter 6 we see the first ethnic dispute between Hebrew and Greek widows over the food distribution program.  Reconciliation occurs and this leads to further growth within the church.  In chapter 8 we see Philip sent to the city of Samaria, and this becomes the turning point for Luke and his understanding and confidence that Christianity is bigger than a Jewish phenomenon.

In the second half of chapter 8 is an encounter with Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch, who ends up converting and bringing Christianity back to Africa.  In chapter 10 Peter has a vision where God reminds him that the Gospel is to be multicultural, and Peter moves on that conviction.  In the second half of chapter 10 he breaks bread in the home of Cornelius, a European Gentile.  In chapter 11 Peter explains the importance of racial reconciliation and the Gospel to all of the leaders, and they embrace this as a central tenet.

In the second half of chapter 11 a church is formed in the city of Antioch.  We know more about this church than any other in the book of Acts, and it becomes the context by which all future church plants would model themselves.  Because of this Luke is sure to communicate that the Gospel is becoming increasingly multicultural.  In chapter 13 he shows us the pastoral leadership team: Barnabus, Simon the Niger (which literally means ‘Negro’), Lucius of Cyrene (Northern Africa), Manaen, who worked with Herod (Palestinian), and Saul (a Jew).  The first church we know anything about had 2 Africans (1 black and 1 brown), 2 Asians (1 from Cyprus and 1 from Palestine), Barnabus who put the team together, and Saul who was a European trained Jew. The first church we know anything about had 3 continents on its pastoral leadership team.  This is God’s heart for the church, and Antioch became a sending agency of multiethnic churches.  The Apostle Paul carried this template into every city he went and regularly encouraged the churches he planted to embrace reconciliation (i.e. Ephesians 2, “one new humanity,” and Galatians 3, “neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free.”)

Because God demonstrated the importance of it in prophetic accounts of the end times

There are multiple prophecies about the end times given in the Old Testament, and they frequently refer to God’s heart for unity among the races.  One of the formative passages on the name River City is Isaiah 2.2, which says, “In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Similar words are found in both Micah 4 and Joel 3 showing a consistent vision from God.

The last book in the Bible is Revelation, and the author John once again communicates God’s heart for racial unity: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (ch.7 v.9).  This picture of Heaven is repeated numerous times throughout the book of Revelation.  That is why it is often said that the pursuit of a racially reconciled body of believers is one of the clearest ways to get a slice of Heaven here on earth.

Because it helps each of us become spiritually enriched

The Bible teaches that racial-cultural distinctives are not superficial. For example, we are told that the eternal City of God in the final state will be enriched because, "the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it" and "the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it" (Rev.21:24,26). In other words, each culture and race brings honors specific to them, and these gifts are to the glory of God.

When we are a monocultural church we lose the specific honors and gifts that each racial-cultural group is capable of bringing to the table.  We also lose this ability when we make the mistake of minimizing racial-cultural differences and say, “Here in the church we need to drop all our cultural distinctives and just be Christians together” (a mistake made most commonly by the dominant culture).

A similar strand of thinking is found in 1 Corinthians 1:22: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.”

Here we see Paul distinguishing between Jewish culture (more concerned with practical action) and Greek culture (more concerned with abstract reasoning). On the one hand, the gospel confronts both cultures in different ways (the cross is too weak for the Jews and too foolish for the Greeks). Yet, for the Jews and Greeks that are converted, Paul hints that their Christianity each has a different cultural perspective. For the Jewish Christian, the cross becomes true power; for the Greek who is converted, the cross becomes true strength. The gospel re-creates Christianity in the soil of each culture.

Christianity is so unique and powerful in that it can take diverse cultural forms and yet bring a core of trans-cultural values that judges transform, and enrich each culture.  In a twist of irony, the less diverse we are, the less able we are to experience the fullness of those trans-cultural enrichments.

Because it helps us balance our theology

Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are both great case studies on race, culture and church life.  In both passages there is a theological dispute (i.e. the nature of idols and the status of the OT dietary laws), but most commentators notes that beneath that was a racial-cultural issue.  In each Paul addresses one group as weak in their theological understanding of the Gospel, and another group as strong.   But the weak group was different in each scenario.

In Corinth, the weak were most likely Gentile believers.  Though they were now Christians, they were also former pagans who had sensitive consciences about idols.  The strong then would have been the Jewish Christians.  The Greek gods did not register in a significant way to them, and therefore the Jewish Christians would have thought of these gods as non-entities.

In Rome, the weak were most likely the Jewish Christians, who had difficulty giving up the letter of the law with ceremonial regulations.  The strong then would have been the Gentile believers who knew that their identity and understanding was found in Christ now, and therefore they were no longer bound to the old clean laws and ceremonial regulations.

The important principle to draw from these two passages is that our cultural understandings inevitably shape how we understand the Gospel.  There is no such thing as a culture-free Gospel.  Every cultural group tends to understand the nature of who God is better in some areas based on their experience.  Every cultural group tends to overlook other crucial parts of the nature of God in other areas.

Therefore an expected outcome of racial reconciliation ministry will be times in which there is disagreement on theology.  These should always be dealt with in a very sensitive manner, for as these texts show, it is not necessarily a theological dispute or a racial division, but an extremely complex combination of both.

The upside of this type of conflict is that it helps us round out our theological understanding of God.  By engaging in these thoughtful types of discussions we tend to have a much deeper understanding of the true nature of God than we would in a monocultural environment.

Because it helps us better accomplish the work of justice here on earth

One of the consistent plum lines through Scripture is the call of God’s chosen people to fight for issues of justice, peace [shalom] and equality here on earth.  Jesus even tells us to pray for it (“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”)

One of the difficult realities when dealing with issues of justice and equality is that racism is almost always intertwined with the issues.  Whether it is economic disparity, underperforming schools, or unfair immigration laws there tends to be one racial group that is in power, and another racial group(s) that are being exploited.  Therefore it becomes extremely difficult to address these issues from just one racial perspective.  To experience transformation at both a personal and systemic level you need all the groups affected – both those in power and those being exploited – to come up with the creative types of solutions needed to overturn the injustice.

Said in a much simpler way, attempting to address justice issues as a monocultural body feels a lot like drawing up a sub-committee of 8 men to address why women don’t feel comfortable in a church.  The sincerity of the men is not the problem – their capacity to genuinely find solutions is!

Because it helps us accomplish the work of evangelism here on earth

In his last prayer before going to the Cross on behalf of all humanity, Jesus drew an amazing connection between the unity of his people and their ability to reach out to those that did not yet know God:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17.20-21)

In other words, Jesus is saying that unity of the body is not just for those who are already believers.  When the community of believers comes together as a unified body it in itself becomes an apologetic statement to the watching world.  Jesus in the flesh was a mestizo of many races.  When the church comes together across racial and cultural lines she too becomes a flesh and blood example of the mestizo Savior.  This picture becomes compelling and can draw the watching world into relationship with God in a way that other faith communities cannot.

Q2: How should you respond at an individual level?

Here are some principles that each believer can apply in their own life.  These principles by extension also apply to the body as a whole.  But if leadership is applying them at a corporate level without adoption by the membership at an individual level then the vision can be undermined.

Embrace the Vision & Embrace the Tension

I just spent 4 pages on theological persuasion on the importance of racial reconciliation as a core value for a faith community.  I did that because I believe it is important to revisit God’s heart on this issue and use those Scriptures and reasons to talk sense into our heart when we want to give up.

But with that being said, it is also important to remember that just because it is God’s heart does not mean it is going to be easy.  In Luke 10 Jesus says he sends his followers out into mission as “lambs among wolves.”  There is an enormous amount of tension and difficulty that comes with this type of ministry and it is helpful to just remind yourself of that sometimes.  There will be a song you don’t like, a leadership style you are unaccustomed to, or a sermon preached that makes you squirm a bit.  That’s ok – it’s a natural part of the tension that comes with multicultural ministry.  But it’s a lot like working out – no tension, no growth!

Embrace the Gospel as the dynamic for Transformation

Each believer needs to grow in their ability to understand where racism comes from and where the solution lies.  At a big picture level we know the Bible tells us that we were built to worship and know God but we live independently of him, as our own masters. This is true of every one of us!  As a result we live with a constant sense of anxiety and shame, because we know deep in our spirit that we are supposed to live with an allegiance to God (see Romans 1).  If we are not applying the Gospel to our hearts then we will try to cover up the nakedness and anxiety we feel (see Genesis 3) with various behaviors and beliefs that we hope will make us feel right with the world.

This is where ethnocentricism, prejudice, and racism ultimately come from.  We all feel a sense to justify our existence and feel acceptable and worthwhile.  One of the simplest ways to do this is by convincing yourself of the superiority of your culture or race.  If you can convince yourself of this at either a conscious or unconscious level you can achieve a short term sense of cover up for your nakedness.

A growing believer recognizes this danger as a result of sin and fallenness and learns to apply the Gospel to their heart.  They recognize that though salvation brings us into the family of God it does not remove the propensity of the heart to justify itself.  The mature believer consistently engages in spiritual formation practices to use the Gospel as a force for cleaning out our hearts.  Some ways to do that:

  • Don't be too quick to deny racism in yourself. Peter was the disciple that Jesus built the church upon, yet racism continued to be part of his life even as a mature Christian.  In Acts 10 God has to give a vision to break him out of his ethnocentricism.  In Galatians 2 we see that Peter once again drifted back to a Jewish-centric Christianity.  We are no different.  One of the effects of our self justifying hearts is a desire to stick with people who are just like us culturally.
  • This begins with internal, individual self-examination. If you don’t see any racial, cultural superiority in yourself you probably aren’t looking deeply enough. People from the dominant culture are chronically unaware to the degree to which they carry superiority.  This is can be true even if you are a member of a historically victimized group. Groups that have been persecuted can become self-righteous and feel morally superior to the dominant groups. Ask yourself piercing questions:  Do you have trouble finding spokespersons of other races credible? Do you make little snap judgments about someone based on their race? Do you find the idea of intermarriage creepy?
  • This continues with opening yourself up to community.  The Apostle Peter was first freed from racism in a cross cultural relationship with Cornelius in Acts 10.  He is freed the second time after his brother in ministry confronts him on the issue.  In Galatians 2.14 Paul says that he reminded Peter that he was not living in line with the Gospel when he drifted back into a Jewish-centric Christian understanding.  Therefore it is safe to say that it is important that we have both cross-cultural relationships where there are safety and trust to speak openly, as well as same-cultural relationships that hold each other accountable.
  • The more gospel-cleaned and mature you become in this issue the more of an asset you become to building a new community characterized by racial healing and righteousness.  When you no longer see yourself as being superior, need to be right all the time, and need to be validated, you actually become more able to flex and make others feel at home.

Experience a ‘Second’ Conversion

The Gospel is undoubtedly the dynamic for experiencing transformation as mentioned above.  But maintaining the quest for a racially reconciled community – for what Martin Luther King Jr. coined ‘the Beloved Community’ – requires its own type of conversion.  In the same way that Peter was a well meaning Christian but didn’t embrace racial righteousness until his ‘second conversion’ in Acts 10, I believe we too need a second conversion to the importance of this issue.  It is the only way we can have the stamina to walk the road to its fulfillment.

This conversion process – at least in an American context – seems to take on a very different dynamic depending on whether you are white or non-white.  I try to avoid being simplistic, but whites are the dominant culture in America and have the luxury/privilege of being able to engage or disengage in the process of race and culture whenever they want.  Because of this they (we) tend to possess an uncomfortable combination of power and ignorance.  The following quote from Nathan McCall gets to this dynamic:

“The education system in this country has failed white people more than it’s failed anybody else.  It has crippled them and limited their humanity.  They’re the ones who need to know the most about everybody because they’re the ones running the country.  They’ve been taught so little about anybody other than white people that they can’t understand, even when they try.”

That is why the conversion process to racial reconciliation looks different for white folks in this country than it does other races.  The typical education of whites has been Euro-centric in its values, history, and experience, and therefore the group that has the most power in this country also possesses the least amount of understanding of other cultural groups.  This reality is often exasperated by a common phenomenon in white culture to downplay this lack of knowledge and experience because of an isolated friendship or two that the person has had along the way with people of other cultural backgrounds.

Therefore the conversion process to racial reconciliation for a white person usually begins with an awakening to the deep levels of racial injustice in both our history and our present.  A light bulb tends to go off to the fact that whites that have been in power over centuries and have created systems that continue to make the playing field unfair in our country.

But it is essential that this light bulb experience for whites is recognized as a starting point and not a middle or ending point.  One of the awkward dynamics of being white in America and having a heart for racial reconciliation is that if you are doing anything meaningful towards a more Godly future in this area, you become a hero of sorts in the white community.  Most whites recognize that something needs to change, and if you take a bold step towards reconciliation you are often applauded.  This can create the illusion that somehow this means that you are advanced in your journey because you are further along than other whites.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  A starting point is just that – a beginning.  The light bulb experience is an important part of a conversion moment, but it doesn’t mean much if there is not progress much further down the road.  There will be a graduate level education awaiting each white who engages on this journey of racial reconciliation.  They will need to consistently look at the latent forms of prejudice and racism within their own heart.  They will consistently need to wrestle with the systems of privilege that they have benefited from for all of their life.  They will have to look down the rabbit hole to see how deep it goes.  They will have to become comfortable with the uncomfortability of racial reconciliation.  They must realize that “shallow understanding” can be more harmful than straight out ignorance.  Consider this excerpt from a “Letter from Birmingham Jail” penned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate… who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…

Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much.  I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

The white person who longs to genuinely engage on a road of racial reconciliation should consider these words carefully.  They are wise to agree with Dr. King that “few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”  To develop this type of vision and maintain this action you must have more than a trendy agreement that racial reconciliation is a valuable pursuit.  There must be a second conversion experience.

For those who are not white and are part of River City, perhaps this excerpt from Harvard Professor Dr. Cornell West can get to what the conversion experience needed is.

In his book “Race Matters,” Dr. West tells of a time that he finished giving a lecture in New York and was heading out to get his photo taken for the book.  He tried to hail a cab and was unsuccessful. Then he tried to hail another to no avail.  After the ninth taxi refused him, his blood began to boil.  Earlier racist memories began to flood his mind, including the recent time he was heading to teach a class and was stopped for suspicion of cocaine dealing.  A white woman came out shortly after, and the tenth taxi stopped for her.  Embarrassed, she said, “This is really ridiculous, isn’t it?”  

After realizing he wasn’t going to get a cab to stop he finally decided to take the subway.  This detour cost him almost an hour and he was late when he finally got to the photo shoot.  Upon arrival the design team rushed out to greet him.  One was a white photographer and the other was a white cover designer.  As they approached him, he felt himself having to make a “moral decision.”  Would he react out of anger at what he had just experienced, or would he dig down deep to find patience and grace one more time?

He chose to be kind in that moment, and it wasn’t until sitting at a jazz club with his wife afterwards that he says the “ugly memories faded in the face of soulful music, soulful food, and soulful folk.”

I am a white Senior Pastor, and I realize that this reality will always tilt our cultural ethos to a more dominant culture value system.  I am sure that if you haven’t already, you will have moments in River City that resembles Dr. West’s experience trying to catch a cab.  In your own way you will see things that range from culturally inappropriate to outrightly agitating in our culture.  On top of that, you will inevitably experience white folks that are new on this journey asking you to speak on behalf of your entire race.  I cannot pretend to understand what that feels like.  But what I can say is that we badly need you if this is going to work.  The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 says that God has destroyed the “dividing wall of hostility” for the purpose of creating in himself “one new humanity.”  That is our desire at River City.  We want to see a new humanity created that brings together all of God’s people into one unified community.

If we are going to experience that we are going to need men and women from a variety of cultural backgrounds that not only are rooted within their cultural tradition, but who have experienced this ‘second conversion’ to racial reconciliation.  I am sure that it is only this type of experience that gives someone the strength to endure the journey and overcome the numerous obstacles that appear along the way.

Find a Balance in Racial Identity: True to cultural roots while also understanding who we are in Christ

Ethnocentrisism at its core is a form of works-righteousness. As discussed before it is one of the most common self-justifying systems to convince yourself of a form of superiority through culture and race. It is a way to feel superior and to cover up our sense of our nakedness.

The following is a bit of a heady quote, but it gets to this truth, as well as the Gospel dynamic which breaks it:

"Thus those who are not secure in Christ cast about for spiritual life preservers with which to support their confidence, and in their frantic search they cling not only to the shreds of ability and righteousness they find in themselves, but they fix upon their race, their membership in a party, their familiar social and ecclesiastical patterns, and their culture as means of self-recommendation. The culture is put on as though it were armor against self doubt, but it becomes a mental straitjacket which cleaves to the flesh and can never be removed except through comprehensive faith in the saving work of Christ...Christians who are no longer sure [or nominal Christians who never were!] that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure persons....Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce defensive assertion of their own righteousness and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger." (R. Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p.198, 212)

This leads to one of the tensions that many will feel in River City – particularly those who are not Anglo.  One of our desires at River City is that when someone comes they do not have to check their cultural identity at the door.  We want them to come fully Chinese, fully African American, fully Mexican, etc.  At the same time we don’t want people to cling to their racial identity as a “spiritual life preserver” that gives them their primary sense of identity.

Therefore a balance must be struck in how we understand our cultural identity.  On one hand we celebrate our cultural identity, for the Sovereign God of the universe meticulously choreographed everything about you.  This should be embraced and cherished.  River City is failing in its mission if it consistently causes people to assimilate into the dominant culture.

On the other hand, when we experience a Christian conversion our racial identity is no longer the most important part of our self understanding.  The Gospel gradually transforms our identity so that who we are in Christ becomes the central most part of who we are, and everything else emanates from that reality.

Let’s give an example of this.  Let’s say there is an African-American woman who has worked hard, put herself through school, and is now a doctor.  In the natural world our identity tends to be tied to our cultural heritage and what we have accomplished.  Therefore her identity might be rooted primarily in her African American heritage, her achievements as a doctor, etc. (see figure 1).

But if this woman experiences a genuine Christian conversion there begins to be a re-ordering of what identifies her.  Her African American heritage is still important – Christianity does not neuter someone’s cultural identity!  But it also not the most bedrock layer of identity any longer.  Her identity in Christ now becomes the most important part of her self understanding.  The rest of who she is now begins to be informed by her identity in Christ (see figure 2).

5------Democrat-- But through conversion5------Doctor-----

4------Christian---- come to: 4------Democrat-------

3------Mother-------- 3------African American------

2------Doctor---- 2------Mother-------

1------African American---------- 1------Christian---

This is they dynamic by which we find a balance in understanding our cultural and racial identity.  We embrace who God has created us to be and stay true to our roots.  But we also avoid going down the road of finding our identity exclusively in our racial or cultural upbringing.  As our Christianity moves down deeper into the foundation of our identity we actually become more comfortable in our own skin (because we internalize that God created us this way) while also becoming more flexible in what we used to consider non-negotiable (i.e. racial prejudices, cultural expectations, politics, etc.).  This new understanding of identity is referred to in another quote from Lovelace:

"Once faith is exercised, a Christian is free...to wear [their] culture like a comfortable suit of clothes. [They] can shift to other cultural clothing temporarily if [they] wish to do so, as Paul suggests in I Corinthians 9:19-23, and [they] are released to admire and appreciate the differing expressions of Christ shining out through other cultures." (Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p.199)

So one of the most crucial ways that the Christian church embodies the gospel is in the unity of Christians who are different from one another--economically, culturally, and racially. We become free by the power of the Gospel while also demonstrating to the world that people who cannot live in love and unity outside of the Gospel can do so in Christ.

Foster a sacrificial spirit

James Forbes Jr. (from The Riverside Church in New York City) summarizes this point well when discussing compromise and the comfort level at a church:

“A truly diverse congregation where anybody enjoys more than 75 percent of what’s going on is not thoroughly integrated. So that if you’re going to be an integrated church you have to be prepared to think, “hey, this is great, I enjoyed at least 75 percent of it,” because 25 percent you should grant for somebody’s precious liturgical expression that is probably odious to you; otherwise it’s not integrated.  So an integrating church is characterized by the need to be content with less than total satisfaction with everything.  You have to factor in a willingness to absorb some things that are not dear to you but may be precious to do some of those coming in.”

Become a Student

A clear sign of a second conversion experience is when you become incurably fascinated with other cultures.  You long to know more about their history, their experience, their values, their customs, etc.  This is an area where we can all grow.  We have already established that in America whites tend to know the least about other racial groups, but cultural ignorance is certainly not limited to us.  In River City there are already over 20 nationalities represented, each with their own colorful history.  Because God created each of those cultural groups uniquely and with their own “splendor” (see Revelation 21) there is an almost unlimited resource at your disposal for learning about God and his majesty.

In addition to drawing upon the experiences of those already present at River City, each of us would be wise to become voracious readers on this topic.  On our website (www.rivercity.cc) we have a whole list of suggested reading on everything from the theology of racial reconciliation to historical books on different cultural traditions.  If you are white and new to this journey, start with “Being White” by InterVarsity.  It is a great primer for what lies ahead.

Acknowledge the beauty along the way

I have spent a lot of time in this document reminding us of the difficulty and tensions that come with this.  The other side of that is the beauty and transformation that comes from the racial reconciliation journey.  I am convinced that nothing will get you to your true self faster, nothing will speed up your learning process more, and nothing will turn you into a more nuanced and complete person than a healthy, God-centered journey around racial and cultural righteousness and healing.

So stop along the way and take stock of how God is growing you in this process.  When an African spiritual speaks words to your heart that you may have not heard otherwise, thank God for it.  When you are able to understand where someone is coming from that is culturally different than you, thank God for the new insights.  When you can more quickly spot racial injustice, thank God that he is allowing you to see the world as he is.  When you recognize that your ability to flex and be sacrificial is increasing, praise God for it.  When you find yourself not just tolerating someone else’s music but desiring it, thank God that He is transforming your heart!

Q3: How should we respond at a congregational level?

All of the principles covered in the last section apply as is to a congregational level as well.  In fact, for you to be able to implement those principles at an individual level largely depends on the vision, teaching, and overall atmosphere at River City being conducive to their actualization.  But in addition to those, there are a couple of additional principles that must be implemented at a congregational level:

Power Sharing

  1. It is essential that church leadership opens itself to power sharing as well as its ranks to members of all the cultural groups that we seek to reach.  This means that elder overseers, financial overseers, pastors, staff members, volunteer ministry leaders must all have legitimate multicultural representation.  This cannot be done abstractly. Leaders must be gifted and experienced. But leadership development must deliberately seek to open the gates to members of each grouping.
  2. Within each ministry we will be mindful of the “dominant note” of the leadership.  This phrase alludes to the fact that no one communicates or leads in a culturally neutral way – their ethnic identity will create a dominant note in whatever they are leading.  For instance, because I am the dominant preaching presence on Sunday mornings, we are mindful as leadership that there is a Eurocentric dominant note in our communication style.  I can (and hopefully am!) be as mindful as possible to cultural diversity through my preaching style, but based on my cultural identity I will always tilt the Sunday experience towards a Eurocentric style.  Therefore it is important to balance that out as much as possible to avoid becoming culturally imbalanced.  (For example, our Sunday worship leader is almost always someone very different than me culturally).

Formation and Protection of the Environment

Those in leadership at River City must be constantly evaluating the discrepancy between our vision and the degree to which our overall environment is conducive to that vision becoming a reality.  Questions need to be regularly asked such as

  • How well are we reaching the residents of the geographical community?
  • Which cultural groups are most comfortable at River City? Which are most uncomfortable?
  • How can we stretch people more? What teachings do they need to grow in this area?
  • Are people able to participate without checking their cultural identity at the door? If not, why?

I remember in our early days that a woman who had grown up in African American church became a member. Her first few Sundays she was very expressive during worship and could always be counted on for “Amen’s” during the service. But after a couple of months she quit doing either. I eventually asked her why.  She responded, “No one else does it, so I feel silly.” The truth of the situation was that there were other members that came from that cultural tradition, but they also had quite being expressive during the service because it did not match the ethos of the dominant culture of River City. This is an example of checking your cultural identity at the door! It is important that River City has an environment and ethos that is as embracing as possible of all the various cultural backgrounds in our community.