Should The Church Confront Racial Issues?
There is a lot of pressure on the church today (especially upon pastors) to speak to the cultural issues with which we are currently struggling. Part of the issue for pastors is that there exists a multitude of opinion in the church upon these issues and how they should be resolved, if in fact they can be. Most of these differences have not arisen out of theological considerations, but out of political concern. Speaking about politically charged issues is a precarious situation for pastors to say the least, but is it an excuse to avoid the conversations?
Another pressure on pastors is that major sects of the church have historically avoided concrete, political rhetoric altogether, and some, both within and without, believe this is the way it should be. Does the church have a voice in the realm of politics, or does our separation of church and state preclude us from any influence?
Do we have biblical warrant to speak to the area of culture that includes politics?
On a broader cultural scale, recent arguments have arisen in which people are debating whether or not people of various groups have the capacity to understand the feeling, concerns, and overall experiences of another group. Can the church be truly multicultural? Does our message truly create transcultural conversation and healing, or are we doomed to continue to talk past each other, at least on this topic?
Is there any biblical precedence for speaking to each other about our own cultural (specifically ethnic) understandings, and will people be able to hear?
My Alma Mater, Asbury Theological Seminary rereleased a video in which Pastor Lisa Yebuah argues from Paul’s statement to the Church at Galatia (in which he states that in Christ Jesus there is no longer “Jew nor Greek,” v 3:28) that since barriers have been broken by the cross we can begin to hear across old walls. I love this thought. We must encourage the church to have real, authentic conversations so that we all can repent from our old ways and live in newness together. Faithfulness to the gospel recognizes our ability to hear and understand our brothers and sisters, no matter their particular affiliations in other communities.
In my recent book, The Other Side, I speak about learned behaviors and the possibility to overcome prejudice:
For the child, noticing someone else is different is first a matter of curiosity. Negative bias is introduced when this child perceives a negative attitude in those he or she most often imitates. The child does not become malicious at this point. He or she is simply following a basic rule of survival: If others in my community recoil from this type of person, thing, or situation, I should too.
If prejudice can be ingrained at such an early age, we might fear that there is little hope of overcoming our prejudices unless we begin by admitting that none of us are immune to receiving or perpetuating, consciously or subconsciously, negative stereotypes. We do, however, have another mechanism in learning about others that may move us beyond learned biases: an uncanny ability to empathize through the vicarious experience of placing ourselves in another’s shoes. When we have the opportunity to learn of others through hearing their stories and placing ourselves in their shoes, learned biases are diminished if not destroyed, and we learn, instead, to care.
Arguments or mere dialogue concerning the views of others will not get us to where we need to be if they are divorced from the prompting to step outside of one’s own preconceived ideas and into what it might be like to walk in the other’s shoes. Having the gift of “the mind of Christ,” it is possible to consider others before ever considering the needs and concerns of self (see Philippians 2:1-5).
Yet, is there any concrete biblical example of using empathy to promote understanding of the other? Can we use racial differences as a learning tool?
Jesus seemed to think so. In fact, in a very subversive manner, Jesus forces some of the religious elite in the Jewish community to do just that as he taught the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” found in Luke 10:25-37:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In this text, some of the religious elite of the Jewish community, a community who highly valued their own ethnicity and import of their specific knowledge, confronts Jesus. Specifically, a lawyer, an expert in Torah, challenged this Rabbi, another expert of Torah from another angel, to ask the key to right living.
Jesus expertly draws out of the lawyer the key to right living and challenges him upon it: “Do this (what you just claimed to be right) and you will live.” However, as soon as Jesus challenges him to do only that which the lawyer had already admitted was the ethical way of life, the lawyer begins to make up excuses and counter argues his own point, by asking, “When is enough, enough?”
Jesus then launches into his subversive illustration. He first has the community see themselves in those who encounter a terrible situation. First, a gang on a very well known and dangerous road robs and beats an unnamed traveler. Even though the man is unnamed, it seems Jesus is most likely referring to a Jewish person. Everyone listening would be able to empathize with the beaten man. As the man is lying in road left for dead, two persons of the Jewish religious community pass him by. Again, everyone would have recognized the two well respected people types here. They are feeling the finger of blame being pointed at them.
Then Jesus talks about an “other,” a Samaritan. It is no secret that in this day, there existed a lot of racial tension between the Jewish people and the Samaritans. Why this tension existed is a lesson for another time. From an early age, Jewish people were conditioned to dislike the Samaritans. So, Jesus makes this member of the “out group” the hero. He is challenging racial norms in the day. Here is what they would assume to be a religious mutt acting in accordance with ethical living.
His final question is one that forces the audience to consider empathy, not just of the beaten man, whom everyone feels sorry for, of course. Instead, his question has them consider the three passers by, including this “unworthy” Samaritan. Who among these men did the right thing? In other words, how do you understand their actions? If in their place, what would you do?
The lawyer is forced to answer, and his reply is telling, “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan was right.” Instead, he simple refers to him as “one.”
Jesus was intentionally being political, showing the hypocrisy of the elites in society. (Remember that for the Jewish people specifically; there was no difference between religious leaders and political figures, at least for their own local context, which Jesus uses here.) Jesus confronts their racism and forces them to see the humanity in the other.
No servant is greater than his master, and if Jesus shows us an example of leading through hard conversations concerning race relations and doing right to others, we too must speak of these things. No matter what others in our church say about our right to speak on these issues, no matter what the world believes is possible or impossible for racial healing, we must trust our leader, our King, and the King and head of the church was one willing to break down barriers through hard discussions upon race.
I, for one, choose to follow Jesus. I will listen to my brothers and sisters who happen to come from other backgrounds. I will validate their concerns. I will try and help them see my concerns as well, and together we will serve those beaten up by a world that wants to rob them of their dignity.