When I came to Caz Church to serve as pastor, one of the things I wanted to do in my first year was to just get to know the people. I had the opportunity to sit down with many and hear their story- where they grew up, what their families were like, and how they came to know Christ. And a story I heard more than once was about the culture of South Buffalo in generations past. If you were a good Irish kid, you had certain boundaries in the community that you were careful not to cross at certain times. If you went beyond that road, or that bridge, you entered into the Italian section- you had to be careful there- and the same could be said the other way around, because these two cultures didn’t always get along
My story isn’t altogether different, though it was in a place hundreds of miles from Buffalo. I grew up in middle Tennessee, close to Nashville, a generation after the civil rights movement, about an hour and a half from the place where the KKK was established. There were two African-American kids in my grade until I got to high school. The year before I entered 9th grade, there was a race riot, black against white at that school, and everyone in the community knew about it. They had to dismiss school for a time because of the simmering tension.
If you grew up somewhere else, in a place where there were people who were different than you, chances are there was some tension between those two different cultures, not for any other reason than that their people were different than your people. No one necessarily had to do anything sinister to anyone else- it was “us” and “them” just because “we” looked differently than “they” did. Now, we might not have thought about it this way then, but if we could be perfectly honest with each other today, I think we could say that racism, or some form of it, was alive and well in those communities we grew up in.
And we have to acknowledge that there is still a problem today…Unless we’ve buried our heads in the sand, we know that, as a country, we’ve not moved past it. In recent days, we’ve watched the news from Charlottesville, VA, just like we watched the news in in Ferguson, MO; or Baton Rouge; or Dallas, or Tulsa…and if we think that it doesn’t exist where we live, we’re kidding ourselves. These tensions are high, and it’s important on a foundational level, for us to acknowledge that racism exists, not just nationally, but locally, and that we, as followers of Jesus need to be a part of the discussion.
Because I’ve used the word, racism, it’s important that we start with a general definition of what it is: Racism, at its core, is the mistreatment of another person (or group of people), based on their ethnicity, or the color of their skin.
There’s a lot of back and forth out there about the difference in racism, prejudice, and discrimination. I’m not getting into all of that, because they all have the same root…”I see your skin- your culture- something that makes your people different than my people- and based on that, I form a negative judgment in my mind about you that will keep us separate, maybe even antagonistic, toward one another.” That root can exist in any culture or race, because it’s ultimately not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.
In our country, it was a sin problem that led white people to enslave blacks, based purely on the terrible idea that to be born one color was better, or superior, than another. The same could be said for the laws that then kept these two races separate for another hundred years after the Civil War. Education and integration may have given people a better understanding of each other and forced them to live in community together, but neither of those things in the last 50-60 years has gotten rid of the problem.
It’s because racism is a Gospel issue- not just a cultural one, not just American, and not just black and white. This problem goes back as far as race and culture have existed. When people began to look different (race) and act different (customs, dress, talk), the sin in the human heart used those differences to divide, to try to oppress others, and to justify why that was good. This is why the church needs to be involved in the discussion., because God made cultures to be different. He made skin color. In His eyes, the differences are good. They are to be celebrated, not separated.
We (speaking as a white American to other white Americans when this message was delivered) need to be honest with ourselves, to realize that because I come from a particular culture, I’m blind to the experiences of my black neighbors. We may live in the same city, even on the same street, but have completely different experiences.
And (again, as a white man, speaking to a predominantly white congregation), you might have a hard time understanding what you’ve been seeing on television. You may struggle to relate to all the anger from black people. You think, or say, “what’s so hard about doing what the police officer says?” And, “this is what free speech is all about.”…Because you’ve probably never been pulled over, or questioned, or accused because of your skin color. We need to acknowledge that being white has given us a different experience of living in America than what someone of color has had.
I was talking to another pastor who ministers on the west side of Buffalo, where there is a large African-American community. There are people in his church who talk about how they have to worry about being pulled over every day, and then are afraid of what might happen when they are. He wasn’t telling me that to condemn the police. This isn’t just a police issue. It’s a cultural issue that black people experience every day, and people like me don’t. And we don’t help anything by dismissing it, or trying to rationalize it.
So, when something larger happens in the culture- like racist groups rallying in Virginia, police shootings, or other injustices- the collective experience of black people identifies with Michael Brown, and Terence Crutcher, and Trayvon Martin- and they see how it’s possible that these men could be them, or their children, and they want change. Again, as a follower of Jesus, I don’t think rationalizing or being dismissive is helpful, nor does it give us an opportunity to have meaningful conversation. The only thing that will is genuine compassion.
So, we have to acknowledge the problem. Then, we must look to the Scriptures and the Gospel. We need correction for wrong, sinful, thinking, and then encouragement to see, think, and feel more like God does.
The Bible starts out by telling us that man was made in the image of God. There is something different about mankind (all people) that separates him from everything else that was made- He has a likeness to God. Because of that, all men and women are worthy of honor and respect. We all are made in God’s image, and we all came from the same two people. So, for anyone to use their whiteness or brownness, their culture, or nationality to gain superiority over anyone else is non-sensical. This way of thinking is sinful, divisive, and opposed to the heart of God.
There is evidence of racism from very early in the biblical account. Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians by the hundreds of thousands, by the time we get to the second book; and there was a deep racial divide between Jews & Samaritans and Jews & Gentiles (anyone not Jewish) before Jesus steps onto the scene. Because these were such critical issues in the 1st century when the NT was written, we should expect for the writers to address them with the only thing that brings lasting, true, reconciliation between races and people groups- and they do.
I think we can describe what God has done in the Gospel, especially as we talk about racial division, in one word- Reconciliation- the ending of hostility and the making of peace. In Christ, God has brought an end to the hostility and division that was, first of all, between Him and us. At the cross, sin was crucified, forgiveness was purchased, wrath was satisfied- so that we could be reconciled to God; and the effect of that in day to day life was not only a new ability for anyone from anywhere to love God; but for anyone from anywhere to love one another. God actively sought to crush the division between Him and me. He hated that and pursued peace. He gives it to me through His Son. What does He now expect for me to seek with others? Hostility? Division? No! The exact thing that the Gospel gives me: reconciliation & peace.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
(Colossians 3:5, 9-14 ESV)
The Gospel is restoring and re-creating one people into the image of their Creator. And who is their Creator? Jesus. Our identity in Him gives meaning to everything else that makes us who we are- Bills fans, Irish background, from the First Ward, etc. These aren’t the priority now. My new life in Christ defines me, and shapes everything else.
Yes, I’m white. Yes, I’m an American. But I have a greater connection with black believers in Nigeria than I do with white, non-believing, Americans, because our connection in Christ is more important and eternal. The Gospel ends any hostility we might have had as we experience the recreating power of the Gospel. You’ve probably heard the statement that blood is thicker than water…Jesus gives us a new bloodline that is thicker than race.
…in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:25-28 ESV)
And 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,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)
We are being made into the image of the Son of God. You are not growing into this image if you are harboring divisive thoughts about people of another race. These thoughts need to be surrendered to, and crushed by, the Gospel.
As followers of Christ, we are to engage in racial reconciliation. I could point you to a number of passages that will support what I say here, but each one of these application points reflects the flavor of the Gospel. You can judge that for yourself.
1. Be humble and listen compassionately- Understand from the start that you have been shaped by your culture just like others have been by theirs, which means you have blind spots. You might not know what they are…that’s why you’re blind to them. So, it’s important that you start from a place of humility, not looking to correct someone else’s thinking, but asking God to use the Gospel, and other people who are different than you, to shape your thinking.
2. Be patient with one another- Some of you have been thinking on this issue for a long time. Some of you haven’t. We’re all in different places. So, those who seem to be really pressing others to listen must not get impatient or have a judgmental attitude toward those who aren’t where they are. And those who feel like they’re getting pressed to do or say something can’t get impatient and judgmental with those they feel are pushing them to move too fast. Bear with one another in love, keeping unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace.
3. Expose racism with the light of the Gospel- Wherever you are with this, don’t let racism, or prejudicial thinking stay in the darkness. It might mean that you have friends who talk a certain way about blacks or whites. Engage those people graciously with the Gospel. It might mean that you work with someone of a different skin color that you’ve always felt uncomfortable speaking to. Overcome that division and build bridges to get to know them and hear their experiences.
This content has been modified from a sermon given on October 9, 2016 at Cazenovia Park Baptist Church in Buffalo, NY by Lonnie Atwood. To listen to that message, click here