The television news story was captivating. I stopped browsing through my paperwork and looked up to focus on the report. I had never heard such a story. Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) office in Spokane, Washington, claimed to be black. Her parents disagreed: “I’m Caucasian. My wife is Caucasian. We’re of primarily European descent, though there is a small amount of American Indian,” her father stated.
Lighter-skinned blacks claiming to be white are fairly common. However, a white person claiming to be black? After the initial surprise passed, I wondered why the issue of race continues to divide our country.
Since my salvation in 1968, I have been addressing racial issues, especially within the church. Crossroads Bible College, where I have served as president for the last 25 years, is dedicated to a biblical view of racial reconciliation and the proclamation of the gospel to all people.
Our mission is to glorify God by training Christian leaders to reach a multiethnic urban world for Christ. A white colleague and I created and co-taught a foundational course, Culture, Race, and the Church, which every Crossroads student must take to graduate. This course examines, through biblical lenses, the history of the church’s dealings with slavery, segregation, and civil rights issues. We believe every Christian needs to understand the underlying issues.
A Problem That Hasn’t Gone Away
During his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama stated his vision of a nation no longer encumbered by race issues: “There is not a black America, and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There is the United States of America.” But events in 2014 revealed the elusiveness of his dream.
Rioting, fires, police with riot gear, and military vehicles at Ferguson, Missouri, became the international image of modern race relations in America. We may never know with certainty what happened when a white police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. It is certain, however, that Barack Obama’s vision of a “post-racial America” was dashed.
To this day, as I read Internet posts or converse with Christians, it seems like many of them lack helpful and healing strategies to address racial tensions. Many respond with anger, uninformed judgments, prejudicial perceptions, and unbiblical attitudes and actions. It is obvious that many Christians do not have a close enough relationship with believers of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds to understand or care about many of the underlying issues.
The church must become proactive. In response to Ferguson, I joined Dr. Ken Davis, my colleague at Crossroads Bible College for many years, in calling on believers to adopt a more biblical position on this complex issue:
We believe the evangelical church must be committed to building a biblical worldview in all things, including race relations and injustices. To do so, we will need to work on multiple levels—personal, moral, and institutional—to truly offer a holistic answer to the complexities of a racialized culture. Ironically, the discipline of interethnic studies and ministry is just emerging in our conservative evangelical circles.
Resources are still being developed and tested. We yet have much to learn from each other and to live out in our churches and communities (“Ferguson: How Should the Church Respond?” Journal of Ministry and Theology, vol. 19, no. 1: 5).
An Erroneous Historical Concept
We need to remove the fog of the modern concept of race so that we can see more clearly paths to a better future. We can begin by understanding our history. The United States’ so-called race problem is really a historical cultural problem. Have you ever wondered why people who have one white and one black parent are classified as black? It does not make biological sense.
An erroneous concept of race has had a lasting impact on our culture. Harvard University psychologists say an archaic view of race continues to impact our thinking. Harvard Gazette reports, “The centuries-old ‘one-drop rule’ assigning minority status to mixed-race individuals appears to live on in our modern-day perception and categorization of people like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Halle Berry” (December 9, 2010).
The article explains, “In the United States, the ‘one-drop rule’—also known as hypodescent—dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as ‘white’ on her passport.”
Such an untruthful concept of race continues to have profound social and cultural implications. The country still suffers, the article concludes, from an entrenched “traditional racial hierarchy, which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom.”
The Church’s Need for Oneness
The church is right to reject secular answers that ignore the problem’s spiritual dimension. However, the church is wrong when it refuses to demonstrate biblical answers to the same problems. While we proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, our relationships and friendships, especially within the church, too often expose our lack of efforts to achieve this biblical diversity. The Apostle Paul eloquently summarizes a proper passion to reach all humanity (“all men”) when he writes of his desire “
to become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19–22; see also Galatians 3:26–28).
Sadly, most churches are composed primarily of one ethnic group. I believe the US does not have a race problem but rather a color problem, the “one-drop” rule. The complexion of many churches reminds me of what my mother said to me shortly after I was saved in 1968 and was to become a member of an all-white church. Mom said, “Boy, you are going to look like a fly in a bowl of milk!” Well, I did get baptized and joined the church. I found gallons of biblical teaching and biblical love in that “bowl of milk.”
Biblical teaching and biblical love are two pillars upon which a gospel-centered understanding of race must rest. The church must begin with a biblical view of race and reconciliation. From a biblical perspective, “one drop” of blood cannot create different races; but rather one common ancestor, Adam, identifies us as one race (Genesis 1:27, 3:20; Acts 17:26).
Several years ago we had a black student who desperately needed a kidney transplant. His health was failing and dialysis was no longer sufficient. Fortunately, a suitable donor was found, though sadly the young white man had died in an automobile accident.
After receiving his kidney transplant, the student said to me, “I am your multiethnic student. I have a white man’s kidney in a black man’s body!” The parents of the deceased shared with our student that their son was a Christian called into the gospel ministry. They rejoiced that his kidney was prolonging the life of another man who was called into ministry! Brothers from one race, Adam’s race, were brothers from one blood, Christ’s (Ephesians 2:13–22; 1 Peter 1:18–19).
What a compelling example of our biological oneness as humans and our spiritual oneness as the body of Christ! I can only imagine what it will be like for these two brothers to meet in heaven. There will not be a black heaven, a white heaven, a Latino heaven, or an Asian heaven. There will be heaven!
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
However, we are not yet in heaven. Our daily relationships between ethnic groups often seem to be more like the account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8–11; 1 John 3:11–18). Cain and Abel were brothers, being one race; yet Cain’s sinful, unloving heart led him to kill his brother. Genesis 3 records the beginning of humanity’s sin: disobedience to God’s Word. The outworking of sin rises to its greatest height with Cain’s murder of Abel. Cain’s response to God’s question, “
Where is Abel your brother?” is typical of many of our responses to dysfunctional racial relationships. Cain asked, “
Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
While most of our broken relationships do not lead to murder, we are often like Cain, avoiding our responsibility rather than actively seeking reconciliation. Are we our brother’s keeper today? Can we have respectful and fruitful conversations about the issues underlying Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter?
Every church member, driven by love for Christ, must accept the responsibility of being our brother’s keeper. We must engage in conversations guided by God’s Word and bonded by God’s love. Divine love sees past skin color and judges by character that emanates from our hearts. Love listens to the pain of others who desire biblical justice and reconciliation. Biblical love will sacrifice personal rights, possessions, and in some instances life, for the sake of others.
In the wake of Ferguson, Ken Davis and I attempted to create a model and suggest positive next steps for believers. Ken sought to understand the perspective of black evangelical leaders on racial issues. I sought to understand the perspective of white evangelical leaders.
The following statement expresses our mutual desire for Christians to do more talking about solutions and discussing each other’s perspectives:
We have sought to encourage, especially within the evangelical community, honest and respectful conversations about the continuing racial divide in our nation and churches. We have sought to model listening so that we can all learn and profit from the concerns of our brothers and sisters within the one body of Christ.
Based upon what we learned by listening to others, we suggested several positive steps that Christians could take to address the race issue. They include redoubling our efforts to live as Christ has called us to live—praying sensitively for all peoples, modeling genuine repentance of prejudice where necessary, caring for the poor and disadvantaged, and cultivating gentleness and respect towards all.
Positive steps also mean rethinking what it means for Christians and churches to pursue justice, both locally and nationally.
We concluded our list with the need to adopt more biblical terminology. A good place to start is race. It’s not a helpful word.
“The modern concepts of race and racial distinctions are rather recent social constructs which arose out of the eighteenth-century anthropology and Darwinian evolution,” warns Colin Kidd in The Forging of Races: Race, Scripture, and the Protestant Atlantic World. Instead of promoting separate “races,” we need to promote a biblical concept of “one race, one blood!”
We need to recognize that our problem is not skin color but sin division. A biblical perspective on sin and the gospel is not a trite answer; it’s the answer. No other answer will work.
May God grant us the loving wisdom to pursue “grace relations” rather than race relations. Grace relations affirm the truths clearly taught in Genesis 1–11. We are one race, Adam’s race. But we are a sinful race because of Adam’s disobedience to God’s Word. The source of injustice and dysfunctional relationship today is an outworking of our sinful hearts.
The ultimate answer to our sin and guilt is the blood and sacrifice of another. In Genesis an animal’s blood was shed to cover Adam’s sin, but Christ’s sacrifice was predicted in Genesis 3:15. Christ has come and died for our sins. Through salvation we each have forgiveness of sin and acceptance into the family of God.
Biblical love for members of the family of God transcends the shade of our skin. We are one race, Adam’s race, and if born again, we become one in Christ’s body. We can point people to the root causes of racial conflicts in Genesis 1–11. Once we understand the source of our problems, we can offer the solutions, which work for both time and eternity.
One final thought. We should not be dismayed when the problems do not disappear everywhere. Read and reflect on Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. Yes, he sought to engage with various cultural groups about their problems and the solution in Christ. But he also knew that only some would be won over. The ultimate results are in God’s hands, and God wants to comfort us with that thought.
More Than Meets the Eye
In addressing ethnic tensions, Christians should listen intently to all sides of the debate and avoid overstatements. Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor for Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC, and respected author on race issues, has listed three common but misleading themes in these racially charged times. All are serious concerns in the African-American community, but details are often overlooked that need to be thought through.
Pastor Anyabwile acknowledges that “the single best predictor of child and family well-being is a healthy marriage between the biological parents of the child.” But left alone, this argument “fails to recognize how systemic issues actually undermine the goal of family formation and stability.” For example, the arrest and sentencing of so many black men does not leave many around to become responsible husbands and fathers. The marriage benefit “decreases if one of the parents is not the child’s biological parent,” especially if constant abuse and conflict is occurring. “So marriage is no magic bullet.”
FBI data shows that 83.5% of white murder victims are killed by white perpetrators—not much less than black-on-black rates (91%). Anyabwile contends the reality is people “commit crimes in their own neighborhoods against their own neighbors.” Thus urban crime is not so much a “race” thing as a “zip code thing.”
The Problem Is Sin, Not Racism
Anyabwile acknowledges each Ferguson-like incident must be weighed individually, and only God can know the hearts of perpetrator and victim. Yet he rightly observes, “All our systems [political, economic, legal, educational, etc.] were forged during long stretches of history where systematic bias was the stated acceptable norm.” Such systems are not changed “overnight or [even] in a generation.” Yes, the root problem is always sin, but we must realize sin often manifests itself in “systemic and systematic bias.” Racism, seen biblically, is “a sin with systemic properties.” Thus to say, “It’s not racism, it’s sin” is “to fail to understand both racism and sin.”
—excerpt from Charles Ware and Ken Davis, “Ferguson: How Should the Church Respond?” Journal of Ministry and Theology (Spring 2015), Vol. 19, No. 1