Racism and the vocation of the church
As I contemplate the horror both of George Floyd’s callous murder and of the rage of angry mobs in America and elsewhere, I am reminded of the day when Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968. I was in Toronto at the time, and the day after the killing I stood with tens of thousands of people in a big downtown square singing, ‘We shall overcome’. This had become the anthem of those who, like King, desperately wanted to end racial discrimination peacefully. We all really believed that King’s death would stir consciences and that lasting change would come. Half a century later, it seems we were wrong. Unfortunately, grand resolutions don’t always lead to deep change.
So how do we read the Bible at this time, and how do we put it into practice? Let me be blunt: it is not enough merely to say that “racism is sinful and we must get rid of it”. What we call ‘racism’ is not simply a failure to obey a moral standard, like loving our neighbours as ourselves. Racism is a failure of vocation.
The church of the anointed Jesus was designed from the start to be a worldwide family: God’s new model of humanity. In our own generation, the church has struggled to reimagine something that was always in the Christian DNA but which we have all but forgotten. The point of being part of Jesus’ people was never that we as individuals could get to heaven; the point was that we are supposed to be – in our personal and corporate lives – small working models of the ultimate new creation which God has promised and has launched decisively in raising Jesus from the dead. That has always been our glorious vocation.
Rejecting racism and embracing the diversity of Jesus’ family ought to be as obvious as praying the Lord’s prayer, celebrating the Eucharist or reading the four gospels. It isn’t just an extra rule that we’re supposed to keep. It is fundamental to who we are. The irony of the present situation is this: the churches have to a great extent forgotten that this was their vocation and that racism was a denial of it. The phrase ‘Christian racist’ ought to be heard as a devastating oxymoron.
The original vision of the united church: small working models of the new creation
In Colossians 3:11, the apostle Paul insists that in the Jesus-following family there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free. That’s what it means to put on the new humanity which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the Creator.
This dream was regularly ignored in Western churches in the Modern period. But it was then picked up on in the secular enlightenment. Today’s secular vision of a multicultural global society is at its best a Christian ideal detached from its Christian foundation. When Pope Benedict addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in April 2008, he suggested that the human rights discourse has become a way of trying to get the fruits of the Judeo-Christian tradition while detaching itself from the roots. If you do that, your discourse will collapse into a shrill shouting match of competing special interests. This is where we find ourselves now, with one side of the church saying the others are racists and the other side saying the others are communists. We need to dig down deeper, below the shrill moralism, to our foundational vocation to be the new model of human life.
So what is this ‘new humanity’ vocation, and how have we drifted so far away from it that we now see it only as a detached ethical imperative? Paul’s vision of the church shines out in every letter he writes, perhaps particularly in Ephesians. Actually, his famous doctrine of ‘Justification by faith’ is expounded only in two letters – Romans and Galatians – and mentioned briefly in the odd verse here and there elsewhere, but his vision of the united church across all the traditional boundary lines, particularly the ethnic ones (with ‘Jew and Greek’ as the central paradigm) is laid out emphatically in every single letter. Even in little Philemon, where the ‘slave or free’ point is pushed home with powerful pastoral gentleness. The theological and practical climax of Romans 14 and 15 is precisely what we might call fellowship by faith, ‘koinonia’. It is the fleshing out of justification by faith.
Paul insists on the radical mutual welcome that must take place between Jesus’ followers of different ethnic backgrounds and the different cultural practices that go with those backgrounds. The whole point of Romans 15:6 is that you may ‘with one heart and voice glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus, the anointed One’. This is the large-scale application of the point Paul makes sharply in Galatians 2. Paul insists to Peter that uncircumcised Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus are equal members of Jesus’ people along with believing Jews. They don’t need to be circumcised since their previous status as Gentile sinners has been erased by Jesus’ death, which rescues all his people from the present evil age.
But it’s in Ephesians where the picture is spelt out most fully. In chapter 1, Paul declares that God’s purpose was to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in the Messiah. This stands solidly over against the normal Western Christian assumption that God’s purpose is to snatch believers away from earth so that they can live with him in heaven – something the New Testament never says. The last scene in the Bible (Rev. 21-22) is not about saved souls going up to heaven, it’s the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. God’s plan was always to renew the whole creation (Romans 8; 1 Cor. 15), and for God himself to come and dwell with humans in that new world.
So the church is not simply a loose association of people who have had similar spiritual experiences and get together from time to time to encourage one another as they escape the world and look forward to going off somewhere else. The church is the new family of Jesus-followers: those who have died to their old spiritual allegiances and discovered their new identity as Messiah people. Their present flesh-and-blood existence as this extraordinary, even miraculous single family is a sign and foretaste of God’s purpose for the whole world. This family in fact is called to be a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, gender-blind in leadership, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward facing, culturally creative, socially responsible, fictive kinship group. A good brief definition of the church!
So, living in this way is not an optional extra for the followers of Jesus, a kind of added hobby for those who want something different on top of their regular Bible studies or prayer meetings. It is part of the deal.
Now all this is obvious in the New Testament and in early Christianity as a whole, and it chimes completely with Jesus’ own emphasis, particularly his high priestly prayer in John 17, that all might be one so that the world might believe. Jesus is implying that if we fail here, we are handing to unbelievers good grounds for denying that he had been sent by God.
The beauty of Pentecost is not the collapse of all languages into one hegemonic tongue, but rather the multiple flowings of the Spirit into all the world creating a single polychrome, polyglot family. Of course, the outworking of this would not always be straightforward: ethnic and linguistic distinctions were already a point of tension in the early church. We must address these with wise and decisive action to preserve continued unity to be the advanced guard of God’s new creation.
Why did we get it so wrong?
So how did we get it so wrong? Why have some of the best educated Christian groups in the world flouted this vision for a polychrome unity, and regard anyone who argues for it as a dangerous subversive? How did we slide into this without even noticing?
No doubt there are many reasons, but I want to highlight two. Firstly, there is the matter of the unintended consequences of right and proper actions. One of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation was to translate the Scriptures into people’s own language so that ordinary Christians could read the Bible for themselves. Along the way, however, it led to ethnically based churches and communities who are no longer worshipping God together across linguistic and ethnic boundaries. When this acceptance of division became the new norm, we even gave it a fancy name: denomination, which sounds quite respectable, like ‘justification’ or ‘sanctification’, and so it was easy for visibly ethnic divisions to fit into this pattern. Now the whole Protestant project has split into so many fragments that we can’t keep track of them all. Nobody seems to have noticed that despite their regular appeal to Scripture, they were ignoring one of Scripture’s’ central injunctions. The racism that is both casual and institutional that we so deplore today is but one outworking of the much deeper failure of Western Protestantism. At the very point where the church should have been a shining light of polychrome unity, the churches themselves were every bit as compromised as the surrounding culture.
This splitting into different ethnic groups was an accidental and unintended consequence of something good that was going on, namely the communication of Scripture and liturgy in local languages. But the second factor we have to note is deeper and I think more disastrous: the almost universal assumption in Western churches that the whole point of Christianity was to go to heaven when we die, so that how things are organised in church life becomes essentially secondary. This is the almost total victory of Platonism, and a denial of the full biblical vision of the church. The trouble is that the great Pauline emphasis on grace and faith rather than works of the law has been heard, over and again, within a Platonic echo-chamber. Many Protestants, including many evangelicals, have come to believe implicitly that God is more interested in the non-material world, and the invisible inner life of the individual, than in the material world and the actual and visible life of the church and that has left the door open for the poison of racism to creep in unnoticed. In our present day, many scholars (myself included) have been insisting that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of the Jewish law, was both about ‘ultimate salvation in the new creation’ (not a ‘going to heaven’ salvation) and about the ‘coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the single family of Abraham’, and that these two belonged tightly together.
Paul would have been horrified by our modern distortions. If you read Romans 14 and 15, you will notice that the mutual welcome across ethnic and cultural boundaries is not a mere distant implication of the gospel; it is the physical, tangible, visible sign of justification by faith itself. In today’s increasingly polychrome world, it simply won’t do to shelter inside look-alike fellowships. Read Ephesians 3 or Colossians 3 again – how impoverished we have become in our self-enclosed enclaves.
It is important for us to understand why racism has emerged in the forms it has, and how the biblical gospel of Jesus, when allowed free rein, radically undermines it. As well as the two reasons highlighted above, it’s important to be aware of the influence of modernism and postmodernism on this phenomenon. Enlightenment modernism has wanted to eliminate racism because of its standpoint that all people should be identical, like a homogeneous ‘solidarity’. Postmodernism has wanted to eliminate racism because all people are seen to be different and should be valued and respected as such. Therefore, both modernity and postmodernity have wanted to eliminate racism for opposite reasons, but the ideological confusion seems to fuel the anger rather than checking it, and those who get hurt are often the most vulnerable. The Enlightenment secular project has tried to attain this but without the means to do so, like a moth trying to fly to the moon. Christians ought to have seen racism coming and denounced it at an early stage.
How do we respond?
In conclusion, I would like to offer three urgent words for this difficult time. Firstly, we need to recognise that the Pauline vision of the church offers what no earthly institution can achieve: the differentiated unity in which multiple human differences, refracted through the prism of new life in the anointed Jesus, form the coherent unity of the body of Christ with its many members. This vision of the church is both a gift and a calling for us to live up to.
Secondly, the present crisis ought to drive a new wave of genuine and urgent ecumenical effort, especially where ethnic difference is visible and obvious. I know how hard this is, but the gospel and Scripture leave us no choice. Church leaders and ministers need to get together across traditional boundaries, get to know one another, pray together, read Scripture together, swap pulpits and so on.
Thirdly, what we need right now, following the necessary recognition of, and repentance for, past, evil, is a glorious amnesty of mutual forgiveness. As I said earlier, it won’t do simply to wring our hands over racism and say how wicked it is. We need to understand why it has emerged in the form it has, and how the biblical gospel of Jesus in the construction of the family of Jesus-followers radically undermines it. We have failed to live out our calling in the gospel by not living in this differentiated unity, and for this we must repent. This will involve a clear-eyed recognition of the evil that is happening, and a tear-filled repentance both for that evil and for the resentment which it has caused, followed by forgiveness: wiping the slate clean. The gospel of Jesus can pave the way to a fresh start, beginning with the crucified and risen Jesus.