In the science fiction movie Avatar, there is an imagined race of beings on another planet. It is a movie with interesting thoughts on life and relationships. In the world of Avatar the most important statement you could make to someone else was, “I see you.” In that statement is a communication of deep respect and a love for the whole being. In many ways it is an important concept in the cultural battles and wars that divide and threaten us in relationships in our world. As the USA and many places in the world took to streets in protest over how George Floyd was treated and murdered in Minneapolis, it aroused a feeling of injustice and concern against racial prejudice in many cultures. Racial prejudice is not confined to one culture and its racial history. Racial prejudice has deep and pervasive roots in almost every culture.
In the USA racial injustice has resulted in beatings and even death at the hands of law enforcement. It raised up the cry “Black Lives Matter.” The movement started in Florida in 2013. A 17 year old teen named Trayvon Martin went to a convenience store at night. He was encountered by an armed community watchman named George Zimmerman. In the encounter an unarmed Trayvon was shot and killed. George Zimmerman was put on trial for murder. When he was acquitted protests erupted across the USA, and it is then that the “Black Lives Matter” movement started. It was as if Trayvon Martin’s life didn’t matter. It was as if — no matter how unjust it was for him to be murdered for the only crime of being a hooded, black youth out at night — it didn’t matter.
In our day of tribal politics “Black Lives Matter” has become a phrase that divides us as we descend into tribalism. For some it is a deep call for social justice and an elimination of that which makes black lives seem as if they don’t matter. No matter how egregious the evil done, even kneeling on a man’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds, it seems like there is no justice. But for other parts of the tribes, even many in the church world, there is the response of “All Lives Matter”, or “Blue Lives Matter”, or “Jesus Died For All Lives.” The tribal response is blind to the point that it isn’t that other lives don’t matter. The point is, why does injustice not seem to matter when it is a black life?
We are so often in our tribal world in dialogues as if each side is blind and deaf to the other. We don’t really see others. We are blind to what is happening to them. We don’t really hear others. We are caught in our own self righteous ideas. This flows from a deep sense that “I don’t see you,” meaning I don’t regard you with respect and love.
I grew up in the Detroit area which has a history of deep racial division. Many Detroit suburbs were created by people trying to establish white enclaves. I grew up in a home in which, in my early years, there was an almost casual racial prejudice reflected in attitudes, words, and actions. There were two groups that I heard this most often about, African Americans and Jewish people. The country club my father belonged to for years not only did not allow African American or Jewish members, they couldn’t even be guests. It was only a few exceptional African American professional athletes that broke some of the walls down.
My grandparents lived in Southern Ontario in a small town named Kingsville on Lake Erie, about 30 miles from Detroit. For years our family rented a cottage for the summer on Linden Beach near Kingsville. Between Linden Beach and the next beach there was a river that ran into Lake Erie. The bridge over the river formed a great fishing spot. You didn’t need a boat, you hardly needed anything more than a line, hook, sinker, and a wiggly worm. It was the first time in my childhood I remember seeing people of color as a group. African Americans from Detroit came for day fishing, lining the bridge. However, I remember being clearly, even righteously, told by a parent that the people of color wouldn’t be able to spend the night. The constables would clearly let them know they could fish, but they couldn’t stay. I remember that being disturbing to me. What was there about the color of a person’s skin that made them unwanted?
The people of Kingsville didn’t see the people of color. Their lives didn’t matter. What people saw was only their color. What people saw were the stereotypes they had formed in their minds of the character of people of color. Based on their stereotypes, it was easy to make the people unwanted, if not dangerous. I wonder if instead of a white boy, I was the son of one of the persons of color, what would I have thought of the reactions to me? I wonder if I would have wanted to go play on the beach with other children while my father fished. Would I understand why as a black child I wasn’t wanted or welcomed? No one would see the children of color. No one would care that their families couldn’t rent cottages and spend the summer as I did. They weren’t welcomed in the restaurants and were viewed with suspicion in the stores. They were both outsiders and unwanted.
I reached adulthood in the 1960s. I had seen in the 1950s the start of the civil rights movement. I had seen a whole army raised up so that a young girl could be integrated in a wholly white school. The racial prejudice that I had been raised up with was so wrong. What perhaps was most disturbing was that the church reflected the same racial bias and prejudice found in the rest of the culture. The church didn’t bring transformation to the issue. In fact, the church defended the racial division, hostility, separation. I remember how grieved I was when a Senior Pastor who had been used of God profoundly in my life expressed the same racial bias and prejudice of others.
Where does all this prejudice come from and how is it defended by people who call themselves Christians? We know as Christians that all people are created by God. We know that God calls us to the principles of justice and love in our relations in the world. God, in showing Judah what revival would like, said in Hosea 12:6, “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” In Zechariah 7:9-10 God gave the call to revival definition when He said, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against one another in your heart.” In the New Testament the call to love and justice for all gets even more pointed in its call on our lives. John notes that love for others is the evidence of God’s change in our heart. He says by the Holy Spirit in 1 John 3:14-15, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Where does racism come from? What are its lies? How is it that those who have called themselves the church of Jesus are so guilty of racism? Why is it we are silent at the unjust treatment of people because of the color of their skin? Racism starts with the lie that somehow by race, ethnicity, nationality there are essential differences of one group from another. It is the lie that each group or tribe has characteristics common to all. It is the lie that we can look at a person’s skin color and make judgments on what they are like. It brings the lie with it that we are so different we can’t live in close relationships. We see the lie even in churches today when thinking that we are better apart because there are essential differences that will lead to conflict of the style and practice of worship and church fellowship.
Closely related to the idea that there are essential differences among people by ethnicity, color, nationality there was the opinion that one group was superior to others. It was advocated widely that white people were superior to people of color. Even to the point that it was felt white people had a God given destiny to bring rule and order to the world. Even missionaries who went out were going out to the ‘savages’. When people were converted every effort was to make them not in the image of Christ, but in the image of how white people dressed, sang, acted.
The USA was founded by the Declaration of Independence. The key line in it said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …”. The Declaration went on to say something important as protests arise over George Floyd, that when these rights are violated it is the right of the people to alter or abolish that government. Yet some of those who wrote the document owned slaves who had no rights because they were property. Somehow they found no intellectual dissonance between saying that all people had God-given rights, and yet these slaves had none. They were property. Those who owned slaves felt very comfortable to call themselves Christians and be in churches in which no person of color would be allowed admittance except in slave service.
There were many Christians in the USA of course that worked to abolish slavery. Eventually Southern States declared their independence and fought for the right to have slaves. In the midst of the war President Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves. In 1875 a Civil Rights Act was passed by the Congress. It said no public accommodations could be denied a person by their color. But in the South multiple laws were passed to perpetuate a discrimination against people of color and segregating them in schools. The issue came to a head before the Supreme Court and in a decision in 1896 titled Plessy v Ferguson. The ruling established the principle of separate but equal. States were allowed to segregate by color in schools and housing. Public accommodations were allowed to discriminate and not serve people of color.
It is in that concept of ‘separate but equal’ the church for the most part has lived since. It has been felt that it was better to have churches where people could be with their own ‘kind’. Falling back on the idea that there are essential differences among us as races, ethnicities that make it better if we have churches for our own ‘kind’. The argument was that it wasn’t prejudice of racism, it is just we are more comfortable with people who are like us. In Seminaries the church growth movement came along that said statistically churches grow fastest when people are most like each other. Thus the effort was made to start churches that were homogenous. Churches advocated that churches should be established for each ‘kind.’ Thus, a CNN news report said America was most segregated at 11 AM Sundays, when the church met. The concept of separate but equal was all but totally embraced.
Yet in the USA that concept was legally turned around by a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1954, titled Brown v Board of Education, that separate is not equal. That separation gave a sense of inferiority to one group and that resources were given differently and with prejudice so that those of color received an inferior education. Courts ordered schools to be integrated. I happened to start teaching in Pontiac, Michigan the year it was ordered to start court-ordered busing for the integration of all schools.
But for churches, the concept of separate but equal has held on for far too long. Even today as culture has so changed and communities have so diversified that there is increasing diversity in church attendance. Still, in many cases, it is a white-dominated culture in style, music, preaching, leadership. People of diversity are welcomed if they adjust to the culture. People are allowed into leadership in few number and only as they support the dominant culture.
What is the truth about race, ethnicity, nationality? Are we so essentially different that we are better apart than together? As we come to the Bible, we come to the realization that we have all come from one man (Acts 17:26). We all have been made in His image. We all are made for living together as brothers in peace, respect, acceptance, love. But God does have purpose in our identity. It is our diversity that brings to the family of God a fullness of expression and beauty. We are unique, and when that uniqueness is welcomed we become a key part of the whole that makes the whole better. Imagine in a garden that God made only one kind of flower, and every flower was the same. The flower would lose its beauty and wonder. It is the diversity of flowers joined together that makes a garden such a delightful place.
God created languages to divide us because when we are united, the evil we conceive and do is so much greater. But color, ethnicities, nationalities existed before the language confusion. It is part of the diversity of creation that God calls good. Diversity is not to be a cause of division, but a cause of celebration. Sin has divided. Satan is the author of prejudice, division, racial pride, and hatred. What sin and Satan has divided, Jesus has come to make one. God is not content until there are those from every language, tribe, tongue, people group part of the church, the bride of His Son. It glorifies God not only to bring us to peace with Him. It glorifies Him that we are one family together in Jesus. Jesus’ prayer for us is that we are one as a church family as He and the Father are one (John 17:20-22). The church is to be the witness to the world that in Jesus all the walls of division and separation are torn down.
We know it is the plan of God in Jesus to bring all people together in the body of Christ. We know it is His plan to tear down all the walls of division and make us one new man in Christ. Ephesians 2-3 highlight that part of God’s plan. Jesus says the world would know we are Christians and that Jesus is the True One as we love one another (John 13:35). It is how Jesus makes us one from the diversity of color, nationality, ethnicity, age that demonstrates the truth and power of Jesus to save. That we are equal and one, and not separate, helps a world see Jesus and His love and truth.
As we view ethnicity, nationality, and color we know it is part of our eternal identity for the glory of God. When John records a vision of the resurrected church before the Throne of God he sees people from, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). In eternity we are not homogenized, we are perfected and glorified. There is something about us that makes the family of God complete. There is something that God celebrates that there are people from every tribe, ethnicity, color, nation before the throne as the family of God united in worship and love for eternity. That is why the plan of God is not complete until those from every nation are part of the church (Matthew 24:14). If we are at the end of this age it is because that purpose of God is done.
Some people say that the church shouldn’t get involved in racial issues. They say we should focus on preaching the Gospel and God will change hearts. But if the power of the Gospel is the power of Jesus to change lives and truly make us one, how does the world see it if they don’t see it in His visible church? If we come to church and find a dominant culture excluding others in worship, music, preaching, and leadership, how will they see Jesus and how He can change? If we love people, how can we not be passionate for justice for them? How can we not weep with those who weep if we don’t weep for the family of George Floyd and the injustice of his life taken by a knee on his throat, while two others held him down, and another kept people from helping him as his breath left him? How could we not say, “I see you and his life matters to me”?
When the Apostle Paul had his rights violated by the civil authorities in Philippi as he was beaten and then imprisoned the next day, he would not quietly leave town. He had the civil authorities acknowledge that they had abused his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35-39). When Roman soldiers heard John the Baptist preach and were convicted of their sin, they cried out what should they do? He called for them not to abuse their power over people by extortion and false accusations. As citizens of a country where we have the right to address our grievances to the government, it is right for us to add our voice to denounce injustice of the treatment of people of color. To go to the streets and to stand with those who cry out for justice is being a good citizen. We condemn actions that turn to violence but we are not going to allow some who have abused the moment to deny its true purpose and intent. That would be like what happens with racism, where the actions of a few are used to categorize and prejudice the whole.
It’s time for the church to renounce any thought that separate is equal. Jesus has come to tear down every lie, prejudice, and division among us. Let us put in practice the children’s song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” Let us see the ways we are unique in color, ethnicity, nationality is a celebration. It is not that Jesus homogenizes us as if we are people without color, ethnicity, and nationality, but rather He celebrates it. There is something unique, beautiful, and desirable about each that makes the whole better because each is part of it.
Let us reject as the church any effort that makes us “We/They”. The church is only “us”. Let us let the church enter new levels of becoming. What too often has happened is that churches form at a particular time with expressions of worship, discipleship, fellowship true to that moment in time. Then a church stops becoming, and the dominant culture exists to perpetuate the past. The Holy Spirit is blocked from where the church is to be, a place of becoming. I fear the Holy Spirit, who is working so powerfully in so many parts of the world, has left the USA, for we are no longer the church becoming. I fear particularly conservatives who have mixed up a commitment to the Word of God as unchangeable truth with their own cultural biases and prejudices that have little to do with the truth of the Word of God. I fear those who have worshiped their idea of a nation and confuse needed change as if it were an attack on a nation’s identity.
What we need is for people of color, ethnicity, and different nationalities to have a church that sees them. I see you. Yes color, nationality, and ethnicity are part of me, but I am so much more. Let us learn to see the individual, not the ‘they’. Let us learn one another’s story. Let us appreciate the uniqueness of how the Holy Spirit has shaped, gifted each person to make the whole better. Let us not work for a blended church where all uniqueness is gone or only the church of the past is honored. Let us become the church as the Holy Spirit does something new and beautiful. Let us work to make those who lead in worship, preach, teach, and lead the church as different as the community. Let us have a church where each sees themselves reflected in leadership that are like them. Let us be the place where the world can see it is Jesus who has come to bring peace and to tear down all the walls of division and separation among us. Let us remember Jesus’ word, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9). We aren’t about keeping the peace when it is unjust and wrong. We are about making the true peace Jesus brings, where we all live as brothers and sisters, one family.