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Why Racial Reconciliation Can’t Happen

When Jesus confronts religious hypocrites in the Sermon on the Mount, he lays out a profound kingdom principle: His followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt 5:13). But in our local communities, how much of our Christian discipleship is actually about being salt and light?

The shrapnel of George Floyd's killing is piercing America's cities and institutions. Is there a path to real healing and effective social action?

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed a lot of our congregations outside of their buildings and given people an opportunity to examine how much of their Christian commitment centers around coming together for corporate worship services on Sundays. They’ve had an opportunity to examine how just gathering fails to address a thousand other things about which the Scriptures should provoke disciples of Jesus. Like love your neighbor, pray for those who spitefully use you, bear one another’s burdens. Like being salt and light.

In May of this year, Americans and people around the world watched a horrific nine-minute video of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer. I don’t have to tell you that event set off a national conversation not only about police brutality but also broader discussions of race and identity in the United States. Marches and protests filled streets. The State of Mississippi voted to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from its state flag. Public monuments again became public fault lines. And this discussion faces churches and Christian communities, too, and it should bring Jesus’ teaching about salt and light to the forefront.

How do Bible-believing Christians engage pressing social issues such as police violence in relation to Black communities? Where should Christians fit in the two-sides that surface amid these pressure points in our society? Can there even be political solutions to moral problems? Is there a Christian witness to the path toward real healing and effective social action?

Can reconciliation happen?

In D.A. Horton’s book Intensional: Kingdom Ethnicity in a Divided World, he provides critique for the whole racial reconciliation motif. He points out that it’s hard to reconcile things that have never been together at all. Since the introduction of Africans into the colonies, there’s never been a time of conciliation. That is, many times the term reconciliation is unhelpful because it implies that we’re trying to put something back together that at one time was together.

The history of Black and white in the United States has never been a history of the races being together. At every move, any kind of progress was greatly resisted. Whether you talk about the split after the Civil War, whether you talk about the resistance to Reconstruction. Whether you talk about the violence of the Jim Crow era, or the indifference of many churches during the Civil Rights movement. There’s never been a time when the Christian church in the United States of America has had a strong counter-cultural witness against the prevailing culture.

Opponents of the Lord Jesus, even the religious ones, accused him of being “a friend of sinners and publicans.” If we’re honest, probably no one would accuse Americanized Christianity of that. Instead, it’s easy for Christians to be unaware of things that go on in our fallen world because we often live in echo chambers. I can’t point fingers at anyone: I’ve pastored a church where we had a school and sports leagues, and members of our church could live their lives, raise their kids, educate their kids — and just go between their homes and our church, their homes and our church. A life like that, if we’re not intentional, can create a certain type of insensitivity to things going on around us, and that can keep us far from being fruitful and effective witnesses for Jesus Christ.

The Bible says in John 13, the way we Christians, across economic and ethnicity lines, love one another is a testimony to the watching world. Even in the Roman empire, people who were persecuting Christians were amazed at the variety of people that were in their congregations and the unity that they had following the way of Jesus Christ. Can American Christians hope for that same kind of public witness?

Thus sayeth who?

We American Christians don’t do a good job of distinguishing between “Thus sayeth the Lord, Thou shall not kill,” or “Thus sayeth the Lord, The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” and  “I want to love my neighbor and because of that, I think this.”

I’m not a pacifist. I recognize all sorts of evil in the world, and I want our country to have a strong defense.  But that doesn’t mean I can question whether a Christian loves the Lord if he or she is a pacifist. If we disagree on that, we have to be comfortable saying that’s just something we disagree on. We can’t convict the conscience of a brother or sister unless we can convict it from the Scripture.

It’s helpful as a pastor, as a leader within a congregation, to be clear about what is explicit in the Scripture and what is not. I’ve pastored churches where people have had drastic political differences, and when you’re trying to bring biblical teaching to bear on those types of matters, you can’t open the Bible and say, “This is exactly what the U.S. tax code should be.” You can’t open the Bible and say, “This is exactly what U.S. Immigration policy should be.” Pastors instead should encourage Christians to be honest and say, “I want to be a citizen and I want to exercise my rights to vote and to be a part of the political process.” When there’s something to have a biblical conviction about, express it as such.

Acknowledge that Christians can faithfully disagree and stop playing the game, “My politics is God’s politics,” as if you don’t agree with my politics, you must not be right with God. That’s a game that will get us nowhere and it will certainly not help us pursue Ephesians 4:3; it will grieve and quench the Spirit.

Red and blue, salt and light

Christians need to be honest that however we choose to engage, we’re engaging in a fallen system. I have no problem with Christians who are in political parties. I do have a problem when either one of them tries to act like their party choice is God’s party choice. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have significant things that should bother righteousness-seeking followers of Jesus Christ.

We need to be realistic that, as we try to bring salt and light into our culture within a fallen political system, of course we’ll have disagreement. Just think about the last presidential election. It seems to me there were at least eight ways a faithful Christian could have been thinking about his or her vote: (1) She could think, “I don’t like any of these candidates,” and she could have written in a person; (2) he could have adopted the mindset of Anabaptists and Quakers and simply opted out of voting for a presidential candidate; (3) someone could have tremendous support for candidate X; (4) someone could be lukewarm toward candidate X, but thinks he or she could do some good things; or (5) someone could vote for candidate X because she is so opposed to candidate Y. And (6-8) if someone votes for candidate Y for those same reasons, you have at least eight viable ways to vote for a President. It’s disingenuous — and intellectually and philosophically dishonest — to suggest that if a person votes this way or that, then he or she supports abortion or endorses racism. Christian cultural engagement and Christian political engagement is far more complex than that type of Barney Fife analysis.

Local pastors in local communities

But if there’s not a Thus Sayeth the Lord party, what can Christians do to be salt and light in their states, cities, neighborhoods?

When I was a local church pastor and a big social crisis arose like we’re seeing now, I would try to talk to a few pastors from different denominational backgrounds, a few pastors from different socio-economic congregations, and then a few pastors who I know are different ideologically. I wanted to have a conversation with a big, old donkey in the room and a big, old elephant in the room. I want to see what locally we can share some kind of agreement on and approach together.

Right now, you can have a Republican or Democrat say, “I think racially prejudiced police brutality is certainly wrong policy-wise, but more than that, I think it’s unrighteous. It’s unjust.” Say you had eight pastors around the table, the odds are some people in their congregations wield community influence. For the Spirit to empower us, this kind of effort can’t be about seeking to be politically expedient. It has to be about seeking to be a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ, to be salt and light.

In that same vein, pastors and congregations should seek to have the most impact upon their immediate neighbors. One of the great weaknesses of social dialogue in our country is that too much of it is catapulted up at the national level and based on the two parties. But issues like police brutality are a local issue. Police violence comes from district attorneys who don’t prosecute police officers who commit crimes, from mayors who don’t appoint reform-oriented police chiefs. And many mayors, district attorneys, and police chiefs are too scared to deal with police unions. The political reality is that many of the issues we face that are related to righteousness and the love of neighbor have little to do with the president or the speaker of the house.

For example, what happened in Georgia with Ahmaud Arbery was based upon Georgia’s citizen arrest law. Georgia Christians who have state legislators in their churches could prevail upon them to reconsider that type of law with the understanding that Christians are to be salt and light people, people who believe in righteousness and justice. They will determine whether or not it should be thrown out, whether or not it should be reworked.

There are 12,000-plus local police departments; change will come at the local level. There’s racial police brutality in jurisdictions where Democrats rule, and there’s racial police brutality in jurisdictions where Republicans rule. And in many of those contexts, party is not the most important thing. It’s whether or not a mayor or police chief is reform-minded, whether or not a district attorney is under the hands of the police union. These are local issues, and they’re not even necessarily political things. It’s Christians bringing righteousness and godliness, salt and light to a fallen world.

For my whole adult life, Congress has been in partisan gridlock. Christians are more likely to have a salt-and-light influence in their state and in their local communities. And don’t forget that when it comes to mayors and city council members some of them are members of churches. Others of them are our neighbors up the street. We waste a lot of time barking at national news without considering this. I believe in the sovereignty of geography: Your congregation is where it is for a particular reason.

Why racial reconciliation can’t happen

Today we have many Bible-believing Christians who love to talk about, “We need revival. We need renewal.” But anytime you look in Scripture or look into church history, you see revival and renewal always follows prayer and repentance. And it’s the same in our day: Healing for the race-based conflict we see around us can only begin with deep, Spirit-infused repentance.

Think about this: What does it look like for you to pursue authentic biblical relationships with other people who we believe are created in the image and likeness of God? We rightly want the outworkings of God among us, but if we don’t want to repent and deal with the issues that have grieved and quenched God’s Spirit, causing him to withdraw his operative powers from the followers of Christ in our context, then we have no right to expect it.

However you go about social and political engagement, it ought to be distinctly reflective of your submission to the lordship of Christ and the life of the Holy Spirit — and starting with deep repentance. If that’s not the case, then you’re not being a witness, and you’re certainly not being salt and light.  

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"We rightly want the outworkings of God among us, but if we don’t want to repent and deal with the issues that have grieved and quenched God’s Spirit, causing him to withdraw his operative powers from the followers of Christ in our context, then we have no right to expect it."

Kevin Smith

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