After last week — after Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas — it is clearer than ever: the mission of church in US now must be to show the way to speak the truth about race in love, renouncing both status quo and escalation of vengeance — instead, holding up Christ and the gospel ways of his kingdom.
The church is God’s special possession, called to give witness to a different possibility, the kingdom of God — a realm of peace, justice, and reconciliation, where each citizen is given full worth as God’s image bearer, redeemed by Christ’s own blood, in contrast to this world that segregates, exploits, and pits groups into enmity. This kingdom mission is the church’s core identity and this vocation needs to give shape to what it must do after the events of last week. Specifically, the church must lead the way in its commitment both to the truth about race in US and to dealing with this reality with love and grace, to the long obedience in the same direction of peacemaking.
Speak the Truth…
Speaking the truth about race in US has always been a risky business, because it poses a direct affront to the status quo. The wealth and power in this nation has been built through the dispossession and genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of African Americans.
This pervasive reality of racial violence persists today, though our sense of history is dull and the story is not told where it needs to be — face-to-face rather than on social media — because we are racially segregated. We are not one community; we are excluded from each other. We have segregated views of reality (“Black Lives Matter” vs “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter”) because we live segregated lives within a social structure that is upheld by and enforces separate and unequal realities. However, the racism that continues to prevail in our social structures cannot stay confined in the shadows; it keeps forcing itself into the light of our collective consciousness — most recently through the videos of police killings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.
The story from Dallas at first blush seems to work against the story of police violence against the black community — indeed, it has been wielded that way. However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, violence against the police should not come as a surprise given the larger reality, horrific and deplorable though it is. The police are as much ensnared within this social structure of exclusion and inequity that has created racially isolated and troubled urban communities as any of the rest of us. Police reform by itself won’t achieve real change without larger social reforms that address housing patterns, education equality, incarceration and criminal justice, employment opportunities, and so on. There is a larger culprit, and all of us who live within the reality of this condition need to work together against its power if the cycle of vengeance and exclusion is to be broken.
For that, our world needs a bigger moral vision — one that the church has been called to steward as a prophetic witness to God’s kingdom. The church forfeits that vocation when it capitulates to the pressure, gets squeezed into the segregated options that this world offers, and parrots the fear and loathing of its neighbors who do not know God’s reign. This happens when its vision has not been defined by the pursuit of worship, sacrificial love for the most vulnerable, and a life of righteouness under the rule of Christ, but by the worldly pursuit of acquisition, status, power, and comfort. To borrow from Miroslav Volf, the church would be pursuing exclusion, when in fact it has been called to embrace.
Is it possible that the church in US has largely done exactly that? Can it be that interactions on spirituality and faith by Christians in US are marked out by racial, socioeconomic, cultural boundaries? Whites worship with other whites; blacks worship with other blacks; Asians worship with other Asians. They don’t cross-pollinate; they don’t share their worldviews with each other; they don’t tell their stories to each other, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
Redemptive and transformational story-telling should be done in the church (that is the nature of the gospel), but the church is as segregated as the world is. Is it any surprise that many suburban white churches hold a “law and order” narrative of last week’s events while many urban black churches hold an “America the Babylon empire” counter-narrative? The body of Christ was called into a sacred union with its Redeemer but it has been divided and fragmented according to the pattern of this world. This is something we need to lament, repent of, and work against.
We carry out that struggle by listening, really listening, to the voices of those who have been victimized by the structure of this world. Dominant culture Christians, give ear to the stories of alienation and oppression that your brothers and sisters from subdominant culture carry with them. Study the history and the social sciences that tell the narrative coming from the underbelly of society. Let these stories shape you and mold your heart towards compassion and hunger for righteousness. Weeping with those who weep and standing with those who are fearful for the lives of their children is a calling of all God’s people.
Christians hailing from subdominant cultures: don’t shrink back from telling your stories to your brothers and sisters in the faith out of fear and anger. Share your stories. Tell the truth about what status quo has done to you and your community. Don’t give in to the forces of segregation.
To support the status quo — whether actively by participating in our world’s fragmentation or passively through silence or by burying heads in the sand — is untenable for a people whose citizenship is found in a better country, and whose lived-out, present reality finds its origin in an eschatological future. We need to join the whole church in the kingdom work of redemption and transformation of that which is broken, corrupted and excludes our brothers and sisters; to continue the struggle against darkness; and to keep journeying towards the kingdom.
That means that we need to speak the truth about the reality of structural racism, even if it implicates ourselves. We may not make peace with the way things are, even if, short term, it may work to our own personal benefit or we feel it doesn’t affect us. We are compelled to struggle for the transformation of our fallen social structures that exclude and oppress our brothers and sisters, and help build a more righteous community, for the kingdom of God demands it.
On the other hand, the church must also demonstrate the manner in which to speak this truth: in love. This is a vital facet to the church’s witness. In the kingdom of God, truth and love always travel together; one without the other is an abomination. Without the grace of God in the work of Christ on the cross pervading our confrontation with the reality of the way things are, we inexorably slide into destruction.
What was going on in the heart of Micah Xavier Johnson, the Dallas shooter, before he carried out the attack? I would venture: much the same that transpired within the hearts of many of us upon hearing the news of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to add to the ever growing list of other names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner… — grief, anger, despair, frustration. We cannot deny this reality, as we also cannot deny the reality of structural racism and resulting police violence against blacks.
Speaking the truth by itself doesn’t lead to peace. Far from it. It more likely leads to wanton destruction. This, like the refusal to deal with truth about race, is of this world, not the kingdom of God.
The way of the world is to escalate into a cycle of revenge and violence. But the way of the kingdom is to make peace, to speak the truth, but in love. Christ showed us the way. He suffered under the power of treacherous religious leaders and a cowardly Roman governor, yet his silent suffering spoke volumes — that this was a miscarriage of justice done against a righteous man. When they came to arrest him, Peter drew out his sword and cut off the ear of a soldier. But Jesus healed him, and gently rebuked Peter: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” And he allowed himself to be taken away to the cross. He shows his followers how to suffer in the way of God’s kingdom. When we suffer, we suffer with eternal hope. We know we will be raised with Jesus; we know what we have no one can ever take away; therefore we don’t retaliate in kind but bless instead.
Karen Angela Ellis appeals to Christians who are now living under oppressive conditions to not give into the pressure of this world and settle for temporal activism and nihilism; rather she calls on them to protect the power of eternal hope. This call is vastly different and much more profound than the Marxist critique that religion is the opiate of the masses. Instead of revolution, we are called to redemption. The way of the kingdom is wholly different, and it will lead us to a much more lasting shalom. Gandhi and MLK understood it, and the church likewise must recommit itself to it.
This ongoing work of peacemaking has to occur at the ultra-local level, day by day, person to person, in the small details, mostly away from the spotlight of protests. A church’s best contributions to our society’s wholeness can be in helping form local communities of gospel reconciliation that showcase glimpses of kingdom life. They will need to create spaces where truth about race can be told in love, where we can lament this world’s brokenness and repent of our complicity, and where creative partnerships can be forged for the sake of the mission of building shalom communities. Within the setting of our own backyards, we need to live out gospel reconciliation — incarnationally, relationally, personally.
While writing this post, I came across an article: “The Church Camps That Aim to Bridge Race Relations,” which featured camps that bring together kids from congregations of different races to empower them for reconciliation. It gave me hope that Christians can make tangible strides; it also prompted me to dream about similar camps for pastors and church leaders whose congregations are located in same neighborhoods, where they could share their stories and dream together of building a community that looks more like the kingdom of God.
There are a myriad other ways we can take action locally to work against structural racism as the church. The truth is, because we have largely neglected this work, we get taken by surprise when the reality of our social sins explode out into the open. Because we have neglected the daily routines against the ways of the world we feel we are only left with a choice between denial or revolution. But even now the church can forge solidarity; it can lead in repentance; it can reconcile. The gospel of reconciliation it has been given makes it possible. May the multiple, seemingly quiet acts of truth telling in love in the body of Christ add up towards a witness to the kingdom that is loud and ringing and lasting.