If you are a better listener than reader, please find the audio version of this letter below.
Dear Good Shepherd,
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”( Revelation 7:9-10)
The passage above is from John’s vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation. It is a fascinating text testifying to the power of the Gospel. Notice that God has gathered his people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They do not stand apart from one another, separated by ethnicity, they stand as one body and worship the one Lamb who is Christ. Notice also that though they do not stand apart they are not the same. Ethnicity has not faded away or been eradicated. Instead, the differences that in the fallen world divide us serve, in heaven, only to amplify the beauty of God’s creation and the glory of the Lamb who reconciles all peoples to himself.
Racism or any kind of ethnic prejudice flows directly from the Fall. The human condition is such that the love of self supersedes every other love. Self-love bears rotten fruit in a kind of narcissism that says: those who are like me are superior to those who are not. Then it begins to count the ways.
The Gospel destroys such prejudice because the first word of the gospel is the word of death. God demands that you be righteous and follow his law, but you do not do it. No matter how hard you try, you will not do what you must. Therefore, you rightly deserve death and condemnation because of your sins. There is no pride here. The one who truly understands his or her sinfulness is downcast, humble, not puffed up. He looks to his white neighbor or black neighbor and sees that he too is in the same condition. We are united as one in our guilt and in our helplessness. And yet, as Paul writes, “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”(Romans 11:32)
And here is the word of life. God himself took on flesh and became one of us. He set himself down in our place and bore the penalty for our sins in his body and soul and then God raised him from the dead. He did all of this so that everyone who calls on his name, Jew, Gentile, African, European, Latino, anyone who turns to him is forgiven, cleansed, made new, each one indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and made a member of his body, the Church.
Where is the place for racial animus for ethnic division? Christ has joined us together as one, his blood has sealed our union, his Spirit dwells in each of us, who are we to reject anyone Christ has received or to look down on anyone for whom Christ spilled his precious blood? From now on we no longer regard one another from an earthly perspective but through the eyes of Christ, which are eyes of love and self-sacrifice and kindness.
I know that you all believe these things. I thank God that he has brought so many people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds together at Good Shepherd and has given us such a peaceful union. My purpose for writing has to do with this very foundational agreement in the Gospel that we all profess.
It takes only a moment’s observation to see that our nation is experiencing racial trauma and chaos the likes of which we have not seen for many decades. Cities are burning. Lives and livelihoods have been lost. A week ago a police officer drove his knee into George Floyd’s neck until he died. Mr. Floyd begged for his life and called for his mother, but the police officer refused to relent. While we cannot know his motivations, his cruel act brings up for many African Americans the many decades of legalized and enforced racism along with illegal but sanctioned lynchings and beatings, stretching all the way back to the days when their ancestors were kidnapped and forced into slavery. Grief, anger, and calls for justice are all good and right responses to such cruelty.
Now here is where things become difficult. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone reading this is grief-stricken and horrified by the killing of George Floyd. I also know that everyone reading this rejects racial hatred as the evil denial of Christ and his work that it is. I know that everyone reading this supports freedom for peaceful protests and protestors and rejects the violent chaos caused by groups trying to co-opt the protests for their own ends.
But I still fear that there may be unnecessary divisions among us. You and I agree on all of the above, and those are essential agreements, but because we do come from different backgrounds, culturally, and hold different points of view, politically, we could very easily allow differences of opinion about how to address our present circumstances to divide us.
One might say, for example, “I support this (politically conservative/liberal) policy that I believe will eradicate racism. Therefore, if you disagree with me, you are a racist.”
Do you see how that works? Your (politically conservative/liberal) brother or sister may well disagree with you about how best to eradicate racism. But that does not make your brother or sister a racist. My example here is a bit hyperbolic, granted, but I have followed discussions between parishioners on social media which have played out in very similar, though less dramatic, ways.
It is not unlike the debates ongoing over Covid19 and masks etc. Some who support masks think those who do not, selfish and reckless. Some who reject masks think those who wear them, cowards and fools. Both have utterly cast charity away. These are issues the bible does not address and so there is to be both freedom of conscience and, above all, tolerant love.
Likewise, the bible everywhere condemns ethnic prejudice and partiality but does not prescribe a particular public policy that Christians must support. It could not do so since the scriptures are written for all peoples and times. There are presently numerous solutions – conservative and liberal and libertarian – proposed to address our contemporary turmoil. In so far as these solutions do not transgress the biblical principle of impartiality, the Christian is free to support any of them according to his or her conscience. The Christian is not free to condemn those who support other policies instead. Your personal understanding of “the right way forward” is not divine law and it may not even be the “right way forward” so you cannot insist that your brother or sister submit to it.
Paul once wrote to the Roman church regarding the question of diet. There was a controversy over whether Christians should eat meat sold in the market because such meat was usually dedicated to idols. Not eating market meat would mean a vegetarian diet since meat was hard to come by otherwise. Both sides, both those for market meat and against it, agreed regarding the essential issue: one must not worship idols or serve them. But they could not agree upon how exactly to apply that principle. Some argued that eating the meat would contribute to idolatry. Others argued that since the idols were nothing and the meat belongs to God, they could partake with thanksgiving. But again, no one disputed the essential principle that there is only One God and he alone is to be worshiped.
Here’s how Paul addressed the question in Romans 14:1-4 “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
The same charitable stance must be embraced at Good Shepherd if we are to move forward together and not divide into squabbling factions. So long as we all agree with the biblical principle that prejudice is contrary to the Gospel and has no place in the Christian church or in the nation, we can disagree about political policies various politicians propose to resolve racial divisions.
So, knowing that this can be difficult (trust me, I know), here are some rules of engagement that I think will help us love one another both in person and on social media.
1. Do not enter into a conversation to correct. You may, of course, disagree with your brother or sister, but that does not mean he or she is wrong. Perhaps you do not have all the facts. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe you are right. A kind way to engage with a fellow Christian is to say: “That’s an interesting thing you just said/wrote. I think I disagree. Here’s why.” That opens the door to a conversation and communicates the possibility that you may have misunderstood or that you yourself may be wrong. It works much better than, “You shouldn’t post such things. You’ve clearly been drinking the Kool-Aid. How could you be so deluded? Let me help you see the truth…etc.”
2. Do not accuse. Assume that your fellow Christian is not trying to be evil, that he or she is wise and smart, and that he or she has the best of intentions. Instead of accusing: “So you apparently have no problem with looters stealing and rioters destroying property and hurting people.” Maybe ask instead, “I’m sure you don’t condone rioting and violence, but I didn’t hear you address that aspect of the problem. How do you think we should deal with riots and looting?”
3. Do not condemn. If you come to a place where you simply cannot agree with a fellow Christian about a non-essential matter, do not decide to make the non-essential matter essential. For example, instead of saying, “I’m done. If you don’t agree with reparations (for example) you’re clearly a racist.” Say this instead, “Well, it looks like we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this. I know that we agree on the central truth of the Gospel and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. All are one. And so we can part as friends and brothers/sisters. Peace”
4. The best rule of thumb of course is: when in doubt, pray. Ask God to help you to consider others more significant than yourself. Ask God for increased patience, kindness, circumspection. Ask him to help you see areas where you may be wrong or shortsighted.
And where you fail in these things go back to the beginning and remember once again that Christ shed his blood for you. Confess your sins and receive his mercy and forgiveness which he promises you and then go make peace with your brother or sister.
I know this has been a long letter but I thought it important.