The horrors of an event like the shooting in Charleston bring overt racism to the surface in a way that many of us do not experience in our everyday lives. To read what the shooter thought of African-Americans and his proposed “solutions” is chilling and would (hopefully) engender revulsion in any human being, but particularly among Christians.
However, many of us feel powerless to change the reality that a segment of the U.S. population holds to a racist viewpoint that denigrates persons of races different from theirs as not deserving of equal respect and regard. And then there are the covert tendencies toward racism within most people that lie there unawares, until the right circumstances occasion their ugly display in our own thoughts and behavior.
In the midst of our powerlessness, we turn to the all-powerful God and the transforming love of Jesus Christ. Laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities are essential within a just society. Legislation and affirmative action programs can be helpful in addressing racism, but neither can transform a human heart. Only Jesus Christ can change our hearts and attitudes.
What can the church do to address racism? Some not necessarily comprehensive thoughts:
- First and foremost, we can introduce people to Jesus Christ and help them to experience the love and forgiveness of God in Christ that sets us free from sin and death. God cannot work in us without our permission, and that permission starts when we surrender ourselves to Jesus’ lordship and acknowledge our complete dependence upon him. Too often, the Church moves straight to social action and advocacy, without tapping into the power of Christ to change lives through a personal encounter with the Savior. Remember what happened to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus? No amount of reasoning or Bible study or rule-making could have accomplished the transformation he experienced there – from being an enemy of Christ to one of his leading apostles in the space of a few days.
- The church must engage people in the process of discipleship and sanctification. The goal of the Methodist movement is to foster “scriptural holiness.” It is not enough to have one’s name on a church membership roll or to have had an emotional encounter with Christ, if there is not the follow-up process leading toward personal holiness. John Wesley said, “Preaching like an Apostle without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer (emphasis original).” What we call “social holiness” is primarily an extension of many people’s personal holiness. What led to reform in 18th century England was the personal transformation experienced by thousands of Methodists, which in turn influenced the culture as a whole. We cannot skip personal holiness and discipleship in order to jump straight to the “transformation of the world.”
- We must root our understanding of racism within a biblical framework. Too often, we attempt to fight racial prejudice by couching our teaching in the language and thought patterns of our culture. Thus, we focus on inclusiveness and tolerance, two worthy values within a pluralistic society. Within the church, however, we can recover deeper and more explicitly biblical values such as holiness, righteousness, love, and grace. Our understanding of the equal dignity and worth of all persons needs to stem from God’s universal love for all whom he has created. Biblical categories have much more power to transform our thinking.
- “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27)
- “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)
- “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11)
- “Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:8-12)
- “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9)
- “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9)
God’s love touches every human being (“prevenient grace”) and erases human divisions and distinctions, replacing them with the unifying status of being together one family in Christ. Because God loves every person so much that he sent his Son to live and die for us, we are called to love one another, regardless of racial or ethnic differences (see I John 4:19-21). Every person is a candidate for adoption into God’s family, and we are called to find our unity in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. These are the categories that will truly transform Christian thinking and behavior.
- We used to say that the knowledge of Christ’s saving work on the cross needs to move the 12 inches down from our head to our heart. In other words, salvation is not a matter only of intellectual awareness, but of personal experience. The same is true of the change in our attitudes toward people of different races and ethnicities. Biblical categories cannot remain only intellectual, but must be experienced in our hearts and inform our thinking. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, we can “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2). We need to pray for this Holy Spirit-empowered transformation for ourselves and others.
- We need to rethink our top-down approach to cross-racial and cross-ethnic ministry. Even as we scrupulously attend to ensuring ethnic representation in our leadership and our decision-making bodies, the percentage of non-white United Methodists continues to shrink. According to the latest statistics, we are a 96% white denomination. Having visible ethnic leaders in our church, while laudable, has not translated into a grass-roots increase in non-white members. We need to learn and do what is effective in reaching non-white ethnic groups, strengthen their ministry, and encourage leadership to emerge from the bottom up. Too often, we are just promoting ethnic persons to fill a slot or an (unconscious) quota, rather than first identifying, training, and equipping ethnic persons for leadership and then facilitating their growing involvement “up the ladder.” To have a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic church, we need to facilitate and nurture strong racial and ethnic congregations and ministries that are able to reproduce and reach more and more non-white persons with the transforming love of Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel. (By saying this, I am not discounting multi-racial or multi-ethnic congregations. These can be very helpful in creating a new reality. However, they are very rare.)
The above suggestions do not rule out other ways of addressing racism in our church and in society, such as advocacy and the ministry of presence. It can be a powerful witness when we stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters of another race or ethnicity. However, treating racism like another “issue” that we need to address and seeking mainly a legislative or judicial solution will never touch the problem of the human heart. In our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the worldview presented in God’s Word, we have the resources to truly transform ourselves and thereby the world. Let’s not ignore those resources.