Five Steps for Racial Reconciliation on Sunday at 11 a.m.*


I am not going to address the entire sweep of what might fall under the rubric “racism,” but focus on one small subset of the problem that has a peculiar bearing on Christians. It has been argued that in America the most segregated hour of the week is 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. I am not sure if that is true, but it may well be. This claim results in repeated calls for reconciliation, repentance, hard love, forgiveness, forbearance, sacrificial love, renouncing the past, and much more. Some of these calls are spot on; some of them, one fears, descend to the level of demagoguery and manipulation. In this section I cannot possibly address complex patterns of racism among Christians as those patterns are manifest in different parts of the world. Instead, I want to focus especially on the North American context and think out loud about some of the ways racism displays itself in the church. In particular, this means thinking about the ways in which the demands for love and forgiveness need to be applied. In short, it means thinking about the urgent need for love in hard places.

Step 1: Know the History of the Problem

I begin in this article with some brief historical reflections. I am indebted to some recent books on race and slavery that have taught me a good deal. Among the best researched of these are some works by Thomas Sowell.[1] He points out that until the nineteenth century, slavery in one form or another had been part of every major civilization. Various Chinese dynasties had slaves; Indians had slaves; the dominant African tribes had slaves (substantial numbers of slaves sold to the Western world and to the Persian Gulf were sold by other Africans); the Israelites had slaves; the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all had slaves. The major “barbarian” tribes of Europe had slaves. The Arab world had slaves. So there is a sense in which, from the vantage of history until about two centuries ago, the phenomenon of slavery was not itself viewed as shocking.

When Sowell hunts down the deciding element in the moves toward the abolition of slavery, he fastens primary attention on the impact of the Evangelical Awakening. Not only John Wesley himself, but also many of the leading converts of that God-given movement, including the Countess of Huntingdon, William Wilberforce, and the Earl of Shaftesbury, invested enormous energy in navigating the abolition of slavery through the British Parliament. Once it was passed, British gunboats (doubtless with other motives as well) largely halted the trade across the Atlantic. It is estimated that about eleven million Africans were shipped to the Americas (though substantial numbers failed to reach the other side, owing to the horrific conditions slaves had to endure in the boats). At the same time, about fourteen million Africans were shipped up the Persian Gulf or across the Sahara into the Arab and Egyptian worlds under traveling conditions more horrific yet.[2] British gunboats eventually shut down most of that trade as well once the Ottoman Empire formally banned slavery and thereby gave the British navy the legal pretense to proceed.[3] Interestingly enough, there has arisen considerable guilt-literature regarding slavery in the Western world; it is difficult to find much that is similar in the Arab world.

I must hasten to add that Christians, especially in America, must not pat themselves on the back too quickly for the beneficial social results of the Evangelical Awakening so far as slavery is concerned. For the fact of the matter is that the part of the country where evangelical confessionalism was strongest, in the South, was the place where slavery was hardest to dislodge. In the end it took the Civil War (though that war was about more than slavery), America’s bloodiest.

Not all forms of slavery are alike, however. Inevitably cultures that enslave others are dominant, and a fair bit of slavery, historically speaking, has issued from military might. Some has been conscripted forced labor (e.g., for the building of the Egyptian pyramids); some of it has been fed by religious persecution (e.g., the slaughter and enslavement of the Huguenots); very often there are mixed motives (e.g., the current savage bloodshed and slavery in the southern Sudan, which is fed by tribalism, religion [Muslim versus Christian], and oil interests). In some cultures, economics must not be discounted. In the Roman Empire, for example, there were no bankruptcy laws—ancient equivalents to Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 in the U.S. and similar legislation in other countries. When a family fell into arrears, selling one or more members of the family to the creditor was often the only way out. A well-to-do relative or neighbor could redeem these slaves, but doubtless that did not happen as often as many slaves might have liked.

These realities meant that slavery in the Roman Empire was a bit different from that in the West. In the West, none of the slavery was the result of free people selling themselves into slavery because they were bankrupt. More important, in the Roman world there were slaves from many different races and cultures: slaves could be British, from the Italian peninsula, Jewish, African, and so on. But there were also free individuals from all those heritages, and some of these were learned or influential. That meant that there was little identification between slavery and one particular race.[4] By contrast, in the West from the beginning almost all blacks were slaves, and certainly only blacks were slaves.[5] That meant that even after legal emancipation, the psychological association of slavery and black skin has lingered on for a long time both in the minds of whites and in the minds of blacks.

This history has also contributed to the public perception, including the Christian perception, of where the problem lies when it comes to the desirability of integrating Christian churches. For without giving it much thought, when we think of integrated churches, we primarily think of black/white integration, and we usually assume the deepest barriers are on the white side, the majority side. But the issues are complicated. Without for a moment wanting to play down the commonness of white prejudice, we must reflect as well on the many Korean churches here, the many Chinese churches, the many Latino and Vietnamese churches, and so forth. In all of these cases, very often the Christians who are least desirous of integrating with others are from the minority side: many Koreans and Chinese and Vietnamese and Latinos want to preserve something of their own culture and race and heritage. Some of the problems come, as we shall see, in the second and third generation. And similarly, it is not too surprising that many African-Americans would prefer to worship in African-American churches, even while they may feel that the point of exclusion is entirely or almost entirely on the European-American side.

The issues become still more complicated when two other factors are borne in mind. First, many minority churches argue today that the church is the only social institution that preserves the meeting of minorities as minorities, and it is this social construction that permits a group to raise up leaders to represent it. Many of the earliest African-American civil rights leaders were clergy—an eloquent testimony to the significance of churches in preserving a social identity.

Second, there has been a shift from the agenda of the 1960s to the agenda of the 1990s and beyond. In the 1960s the call was for equality, inclusion, integration; in the 1990s and now in the new millennium, the call is for multiculturalism, respect for diversity, the importance of preserving distinct communities.[6] Inevitably, therefore, “otherness” is more difficult to assess. It might be a reflection of the desire to preserve something good, not least among minorities themselves; equally, it might be a reflection of xenophobia, resentment, exclusion. The human heart being what it is, in most cases both of these motives will surface simultaneously.

If in North America we talk about the integration of the local church, however, the shape of that discussion, given our history and demographics, will necessarily focus first of all on the black/white divide, even if it must extend far beyond that divide. It will be determined, at least in part, by the demographics of a particular neighborhood.

Step 2: Recognize Our Mutual Culpability

I think we need more public discussion of the fact that racism usually comes from both sides of any race divide. Many African-Americans do not accept this. They think that racism is the sin of the powerful, the sin of the overlord; they think of racism as the sum of racial prejudice plus power. By definition, then, they cannot be racists since they do not have the power. I do not see how thoughtful Christians, black or white, can accept such a definition.

True, slavery is the sin of the powerful, not the weak; and very often racism follows the same pattern. But if racism is defined in terms of exclusion, then racism occurs wherever anyone is dismissed or disowned or demeaned or stereotyped for no other reason than his or her race or ethnicity. Doubtless many white racists think that African-Americans are intrinsically prone to violence, not too bright, and more of the same; but many an African-American finds it hard to imagine that “Whitey” can ever be trusted or should ever be given the benefit of the doubt. It may be useful to draw an analogy. If materialism is the exclusive sin of the rich, then only rich people can be materialistic. But if materialism is the passionate love of material goods, such that God himself is deposed, then poor people may be as horribly materialistic as the rich.

Because I am white, I am sure it is difficult for some African-Americans to hear such plain home truths from me; indeed, I have had African-American students at the seminary where I teach gently and ruefully tell me that although they are sure what I am saying is the truth, it is very hard for them to accept it from me. All the more honor to them, then, for trying.

Moreover, some leaders on both sides of any racial divide love to play the race card to keep themselves in power. George Wallace used to do it all the time, flagrantly and repeatedly, until he had a change of heart; not a few of our contemporaries follow the early George Wallace, not the later George Wallace. That early Wallace stance was profoundly repulsive, deeply evil.

Because of the many legal sanctions now in place, some forget the bitter degradation of the Jim Crow culture. The attitudes wedded to the Jim Crow culture have not everywhere been expunged. I suspect that most European-Americans have very little understanding of the cumulative destructive power of the little degradations that almost all African-Americans, especially older African-Americans, have experienced—to say nothing of the less common but still too frequent threats, racial profiling, and frankly illegal (to say nothing of immoral) injustices they have suffered.

On the other hand, the Reverend Al Sharpton constantly plays the race card on the African-American side, and he is far from being the only one. The instant appeal to “racism” when young thugs are expelled from a school, regardless of color or ethnicity, succeeds only in reducing the credibility of the ranters. The best way to diminish racist demagoguery is for European-Americans to expose and dismiss European-American demagogues and for African-Americans to expose and dismiss African-American demagogues.

Because of the background of racism in America, it is easy to discern racism where it does not exist. I recall an African—i.e., a citizen of an African country, not an African-American—telling me of his painful, belittling experiences when he was trying to secure his “green card” at a major U.S. immigration point. Initially he was convinced that what he had experienced was raw racism. But I could not help encouraging him to loosen up a little, for I had had identical—indeed, as we compared notes, even worse—experiences when my wife and I applied for our “green cards” at the same center a few years earlier. The association of rudeness with racism is entirely understandable, of course, but there is plenty of rudeness to go around even where there is little racism.

Once again if we are interested in integrated local Christian churches, it is high time that we recognize that the challenge extends beyond the black/white divide and that the attitudinal problems are on both sides of most divides. Many a Korean-American church (to take but one example) is run by first-generation Korean Christians who are most comfortable with the way things are done back home. That means that “otherness” is hard for them, especially if part of the issue is language, part of the issue is preserving Korean culture (and even Korean forms of “spirituality”), part of the issue is a Confucian preservation of hierarchy and order, and part of the issue is their desire that their children marry other Koreans. Sometimes these churches keep calling senior pastors fresh from Korea, thus renewing the strong linguistic and cultural links with “home.” This practice may have the effect sooner or later of repelling second- and third-generation Korean-American Christians, whose command of Korean may not be all that good anymore and, more importantly, whose cultural adaptation means they no longer live in the world of their parents. Those same parents can easily see these developments as cultural or even personal betrayal, or the fruit of degenerative and corrupt moral influence. Some of this judgment, of course, may be right! But some of it, quite frankly, is racist. To add to the complexity, some in the third generation, by now profoundly Americanized, choose to revert to their Korean roots, and in consequence tend to shun other American “friends.” At what point is this an expression of racism?

Lest anyone should think that I am picking on Koreans, I hasten to add that most of our major influxes of immigrants have faced similar problems. They are at different points in the transition, depending on how long ago the major influx for that group took place. I am old enough to remember not a few German Baptist churches facing similar problems as the number of German-speakers declined in their congregations, and their children became more assimilated. In some ways, of course, their assimilation was smoother because Germans are (mostly!) white; in other ways, their assimilation faced peculiar difficulties associated with the hatreds aroused by World War II.

Step 3: Consider Your Church’s Neighborhood

Part of thinking about racial division in churches should involve considering some local churches that are remarkably integrated. I am thinking of one in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, that has three full-time pastors. One pastor is Latino (he was born in Mexico), and he is married to a Japanese-American wife (second generation). Another is Anglo, married to an African-American woman; a third is also Anglo, married to a Vietnamese-American. And, frankly, their interesting diversity reflects the demographic diversity of the church they serve.

I am also thinking of another church, this one on the East Coast, in one of the boroughs of New York City. The last time I was there, I personally talked to people from more than thirty countries. Better yet, there was very little evidence of stereotyping. South of the Mason-Dixon line, most people who sit down and eat in restaurants in many neighborhoods are white; most who serve are black. But at this church I met an African-American who had just gotten out of Rikers on a drug charge and another African-American who was an influential physician. I met a white chap of Italian descent, recently converted, and with family ties to the Mafia; I met another white chap (I have no idea of his descent) who is a high-level executive in a large banking firm. Add to this the mix of Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Latinos, Europeans, and on and on. As far as I could tell, this church was very much a reflection of the demographics of the borough.

Does this mean that these two churches are more spiritual than their more monolithic counterparts in the Midwest? I doubt it. I was overjoyed to visit them. But both churches reflected the demographics of their respective areas, and in those parts of the country there is a lot more “mixing” already going on in the culture. Some of this, doubtless, is a very good thing: it can ease tensions, add rich diversity to a church, and prove to be a witness to others.

On the other hand, one suspects that some of the mixing is achieved in the culture at large, as well as in the local church, by the “flattening” of cultural or racial distinctives. Japanese and Mexicans may intermarry in California because in some circles (though certainly not all), the preservation of distinctively Japanese and Mexican heritages seems less urgent, less important. The enrichment of the common pool is sometimes at the expense of preserving the distinctiveness of the separate inherited cultures. However much we may admire the peace, we would be less than candid if we did not admit that something is being lost by this bargain. In other words, thoughtful Christians will surely hesitate before they adopt without reservation some Christianized version of the “melting pot” model. There is something lost in each of the contributing subcultures, as well as something gained in the new mix, by the “flattening” that has made the mix more socially acceptable.

Moreover, precisely because these changes are demonstrably taking place in the broader culture, it is less than transparent that the churches are at the front end of such change. In some cases, at least, they are simply going along with the trajectory of the broader culture. Where that is the case, it is hard to see that a more integrated church is necessarily more spiritual than a less integrated church in a less integrated part of the country. Small wonder that in the Midwest a mixed-race couple may well feel it advisable to live in one of the suburbs where there is a good mix of their respective races so that their children have mixed exposure in the schools. Meanwhile, the latest census shows that the mix is spreading from the coasts across the country. Iowa is becoming a desirable place for Latinos and other immigrants. Granted the demographic trends, churches that are trying to think these things through should be planning ahead for what the demographics of their area will be like in six months, a year, five years—and while they evaluate their Christian responsibilities in the light of Scripture, they had better take note of such trends.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that no racism operates in our churches. Moreover, to have a truly integrated church (reflecting the demographic profile of the neighborhood in which it is found) takes hard work, very substantial forbearance, self-sacrificing winsomeness, patience—in a word, love. But the issues are complex, and the relationships between the culture and the local church have many layers. There is an urgent need for fresh biblical and theological reflection on many of these questions.

Step 4: Consider the Real Gospel Tensions

In thinking about race, we must not only to become aware of churches that have achieved more integration than usual, but to think through how highly diverse patterns in various parts of the world may inform our own theological reflection. In other words, one of the things that would help us, I suspect, in addition to exegetical and theological meditation on the love and forgiveness themes being treated in this series of lectures, is consideration of churches where the patterns are rather different. These different patterns have no normative value in themselves, of course, but they might open our eyes to different ways of doing things.

Thankfully, there are now some helpful books that expose us to various fruitful models of multiethnic ministry within this country.[7] We might also cast a glance abroad. For example, a church I know in Australia has over the past quarter-century developed about eighteen or nineteen “congregations” within the one “church,” and almost half of them are ethnic. The senior minister has sought out young converts of distinctive ethnic backgrounds at the nearby university and helped to train them and put them through theological college. Thus a student with roots in Greece was soon evangelizing the considerable Greek-speaking population in the area, and a Greek-speaking congregation was started. In similar fashion, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and other congregations were started. Is this zeal somehow a betrayal of the New Testament goal to build one church?

Before deciding, one must remember that there are other New Testament goals—goals which, like the passion for unity, are motivated by love. In particular, consider the passion for evangelism, the concern to win people from every tribe and people and nation. Very frequently this is most effectively and strategically done in the language and culture of the targeted group. In this particular church, the elders/leaders of the diverse congregations work together, strategize together, and pray together as a team. The children of ethnic parents may well end up in one of the more Anglo congregations. The rising mix in that particular part of Sydney means that interracial marriages are becoming more common.

Clearly there is a tension here—a tension between building one church that displays Christian love, and the Christian love that reaches out to people in all their diversity. That tension is already found in the pages of the New Testament. The same apostle Paul who refused in Jerusalem to permit Titus to be circumcised because he thought that the heart of the gospel was at stake (Gal. 2:1-5), and who was passionately committed to the unity of the church (e.g., Eph. 4:1-3), was quite prepared to circumcise Timothy because he wanted to knock down any obstruction to the promulgation of the gospel in Jewish circles (Acts 16:3).[8] To a cynical outsider, this might look like cheap compromise, raw pragmatism, or an unprincipled desire to please different people (see the charge leveled against Paul in Galatians 1:10). In fact, competing principles are at stake, competing goals, both rightly driven ideally by Christian love. But it is Christian love in service of the Christian gospel, well understood and articulated.

There are plenty of other models. São Paulo is a city of enormous interest in this regard because of its staggering mix of races and cultures and some of the ecclesiastical patterns that are beginning to develop. When such patterns are carefully thought through in the light of the biblical mandates, the path of love, which includes not only love for the “other” expressed within the church, but also strategic effectiveness in evangelism to see people from diverse backgrounds converted, may look a little different in different parts of the country, in different parts of the world, in different cultures and subcultures.

None of this should be an excuse for doing nothing, for remaining stagnant in one’s own comfort zones, for moral lethargy. The point is that globalization, like many a cultural development, can have both good and bad effects. It can breed a sad “flattening” of rich cultural diversity. That flattening in turn can breed a number of defensive postures in which everything in “my” culture assumes an unwarranted importance, and globalization is nothing but a threat. But a global perspective can also expose us to different points of view, to different ways of tackling things, to different models. Provided these are set within the nonnegotiables of the gospel, they can only enrich us, teach us humility, expand our horizons, and help us to worship all the more knowledgeably and fervently the God who so loves diversity that he promises to gather men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation.

Step 5: Think Biblically & Theologically

The previous four articles suggest that we need to engage in some mature theological reflection. Precisely because the issues are so complex (a complexity on which I have barely touched), all the greater urgency attends the need for Christians to think biblically and theologically. Otherwise we will be driven by faddishness, slogans, or mere pragmatics.

Here are a few of the theological foci that must control Christian reflection.


First, we must not pit justice against forgiveness but humbly attend both demands.

A few years ago one of my colleagues was lecturing at an evening class made up entirely of African-American students. All of them held down jobs during the day; in the evening they were trying to get some Bible and theology to enable them better to serve their local churches. My colleague was lecturing on the night that the TV networks first showed the beating of Rodney King by the L.A. police. The students were seething with rage. My colleague encouraged them to talk about their own experiences of suffering racism. All of them had bitter stories to tell. This cauldron of barely suppressed anger simmered for almost an hour. Then my colleague asked the question, “What theological principles should we be thinking about as we face up to racism?” Everyone in the class almost exploded with the answer: “Justice! Justice!”

My colleague then asked, “And what biblical passages do you have in mind?” No one could mention a single one. Certainly no one mentioned forgiveness, and no one mentioned the cross.

On the other hand, many a white church in a mixed-race community is full of people who honestly think they are above racism and yet who have never once fully tried to understand what it would be like for a black family to come into their church. “Of course they’re welcome,” these fine folk might protest. “Anyone is welcome here.” But all it takes is for one member to say something really insensitive, and all of the courage it took to walk in the door dissolves in disgust and a sense of victimization. Would a white member who indulged in such condescending malice face church discipline? Would the black newcomers be invited to white homes and treated as peers? And if there are economic disparities as well, would there be any reflection on the fact that some white/black economic disparity is a function of years of discrimination that, morally speaking, ought to be vehemently opposed by concerned Christians?[9] Moreover, if the black couple visiting the white church has a teenage boy who asks a white girl out on a date, what will be the response? And if such white believers were brought into a room and asked what the fundamental theological issues should be that govern their reflection on such matters, would they with one voice instantly and vehemently insist, “Justice! Justice!”?

I don’t know what they would answer. I suspect that there would be such diversity of opinion that unanimity would be impossible. I imagine that very few would begin with the cross.

And do not all these issues become all the more complicated when white Christians are berated or berate themselves for segregation with respect to African-American churches, and then justify the “rights” of Chinese-Americans to have their “own” churches and to exert communal pressures to prevent one of their daughters from dating a white lad?

I doubt that we shall improve much in Christian circles until the parties with the most power reflect a lot more than in the past on matters of justice, and the parties most victimized reflect a lot more than in the past on forgiveness.[10] Perhaps the former need to get down on their knees and read Amos; the latter need to get down on their knees and read 1 Peter. All of us need to return to the cross. For the cross teaches us that if all we ask for is justice, we are all damned; it teaches us that God himself is passionately interested in forgiveness and its price. That is why we cannot expect such responses from large swaths of the secular society, whose categories for redressing social evils, real and perceived, lie elsewhere. Among Christians to expect anything less is to betray the faith.

Both justice and forgiveness cry out for more examination even if there is little space for it here.

On the side of justice: Most discussions recognize the distinction between retributive justice and distributional justice—the justice that punishes the miscreant and the justice that tackles structural evils that control and manipulate the weak. Amos is certainly concerned with both. If Christians in power are concerned with issues of justice, they had better not sacrifice either pole. We may, of course, gropingly disagree, for example, on what the wisest and most effective changes in structure should be. Should we levy more taxes and entrust the government with the responsibility to redistribute wealth and change the social structures by legislation? Or have many of these experiments in fact generated a large and dependent underclass, making it a wiser course to reform economic injustices by other means? But whatever our disagreements on the pragmatic outworkings of justice, the passion for justice must characterize all who claim to serve a just God. None of this will be easy work. But love demands that we try—and we had better be more interested in effective results than in the slogans of the party faithful.

On the side of forgiveness: We have already seen that the most desirable forms of forgiveness are those that are tied to genuine reconciliation, but that Christians bear a responsibility and a privilege to forgive enemies even when the enemy is unwilling to be reconciled or remains unaware of the depth of the offense that he or she has caused. None of this forgiveness will be easy. But whatever our disagreements about the relationships between forgiveness that is carefully nurtured in one’s heart and mind and the practical outworkings of such forgiveness, the passion to forgive must characterize all who claim to serve a forgiving God.


Second, we must reflect on both creation and the fall. Creation tells us that the human race was made imago Dei, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). From the first man and woman came every nation of human beings (Acts 17:26). If there is but one God, he is God of all, recognized or unrecognized, known or unknown, and salvation comes from him alone (Rom. 3:29-30). God invested in the first human pair a genetic potential for astonishing diversity—in exactly the same way that God invested in original dogs the genetic potential for astonishing diversity. Apparently God delights in diversity; we should, too.

The fall did not introduce mere sins; it introduced the “fallenness” that is endemic to every human being. God is no longer at the center of every one of us; each of us wants to be at the center, to have a domesticated God (in other words, a false god, an idol). Such idolatry means that we seek to control not only our own lives but in some measure the lives of all who touch us. This massive de-godding of God, this odious idolatry, works out in countless sins of every description. It includes oppression on the one hand and nurtured resentments on the other—and both feed into what we call racism. Idolatry means we are so selfish most of the time that most of us do not automatically think in terms of sacrificial service. If idolatry produces tyrants whose chief lust is to control, it also produces populist demagogues whose chief lust is to control—and both of them will entertain mixed motives, confusing their genuine desire to do good among their own people with their transparent lust for power. Because almost all sin has social ramifications, the biases, hatreds, resentments, nurtured feelings of inferiority and superiority, anger, fear, sense of entitlement—all are passed on in corrosive ways to new generations.

These two poles, creation and the fall, must be thought about together. There is more than a little danger that we will try to reverse the effects of racism by talking endlessly about human rights, about human dignity, about inherent human freedom. Great insight lies in all of these themes. If they are cut free from other biblical teaching, however, they tend to foster the lust for human autonomy that lies at the very heart of the fall. The desire to be free from God can also produce a Nietzsche, a Stalin, a Hitler, a Mao Zedong, a Pol Pot. The heart of the Christian message is not that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore must be set free to be autonomous. The heart of the Christian message is that although human beings, made in the image of God, created by him and for him, have catapulted themselves into a squalid revolution with disastrous consequences, God himself has taken action to reconcile them to himself. When they become reconciled to God, they are set free in principle from sin—not in order to become completely autonomous, but to return to the God who made them and who owns them.

That is why the Bible can repeatedly depict believers as being slaves of God, slaves of Christ.[11] The first human pair before the fall were slaves of God in the very best sense. He owned them. Doubtless they were to do his bidding, but that bidding was always immaculately wise and good. They thought their rebellion would bring them freedom, would make them like God himself, but it merely brought them into a new slavery, a slavery as different from the initial slavery as darkness is from light. Our freedom from this infinitely odious slavery—slavery to self, to sin, to Satan—is achieved not by becoming utterly autonomous, but by being restored to the first slavery. We are Christ’s; we were made by him and for him (Col. 1:15-20); we are his not only by creation but by redemption. We have been bought with a price, and we are not our own (1 Cor. 6:20).

What is this but another way of saying that the salvation granted in the gospel restores us to the place where we begin to cherish what it means to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves?


Third, never should we forget the centrality of the cross or the power of the gospel. I am referring not only to the importance of forgiveness in the Christian message (for I have said enough about that for the moment), but I am referring also to the fact that the New Testament documents teach us that the death and resurrection of Jesus secured for his people all the blessings of the gospel—all the way up to and including the resurrection existence of the new heaven and the new earth. Although the consummation of those blessings still lies in the future, already we enjoy more than judicial pardon and the experience of forgiveness. The cross not only cancels sin, but it breaks sin’s power. As the hymn writer puts it, “He breaks the power of canceled sin / He sets the prisoner free.”

That is why a passage such as Ephesians 2 not only assures us that we have been saved by grace through faith (2:7), but that God has “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (2:5). Indeed, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:10). The ensuing verses work out the “Therefore” of verse 11: because Christ Jesus himself is our “peace”—not only our peace with God but the “peace” that brings together Jews and Gentiles in a new humanity, holding together as one people, having “access to God by one Spirit” (2:18)—Christians cannot think of their salvation in exclusively legal or individualistic terms. We constitute a new humanity, the humanity of the last times, for by the cross God put to death the hostility that engulfed us (2:16). To be satisfied with anything less than this high vision is to betray the gospel.

That is also why Paul’s letter to Philemon demands that Christians transcend the categories of justice and forgiveness. True, Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus, the runaway slave who had stolen some of his master’s property. Indeed Paul offered to pay back the property loss himself (v. 19). But the thrust of his appeal to Philemon is that he ought to accept the converted Onesimus as “a dear brother,” “a brother in the Lord” (v. 16). “So if you consider me a partner,” Paul writes to Philemon, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). The gospel extends to these fundamentally relational categories, which go beyond matters of justice and forgiveness narrowly conceived. And once again, to be satisfied with anything less than this high vision is to betray the gospel.


Fourth, this transformation is not accomplished all at once. The eschatological dimension to our salvation means that the perfection toward which we press and for which we are responsible is not going to be perfectly achieved until the dawning of the new heaven and the new earth.

The practical consequences are considerable. On the one hand, we must never appeal to the consummation that is not yet attainable in order to justify moral lethargy now. On the other hand, we must exercise forbearance and forgiveness toward fellow believers who are still far from perfect, for not only are we, too, in the same state, but we must all give an account to our heavenly Father, whose judgment on the final day will be just.

On the one hand, Christ has died and risen again; we have been justified and regenerated; there is no excuse for sin. Moreover, because of these great realities, Christians have a new perspective: we are no longer to view anyone from a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16). We are already new creatures; the old has gone, the new has come. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation . . . : Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).[12]

On the other hand, Christ has not yet returned; God has not finished with us yet. The perfection toward which we press ought to be an incentive to slip the shackles of the vision of those whose horizons are more limited. At the same time, however, we neither promise nor expect any utopia to arrive before then. Neither Marxist visions of the “new man” nor the hopes of liberal democracies, still less the naiveté of liberal education theory (have some people forgotten how good German universities were on the eve of World War II?), can cure the evil ingrained in all of us.

So we must struggle on, never satisfied with what we have achieved (cf. Phil. 3:12-13), and yet quietly realistic and never embittered about the tensions we face as we live between the “already” and the “not yet.”


Fifth, the church is the only institution that will survive this world and continue to exist in all of its perfected splendor in the next. That means that the church is supposed to be an outpost in time of what it will one day be in eternity. We are part of the cultures in which we find ourselves; we exist in time, in this fallen order, in this created and fallen order. But we also belong to the heavenly realms (see esp. Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12), and we hunger for what we will become. The gospel does not only declare us forgiven. It forges for us a new reality in which we already participate, the new reality of the dawning of the new age, the coming of the kingdom, the formation of the new humanity. And though we are not yet what we will be, and to our shame we are not even what we should be, yet by the grace of God we are not what we were, and by that same grace we learn to live with eternity’s values in view.

Our dual citizenship means that we simultaneously reflect our own cultures and are called to be light and salt in these cultures. We belong; yet we do not belong. This means we must return to Scripture again and again in every generation to think through what elements of our culture are to be cherished, or at least not opposed, and what elements are evil and in need of reformation or overthrow. Truth to tell, very often the two are so intertwined that separation is not always easy. We must embrace both of our citizenships. Only when they overtly conflict do we give absolute precedence to our heavenly citizenship. We belong to two cities, and even if one of them is passing away, at the moment we cannot escape this duality. Christian discipleship necessarily works itself out in this tension. The same Christians who have been taught to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” also cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”


1-See his Migrations and Cultures: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1996), and especially his Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994), not least chap. 7, “Race and Slavery.”

2-See, inter alia, Ralph A. Austen, “The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: A Tentative Census,” in Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 68-69; Reginald Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa 1856-1890: The Slave Trade and the Scramble (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 148; nicely summarized in Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, esp. 188, 208.

3-Eventually other European powers joined in the ban, enforcing it both at home and in their colonial domains, prompting Thomas Sowell (Race and Culture, 222) to write, “More specifically, it was European imperialism which stamped out slavery over most of the world. The last nation to abolish slavery officially was Mauritania, on 5 July, 1980, though the practice continued after the ban—as it still does in several parts of the world today.”

4-The point is rightly made, though somewhat overstated, by Frank M. Snowden, Jr., in his book Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).

5-Although this is true, strictly speaking, we do well to recall other groups of people who for a considerable period of time were indentured workers treated little better than slaves. One thinks, for instance, of the tens of thousands of Chinese “coolies” who labored to build American railroads.

6-This change has drawn a great deal of comment. Popular sociology often refers to the first model, usually now with a good deal of disparagement, as the “melting-pot model”: all the ingredients lose their individual identities in the stew. The primary alternative often calls forth a “salad-bowl image”: each ingredient keeps its distinctive taste and yet contributes to the integrated flavor of the entire dish. Images aside, commentators increasingly recognize that the latter model can easily generate unseemly one-upmanship and foster discord and isolationism. Seeking a mediating pattern, some have tried to carve

out a special domain of integration in the public sphere: see, for instance, Clarence Walhout, “Literature, Christianity, and the Public Sphere,” Christian Scholar’s Review 29 (1999), 361-373. Discussions are ongoing, but in my view public and private spheres are not so easily sealed off from each other.

7-See especially Manuel Ortiz, One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

8-There are, of course, additional factors in this example since the “cultural” barrier of the circumcision law is deeply tied to the Old Testament Scriptures that both Paul and his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries shared. In other words, a different interpretation of canonical Scripture is at stake, not a cultural item unmentioned in Scripture.

9-I must add in passing that the latest statistics show that when stable black family incomes are compared with stable white family incomes, and when a fudge factor is introduced to allow for the fact that more black families live in the South than in the North (where incomes are higher—though often expenses are, too), there is no statistical difference between the two groups. Of course, there is still a large difference between black mean income and white mean income because these figures are based on individuals, and there are far more single parents among blacks than among whites—which itself owes a great deal to complex and sometimes profoundly reprehensible social pressures.

10-One of the most moving stories I know in this regard is the account of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old African-American girl who in 1960 for an entire academic year was protected when she entered and exited a white school after court-ordered integration. Under pressure from the jeering white adults who screamed hate-filled abuse at her every day, she was observed one day to be talking—her lips were moving. “I wasn’t talking to them,” she explained. “I was praying for them.” The story has been told many times (see her own account at “Usually I prayed in the car on the way to school, but that day I’d forgotten until I was in the crowd. Please be with me, I’d asked God, and be with those people too. Forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” Ruby’s account faithfully reflects on the hatred and fear of people, both black and white, who wanted the Bridges to stop their action; and on the help they received, from both black and white, and not least from her white teacher, Mrs. Barbara Henry, who poured herself into her one first-year pupil, Ruby, all that year and who was let go by the school at the end of that year.

11-The book to read is Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ, NSBT 8 (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1999)—who gives lists of passages, noting that our common English translations use “servants” on occasion where the right translation is “slaves.” For example, “slave(s)” should be used in all of the following passages: Acts 2:18; 4:29; 16:17; Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Eph. 6:6; Phil. 1:1; 1 Pet. 2:16; Rev. 2:20; 7:3; 19:2, 5.

12-In contemporary Christian literature, it is far too common to interpret Paul’s “ministry of reconciliation” as if it were peacemaking on the largest scale. Doubtless the Scriptures lay on believers such large-scale peacemaking, but Paul’s focus in this passage is on the reconciliation between God and his image-bearers who are wretchedly alienated from him. In a word, his focus is on evangelism.

*This article is excerpted from chapter 4 of Love in Hard Places by D.A. Carson, © 2002, though titles and subtitles are new. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187,