How Do We Respond to Cultural Crises Over Race?
Is there anything proactive we can do in response to current cultural crises involving racial issues? What I mean by “cultural crisis” is the tornado of racially charged events that have been happening in our country as of late, events that have taken these issues from other places and brought it, in God’s providence, to everyone’s attention.
Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Freddy Gray in Baltimore.
I want to start by saying something that’s obvious, but still needs to be said: All African Americans are not the same and many African Americans are very hurt.
That said, there is a variety of viewpoints even in the black community—there are Voddie Bauchams and there are Thabiti Anyabwiles, and they disagree how to feel. It has been my experience, though, that the vast majority have been hurting in some ways, especially in the past year.
So, what should the church do? What can the church do?
I want to look at a passage of Scripture that I think helps us as we consider these difficult questions. In 1 Peter 3:8, Peter writes to his elect exiles in the church and I think he has words for us, too. The passage reads: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
UNITY OF MIND
I’ve heard it said that “the gospel creates ethics.” I think that’s right, but I haven’t heard many people talking that way about racially charged issues. Forgive me for these generalizations, but I’m using them because they are generally true. But it seems white people feel like black people always play the race card, and black people feel like white people never acknowledge racism.
This has been perplexing, and it has revealed a divided hermeneutic in our churches. How is it that Christians in the same church, looking at the same event and the same Bible are landing in entirely different places? And these landing-places seem to be ethnically divided. By and large, black people in churches feel different about the situation than white people in churches. How is it that our ethnicity is shaping our ethics rather than our Bible or our gospel? Why do we disagree across ethnic lines?
I don’t have an answer for that. I just think it’s something worth considering. It’s strange at best, especially when we look at a text that tells us to have “unity of mind.”
If nothing else, we should be laboring for like-mindedness. Racial injustice is a huge, devastating part of our history, and it affects life today. But the Word of God and the gospel applies because there are things that the church ought to feel together. There are things that the church ought to oppose together; there are things we ought to support and assert together.
And I’m not trying to put a finger on exactly the correct conclusions but rather to emphasize the togetherness of those conclusions. And I think pastors have the responsibility to lead in this effort.
Many white people have had the freedom to pretend like racial injustice is a non-category. Black people haven’t. And both of those mindsets are in our churches. And we want them to be unified.
Listen to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Or in Philippians 4:2: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.”
Brothers, it’s good to entreat and to help people in our churches agree in the Lord. I know that’s easier said than done, but leading our churches toward like-mindedness and unity is crucial. We certainly won’t agree on everything, but we must try to be in agreement with the mind of Christ.
A necessary companion to “unity of mind” is something that’s generally lacking in these situations: “sympathy.” One of the most hurtful things for me, especially in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner situations, was the general lack of sympathy and pastoral concern. I got so many phone calls from my black brothers and sisters in Christ who are in churches led by white leaders about how hurt they were because these issues were not addressed. They didn’t get talked to about the situation; they didn’t get pursued in their hurt.
Pastor, if you didn’t publicly address your church concerning that Ferguson tornado, I think it’s pastorally irresponsible. Why? Because God’s providence has made this an everybody issue. He has taken things from random corners we’d never know anything about and he has stuffed it in our faces over and over and over again. And brothers, just because you’re being silent does not mean that everyone else is.
And pastors, there are few responses to hurting more hurtful than silence.
In too many of these situations, there has been an astonishing lack of sympathy. We are called by God to suffer with those who suffer. We’re called to enter into another’s situation; to understand it, feel it, share it. I don’t mean the pastor goes to them and tells them not to hurt; I mean the pastor goes to them and learns how to hurt with them. Perhaps you don’t have anything to teach about it? That’s fine. But one of the main things you can teach is how to learn what it looks like to be slow to speak and quick to listen.
During these months, have you listened to the black people in your churches? Have you had conversations with them? Have you said to them, “Tell me. How are you feeling?” Did you gather them up and actually talk to them?
Diversity without sympathy is how you get assimilation. Diversity with sympathy is the key to unity. The former says “Be here, be with us—but we don’t really care how you’re doing; just be like us.” The latter says something much different: “Come here; affect us.”
BROTHERLY LOVE FROM A TENDER HEART
In some ways, I don’t understand what all the confusion is about in terms of how to respond to racial difference. Brotherly love is intended to be simple. We are to love each other like it’s a family—because it is. There are not merely black people in your church; there are black brothers and sisters in your church. They’re your family. In Christ, we become the very family of God. And in Christ, our family-of-God-ness is greater than, more intimate, more permanent than our ethnic identities.
We are co-heirs with one another, members of one another. This is important because racial issues specifically tend to separate and divide. And how you love your black fellow members can either confront that lie, trying to conquer it with gospel, or it can spread the lie so that it will try to rip apart what God has made one.
Are you a brother or a sister to those who are hurting? Do you have a tender heart? Are you moved? Do you care? Are you affected by people being hurt? Do you care what they are going through? Are you irritated when someone talks about racial injustice? When you hear “systemic racism” do you just get mad? I understand how you could feel accused, but I don’t think that’s the aim.
There’s a reason people are talking about how black lives matter, and it’s not because all white people hate black lives. Do you care why people say stuff like that, why they feel like their lives are less valuable? Is there compassion for them? When your brothers and sisters share about their experience in this country, or in your church, is your heart pricked for them? Is it tender?
A simple, loving conversation goes an incredibly long way, and especially so to shape the heart.
A HUMBLE MIND
We’re talking about love here—basic, bottom-floor Christianity. Sure, the field that we’re currently playing on is comprised of racial challenges, but the playbook of love is the same.
Listen to how Paul links our humility to Christ: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, Paul is saying, “Be like the Lord Jesus!” As pastors, you have to lead in that. They have to lead in emulating the one who was not in our situation, but love compelled him to come. He suffered like us; he suffered with us. There are few encouragements more prized than the fact that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are.
So, in a lot of ways, I’m simply asking pastors to love the people God has given them like Jesus. Love them like Jesus.