Race, Grace, and the Church


Editor’s note: This is a transcript from a conversation Jonathan and Isaac had at Capitol Hill Baptist Church on July 10, 2016, the Sunday evening following the tragic events involving Alton Sterling, Philando Castilo, and the Dallas police shootings. You can listen to that conversation here.

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JONATHAN: As Isaac and I thought about this conversation and what Scripture seems to requires of us as believers in light of last week’s events, we thought about two types of obligations: First, we have obligations of empathy and understanding, that is, bearing one another’s burdens and sorrows. Think of Jesus in his immanent posture. Jesus is God-with-us (Immanuel), and we are to be with one another. But then, we also have obligations to seek justice. Think of Jesus in his transcendent posture. He is over us, possessing all authority in heaven and earth, calling us to obey everything he commands, including the pursuit of justice. Obligations of empathy; obligations of justice.

This might disappoint some of you because you want us to get into the justice questions, but tonight we’re basically going to focus on those first set of obligations: what it means to draw near one another and bear one another’s burdens and sorrows, even as Jesus did for us by becoming incarnate and then going to the cross. The obligations of justice are obligatory, but my guess is that people in this room will disagree on how to address the issues of justice at stake last week. And, in fact, I believe that empathy and understanding, for us, must come before we can talk about justice, just like Jesus becomes a baby in Matthew 1 before he’s given all authority in Matthew 28. I’ll come back to this idea later.

A biblical idea we’ve all agreed to in our church covenant is to “bear one another’s burdens and sorrows with tenderness and sympathy.” With that, we have a few questions we want to ask of each other:

So, Isaac, what was it like to be in your shoes this past week?

ISAAC: It was two things: First, it was hard. It was hard seeing horrific videos. Hard being reminded of America’s racism and injustice. Hard seeing police, a good gift God has given us, murdered out of racist motivations. Hard knowing the next time I get pulled over, I’ll be tempted to fear for my life. Hard when a sister here asked me to pray because her boyfriend has a broken taillight. Hard feeling like people were evaluating my pain; ya know saying things like, “You’re sad about this but why aren’t you equally sad about that?” or “I love you but you know, statistically, you’re more likely to get killed by a black person.” Hard hearing tone-deaf and hostile conversations between Christians on social media. That might’ve been the most disheartening part. You know we can talk about white-on-white violence or black-on-black violence or white-on-black, but it was hard seeing Christian-on-Christian verbal attacks. So the week was hard, brother. I was dizzy at times, almost broke down in my office crying.

But the week was also encouraging, because my phone was blowing up with members of this church texting me, calling me, emailing me Scripture. Asking how they can pray for me, asking me what they can do. Brothers and sisters, thank you for that: I felt seen, heard, and loved this week by many of you. That’s not every black person’s experience in predominantly white churches, and different African American’s respond to things differently, but though the week was hard, I’m encouraged. Sorrowful, yet rejoicing.

What about you, man? What was it like from your shoes?

J: I was mostly just sad. Watching on camera two lives actually end was stomach-dropping, as was hearing about the police officers in Dallas.

And the sadness we all feel I suspect isn’t just that seven people died. It’s because in each case their deaths represented something significant. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile represent the prejudice and sense of injustice many minorities across the country feel, and a century’s-old tradition of that. The deaths of the police officers on the one hand were merely the act of an extremist and hardly representative of what nearly anyone wants, but on the other hand it symbolized how fragile peace and order are when trust and legitimacy breaks down, and I think that idea scares everyone.

All this was on my mind throughout the week. When I interacted with a black server, Uber driver, or store clerk, I felt conspicuous in my whiteness. I wondered if the week’s events were on their minds, so much that I even stopped to ask one.

Just as much, I was sad for the tension I expected and have felt inside the church, as I suspected at least two broad responses would form—one saying, “Why don’t you acknowledge the injustices of police brutality?” and the other side saying, “What about black criminality?”

But one thing encouraged me: the strikingly multi-ethnic nature of the protests that I saw on Thursday night on CNN. And I’ve had good conversations with people in the church. Honest conversations. I’m grateful for that.

I: Should we be equally sad about all suffering?

J: Well, on the one hand, we probably should be appropriately and proportionally sad: big sad with big things, little sad with little things. On the other hand, I don’t think I can judge another person’s suffering. In fact, it can be naive and even un-Christlike to do so. What kind of dad says to his five-year-old daughter who is crying because a friend was mean to her, “Honey, you really shouldn’t cry over a mean friend because children in Africa are starving!”

Jesus came, says Hebrews, to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. And so even if we don’t understand someone else’s pain and our gut instinct is to think it’s misjudged and a matter of weakness, the first step for a Christian must be to sympathize with it, like a good father would. Like Jesus does. And if I should sympathize with my daughter’s pain, how much more should I reserve judgment and seek to sympathize with the pain of someone who has a different skin color than me. There’s no adult perspective and child perspective when we cross color lines. No white person in this room has [entirely] put on black, Asian, or Hispanic skin, and knows fully what it’s like to live in such skin. Why would we ever presume to have the “objective” or “adult” perspective? Why would I ever tell you, Isaac, how much you should be suffering, never having worn your skin. We all do this, but it’s shockingly foolish if you think about it.

Along these lines, Isaac, here’s a second question for you: What are some threats this past week presents us as a church?

I: I think there are at least three:

  1. Disunity—It’s interesting that the issues of ethnicity and justice are recorded in Acts 6 as the first issues of division for the local church. And clearly, 2,000 years later, we’re seeing those two issues are still particularly challenging for sinful people like us.

  2. Fear—Given that justice and ethnicity are hard to handle, I think it causes us to fear these issues and fear our brothers and sisters to some degree. Even this past week, I know there were times I should’ve rebuked someone for how they were speaking. But I shrunk back in fear. So much of the problems of this past week are rooted in ungodly fear. A helpful verse to resist this is Psalm 118:6: “the Lord is on my side, what can man do to me?”

  3. Hardness (Callousness)—Hebrews 3:13 says we should encourage one another daily so that we won’t be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. And racism is a real sin that any person, or any group of people, can commit. So often we think of racism as an extreme act, but it can be as simple as preferring one group of people to another. All of us can have racist thoughts or preferences that we refuse to recognize. We can also refuse to recognize our pride. Pride is a real sin, and we can take so much pride in our political positions, regardless of what side we’re on, that we can become so hardened, so entrenched in our position, that we’re not even willing to be won to another position at all. Or we’re not willing to allow for another God-fearing brother or sister to have a different position. So we say things like, “How could anyone believe such and such?”—and that’s just not helpful.

Jonathan, what are some ways you think this past week could threaten us as a church?

J: Picking up on your last point about pride, and on the theme of first heeding the obligations of sympathy and bearing one another’s burdens, a quickness to react and to speak will threaten us. Proverbs 18:13: “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him.”

In our culture, both sides (and there are sides) come into this conversation with their facts, with “the truth.” One side comes with facts about police brutality, the other comes with facts about black criminality; one side with facts about layers and layers of historical discrimination, the other with facts about, say, the breakdown of the family. I’m not trying to relativize all the facts, I’m just saying, I don’t think anyone should assume “My side speaks for the facts; their side is speaking out of emotion or prejudice,” because that’s exactly how this conversation gets characterized. Instead, be quick listen, slow to speak.

Now, just as husbands are commanded to live with their wives in an understanding way, I do think a special obligation sits on the shoulders of a statistical majority, on the shoulders of those who have possessed the power, to be the first to listen and to sympathize. Jesus did not wait for us to listen to him before he became incarnate. He became incarnate. He initiated in putting himself in our shoes. If whites don’t initiate in this way in any given church, I fear that church will remain divided. No, I’m not saying whites are the Saviors. I am saying that, historically, whites have possessed a kind of power over and against other minorities, and the one in power according to an incarnation logic must begin the conversation by getting low, becoming vulnerable, living in an understanding way. This is what it means to act according to love, not self-seeking power. And what are you trying to protect by not doing this?

Now, let me risk speaking out of both sides of my mouth because there’s a danger in the other direction. Whites are whites, but they’re also individual people. And when you’re told so many times, “Hey, your job in this conversation is to listen, not speak,” you begin to suspect the other side is just trying to grab power. You say, I guess this isn’t a conversation. So forget it. I’m walking away. I have personally felt that way. So, if we’re stepping away from the events of last week and just thinking about the race conversation more broadly, it can feel like, if I say anything that disagrees with the politically correct version of the story, then I’m going to be called insensitive at best, racist at worst. So fine, we say, I’m just staying out of it.

That may not be a mature reaction, but it’s a real reaction and by it division is made worse. This is what’s happening in our culture, and I don’t think we can afford to do that in our church. Majorities must be patient and listen, but minorities must be patient and let majorities speak as well. We’re all to live according to love, not self-seeking power.

Now, there’s a time and a place. You don’t walk into a man’s funeral and say everything that could be said about the man. This week, for our nation and church, is a funeral setting, and I don’t think it’s time to talk about certain kinds of statistics that you’re convinced of.

I: For, me, I often feel trapped. Anthony Moore, a black brother and pastor said this, and I think he captures the tension that I as a Christian, African-American feel in this conversation: He said, “I hate the militant, Afrocentrism that promotes black identity above our identity in Christ. But I hate what’s happening in America and feel the weight of it as a black man with three black boys. If I challenge one side to be more explicit in their promotion of forgiveness and the gospel, I’m told I’m not black enough. If I say to the other side, ‘grieve and mourn,’ I’m told I am pro-black and not acknowledging the facts. It’s so discouraging.” And what’s even more discouraging is the race conversation can become so simplistic: black and white only. But look around this room we’ll see there are tons of different ethnicities, so I’m also sad that race has been so flattened in our thinking.

What lessons are there for us in Scripture as a congregation?

J: Five texts come to mind:

  1. James 1:19“Be quick to hear, slow to Speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” I’ve already talked about this.

  2. Matthew 1 and 2—Don’t wait to move into another’s perspective and experience, because Jesus didn’t wait to move into your experience. He came.

  3. 1 Corinthians 12:26If one part of the body suffers, all do. So we must see threats to other members of the body as a threat to you. “If it’s about my brother, it’s about me!” When I’ve applied this chapter to race, people have responded, “But this chapter is about spiritual gifts.” Well, in verse 13 he also gives us the context of different ethnicities and political classes. So I’m happy to argue with you about that afterward.

  4. Philemon 9—“I appeal to you on the basis of love—I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ. . .” Paul says this to Philemon, encouraging him to receive his escaped slave back as a brother. Friends, the political conversations about justice are going to continue, and we should pursue them, each for our part. But I’ve had enough of these kinds of conversations with some of you even this week to know that, though I know I was always right, somehow, strangely, you weren’t convinced. But notice that Paul doesn’t appeal to Philemon on the basis of power or politics but on the basis of love. Here’s everything I’ve learned about the race conversation in a nutshell: it has to start by building friendships across racial lines with other members of my church. Whites, this is especially for you. I said at the beginning there are two kinds of obligations: obligations of sympathy and obligations of justice. Just as Jesus became incarnate before solving the justice problems of the universe, so, too, the way for you and me to address the justice problems at least in this moment is through fulfilling our obligations to sympathy and burden-bearing. Bang your head on the wall all you want, quoting your view of the facts. I’m telling you as one human being to another, you won’t be trusted or heard, and maybe shouldn’t be. So let me be as practical as I know how: Before you tweet or Facebook to people out there, build real friendships here in the church, not token friends. Real friends. Bear-your-heart friends. The kind of friendships that are only possible in the gospel, where we have nothing to prove to each other because we both know that our proof and protection, our justification and worth, are grounded in the alien righteousness of Christ. So, we can listen. We can be vulnerable and speak transparently. We can express frustrations and questions. We can say, “I don’t get it. Help me understand.” We can enter these relationships and conversations like . . . a baby, a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. Babies don’t know anything. Make some allowance for the fact that you might not ever completely understand because you don’t wear their skin color. In other words, if we’re going to be able to make appeals to one another on the basis of love, as with Paul and Philemon, we have to love, and part of loving is sometimes making sure people feel loved. I don’t care if you have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and knowledge, says, Paul, if you have not love, you’re nothing. It’s the assurances of love, after all, which allow for meaningful, real, two-way conversations. And we need two way conversations because without them, we can’t correctly identify each other’s burdens and sorrows and what issues of justice are at play. If you think someone is bearing a sorrow based on a false evaluation of the evidence, eventually, yes, that needs to be part of the conversation, too, because we don’t want a false unity. Finally, we cannot separate God’s authority and his nearness, or our obligations to empathy and justice, or love and truth. But there is something for us to learn, from how Jesus came into this world, about reaching and being united to other humans: He sought justice by first entering into our experience.

  5. Lastly, and very briefly, Ephesians 3:10It’s within the church, where we understand both the obligations of love and truth as exemplified in Christ, and where we have the unique opportunity to display to the nations the wisdom of God in the unity of the saints, which is the ultimate goal: the display of God’s wisdom through our strange and remarkable life together.

I: I’d add a few more, too.

  1. Romans 8:1— Remember, brothers and sisters, there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. I think Satan might use shame in the race conversation more than any other conversation. So, particularly to my white brothers and sisters, hear this: Your position in life is not guilty and white. It is free in Christ. And remembering our justification bought by Jesus will help us to love one another because we don’t have to feel the pressure to constantly justify ourselves before one another because we’re already justified before God. So we don’t have to put one another on trial; this isn’t a courtroom, it’s a family.

  2. One common way many Christians seek to love their neighbor is to be “colorblind.” They say, “I don’t see you as my black friend, I just see you as my friend.” Now many people mean well by this. I remember talking to Mark and he said, “Isaac, for so long people my age saw blackness as bad, so it made sense to try to just not see blackness.” Plus, it was Martin Luther King who said, “I have a dream that people would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” But in that statement, King did not mean that color doesn’t matter at all. And if we’re going to be Christlike and enter someone’s experiences, we have to acknowledge their color, which has shaped so much of their experience. Otherwise, we’re just denying how God made them. It’s like me denying the fact that Jonathan is bald. Notice that Revelation 7:9 speaks of every, nation, tribe and tongue gathered around the throne. This means that we don’t lose our ethnicities in heaven. God loves color, he created it on purpose, so we want to strive to see it, appreciate it, and praise God for it.

  1. Ephesians 4:11–14—I’ll let you read that but it basically says our goal as a family is to work to be united and to help one another mature in the faith. This means we are all at different points of maturity on different issues. And that’s natural. In any family with multiple kids, all the children are at different stages of maturity on different things, and all of us are going to be at different stages of maturity on different things like race or justice. If we can remember to remind ourselves that “I have room to grow and mature on different issues, and I need the help of the body to do that,” we will be far better off. So we shouldn’t give up on one another because God hasn’t given up on us, and he’s given us this task to work for the betterment of each other. Now, when a white person says to a black person, “I’ve realized I’m ignorant. What can I do?” I’ve heard many blacks respond by saying “It’s not my job to fix your ignorance, and you sound entitled, and lazy.” So, if I can speak to my black brothers and sisters, I want to encourage us to not respond like that. We want to assume the best, that this person, this brother or sister, is genuinely seeking help, and we want to realize they can help us, because ignorant thinking doesn’t just go one way. That said, for all of us, I want to stress that our task is a lifetime of outdoing one another in service. A social media rant? That’s easy. Anybody can do that. A godly lifetime of gentleness and serving your neighbor? Only someone empowered by the Spirit of God can do that. And if we think love should be easy, we have not yet seriously considered the cross. The cross was anything but easy and yet it was the most loving thing ever. So let’s not overestimate the good that can be done through a social media post, and let’s not underestimate the good that can be done through a lifetime of godly service done with humility and love.

J: Brother, why don’t you close our time: when there’s a week like this past week, what gives you hope?

I: My hope is the justice of God. I think sometimes we can get so focused on suffering in this life we forget justice in the next life. But as one poet said that, “the gospel says that either the offender’s sin has been paid for by Jesus; or it will be paid for by the offender. So we can forgive freely.” Yes, justice in this life matters and we should seek it. But we can have the confidence that where our courtrooms fail, there is coming a Judge whose gavel will be swift, fair, and 100% accurate.

That said, my hope is also in the mercy of God. I think sometimes we can get so familiar with mercy that we forget how scandalous it is. In the world, there is no mercy for ignorance. In Christ, ignorance and racism are not the unpardonable sins. In Christ, there is justice, yes, but also, mercy and grace. Now does it mean that we go on with ignorance or preferential thinking so that grace can abound? By no means. But as we mature and work out our salvation, we remember the work of Christ: He died for bigots. And snipers. And we will worship God for eternity with people like that, who are fallen people like us. So my hope is that by God’s grace we’re all passing through this world to heaven. Because this world does not have every category for this conversation, but we who are gathered at the foot of the cross have everything we need. And we ought to live like that.

So, in the meantime, as we live in this world, I think 1 Peter 4:8 sums up our charge well—“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Praise God that he’s covered our sins in Christ, amen?

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Isaac Adams

Isaac Adams is the lead pastor of Iron City Church in Birmingham, AL. and the founder of United? We Pray—a podcast helping Christians pray and think about racial strife. You can find him on Twitter at @isickadams.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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