For all the complaints I’ve heard lately about how badly our public schools are overrun with the “liberal agenda,” there is something I think it really did right in my experience: presenting a healthy view of racial equality. For the vast majority of my childhood, whenever I heard of this thing called “racism” it was always in the past tense. Not until High School did I begin to become aware that race relations were still very poor in some places. And that’s when I began to lose my innocence. I was raised relatively color blind, so to speak, but as I became aware that others had issues, I began to question whether or not a given situation or location would bring it up.
I’m not saying that I developed a fear of black of people as a result of growing up. I’m saying, rather, that as a kid it didn’t occur to me that the various ‘races’ in this country didn’t all get along. And once I started traveling outside of New England (especially solo a couple times early in college), that’s when my self-assumed openness was put to the test. The most noticeable experience of racial tensions in my life was in Philadelphia. Blacks and whites were in equal numbers on the public trains. They weren’t segregated into sections, but there was little interaction between them, and I just felt this air of nervousness. Were there people there who hated or distrusted each other? Might I somehow offend someone in my naivete?
Neither then, nor since, have I personally witnessed direct racial conflict. Even now, I live in a relatively poor neighborhood, and the demographics are mixed: white, black, hispanic. On one hand, the saying “birds of a feather flock together,” and that’s fine. Yet, I have seen white kids playing basketball at the predominantly black-kid-used playground nearby. I’ve seen hispanics and whites walking down the street together after school. So it seems that racial relations are healthier here than in cities further South.
Either way, the Church has to think about these issues. One of the major themes of the Gospel is reconciliation. Liberal Christianity takes the reconciliation theme and jumps straight to our world’s situations of class and race where recent events have proven powerful divisions are still at play in our society at large. This is a noble and important task of social justice that needs to be undertaken, no doubt. But Christians are supposed first to seek to understand the Bible according to its own framework, before applying its teachings to our own day. Reconciliation appears 13 times in the New Testament (in the ESV translation), used accordingly:
- Reconciliation between believers (Matt. 5:24, Acts 7:26)
- Reconciliation with God (Romans 5:10-11(3x), 11:15, 2 Cor. 5:18-20(5x), Eph. 2:16, Col. 1:20, 1:22)
- Reconciliation between estranged spouses (1 Cor. 7:11)
A few of these also include strong elements of Gentile-Jewish reconciliation in Christ. But that’s just the catch that the more liberal churches all-too-often miss: the ministry of reconciliation that we bear, as Christians, is based in unity in Christ.
This is critically important for us to realize. For how can two completely different people with two completely different backgrounds ever be reconciled? What they need is common ground, a bridge if you will. All nationalities and races are welcome (and indeed called) to be reconciled in Christ, that is, in the Church. As we turn to Jesus and worship the Triune God, we grow in unity. When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we receive new identities as Christians which override our racial and national identities. We don’t become “color blind,” as I imaged as a young child, but we ought to come to place where race doesn’t matter in our judgments and evaluations of others. For it is not their race that makes people poor or rich, happy or discontent, it is their economic and social situation.
And, try as we might, we will probably never be able to fix all these problems. Jesus himself observed “the poor you will always have with you.” He didn’t say that to discourage us from caring for the poor though, but to point out that the work of compassion will always continue. So rather than focusing solely on “making the world a better place” and “making racism history” and so forth, we also minister the Gospel to people, pointing the way to the ultimate reconciliation – reconciliation with God. When we know that perfect love from our creator, we become able to share that with others. In short, reconciliation with God precedes true reconciliation between people.
Now, I might be tempted to conclude this blog post with the revised slogan “all lives matter.” That has been my reaction a number of times over the past few months to the various “black lives matter” campaigns, hashtags, and so forth. But I recently read someone pointing out that nobody runs into a Cancer Center and tells the staff “There are other diseases out there too!” Of course there are other diseases that need to be cured; their focus happens to be cancer. Similarly, yes, all lives matter, but by pointing out specifically that black lives matter, we focus on the particular racial issues that our society is experiencing. Along those lines, there are two other challenging issues that we should probably consider: “poor lives matter” and “pre-natal lives matter.”
At the end of the day, though, slogans are just slogans. They can be used to inspire good and godly work, and they can be used to justify wickedness. Recent events, especially in Baltimore, suggest that the (relatively) small group of rioters have hijacked the “black lives matter” slogan from the (substantially) larger group of peaceful protestors in that city. This is both disappointing and unsurprising; our media almost always highlights bad news at the expense of good news. (I daresay it’s far more entertaining to watch rioters on TV than to watch peaceful protestors holding up signs.) So again, a Christian response ought to be sober and vigilant, attentive to truth and compassionate to others’ needs. All lives matter. But until we break that down into specific real-life examples, we’re being just as naive as I was when I was a child.