Two Faces of Race and the Gospel

One of the things that I’ve come to take for granted in the Army is that military chapels and religious activities tend to be more ethnically diverse than their civilian counterparts. The extent of that diversity varies from “a little” to “a lot,” but even the most homogenous military congregations are still more integrated than those you typically find off post. The last military congregation I served was racially integrated to a degree that I’ve never seen in my own “progressive” denomination. A recent Pew study on racial diversity shows that many of the denominations that talk most about racial equality continue to be some of the most segregated. The funny thing about the members of my highly integrated military congregation was this: they hardly ever talked about race. They were, however, die-hard evangelicals who would make most progressives squirm. The people of that congregation found their unity in the Gospel as they understood it.

That’s one side of the coin. Now, the other.

A dear sister in Christ was excited to tell our Bible study group about the cruise she had taken with the famous, evangelical pastor of a large mega-church. She knew the pastor from radio and television and she had come to admire his teaching ministry. She downloaded his sermons and played them for the group from time to time. She gave us copies of study guides he had written. You could tell how large of a role this pastor played in the woman’s own spiritual growth and nourishment as a Christian. When she finally saved enough money to take a cruise hosted by the pastor, she looked at it as the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to hear the pastor speak in person and to visit a part of the world she had been longing to see.

As she described the trip to us, at first her voice was filled with excitement: the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, the exciting adventure of exploring it. She proudly showed off a picture of her standing next to the pastor, his arm around her shoulder. And of course the music and the teaching were professionally done and outstanding. But then her voice trailed off as she spoke about her perceptions of some other people on the cruise.

They belonged to the pastor’s church and their behavior was less than Christ-like. She spoke in generalities, and at first I thought she was talking about coarse behavior or drinking. As the study continued, however, she kept returning to the subject of how these people on a Christian cruise had behaved toward her. I felt compelled to ask her to explain. She paused, and then she blurted out, “Racism. It was pure, old, ugly racism.” She was not talking micro-aggressions or “the violence inherent in the system” or subtle, unconscious assertions of privilege. Rather, it was old-fashioned racism of the worst kind that she observed and experienced.

She broke down in tears as she told us of her heartbreaking disappointment in these Christians whom she expected would treat her as a sister. She understood that the world is still racist; she expected better from those who named the name of Christ, especially those who sat under the tutelage of the pastor she admired so much. She expected that the hearts of those who knew Christ would be transformed, but these hearts clearly were not. It was a faith-crisis moment for her. How could people absorb so much Christian teaching and still be so blatantly unchristian in their behavior? Were these Christians even saved? Can anyone be saved? My own heart broke as I listened to her tell the story, and I tell it to you with her permission.

The sister, by now you have figured out, is black. The pastor is white. The men and women who sat under the pastor’s teaching for decades are white. Somehow, these Christian people still treated their black brothers and sisters with open racial hatred reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

This pastor, like me, rarely talks directly about race. Was there a need to? After all, my friend was not the only black person on the cruise. Even one of the music leaders on the cruise was a (slightly) famous African American. Perhaps the pastor thinks that people who love the Lord should just get it. These people, clearly, did not.

Christians who love the Lord should get it. Their hearts should be transformed and filled with love for all of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Praise God, this is happening in many places, a fact to be celebrated indeed. And yes, I realize that even in the apparent best of situations there is still a lot of transformation that needs to take place, individually and corporately, in the church and in the world.

Where transformation is not taking place, however, the preacher must proclaim the Gospel in the way that it most directly addresses the hearer’s situation. As the signs in the subway say, “If you see something, say something,” which is what I hope I am doing here.

Brothers and sisters, Christ died and rose to create one new family of God, to which all who believe in Christ belong, people from every nation, tribe, and language on the face of the earth. And our Lord calls you to love all of your brothers and sisters in Christ as he loves you.

You cannot belong to Christ and hate your brothers and sisters because of the color of their skin. You cannot rebuild the wall of separation between people that Christ destoryed on the cross.

I thought that this should be obvious to all who confess the name of Christ. Apparently, it is not.