Harvard University’s Dr. Robert Cole in his book The Spiritual Life of Children describes a 1962 interview he had with a small African-American child. This child was being accosted by angry segregationists as she walked to school. In the face of so much hatred, Cole wanted to know why she was smiling.

“I was all alone,” she began, “and those people were screaming, and suddenly I saw God smiling, and I smiled.”

Then she continued with these astonishing words: “A woman was standing there [near the school door], and she shouted at me, ‘Hey, you little nigger, what you smiling at?'”

“I looked right at her face, and I said, ‘at God.'”

“Then she looked up at he sky, and then she looked at me, and she didn’t call me any more names.”

In order for reconciliation to occur between races, there must be a profound and sincere acceptance of responsibility for our bad choices. For white Christians, in particular, we are challenged to own our responsibility. How blind and judgmental we can be, we religious people! At the same time, like Ruby Bridges, we must continue to believe racial reconciliation is possible. To remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.

Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life. And He loves all children, red and yellow, black and white. Period. I know that this seems simplistic and somewhat chauvinistic. There is no other way to eternal life or present happiness. And I suppose that is the bottom line in my discussion of racism. As early as 1976 John Perkins was saying the same thing–only the gospel can transform people (Romans 12:1). The goal was voiced by King: “. . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will sit down at the table of brotherhood together.” This Christian ideal lost its spiritual moorings and the integration cure began to choke the life out of the very ideal of racial harmony it was intended to save. I believe that the time has come for white and black Christians to integrate one another. But to do so in the name of Jesus Christ and bibical veracity.

Integration was a clear goal for the early church. After all, the example of the cross drew all persons into hopeful relationship. Paul had no trouble defining his gospel and his life as `the message of the cross.’ On the contrary, he boldly declared that, though the cross seemed either foolishness or a stumbling block to the self-confident (i.e., modern humankind!) it is in fact the very essence of God’s wisdom and power (1 Cor. 1:18-25). The cross will be a stumbling block to the white supremist and the black nationalist. But it will be the Christian’s Hope of Glory. The world does not need a new religion–it needs Jesus Christ–crucified and resurrected. And, at risk of sounding simplistic and redundant, as we make Jesus Christ Lord of our lives we will see our racial attitudes change.

Don’t get me wrong. What I am suggesting is truly revolutionary, or, as Walter Brueggemann suggests “subversive.” The church–my church–must be called to a higher commitment. A radical commitment. The choice for Christ occupies first place, above parents, children, job, and, if necessary, life itself. The gate leading to health and wholeness in our world is not reasonable size. It is narrow. In that sense, I am calling us all to a radical faith, a prophetic faith. We are called to a major reclamation project of our views of atonement so completely presented in Scripture and in our Confessions. And racism, after all, is a direct threat to the atonement.

The challenge for the Church is to be different in a meaningful way. To be in the world but not of it. To lead America away from the self-destructive cliff to which racism has brought us. The call to us all is to find our identity in Christ alone–not in color, creed, ethnicity or any other category.

I see many hopeful signs. In what is being called “The Memphis Miracle” black and white leaders shed tears, confessed failures, washed each other’s feet, and agreed to dissolve their separate organizations to form a new one, free of barriers. They have created a new vision–or resurrected a new one–that holds great promise for our country. Almost every Christian organization in American is striving for racial reconciliation. I believe that the Christian community may yet fulfill God’s purpose for the American nation: racial reconciliation.

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