Racial Reconciliation: The Only Hope is the Church

     My old professor, Harvard University’s Dr. Robert Cole in his book The Spiritual Life of Children describes an interview he had with a young African-American child named Ruby Ridges.  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 —-, what you smiling at?'”
     “I looked right at her face, and I said, ‘at God.'”
     “Then she looked up at the 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.  We must 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 Martin Luther King, jr.: “. . . 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 all Christians to integrate one another.  But to do so in the name of Jesus Christ and biblical 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).49 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 the theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests “subversive.” The church–our church–is 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. Again, though, I am convinced that racial reconciliation is coming for one very important reason:  men and women and the organizations that they represent are falling down on their knees and asking God to give them strength to change.  Faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ–more than any other single factor–will bring peace.  This outspoken subservience to the Lordship of Christ, the open admission that peace will not come in any other way, makes the present moves to reconciliation to be more hopeful.  Nothing quite like this happened in earlier reconciliation attempts.
In William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished a white boy named Bayard is reflecting about his black friend Ringo: “. . . Ringo and I has been born in the same month and has both fed at the same breast and has slept together and eaten together for so long that Ringo called Granny ‘Granny’ just like I do, until maybe he isn’t a n—er               anymore or maybe I isn’t a white boy anymore, the two of us neither, not even people any more: the two supreme undefeated like two moths, two feathers riding above a hurricane.”
       The Church is called–somehow–to ride above a hurricane.  To be that peculiar people about whom we read in Scripture.  To find a unity that transcends the substantial barrier race represents.  This is no small feat, but one that the Church must undertake. And soon.  By showing American society the way out of racism the Church of Jesus Christ has a unique opportunity to reclaim Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “center of the city.”  Using Augustine’s City of God as a standard, the Church is called to be an efficacious model of reconciliation to a fragmented and broken community.   We are all on a journey–white, black, yellow, and red—whose ending is the City of God.
Finally, Christians are called by God to serve our culture even though our ultimate loyalty and hope is in the city of God. I believe, with all my heart, that the road to Christian revival must pass through the school of racial reconciliation.  There are several examples of racial reconciliation in our country today and I am truly encouraged. But there is much work that remains.  As I have intimated before, until the Church finds a way to bring racial reconciliation in a widespread way into its own camp, American society at large has no hope of doing the same. As we begin the 21st Century this reclamation project will be America’s most valuable gift to the world.
           The whole world waits with bated breath . . .


One Response to “Racial Reconciliation: The Only Hope is the Church”

  1. Kathy says:

    Excellent words! My pastor and I were talking about this just yesterday. I believe we both hold the same opinion that the road to reconciliation runs through churches that are as inclusive as Christ intended them to be.