A friend recently reminded me of this letter I wrote to our congregation in the wake of the protests and death at Charlottesville, VA, 2017. It struck me as something still relevant and important.
Letter to LHC
After Charlottesville, VA
Heather and I have been on vacation trying to “unplug” a bit, but, unfortunately, it has been impossible to be completely disconnected from the news. Given what happened at Charlottesville, I thought it would be important for me to address a couple of issues before we get back.
As I write this our culture has once again been forced into a public conversation about racism because of the fatal consequences of a white supremacist rally and counter protest. People of good conscience wrestle with moral outrage and pain at knowing that violent racism still dominates too many lives around us and gives rise to so much ferocious hate. I am also saddened by our public discourse about racism itself, believing Christians need to step into the conversation with a clearer understanding of their own theology.
We need to begin with the obvious: a philosophy of racial hatred or racial superiority of any kind is a heresy and is evil. A Christian cannot believe in and proclaim the Gospel and hate their neighbor with such specific hatred. A Christian cannot let any form of racism, especially when it spills into the streets, go without being labeled for what it is, a moral evil.
We also need to take another step or two as followers of Jesus Christ, for he and his Word have much more to say about such hatred and the condition of the human heart.
There are those in positions of social and political power who thrive on the division of racial hatred, or fomented hatred of any sort that pits one group of people against another. If given their way, the tensions so many have striven so hard to overcome will only be exacerbated for political purposes. The culture around us builds up walls between people based on every conceivable (and, it seems, inconceivable) difference. But this is nothing new. The Apostle Paul told us that the world around the church built walls between people and the church under Christ tears them all down. He wrote the Ephesians, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility… And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (2:14, 17-19).
So the church is not allowed to fall for a politics of division (often going by the neologism, “intersectionality”) created by sin because we are the bearers of unity – the kind of unity that only happens in Christ. People are blessed in a divinely sustained unity (Psalm 133). Paul also told the Colossians, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (3:11). “Here” is the body of Christ, his church. The church holds together something mere politics cannot – a theology and lifestyle that recognizes the differences between people which reflect the glorious creativity of God while maintaining a radical unity of love and faith.
The church is not allowed to fall for a politics of division created by sin because we are the bearers of unity – the kind of unity that only happens in Christ.Tweet
There are voices in our public debate that disconnect racism and hatred from the condition of the human heart and place their genesis in social power structures. As such, these philosophies are unable to deal with hatred in most human hearts, and are unable to properly address it when it does recognize hate. The Pharisees believed that if they controlled their behavior and social structures enough, they would be “clean” – they would be morally right before God. But Christ saw it differently. He told them, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matt. 15:18-20). If we are to believe that racial hatred is the consequence of social structures and power, the Pharisees were right and Jesus was wrong.
To be sure, social power structures magnify racism and its consequences, so Christians work for the redemption or destruction of those structures riddled with sin. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, “Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
We “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb 10:23) and so believe that Jesus was right. We are “defiled” – made morally impure – by racial hatred because it springs out of our own hearts.
Here is where we take a step beyond the clear and simple public denouncement of racism. Here we say that the way and gift of Jesus are the only things which provide solutions to this kind of hatred and anger. The way we follow includes the good news of a transformed heart in the image of Jesus himself (Romans 8:29). Our hearts do not just represent our emotions; they are the embodiment of our characters and personalities. Our hearts are the springs from which our lives come. So the Proverb says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). We work against structural injustice, but we also talk about the good news of a new life found only in Jesus Christ. Our final hope is not political, but spiritual because our fundamental problem is not political, but spiritual.
The gift of Jesus is power for transformation. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:15-18) to fend for ourselves and hopefully scratch out a moral life. The third person of the Trinity, God’s Spirit himself, has become our power for living (John 14:20).
Here is where we take a step beyond the clear and simple public denouncement of racism. Here we say that the way and gift of Jesus are the only things which provide solutions to this kind of hatred and anger.Tweet
The Gospel lived and proclaimed by the church is not a version of the politics de jour. It is something else entirely. It is hope for the nations (Jer. 14:22), it is the only kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28), it is the anchor for the human soul (Hebrews 6:19), and it is the only actual solution for the hatred we see acted out more and more around us.
May LHC be courageous and filled with wisdom and love.
Aug. 15, 2017
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