I don’t know about you, but when I saw the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I couldn’t believe this was actually happening in America. I’m not just talking about the horrific video of a lone terrorist ramming his car into a crowd of people; I’m talking about what happened before, with groups of white people (mostly young men) carrying Nazi flags and chanting hateful slogans. I wondered what “The Greatest Generation” would think of this, if more of them were still alive to see it. I’m also talking about the street battles between those white nationalists and counter protesters.
We are in a time of increasing racial strife in our country, and have been for quite a while. I looked it up this morning: It was August 9, 2014, almost precisely three years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri exploded. Things haven’t gotten better or more peaceful in the three years since. As a white guy, it’s easy for me to think racial equality is a reality in our nation, and that serious racism died in the late sixties. Then the past three years show us how differently two groups of people view the same events, and we realize with a shock how divided we still are. The temptation is to point the finger of blame at someone else. I want to dictate how I wish others would behave: “Don’t lump thousands of good, courageous cops in with a few bad apples.” “Don’t dignify people like those fools in Charlottesville with a response; counter-protesting just feeds their attention-seeking agenda.” But then I remember the words of Jesus, who tells me I must get the plank out of my own eye before I can help my brother remove the speck from his.
I say that on behalf of all Christians, of all races. Instead of assigning blame or doling out advice, we should be fulfilling our calling as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). The world should see us leading the way in bringing about peace. But we have a plank in our eye, historically speaking. Our nation has a history of racial strife. Every so often, it bubbles violently to the surface. And the church’s record in those moments is distinctly and disturbingly mixed. In the days before the Civil War, many Christians worked to abolish slavery, but sadly, many others perverted God’s Word to justify this evil practice. My own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was started because Baptists in the South asserted their right to own slaves. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, pastors and other Christians led most of the marches, and the strategy of non-violent resistance was taken directly from the teachings of Jesus. But many Christians in the South, including my own ancestors, were content with the way things were. Once again, we missed our opportunity to lead the way in a righteous cause. I wonder how different our nation’s spiritual condition would be today if we had not squandered our moral authority then. But we have a new opportunity now.
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul writes to Gentile believers in Jesus, reminding them that they were once considered to be outside the family of faith. The “old” Paul would have sooner cut the throat of a Gentile than to worship alongside him. But Jesus had changed Paul’s heart, and now the passion of his life was making all people one in Christ. In v. 14, he writes For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. He goes on to tell them God’s plan to address racial division (vv. 17-22): As He brings people into His family, He is building a new kind of house, with people of different races being the building blocks and Christ Himself as the cornerstone. As the world sees God’s house, they see His people loving one another across racial boundaries, Jew and Gentile, black, white brown and yellow, and they can’t help but say, “There must be a God. No one else could do that.”
Please understand: The leaders of our nation have a great responsibility here. I have my opinions about what they should do and say, but that’s all they are: opinions. What I know is that God wants His churches to be models of racial reconciliation and harmony. So when we look into our church buildings and see the pews full of people who look just like us, we should be asking why this is. We should be praying for God to change us, to show us how to be a church that reaches all kinds of people. At First Baptist Conroe, that’s our vision for the future of our congregation. As a downtown congregation, we want to be a church for anyone in our city who needs Jesus. We want to make disciples of all, just as our Lord commanded. I have some past experience in a multi-ethnic church, and I know it’s not as simple as just declaring you want to reach people. There are strategic decisions we will need to make. But the real work will be done by individual church members. We are in America’s fastest-growing city. Many of those who will move in over the next ten years will not look like us. Many of our neighbors already are different from us. We will pray for God to change our hearts. We will love those neighbors in His name. We will listen to them, and find out what life is like from a different perspective. We will live out the Gospel before them, and God will break those barriers. That’s what the Gospel does.
I’m not saying that all of America’s racial problems will be solved when churches like mine become multi-ethnic. But I am saying that ultimately, the only cure for racial strife is Jesus. And people will only see that if we behave differently than the rest of the world. The good news is this: Racial strife will end. The apostle John got a glimpse of the future, which he recorded in Revelation 7:9-10,
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
For a racist, Heaven sounds more like Hell. But for those who watch the news and wonder “What is wrong with us?” it sounds wonderful. Amen, come Lord Jesus.