American race relations are getting worse by the day. With the decision not to prosecute the New York officer who killed Eric Garner in a choke hold, we’ve moved into new, scary territory.
In the shooting death of Michael Brown, many facts remain in dispute. So, white folks like me can still comfort ourselves that maybe it was just a terrible misunderstanding, certainly an aberration. But between grand jury acquittals and recent research (see, for examples, the studies on excessive force, arrest rates, incarceration rates, and execution rates noted by Today's Christian Woman), we’re beyond aberration territory. We white folks who are so desperate to put this race thing behind us—especially those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Era up through the election of Barack Obama—are likely to despair.
More to the point: in light of recent events, we whites are confronted with a reality that we find hard to admit, that we have no idea what it’s like to be a black person in America. We like to imagine we can be empathetic to the point of understanding anyone, but if recent events show us anything, it’s how much we don’t understand.
Even the construction of that last two paragraphs signals a deep problem. The divisions between blacks and whites in America are so deep, none of us can pretend to speak for all of us. You either address this issue as a black person or as a white person. Our biases cannot be washed away under the banner of “Can’t we all be one?” We are not. So let’s not pretend that we are. And let’s write from our perspective, as frankly and as fairly as we are able.
We at CT have covered racism and reconciliation many times in our pages, but we’re now committed more than ever to helping ourselves and our readers navigate race relations in our country. It’s clear that systemic injustice infects many national institutions, the criminal justice system being but the lastest example. We’ll see what we can do to bring light and justice to at least some of this.
In the meantime, we in the church can do two things.
The Strange Truth of the Gospel
For one thing, we can take a fresh look at a biblical and theological truth that CT blogger Derwin Gray noted recently. The Bible puts it this way:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.... His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near…. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household (Eph. 2:13–19).
Paul is speaking of the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles—between those who were said to have been divinely chosen and those who were not. Paul is saying that in the church, there is no distinction now between Jew and Greek, nor between any other division we experience—gender, citizenship, and race. “The dividing wall of hostility” has been “destroyed.”
Despite the seemingly manifest truth that even Christian blacks and Christian whites are as divided as the rest of America, the gospel says something strange. It says the wall between us is no more real than the Berlin Wall that was torn down 25 years ago. The wall between us in the church was torn down some 2,000 years ago. It may not feel like it; it may not look like it, but the reality is every black Christian is a brother or sister to every white Christian. We are no longer strangers to one another, but are family.