January 20, 2015Culture

Luke 19 and the Segregation of the Church

More reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. day and the segregation of the church from Bryan Loritts.
Luke 19 and the Segregation of the Church
Image: James Tissot / Wikipedia

The Effect of "Kneel-Ins"

It’s a tragedy of history that many of us are not familiar with one of the necessary arteries of the civil right’s movement, known simply as "kneel-ins." On Sunday mornings throughout the South, black and white college students would convene in front of all white churches and kneel, asking merely for the opportunity to come inside and worship with the family of God. Scholar Stephen R. Haynes, brought national attention to these forgotten soldiers in his book, The Last Segregated Hour. One glimpse of its cover, and both your attention and anger will be aroused, for here we see these drum majors for justice kneeling at the steps of a church, while ominously peering down on them are white leaders, arms crossed, outfitted in a scowl. Everything about their body language says you are not welcomed here.

While their civil rights siblings brought attention to segregation at lunch counters through their “sit ins,” those who chose to kneel brought focused attention to an even uglier truth—segregation in the church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. While the movement was able to bring about seismic legislative change so that segregation became outlawed, Dr. Ed Stetzer and the LifeWay Research team have unearthed for us a sad reality: many of our churches today could still use a cohort of multi-ethnic college students doing kneel-ins right outside their doors.

Forced legislation cannot reform a wayward heart, it is only the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that can do that.

On the one hand much of their findings are not new. For example, when their research "reveals" that "8 in 10 (86 percent) have congregations with one predominant racial group"—this is actually an improvement in what was previously around 97 percent. Nonetheless, the research shows that homogeneity still reigns within the body of Christ on Sunday morning, elongating what Dr. Haynes aptly titled, "The Last Segregated Hour."

What caught my attention was when Dr. Stetzer summarizes, "Surprisingly, most churchgoers are content with the ethnic status quo in their churches." In a world where our culture is increasingly diverse, and many pastors are talking about diversity, it appears most people are happy where they are—and with whom they are."

The Sadness of Finding Satisfaction in Homogeneity

The contrast is daunting—our churches are homogenous, yet by and large (according to the research) there remains little-to-no desire to change when it comes to issues of diversity. The recent statistics unearthed by the LifeWay Research team serves, on a much deeper level, as a stethoscope, allowing us to hear the rhythms of our hearts, rhythms that I believe are out of step with the gospel. That’s the tragic takeaway.

At its necessary core, the civil rights movement dealt with law, for which I, as a black man, am forever grateful. But at its corresponding core, race is not a matter of law, it is a matter of the heart. Forced legislation cannot reform a wayward heart, it is only the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that can do that.

It is because the church has been entrusted as the stewards of this sacred gospel that we must pick up where Dr. King and his lieutenants left off. Our battle is not ultimately with structures (though there is systemic injustice, which the church must address), as much as it is with the reformation of the heart.

The sin of racism has defrauded the Imago Dei of rich, vibrant relationships with one another.

Luke 19 and Heart Transformation

I’ve been marinating in Luke 19 recently, that well known story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. In a gospel that has been consumed with the powerless and the social outcast, Luke now shifts gears and redirects our gaze in on the powerful- Zacchaeus. He’s a tax collector who has made his money unjustly, by financially robbing people. Yet, on this sovereignly fateful day, Zacchaeus comes to faith in Jesus Christ.

His first verbal response to the gospel that has invaded his heart is telling, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold”. Notice, that the gospel has provoked in Zacchaeus not just generosity (the giving of half his goods), but restitution (restore fourfold). Jesus’ reply is as equally striking, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:10).

Two things stand out to me about this scene. The first is that Zacchaeus’ immediate reaction to the gospel is a change in desires. Without any prompting from Jesus, this powerful, wealthy man now has the appetite to seek out the powerless—those whom he has defrauded. One of the signs that the good news of Jesus Christ has truly taken residence in our hearts is that there is the desire to interact with those on the other side of the tracks.

Reading the LifeWay Research data and their conclusions that many in homogenous churches (particularly white, according to their article) have no desire to get beyond the status quo, to seek relationships with “the other” at bare minimum should raise the question as to whether these individuals have embraced the gospel in all of its wonderful implications? With the Bible having over 2,350 verses that deal with God’s heart for the orphan, widow, alien and poor (not to mention those sections that deal with ethnicity), can we really say we have God’s heart, if our heart is to continually subscribe to “birds of a feather flock together”?

Yet Zacchaeus’ transformation has not just stopped in the realm of affections or desires, it has also spread out into the domain of his actions. As a colleague of mine says, the gospel doesn’t just deal with motives, but with behaviors as well. I am grateful for the way the evangelical community has become obsessed with the vernacular of the gospel and its effects on the heart and motives in recent years. Yet, for all of our gospel talk, what is glaringly missing from the conversation is a huge component of the glorious gospel, a component that this “wee little man” Zacchaeus expresses, and that is the issue of restitution—the paying back (with interest) what he had materially defrauded out of others. It is this issue of restitution that has astounding implications to the church and multi-ethnicity.

Zacchaeus, this powerful man, now desires to go back to the powerless, and right the wrong.

Now hold on, before you think that I as a black man am going to ask you for my forty acres and a mule, I’m not. A proper hermeneutical excavation of our text will unearth that at no point does Jesus legislate restitution on Zacchaeus’ part. This was completely voluntary. Yet Jesus’ response tells us that a sign that the gospel was in Zacchaeus’ heart was that he had new aspirations to materially make up the wrong he had defrauded out of others. Zacchaeus, this powerful man, now desires to go back to the powerless, and right the wrong.

Sin defrauds you and I in a myriad of ways. Pointedly, the sin of racism has defrauded the Imago Dei of rich, vibrant relationships with one another. Like those whom Zacchaeus defrauded, many minorities in this country have been historically defrauded by our white brothers and sisters. Unaddressed by the balm of the gospel we minorities can wipe our hands clean, declaring that we never want anything else to do with “those white people,” and hide in our own cultural and social enclaves. On the other hand, our white siblings have defrauded themselves of the glorious riches of community with what Dr. King called, “the other”. Through fear, stereotypes and outright pride, many white people have chosen to likewise remain on their side of the proverbial tracks, completely comfortable with where they are, a fact that the recent LifeWay Research article reveals.

Over the years I have become completely convinced that it is the multi-ethnic church that is a visible and material act of restitution. We act like the converted Zacchaeus when various ethnicities voluntarily give up their cultural currency (preferences, privileges and norms), in the hopes of restoring back to one another life giving community with “the other” in the context of a local church.

When African Americans, Whites, Asians, Latinos and others submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of a specific local church, we give back with interest what the enemy, and centuries of historical injustice tried to steal from us. At moments like these, Jesus peers over the balcony of heaven and says of the multi-ethnic church what he says of Zacchaeus, “We are sons of Abraham”. May we strive towards the day when Dr. Haynes title becomes a thing of the past, where we are no longer partakers of, The Last Segregated Hour.

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Luke 19 and the Segregation of the Church