So, here’s the quote that’s troubling me this week. It comes from Mark Galli’s article – “This is a ‘God Moment’ on Race” – in the September 2016 issue of Christianity Today –
In 2012, only 13% of white evangelicals said they thought about race daily (41% of black evangelicals said that they did). Today, we’re thinking about race more than daily – due partly to the news cycle, and partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching. (32)
“Partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching”?
Oh, how I want to believe that this is so. I truly want to believe that we’re all committed to, and are even pretty adept as Christians at watching the evening news and reading the morning paper with an open Bible close at hand. I hope that when current events pose their urgent questions of meaning and value to us, that we as Christians are instinctively turning to the Scriptures, wanting to know what it says about the matter at hand, and that we feel confident in our abilities to be faithful interpreters of that Word. But here’s what I fear — it doesn’t even occur to us to do this. It’s not just that we don’t know what the Bible says, it’s that we don’t seem to feel any obligation to find out what the Bible says. We just don’t see the point of it. As the title of a book I read in seminary put it, there is a “strange silence” of the Bible in the church, and among Christians.
Dallas Willard called this the “Great Omission.” He said that we ignore that part of the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) where Jesus called us to “make disciples” by “teaching everything that He commanded.” It’s this teaching that’s missing from our experience as Christians. Msgr. Charles Pope laments it in his own Roman Catholic spiritual tradition as the problem of being “sacramentalized” (baptized and routinely communed) without being “catechized” (taught), or even, in some cases – his words, not mine – “evangelized.” People have gotten “outwardly in” the church without getting “inwardly in” Christ. They have attached themselves to a teacher whose teachings they haven’t really bothered to examine. They have named Christ as their Lord without considering what it is that He is going to ask of them, and worse, they are even bothered by how little it seems to matter that the One they look to as their Savior has such little influence on their thinking and acting as Lord. To use the language of theologian David Wells, God in seemingly “weightless” in our calculations on behavior and beliefs.
Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind (SPCK Books, 1963) measured this by asking his readers to “take some topic of current political importance,” and to try to “establish in your mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it, and to do so in total attachment from any political alignment or prejudice,” but by trying instead to “form your conclusion by ‘thinking Christianly’” alone. He observed that most of us can think pragmatically, and most of us can think politically, but that very few of us seem to be able or committed to “thinking Christianly.”
But Mark Galli voices a different perspective. He suggests that Christians are currently being “conscientized” about race “partly” by “rediscovering the biblical teaching.” If so, this is the best news that I’ve heard in a very long time. If it’s a just, generous, and more compassionate world that you want, then nothing advances that ball further down the field than Christians reading their Bibles with understanding and then taking what they read seriously. And this is what Mark Galli suggests is currently happening on the question of race. So, let’s test the hypothesis.
Set aside an hour of uninterrupted time. Go get your Bible, a clean sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil. Put your cell phone up, find a quiet corner where you won’t be interrupted, get comfortable and write a “theme” – at least that’s what they called them back when I was going to grade school. Your assigned topic is: “What does the Bible say about racism?” Go!
Oh, did I tell you that you could use the concordance at the back of your Bible, but nothing else. No Googling allowed. No checking your Bible’s study notes. No looking up references to race in any of the Bible resources that you may have on a bookshelf somewhere at home – you know, Commentaries, Bible Dictionaries and Handbooks, Topical Bibles, or books on Christian beliefs. No calling your Sunday School teacher for help, or the preacher who lives across the street. No, this is just about you, your Bible, your knowledge of what it says, and your ability to relate those teachings to one of the more urgent questions of the day.
Perhaps this assignment intimidates you a tad. You don’t even know where to start. Okay, I’ll spot you an outline. It’s customary when “thinking Christianly” about some topic of interest and/or controversy to organize your thoughts according to the Trinitarian structure of God’s revealed actions reported and interpreted by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This “pattern” is enshrined in the historic Creeds of the church and it has functioned as the backbone of many systematic theologies through the centuries. So, when tackling a question like – “What does the Bible say about racism?” – break it down into the three “dispensations” of God’s dealings with us according to the Scriptures – Creation (the work of God the “Father”), Redemption (the work of God the “Son”), and our, and the whole wide world’s, continuing Transformation (the work of God the Spirit).
Start by asking yourself, “What does our creation in the image of God say about the intrinsic worth of each and every human being?” Ponder the implications of the “shalom” that the Bible paints for us in its creation stories, and think about the damage that the “Fall” has done to this original picture of that God-intended harmony (all of the stories from Genesis 4 through Genesis 11 can be read as accounts of the spread of the damage to all of our relationships as human beings after the rebellion of Genesis 3 – Theological, Psychological, Social, and Ecological). And don’t forget to factor in what texts like the Ten Commandments and the other moral demands that God makes on us say about the Creator’s original purpose for His creatures and all of Creation. To know what the Bible says about racism, begin by thinking through what the Bible says about how creation is a picture of the way that things are supposed to be from God’s point of views. We’ve got to come to terms with what it means that every person we meet bears the image of God.
Next, ask yourself, “What does God’s saving work say about the intrinsic worth of each and every single human being?” Follow what’s been called the “scarlet cord” (Joshua 2:18) – the story of redemption that weaves throughout the full length of the biblical story. Start with the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. Ask yourself: “Who is the object of God’s concern here?” and “Who is included within the scope of God’s saving purposes?” Think of examples of people who were outside the covenant boundary of Israel were taken in and included in the promises that God makes. This is a familiar biblical pattern, there are lots and lots of examples. John 3:16 is as “core” as any biblical text is to most of us as Christians. So, what does John 3:16 say about who it is that God loves? Then, using John 3:16 as your compass, tiptoe through the book of Acts and take note of every time the Gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ forced the church to jump a barrier that had previously existed to exclude some set category of people. Spend some time in Ephesians chapter 2 unpacking what just might be the most important text in the whole Bible when it comes to the sin of racism, and how God in Christ broke down the dividing wall. And then don’t forget to poke around a little bit in the book of Revelation to see who it is that is included when God’s work of salvation is finally complete. To know what the Bible says about racism, we’ve got to come to a better understanding of the scope of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ. We’ve got to come to terms with what Paul said about not despising anyone “for whom Christ died” (I Corinthians 8:11).
Finally, ask yourself, “What does the convicting, comforting, confirming, disturbing and transforming work of God’s Spirit say about the intrinsic work of each and every human being?” Just as the Spirit of God moved over the surface of the deep at Creation, so the Spirit of God continues to move over the hearts of people and the circumstances of life, ordering the chaos, giving life to change, and bending things in the direction of God’s future. So, where do you sense the Spirit moving? One of the critical Biblical moments is in Acts 10 when Peter was forced to welcome Cornelius and his household to the family of faith because Peter had witnessed the same experience of the empowering and indwelling Spirit in them as he himself had experienced in Himself on the day of Pentecost. Their bond of unity was established by the workings of the Spirit of peace, and Paul’s familiar image of the church as Christ’s body made up of many members is premised on this same idea. Reconciliation depends on the unity that the Holy Spirit supplies (I Corinthians 12). So, the critical question is – “In whom do you see the indwelling empowering presence of God’s Spirit, and what does that say about the racism that tries to pry people apart?”
It’s said that one of the defining characteristics of contemporary Christianity is its “bits and pieces” mentality. Nothing touches. Nothing connects. Everything is just a “one off.” This week’s sermon, Sunday school lesson, Bible Study, morning devotional is completely unrelated to what has come before, and totally unrelated to what will follow. We don’t see how ideas and experiences touch. There’s no big picture, no unifying structure, no sense of one truth building upon the previous truth and preparing us for the next truth, no overarching vision of what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. And so, is it any wonder then that when culture poses a question like “racism,” that we who are Christians are hard pressed to think Christianly about it, or to speak Biblically to the moment.
It was while playing “Jenga” with some of the children at Family Gateway during our recent “Family Mission Weekend” that I was powerfully reminded of how everything that the Bible teaches touches everything else that the Bible teaches, and how what the Bible teaches touches every situation and circumstance of our lives. I’m not sure that Mark Galli is right when he says that Christians are “thinking about race more… due partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching.” But I do know that if this was true, if Biblical teaching was taken more fully into consideration by those of us who are Christians, then what we thought, said and did about racism would be more informed by the Gospel, and would do more to effect the kind of change that this moment requires.