Photo credit: CS Monitor
This month, as we remember the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., given up for reconciliation and racial justice, and as I read about Black Lives Matter protesters who tie themselves to concrete barrels and lay their bodies across I-93 rush hour traffic to wake the Boston area up to the fact that injustice is a greater problem than inconvenience, I’m struck again by Jesus’ unnerving call: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Regardless of your politics and view on current protests, I think most of us can safely say that we have never put ourselves in the path of physical death in order to save the life of another–particularly someone who’s not “one of our own.” A professor recently reminded my New Testament classmates and me, “As you follow Jesus, your life will take on the shape of the Gospel narrative.” Martin Luther King’s death certainly reflects that.
I am also amazed, as I read through the New Testament this week, at just how radically committed the early church was to cross any racial and ethnic line, to preach the good news that Jesus is King of all. They did this against their own better, rabbinical judgment, against centuries of careful study of Torah, and against their own bloody history of protest to save Jewish identity from Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman colonization. And as they did so, they fought and squabbled about whose rules they would follow and which parts of whose culture to keep. Early Jewish Christians had a lot to lose, and they made very uncomfortable compromises to become “one in Christ” with Gentiles. (Note Acts 1:6: Even after Jesus’ resurrection, pre-sending of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were still imagining the Kingdom of God to be a Jewish political entity. The revelation of the true meaning of “Messiah” by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost opened up a theological can of worms. The New Testament attests to the apostles’ worm-wrestling over the next fifty years!). The insistence of Paul that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be “children of Abraham” was a hard-won battle that didn’t stick easily. Conversely, Gentiles took on some dietary restrictions in order to enjoy table fellowship with Jewish Chrsitians. Thus, the very strange unity of “Jews and Greeks” would have caught the world’s attention. Saying, “It’s Jesus, the Messiah from Nazareth, who does this… for everybody” in that atmosphere, would have been electrifying. His love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit changes our ability to really see and hear one another.
As I read Jesus’ commands, and read through the Acts narrative and its accompanying epistles, I don’t feel I’ve come anywhere near being faithful to the Gospel’s call to let my privilege and its accompanying insularity be crucified with Christ. But I have to wonder: today, in a country where Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week, where we have a centuries-long history of white Christians committing acts of terror against Black and Native people (among others), how can the Church live out a startling “Jew and Greek” unity? How do we knock the foundation out from beneath our very real dividing walls?
I do know that destroying strongholds of disunity doesn’t happen through ignoring differences like culture, race and class. The famous statement in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ,” in its context communicated a spiritual equality, not the loss of “Jewishness” and “Greekness.” Nor does unity happen by mildly “agreeing to disagree”; it happens when we have the courage to do whatever it takes to get close and embrace those whom God has called but we have failed to see.
Here are a few thoughts on practical ways to begin, and I share them with you that we might journey together in these things that I am just beginning to learn.
1) Visit a church where you feel uncomfortable.
Speaking directly to the white folks reading this: we sometimes don’t even know what it feels like to be “in the minority,” racially speaking. Given the huge role race has played in the history of our nation, we can’t afford to ignore this fact. Practice displacing yourself by attending a church where “the outsiders” (to your theology, to your ethnicity, to…) hold the microphone.
2) Ask the questions you’re embarrassed to ask.
Many of us assume we understand what it might be like to be in another’s skin, or, even more often–we’re too embarrassed to ask. We don’t know the rules. We feel silly for not knowing how to refer to another’s ethnicity (“Is it Native American? Indian? First Nations?…. I don’t know what to call them”), or not really remembering where someone is from (“somewhere in Africa”). That’s okay. Sensitivity and learning “what not to say/ask” is important, but embarrassment and apology-making is a big part of Gospel training. Do take the time to ask someone in the know, admitting your stupidity, and humbly asking for the honor of hearing another’s story, remembering it’s a great privilege to listen. Particularly for white folks: “Color blindness,” which is often our de facto orientation, does not honor the way persons of color often experience the world. It’s better to ask what might feel like an awkward question, like, “How have you been processing Ferguson?”, than to fail to love by our silence.
3) In 1 & 2, be prepared for the work of the Holy Spirit to change your rules.
The anger, lament, and sense of foresakenness of our brothers and sisters is the sound of the Spirit’s prophetic voice, and hearing these things should change us. It was inconceivable to Peter, when he was given the vision of the “sheet of unclean animals” in Acts 10:9-16, that God’s rules were changing. It was only by seeing the work of the Holy Spirit among Cornelius’ household that Peter was able to defend an amendment of the “circumcision rule” at the contentious Jerusalem council (see Acts 15:6-11 and context). We can talk about our brothers and sisters in theory, but until we witness the Spirit’s work in them up close, well–we’re missing out on the glory of the Gospel!
Hilary Davis is working toward her MDiv at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and learning to listen in her part-time staff position with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Native Ministries.
Her very occasional bloggings can be found at: hilarykdavis.wordpress.com
If you take issue with, or would like to ask any questions about, any of the above, Hilary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org