by Justin Imel
The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, along with other injustices against Black Americans have ignited protests across our land. While some of the protests have evolved into riots, others have been in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and such protests have reminded us that there is still a long way to go in overcoming systemic racism1 in our society.
Unfortunately, I fear we have a long way to go in overcoming systemic racism in the church of our Lord. I lived in one place when a local school hired a black man to coach their basketball team. The Sunday following the announcement of the coach’s hiring, one of the elders caught me in the foyer and expressed his dismay. This elder—yes, an elder in the church—could not understand why, with perfectly eligible white men who knew basketball, the school would ever hire a black man. I know about one location where migrant workers came to assist farmers in harvesting their crops one year, and members of the church there referred to those workers by ethnic slurs I choose not to repeat. Regrettably, I could tell you other stories when I’ve seen the people of God treat ethnic minorities with prejudice.
How can the church deal with racism? I don’t wish to be overly simplistic and paint an easy solution, but I believe the answer to racism in the church begins and ends with Jesus. He is the One who built the church (Matthew 16:18). Jesus is the head of the church, and God desires “that [Jesus] might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18; NRSV). Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). If we claim to follow Jesus, we “ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6).
If we wear the name of Christ, we must respond to those of a different ethnicity as Jesus would; he must always be our standard. How would Jesus respond to those of different ethnicity?
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God didn’t send his Son into the world to save the Jews or to save folks of European descent. Jesus came into this world to endure the shame of Golgotha and bear the sins of everyone—red and yellow, black and white.
Since Jesus sacrificed himself for us, God expects us to sacrifice for our brothers: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). While racial equality in the church may not require our laying down our lives, we certainly must sacrifice ourselves.
How can we sacrifice to help bridge the racial divide in the church? Maybe I can give up an evening of watching my favorite TV show to invite a minority couple into my home. Perhaps introverts like me can step out of our comfort zones and warmly greet minority guests to our assemblies. What if I give up my home church for a bit to worship with my brethren at a minority congregation? Could I give up my Saturday to march beside my black brothers and sisters to protest injustices they suffer in our society?
When Jesus was thirsty and sat down at a well, he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. The shocked woman said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). In the same verse, John adds this parenthetical statement as recorded in the English Standard Version: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Samaritans descended from the intermarriages between the Assyrians and the tribes of the Northern Kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 17), and, as John records, there was a great racial divide between Jews and Samaritans.
Jesus, because he is the Creator of all (John 1:3), cared not for the systemic racism of his fellow Jews, and spoke to this woman as he would have spoken to any other soul he encountered. He didn’t wait until a “clean” Jewish woman came to draw water, but he treated this Samaritan and sinful woman as one bearing God’s image.
One evening, my wife went to Walmart to get a couple of things and spoke to someone of an ethnic minority on her way out of the store. No surprise there; my wife has never met a stranger. But when she came home, she told me, with tears in her eyes, how shocked the man was that she spoke. In that small community, white folks didn’t ordinarily speak to minorities, and this man was surprised a white woman would treat him with humanity.
How do we honestly treat our brothers and sisters who have a different ethnic heritage? Do we speak? Do we see them as precious souls bearing God’s image? Do we, like Jesus at the well, show humanity to those different from us?
I’ve already mentioned Jesus’s sacrificial death for all people, but before he ever went to the cross, Jesus’s ministry demonstrated service to all races of people. Jesus healed a “foreigner” of leprosy (Luke 17:11-19). While Jesus’s ministry “was ... only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter because of the woman’s great faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus taught a lawyer who stood before him that any person in need—Jew or Samaritan—deserved to be served (Luke 10:29-37).
Jesus’s limited ministry to “the house of Israel” foreshadowed the universal ministry of his disciples. Jesus chose to live in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:13-16). Matthew’s use of “Galilee of the Gentiles” likely foreshadows the end of his Gospel where Jesus commanded the Eleven to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In Acts, the gospel was proclaimed to Jews (e.g., Acts 2:14ff), Samaritans (Acts 8:1-5), a eunuch from Ethiopia (Act 8:35), and Gentiles (e.g., Acts 10:34-43). Selfless service was rendered to minorities (Acts 6:1-6).
If Jesus served minorities and taught his disciples to do the same, shall we—as modern-day disciples of Jesus—do anything less? Can we even consider not sharing the gospel with some man because he is a minority? Can we refuse visiting a sister in the hospital because her ethnicity is different than ours? We dare not show any partiality in our service (cf. James 2:1-13).
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). Within the Churches of Christ, we often read these words with an eye toward the doctrinal divisions which run deep in Christendom. That’s an appropriate reading, for our Lord does pray for unity.
However, unity among believers means far more than being “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10) when doctrinal disputes arise. Jesus abolished the Law of Moses that he “might reconcile [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death [their] hostility” (Ephesians 2:16). Jesus died that he might bring reconciliation between vastly different ethnic groups; therefore, he certainly had such unity on his mind as he poured his heart out to the Father before he went to that old rugged cross.
Shall, we, like our Lord, pray for the unity of all believers? Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who feel marginalized by society. Let us pray for those who face inequality we white Americans cannot even fathom. Let us pray for those with hatred in their heart—let’s pray that God will soften those hearts in order to put “to death that hostility” that divides us.
Let us imitate our Lord and work for racial equality among his people. As we’re baptized into Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). May we live that truth!
1 Love L. Sechrest says, “Systemic racism considers the way that material, attitudes, emotions, habits, and practices are embedded in social institutions, including power imbalances, the accumulations of intergenerational wealth, and the long-term maintenance of major socioeconomic deficits for other races.” “Racism,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 655.