In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., today being MLK day, it seems appropriate to discuss some of the implications of the gospel in terms of race relations. As shocking as it may sound, I grew up in a city that allowed no African Americans. In fact, I did not see a person of color until I was twelve years old. But in high school, when I read Black Like Me, it changed me. The gross injustices done to people just because of the color of their skin sickened me. And then I moved to the South and saw the same injustices that I had read about in this book. I was appalled that so many people could be so prejudiced. While in seminary, my wife and I bought a house for one dollar (part of the Urban Homestead Renewal Program), in one of the worst slums of Dallas. We lived in it for three and a half years. And I saw a different side of things. I saw a single mom with two young boys, working several jobs to give her sons a better chance at life. I saw people who desperately wanted to get out of their miserable state but were hardly given the chance to succeed. And I saw those who exploited them. From Newport Beach to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas was quite a shift! And so, I began a journey to understand what the New Testament taught about race relations. Below are some of my reflections.
Although Jesus was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10.6; 15.24), his ministry occasionally expanded beyond Jewish bloodlines. Sometimes this happened seemingly against his protests, as when he exorcized a demon possessing the daughter of a Canaanite woman at her insistence (Matt 15.21–28). At other times he was amazed at the faith of Gentiles when compared to its lack in his own people. He healed the centurion’s servant sight unseen, based on the centurion’s faith (Matt 8.5–13), hinting that such people will supersede the nation in the kingdom and “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out” (v. 12). And he made an intentional detour to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to cast out a legion of demons from a Gerasene man (Mark 5.1–20). Simeon had prophesied about the baby Jesus that he would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32), hinting at a transracial mission of the Messiah. When Jesus himself implied such a radical mission in his hometown, the good folk of Nazareth tried to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4.20–30)!
After his resurrection, Jesus in fact commissioned his apostles to evangelize Gentiles (Matt 28.19–20), which they then promptly neglected to do. Then Peter got a startling vision from the Lord to kill and eat unclean animals. Three times the vision and the instructions came: “What God has made clean, you must not consider unclean!” (Acts 10.15). When Peter goes to the house of the Gentile Cornelius he reiterates his Jewish scruples: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile,” then adds how his mind was changed: “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10.28 [NRSV]). It seems remarkable that even after all that Peter had seen of Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles, and especially after he was commissioned by the Lord to evangelize Gentiles, he still didn’t get it. Later, when he was back in Jerusalem, he was confronted by some of the more scrupulous Jewish Christians who accused him of eating with Gentiles (Acts 11.4). Guilty as charged. So, he repeated the account of his vision and the conversion of Cornelius and his family. These Jewish Christians dropped their complaint and exclaimed, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11.18). The scrupulous sect of Jewish believers had seen the light that Simeon spoke of! Or so it seemed.
Some time after this, Peter was in Antioch, eating with Gentiles. But he withdrew from such fellowship when messengers from James came from Jerusalem and spoke to him. What they said is unknown, but Peter withdrew from such fellowship with Gentiles “because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (Gal 2.13 [NET]). Paul was incensed because Peter, his Jewish Christian colleagues, and even Barnabas, “were not on the right road toward the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2.14 [translation by G. D. Kilpatrick in Rudolf Bultmann’s Festschrift (1954)]). Here we see a glimpse that, for Paul, the suspension of circumcision and dietary regulations was an essential part of “the truth of the gospel” (τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). And it is here that we begin to see which of the apostles first grasped the transracial implications of the gospel. Even though the Eleven had been taught this by Jesus, they faltered. And even after Peter’s vision, he faltered. And the group of pro-circumcision believers back in Jerusalem, even after hearing from Peter that the gospel was now free for all, faltered. They would falter again, in Acts 15.5, prompting the Jerusalem Council that would take place sometime after the events in Antioch.
It takes little imagination to see how wrenching and disgusting that first act of obedience to the Lord would be—obedience to extend full fellowship to non-Jews. All Jews in first-century Palestine would be quite familiar with the story of heroism and sacrifice found in 2 Maccabees 7. There, seven brothers and their mother were brought before Antiochus Epiphanes who tried to force them to eat pork. One by one, the king tortured each brother, cutting out their tongues and hands. Yet none disobeyed the Law of Moses, dying with the hope of the resurrection on their lips. Finally, the mother was executed, too. In the annals of Jewish lore, no story emboldened the faithful to maintain the dietary laws like this one.
And the apostles, too, were familiar with this story. Paul especially, when he was a Pharisee, would have been the most scrupulous of all. His passion for the Law was what led him on a witch-hunt after Christ-followers. And yet Paul the Christian led the way in grounding his beliefs in the cross, recognizing that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Just imagine the first time one of these apostles sat down at breakfast with Gentiles and was served bacon and eggs! Taking that first bite of pork would have been a sheer act of will out of obedience to their Lord.
Paul became adamant about this freedom that was rooted in the gospel. His mission was not like so many seeker-oriented pastors today; he did not make concessions on the gospel to get bigger numbers. No, he embraced the radical idea that in Christ the Law was no longer master over any believer. Christ died, in part, so that we would no longer be under the Law (Rom 6.14; 10.4; Gal 3.19–29). And this included recognizing the essential equality between Jew and Gentile.
By way of application, we can see that it is crucial—because it is an essential part of the gospel—that race should never be a roadblock to the fullest fellowship that Christians can have. In 1963, Martin Luther King complained, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Over fifty years later, and that observation is sadly still true in much of the United States. I have long believed that one of the key marks of authentic Christianity is the heterogeneous nature of the body of Christ. When a black man sits next to a white woman who is next to a rich man sitting beside a poor man; when an educated white woman fellowships with a poor, uneducated immigrant; when a clean-shaven, well-dressed man sits beside a facial-pierced, tattooed girl in grunge clothes; when the fellowship of the saints cannot be attributed in any way to natural inclinations—only then will the world see that we truly love each other—and that ours is a supernatural love.
But how can we accomplish this? First, we must repent of our corporate sins. Especially those in power, those who control the church, must do this. Sin is not just individual. Americans tend to think only in individual terms, and it’s time we grow out of this myopic, narcissistic view and embrace the more biblical view of individuals in community. Second, we must reach out to those who are not like us. We must seek out folks of different ethnicity to be on the pastoral staff, on the elder board, in the classroom as instructors. Today’s take-away application of the Great Commission is surely that true evangelism means getting outside our comfort zone. But we must not stop there. We must go the extra mile and truly fellowship with those unlike us. May God help us to embrace the transracial implications of the gospel and to, once and for all, end the apartheid of Sunday mornings.