From Galatia to Baltimore

Lessons in Race and Grace

This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of BreakPoint WorldView magazine.

I remember it as if it were yesterday: April 30, 1992, the day after the Rodney King verdict. Four white police officers had been acquitted by a white jury, selected from the Los Angeles suburbs, of assaulting a black man in the city. I stepped out the front door of my Baltimore row home that morning to face the chasm of America’s racial divide as I never had before.

Baltimore is a city that still struggles with the issue of race. In its entire history, it has never seen a neighborhood successfully integrate and then stabilize. One African-American family moving into the neighborhood means that within twenty or thirty years, the neighborhood will be almost exclusively African-American. We moved into our home in 1983. The blocks around us were already into the transition while the larger community was almost exclusively African-American.

That morning, I stood on my porch fearing that my neighbors might come outside. I didn't want to face them. What would I say? What could I say? That morning I felt the full weight of being white. In a sense, I literally felt my skin and all it represented in America. As I walked the block to the grocery store, it felt as though every eye in the neighborhood was staring at me. I tried to look the cashier at the grocery store in the eye, but as she handed me my change, I realized more than a rubber conveyor belt separated us that day.

I wish I could say that the only place I've felt my skin is in my neighborhood. I remember the ordination exam of a gifted young African-American brother-in -hrist. He was one of the best students at the seminary where I worked. Thurman had been called to be the pastor of New Song Community Church, an African-American congregation in Sandtown, one of Baltimore's poorest communities. The final oral exam before a group of 150 or so high-powered theological leaders is a pretty scary experience for any young graduate, even a gifted one.

Like so many ordination candidates, he stumbled on an important question. I knew he knew the answer, but, nerves being what they are, his answer could have been better. Revealing, however, was the response of a pastor from a large, affluent suburban congregation: “This is an important topic that you need to be clear on because where you’re going people need to know this.” Thurman’s grace in responding was a joy to behold. But I looked to my right and saw the hurt on the face of Kevin, a young African-American pastor, as he felt the sting of that remark. Apparently, affluent, white suburbanites have a much clearer grasp of the Gospel, even in their equally lost condition. I felt the weight of being white again.

I recall a conversation about New Song Church a few years earlier. A member of the committee for church planting was frustrated by the slow progress in establishing this church. His committee had seen several suburban congregations come into being over several years. But this small fellowship in this terribly broken community was taking longer to find stability. What was the chairman’s assessment regarding the financial help being given the congregation? “Well, we don’t want this church to be a welfare case.” How broken God’s heart must be when our assumptions about class and race overwhelm Gospel realities about the Body of Christ.

African-American brothers and sisters in the Church endure the day-to-day insults and the systemic injustices—economic, political, educational, and social—of race in America. (I am not implying that the problem of race is limited to African-Americans, either outside or inside the Church. Asian and Hispanic Americans, to name two examples, have their story to tell as well.) But more tragic than the racism of our culture is the reality that this racism also shapes and directs the life of the Church. What else explains, for example, the “new vision” for ministry that local church leaders have, which requires the church move to a new location right after “they” begin to move into the neighborhood? We’d rather leave the building empty and eventually see it become a mosque than die to our fears. In fact, we now have a whole new theology of church life that twists the Bible to confirm our prejudices and fears. It’s called the “Homogeneous Church Principle.” Guess what? The Bible tells us that our task is to grow churches, yet we interpret this to mean reaching our own “kind.” To our shame, we argue that Scripture requires our bigotry for the kingdom of God to advance.

But perhaps most disturbing of all are the findings of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, described in their compelling study, Divided by Race: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2000). After interviews with 2,200 evangelicals, their conclusion is that not only do evangelicals not see the problem of race in America, we also deny that it exists. Certainly, if we deny its grip on the culture, we will, by necessity, deny its grip on the Church. What is the prognosis? Emerson and Smith conclude, “If white Evangelicals continue to travel the same road they have traveled thus far, the future does indeed look bleak.”

But we are a people of hope who have been given good news. When I ponder the question of race, few portions of Scripture fuel hope more than the book of Galatians. What was going on at Galatia? Jewish life had been shaped for centuries by the Mosaic code and so marked out by distinctive practices: dietary restrictions, Sabbath observance, ritual sacrifice, the initiatory right of circumcision, and strict rules of table fellowship—the children of God don’t eat with Gentile dogs (cf. Mark 7:24-30). Over time, however, these practices came to be wedded to an ethnocentric covenantal theology[1]—Chosen People are the Only People. They marked out those who belong to God.[2] What to do then with Gentile converts? Circumcise them so that the blessing and benefit of table fellowship among the people of God (the Jews) may be extended to them. When you read Galatians, it’s hard to miss Paul’s righteous anger toward believers who would divide the Church on the basis of race or ethnicity.

As a preface to this discussion on Galatians, here are two thoughts to consider: a) We are tempted, given Paul’s bracing language in Galatians, to suppose the problem was a group of false teachers who were not followers of the Messiah. To the contrary, Paul was wrestling with the problem of Jewish believers seeking to enforce an ethnocentric covenantal theology in the Church. Remember, for example, who sent Peter into betrayal mode—representatives of the Jerusalem church sent by James. And b) clearly, there is a uniqueness in redemptive history to the antagonism between Jew and Gentile. However, its uniqueness does not nullify its power in helping us think through the issue of race and ethnicity in the modern church.

If this false gospel were to win the day, Paul knew the mission to the Gentiles would be over. The message would no longer be about the risen Lord whose inheritance is the nations. It would be, “Good news: You, too, can be Jewish.” One only needs to ponder the life of Jonah to see what a heady mix theological racism can be. His problem was not lack of missionary zeal. It was a false mingling of race and grace that considered the lost condition of the Ninevites and quite literally said, “To Hell with you!” Paul’s sense of crisis was not misplaced.

So what was Paul’s answer to a church—ancient or modern—divided by race and class? Quite simply, the good news of a new humanity raised up in the Second Adam, Christ Jesus, that is a sign of the eternal kingdom having now broken into the middle of history.

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you
  who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,
  for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you
are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29, NIV)

Paul knew that the Gospel guarantees that God has promised a people who will live forever in a renewed creation, a people justified freely by grace through faith, a people who have been baptized into Christ and are, therefore, one in Him. Fallen humanity, united in the First Adam, is a people who exclude and use power to enforce those exclusions. Paul has in mind exclusion on the basis of race or ethnicity (neither Jew nor Greek), socio-economic status (slave nor free), or gender (male nor female). All the bases for exclusion that mark fallen human community are done away with in Christ. The result is a new community, a kingdom community that perfectly embodies the transforming, reconciling power of the cross.

Notice, too, how Paul frames his argument. At the climax of the book, he exults in the good news of the Messiah, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (6:15a). Consider his argument carefully. Ethnic and racial exclusion is over. The people of God are not divided and excluded by the false categories of the world. “What counts is a new creation” (6:15b). We are the people of a new age. Notice his introduction as well (1:1-5). By the redeeming work of Christ, we have been delivered from this present evil age. In light of the whole of Galatians, what is it that categorizes this present evil age? The ideas of otherness and exclusion.[3] This present evil age is a time when men and women falsely derive identity from race, class, and gender, using them to identify those who are “other” and exclude them. Paul asserts that citizens of the age to come are those whose identity is found in Christ and not in the excluding categories of an age that is passing away.

Now, is this reconciled community something we simply hope for in the distant future? Do we simply settle into the present, marked as it is by the alienation of exclusion? Paul’s response is a resounding, “May it never be!” Why? Because the Messiah has been raised from the dead; the Lord’s Anointed was vindicated on the third day, and His rightful rule has now begun (1:1). The new day the prophets longed for has now dawned; a new order of things has begun; the end time rule of God has now broken into the middle of history through our Lord Jesus Christ. With the dawn of that new day comes the new humanity who live together in a whole new way: not shaped by race or ethnicity, not divided by class, not exclusive on the basis of gender, but a taste of heaven, a taste now of all that humankind will become in the resurrection at the Last Day when Jesus returns to bring His kingdom in all its fullness.

The Church in the middle of history is to be a taste of heaven now, a taste of the eternal fellowship of the reconciled. Exclusion by race or any other means is, according to Galatians, quite simply a betrayal of the Good News of Jesus. A church that marginalizes and excludes is, quite frankly, a church that is false to the Gospel.

Our family lived in the city of Baltimore for seventeen years. I still recall with wonder and amazement the communion services in our small church in that city, Faith Christian Fellowship.[4] Ours was one of Baltimore’s most broken communities, marred and twisted by all that the forces of racism and poverty can affect. And yet we gathered around a table—Black, White, Asian, middle-class, working-class, and poverty-stricken—and together we were something of a taste of heaven. That was the place where hope was birthed and nourished. There can be a table in time that shapes a people for eternity.

Rev. Robert Lynn, a Wilberforce Forum seminary fellow, is Associate Pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor,  Michigan. He is also a lecturer at Istanbul Reformed Seminary in Istanbul, Turkey.

[1] See Bruce W. Longenecker, The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians (Abingdon Press, 1998) for an extended treatment of this idea and its place in the argument of this epistle.

[2] See N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996), 369-442.

[4] I can boast about our church since I was not the pastor. (I was serving in a local seminary.) Rev. Craig Garriott and his wife, Maria, planted that church, and with grace and courage have pastored it for more than twenty years. Few understand what sacrifice it takes, given the issues, to care for a church that pursues racial reconciliation and economic justice. Someone needs to tell their story and that of other courageous pastors who lead similar churches.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or PFM. Links to outside articles or websites are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.