Thursday, January 5, 2017

Race Relations and the Church

[Presented Sunday Morning, 8/14/2016 to the Eagan, Minnesota, Church of Christ] 

The topic for this morning is race relations and the church.  I want to consider the subject by looking at how Jesus approached race relations in his teaching and how the early church dealt with it.  It was a problem for them and it is still a problem for us.

As you know, the reading for the morning was the story of the good Samaritan.  But what often gets missed in that story in the apparent contradiction in the title.  Of course the title wasn’t included on the original writing of the story, but the title is an accurate description of what happens.  You see, to the Jewish people of the day Samaritans were not good.  They were to be avoided.  They were not to be spoken to, you could not do business with them and a respectable Jewish person would not even be seen having a conversation with one.  The Jews took the long way around to avoid the area where the Samaritans lived.

According to their teaching, a Jew was under no obligation to help any Gentile who was in need, and in fact, if a Jew killed a Gentile, the guilty Jew could not be put to death.

Yet when Jesus was confronted by a lawyer who set out to “test” him, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan.  The lawyer knew the answer to the question he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And when Jesus turned the question back to him, he gave the correct answer.  He was trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get Jesus in trouble with the religious leaders.  But to keep from looking so foolish, he asked Jesus a defensive question, “Who is my neighbor?”  I can see him looking around at his audience as he asked it, “Who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan.  By all indication, the injured man was a Jew, yet the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road.  These were people who should have been teaching compassion to their constituents, yet they got as far away from the needy man as they could. It was the Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man.  

Jesus could have reversed the roles in this story and still had a powerful illustration.  The Samaritan could have been the injured party.  In fact, that would have been the more direct way to illustrate the point about neighborliness.  But Jesus didn’t tell the story that way; he took the illustration a step further and made the Samaritan the good guy.
Why do you suppose Jesus made the story go this way?  Why would he make the Samaritan out to be the hero, contrary to the way Samaritans were viewed by the Jews, and very probably by this lawyer he was telling the story to?

He was clearly trying to teach something to this lawyer and to the others who were listening.  By choosing the man who was looked down on, both racially and religiously, to be the good guy, Jesus made an important point.  The lawyer had just admitted that the way to eternal life included loving your neighbor as yourself.  And in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus made the neighborly person – that is the one likely to inherit eternal life - turn out to be of the social, religious, and ethnic class that the lawyer doubtless hated – the group that was most looked down on.
How could Jesus have made this point any more clear?  Regardless of their ethnic, religious and cultural beginnings, everyone is precious to God.  And not just precious in the sense that we should help whoever needs help.  Because when we are the helpers that puts us in a “one up” position and we can feel good about ourselves.  But by making the Samaritan the helper Jesus crossed that boundary and made him “one up” in a good way in a society where he had always been ignored, put down, profiled, passed over and discriminated against.

I want to illustrate this point some more from scripture about Jesus, God and the New Testament writers arguing for racial inclusion, but first let’s look at where this understanding leads us today.

Race relations seem to be going backwards today.  There was a time not so very long ago when we could pretend that everything was getting better and that soon race would not be an issue in America.  But today shootings of Black people by police officers seems to be higher than ever.  That is surely in part because the media has their antenna up and every local incident now gets national attention.  But beyond that, there seems to be a real increase.

Part of the increase might can be attributed to an increased reluctance on the part of young Black people to follow the lead of their elders to just go along and do whatever the police officer tells them to do, regardless of the obviously discriminatory, racially based motives of some officers. 

Yes, there are some racist police officers, just as some of the Black people being shot were shot by well-meaning public servants who were merely defending themselves or others.  And yes, the innocent officers are caught up in the hysterics of the crowds, just as the bad guys are included with the innocent victims in the minds of the Black crowds. And by overreaching, by including those who do not deserve to be included, both sides contribute to the misunderstandings between the two groups.

As the rhetoric escalates, what is the role of the church?  First, let’s review the definition of church.  When some think of “the role of the church” they think of an organization, often headquartered far away somewhere.  Or at least they think of the appointed leadership of the local church, who have their meetings and decide the direction and goals the church will pursue.  In either case the role of the church is something we don’t have very much to do with.  It will be decided by someone else, somewhere else.  But we know from scripture that we are the church.  And in our little version of it, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck to someone else.

So, if we are the church, what is our role in race relations in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area in the Fall of 2016?

“First of all, do no harm.”  Thoroughly examine your attitudes and your conversations.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but should have eternal life.”  And he called on us to love the world too, regardless of race.  Think about your attitudes, particularly as they are reflected by your actions. 

Be alert to what is going on around you.  When you walk into a room, notice who is standing or sitting with whom. Is there a small group of Black people in one corner and the rest of the room is full of white people?  Or is there one Black person by himself, being ignored by the larger group?  Go over and make yourself known.

And in conversation, when someone makes a racist comment, at least don’t make the appearance of agreeing.  Hopefully you will be able to gently suggest an alternative way of looking at the situation.

Show generosity and love to all people wherever you are, and whoever is there.

When I worked for Ramsey County I publically suggested that racism was stronger and deeper here that it was down south. Shortly a few Black employees came up to me individually to acknowledge that what I said was true.  It is subtler here and is sometimes covered in a disguise of being “polite”, but it is in some ways more vicious, while down south it is more in your face.  Keep your antennas up and be ready to come to the defense of anyone, red, brown, yellow, black or white, who is being pushed aside or left out or, worse, harshly treated.  Don’t let that kind of situation pass without taking some kind of a stand in their defense.

You have to know that Black people are very cautious when dealing with White people until they have come to know them.  If we don’t understand the Black people around us, we will not come to understand the churches they attend.

Let’s look at some more ways the Bible deals with the issue.  Take the story of Peter and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.  Now Peter had been travelling with Jesus for three years.  He knew about how Jesus taught the Samaritan woman at the well – the woman he was not supposed to be talking to - in the place he was not supposed to be.  And how he sometimes healed non-Jewish people.  But when it came down to responding to Cornelius’ invitation, Peter had to have a vision from heaven and a voice from the Spirit to get him to go.  But the Spirit made it clear in this passage that the gospel was for everyone.  What convinced Peter finally was the fact that Cornelius and his whole household received the Spirit just as the apostles had on the day of Pentecost and Peter used that fact to convince his brothers back in Jerusalem.

Jesus, throughout his ministry kept saying, like our song says that “the gospel is for all.”  He kept hinting and outright stating that the Gentiles would be brought in to his kingdom.  In John 10:16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep, not of this flock.”  He goes on to say that in the future there will be one flock and one shepherd.  Some like to think he is talking about aliens from space here, but it probably a reference to non-Jewish believers.

He said, “One flock and one shepherd,” yet even in the churches of Christ, we have a Black flock and one that is largely White with a handful of Black people.  It has been said that Sunday morning at 10:00 is the most segregated hour of the week.  And it goes further.  Our Black brethren have their own Bible college, their own annual national gatherings and their own national youth conference.  They are more comfortable there.  Their culture is not our culture; our culture is not their culture.  Even after living together as free people for 150 years, and after over 50 years of integrated schools, our cultures are still different enough that we are really not comfortable in each other’s settings.

That is a hard one to break.  Who is going to give first?  Even our politics are different.  Black church people tend to vote Democratic these days while White church people tend to vote Republican.  Crossing the Democratic/ Republican boundary may prove to be harder than crossing the barrier of who leads our services and how we sing our songs. 

But are we called on to give up?  There were two churches, both churches of Christ, in Haiti that met side by side.  I discovered this fact one afternoon when I showed up early and alone for a Wednesday night service.  There was a middle school student there that I didn’t know but who knew enough English to carry on a rudimentary conversation.  We ended up walking around the grounds and met a young boy next door – just across the fence.  In conversation with him I discovered that there was a small church meeting there. 

I spoke with some of the leaders of the larger congregation and was told that they had talked to the little church, albeit years ago, and that the little church didn’t want to talk about merger.

Charlene and I visited with the little church a few times, while the larger group was meeting next door.  We had some meetings of representatives of both groups, but the little group was still afraid.  They were mostly scared that they would lose their identity and would forfeit all control.  I gave up.  But by this time an Alabama missionary named Larry Waymire was aware of the situation and he persevered.  Through Larry’s leadership, there is now one church where there were two and the song leader from the little church leads most of the singing at the combined services.  As it turned out, that was one of the major, unspoken, hang ups.  The song leader wanted to be able to continue leading the singing.

I told that story to illustrate that giving up on fellowship should not be one of the possible options in our catalog.

Jesus prayed in the garden that we would all be one, just as he and God are one.  Do you think he was thinking about the difficulty the early church would have with Jewish churches and non-Jewish churches?  Or what about Black churches and White churches in the 21st century?  Would that be a part of it?

And when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he got all over them for the way they were treating each other.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17 he said “Your meetings do more harm than good.”  Oof! That hurts.  They were apparently having what we might call a pot luck meal.  Yet each person or family ate only what they brought.  And some of them were bringing huge meals and some were even getting drunk, while others were going away hungry.  Do you see what was going on here?  There were different classes of people in the same church.  And the lower class people were left hungry, in spite of Jesus’ instructions to the contrary.  We have used this passage to figure out which element of the Lord’s supper to pass around first and to be sure we do remember the Lord as we should.  Have we also missed a larger instruction here, that the whole church is despised when we shame those who have less?  I encouraged you to pay attention to what is going on around you.  Apparently the Corinthians had not noticed the effects of what they were doing.

So, what are we to do? 

Paul said this in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews… To those not under the law I became as one not under the law so as to win those not having the law… so as to win those not having the law (that’s the Gentiles)… To the weak I became as weak to win the weak… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 

Paul learned how to communicate cross-culturally.  Can we not do the same?  He learned how to be like the people he was with.  Remember, our goal is not to eliminate the Black churches.  They are at least as legitimate a response to God as what we say and do here on Sunday morning.  But we do want, are instructed to want them not to feel isolated.  And for us not to feel isolated from their culture. 
I do not have a grand plan. There is no program you can sign up for.  But you can do these three things:
1.  Be determined to do no harm.  Watch your speech and your actions.  Remember you are being watched.
2.  Be aware of what is going on around you and step in to bring peace, harmony and love to every situation, whether it is a brief encounter in Walmart, or a major incident of disrespect shown on a street corner or on public transportation – or in your office.
3.  Seek out a Black person and determine to get to know them.  Familiarity with people of other cultures is the first major step to breaking down barriers.

It may seem that I have made a giant leap – from Black people being shot and killed to “get to know a Black person,” but that is where it has to start. We have to come to know and love each other.  How do you change the world?  One conversation at a time.  Maybe then you and your Black friend can then come up with next steps toward reconciliation of Black people and White people in this nation.

I have much more to say on this topic, and I may ask for another opportunity, but this is enough for one Sunday morning.  We love the Lord.  That is why we are here.  And we love his people, but we are not equally comfortable with all of them.  And they are not equally comfortable with us.  And that contributes to the distance between us.  That is where we need to start.  Thank you for this opportunity and for your attention.


  1. Thanks David. I love the story about the missionary coming from Alabama and helping them to see and understand that the two can worship together Under One Roof. No that is what love is about.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Larry is a great guy. He loves the Lord and His church.

  2. Thank you Brother David, thanks for stepping into the gap. Thanks for being a willing soul for our life's mission in Christ Jesus. In the 'World' I don't look like you and you don't look like me. However in our Father's Kingdom, our hearts are just the same. You're sermon has encouraged me to further seek His Kingdom, first, then everything and everyone will fall in place (my emphasis). I love you Brother of the same Father.

  3. Thank you, brother. Your comment is a great encouragement to me to keep on. I delivered this same lesson again yesterday to a different congregation, a year after it was first delivered at Eagan. A Black elder in the White congregation wrote me this morning to say that at their gathering that evening he looked around and for the first time ever there was no Black person standing alone. Hallelujah. Small steps, but steps nevertheless. Keep the faith.