Editor’s note: This is part 1 of the Illinois Baptist’s coverage of a recent summit hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on racial reconciliation and the gospel. Read part 2 next week here at ib2news.org.
NEWS | Meredith Flynn
Weeks of riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. More protests in major cities after the death of another African American, Eric Garner, during an arrest. And with the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the culmination of a summer of racial unrest in America. And it was only the beginning.
Chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” in the streets gave way to “Black lives matter,” and in personal conversations, the question has become “Why now?” and “I thought we had made so much progress on race relations in the U.S.”
A sad and challenging summer, followed by a new round of unrest in Ferguson after a condemning report from the U.S. Department of Justice, leaves many thinking, “Apparently not.”
And the church wonders, What can we do? And in some corners Christians have asked, What does the gospel require us to do?
“How do we as people formed by Christ start to have those conversations out in the world?” said Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore at a March summit in Nashville. “It starts if we’re in the same body, gathered around the same table, praying with one another, praying for another, serving one another, being led by one another, and then we will stand up for and speak up for one another.”
The state of race relations in America, from Ferguson to New York, and coast to coast, is demanding fresh thinking and producing new preaching on race in all kinds of churches—including here in Illinois.
More than 500 current and future church leaders gathered at LifeWay Christian Resources last month to address racial reconciliation and the gospel. The second-annual Leadership Summit hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission brought together nearly 40 speakers who presented on a wide range of topics: multi-ethnic ministry, Islam, the SBC’s history on racial issues, pop culture, and more.
In each message and panel, the summit’s key theme was clear: Racial reconciliation is a gospel issue. The gospel reconciles people to God and to one another, but sin is still at work in the world, causing tension, division, strife and violence.
The solution, leaders said at the summit, is for the church to preach and live out the gospel on matters of race. To examine itself for any lingering race-related sin of pride, and to work together to fight the common enemy of racism.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Moore said in his opening address. “Our sin keeps wanting us to divide up. But to the faithful, Jesus promises, ‘You will be called overcomers.’ And we shall overcome.”
Learning how to see each other
“All creatures of our God and King; lift up your voice and with us sing…”
The first hymn led by band Norton Hall and worship leader Jimmy McNeal took on extra significance as the words reverberated around the auditorium. All creatures, lifting up their voices, together. African American, Anglo, Hispanic; male and female; young and old. At the summit, mostly young.
The picture painted in “All Creatures of Our God and King” isn’t possible when people are left to their own devices, summit speakers said. The gospel is central to racial reconciliation. In perhaps one of the few times the Good News has been compared to mayonnaise, Dallas pastor Tony Evans said it acts as an “emulsifier,” like the eggs that helps combine the ingredients in his favorite sandwich condiment.
“Grabbing a black Christian and a white Christian, a red Christian and a yellow Christian, a Baptist and a Methodist, Pentecostal,” Evans preached as the crowd clapped and agreed with Amen’s. “He’s able to pull them together when you understand that the gospel can change an environment, and can do anything.”
The mission of reconciliation can be seen in the Bible from the very beginning, said Washington, D.C., pastor Thabiti Anyabwile (right). Preaching from the book of Genesis, he urged his listeners to consider how they look at people different from themselves, in light of the fact that everyone is made in the image of God.
“Every person we have ever looked at, smiled at, greeted, encouraged, insulted, slandered, touched, is a person bearing the marks of divine likeness, the ‘imago dei.’ So, racial reconciliation must begin with our learning the habit of seeing each other as together made in the image of God, and therefore possessing inestimable, unfathomable dignity and worth and preciousness.”
But seeing other people is such a commonplace occurrence, Anyabwile continued, and then there’s the problem of sin. That’s why true reconciliation requires a constant renewing of the mind. How a Christian treats people of different ethnicities is such a key part of living out one’s faith that it ought to be a category of discipleship, the pastor said.
“That [racism has] moved so rapidly to be a despised thing is wonderful,” he said. “But along the way, I think many Christians have been so afraid of the label, so afraid of the discussion, and so afraid of the implications, that they don’t even want to have the conversation.”
Working out the reconciliation that Christ has achieved for us is one of the most underdeveloped areas in Christian discipleship in the U.S., he said. A believer can live his whole life without someone sitting down with them to explore their identity in Christ.
And so, Anyabwile said, “We’re weak when the Fergusons erupt around us, we’re weak when we watch Eric Garner choke to death on a city sidewalk. We feel incompetent when we see a Tamir Rice shot in Cleveland.
“We don’t know quite what to say or what to do, when the (Department of Justice) reports come out, whether it’s telling us that ‘hands up don’t shoot’ isn’t true, or whether it’s telling us that, man, this police department is shot through with racist practice….It immobilizes us, because we’re not discipled, because we don’t have this as a category in what it means to mature as a Christian, as a follower of Christ.”