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I traveled to Memphis last month in order to take a PhD class with Dr. Frank Anderson. Dr. Anderson is the Stephen Olford Chair of Expository Preaching and Associate Professor of Missions and Ministry at Union University in Memphis, as well as an African-American pastor. While visiting the city, I ate scrumptious pork barbeque, saw the mighty Mississippi, enjoyed wonderful fellowship, and experienced the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum is located at the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. This amazing gallery was a cornucopia of articles and artifacts from the Civil Rights era, reflecting those who have gone before us who sought to ensure equal rights for all citizens of the United States, regardless of color or ethnicity.
During my stay in Memphis, I conversed with Dr. Anderson, who was a child living in Memphis when Dr. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet. The professor relayed to me his own racial discrimination when he was young. He also told of his father, a pastor in the late 1960’s who had sought further theological education at an evangelical college, only to be denied admission simply due to his ethnicity. I was saddened by this story as well as other accounts of white evangelicals involved in cases of explicit racism or who otherwise had turned a blind eye to racial discrimination.
In this last post of a 3-part series on racial reconciliation, I want to look not to the past but to the future to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” Or to put it another way, “Since many have failed in race relations in the past, how can we bring about real change?” I will defer to John Perkins, an African-American evangelical who grew up in the rural South of the 1930’s. He believes that the reconciliation of the races is God’s imperative. Any sort of racial division or hostility is simply the byproducts of sin. In order for evangelicals to reflect God’s reconciliation of us, we must seek to do the same for others. So, Perkins encourages a 3-step process for people to “admit, submit, and commit.”
- Admit – This is a call for believers to actually admit that there are racial problems. Sadly many Christians deny this saying, “Racial problems in America are in the past”, or, “If the news would just quit talking about racism, it would go away.” However, when a believer speaks this way, he is not thinking biblically. Indeed racism is one of the sins of the Signs of the End of the Age where Jesus states that “Nation will rise against nation” (Mt. 24:7). Our modern-day concept of a nation-state is not in view here, but rather “ethne vs. ethne,” that is people of one ethnic group fighting against another. This sin of racism is part of the fall and so for believers to deny its existence is akin to denying depravity.
- Submit – Secondly, we need to submit by recognizing these problems are spiritual and can only be solved by surrendering first to God’s will, and then to each other by building solid relationships across racial barriers. This action is not fulfilled by having an annual combined church service of differing ethnicities, nor of different ethnicities attending the same church; but rather a purposeful, intentional building of meaningful relationships with people of a different ethnicity. Isn’t this what Jesus the Jew does in John 4 when he breaks the social mores of his day by speaking to a Samaritan woman? Aren’t we supposed to follow “In His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21)? So—seek out someone to do life with from a different ethnicity! The richness of understanding and the growth of trust that comes from shared lives cannot be underestimated. This step is crucial for it allows white evangelicals to get a glimpse of life through the eyes of “Minority Americans,” many who have a history of experiencing injustices.
- Commit – Finally, we must commit to these relationships in order to help overcome division and injustice. These friendships cannot be experimental and short-lived, but rather substantial and meaningful. This would involve:
- Listening without judgment. This will be difficult for you, for all of us like to be right and many prefer to judge rather than to withhold judgment. Yet, it is vitally important to first listen to other ethnicities. You will find that your compassion for others grows as you learn about them. And make sure to listen without judgment! Get to know the person first and ask great questions before being so quick to speak. Basically I am calling for you to be open for the possibility that you are wrong in the convictions you are holding.
- Pushing through the discomfort. Once you have begun to listen without judgment you may find the attending discomfort to be overwhelming, indeed it will be because you are not used to counting “others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). If you are willing to take this second step, my encouragement is to push through the discomfort—don’t unplug the process because the new relationship gets uncomfortable. Keep listening and praying for a spirit of understanding and pushing through! The more I did, the more I found that many of my presuppositions were wrong. For more information on this topic read this article found here.
- Knowing that this is how God always meant it to be. God truly wants people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) worshipping him in heaven one day. It will happen because He wants it to happen! Until then, God wants the same thing to happen here as well, “On earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). Join in God’s game plan!
*Last words…Some have said that the best act we can accomplish in following the Great Commandment is to give someone the gospel. This is somewhat true, but not exactly. What we see in Scripture as the BEST way to follow the Great Commandment is to love people enough to give them the gospel AND give them your life as well. In 1 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul prescribes this when he writes, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”
 Michael O Emerson and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, 54.