“In Christ there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female. You are all the same in Christ Jesus.” –Galatians 3:28 NCV
This is not a proclamation that was understood by the Arkansas hospital administrator who refused to allow my 12-year-old brother to receive care from that facility. He had to be taken to the hospital for poor black folks, which resulted in his death because it was 80 miles away. It is quite likely that administrator considered himself to be a Christian and thought he was doing his duty by upholding the commitment to segregation. Though the cultural rules have changed now to some extent and such a scene might not occur in the 21st century, there is still too much suffering in America because of the racial polarization that continues to exist, and the church is one of the main places where it is most prevalent.
It hardly seems that Christians are a group of people who live with the understanding that Jesus brought in a new way of seeing and being as the Hebrew writer tells us, “Christ brings a new agreement from God to his people” (Hebrews 9:15 NCV). This agreement makes it possible “to come before God with freedom and without fear. We can do this through faith in Christ” (Ephesians 3:12 NCV). These words make it very difficult to imagine how any Christian could seek a path that does not lead to reconciliation. But it is still true that the traditional hour of worship on Sunday at 11 a.m. continues to be highly segregated, and even in the case where there is a small number of members of color in many congregations, the power centers of the church continue to be controlled mostly by white men.
The same comittment to the status quo that was alive and well in the administrator at the hospital where my father took my brother continues to find those who are on that path. Instead of searching for the courage and faith that their Christian commitment calls them to seek so they can become willing to cross all of the borders of division that they encounter, they console themselves with assertions about the differences that they see in their sisters and brothers of color. When these thoughts are entertained long enough they become quite convincing, and it becomes easier and easier to resort to the old agreements of division and polarization than to embrace the truth that there is indeed a new agreement which has made us all one in God’s eyes.
Historically, African Americans have made great strides toward trying to build bridges in the churches. Those efforts were met mostly with less-than-genuine enthusiasm in regards to bringing about long-term change because it takes more than pulpit swapping and a few shared potluck dinners or chruch picnics to build substantial bridges that can bear the weight of the historical divisions and lead to new beginnings for all. Racial reconciliation is not optional. It is God’s intention to reconcile all of humanity and it is a good idea for modern day Christians to become more intentional about it if there is any real interest in following God and seeking God’s will.
Paul told the Ephesians that “they come before God without fear,” and these words can help anyone who is trying to pay attention to the call upon their life to build bridges. This work cannot be done without going before God. It is not easy to cross cultural and racial borders that have never been crossed before and to begin to forge new relationships across major differences. But the understanding of God’s support in this matter will be the source of the courage that is needed to take such steps. It seems rather clear that white churches will stay white and black churches will stay black until there is a recommitment to the task of adhering to God’s will for reconciliation. It will call for some sacrifices and they generally need to be made by whites who benefit the most from the privilege of the system and who need to express their willingness to take the first steps to show that they understand the new agreement and its call to reconciliation.
If the church cannot forge the path to racial reconciliation, it will not happen anywhere. This is the place where miracles occur. Whenever whites and blacks build a bridge of love, respect and true appreciation for one another, where genuine equity emerges, it is a miracle.
Perhaps you are reading this column and thinking about taking a first step on this journey to reconciliation. I encourage you to go ahead. Trust that the same faith and courage that got you to this point in your life will continue to hold you up as you attempt to follow the Lord, who has given you a spirit of love and power that will never leave you. Become the “change that you want to see.”