Racial Reconciliation is Essential to Discipleship
About four years ago, my friend and I attended a denominational meeting as church representatives. We shared a room and spent the better part of 48 hours together. One night, we stayed up for hours chatting. Our conversation ran the usual gamut of topics — relationships, family, hobbies. But what I remember most are the stories my friend shared about his countless negative interactions with police officers. It shook me. Of course, I had read and seen stories of police brutality and shootings of unarmed black men before, but hearing my friend talk about being regularly pulled over for no reason other than the color of his skin dumbfounded me.
I wish I could say that my first reaction was outrage and righteous indignation, but it was mostly shock and some disbelief. After all, I had never been pulled over for no reason or hassled by police officers. Neither had anyone in my family or anyone I grew up with. It’s not that I didn’t believe my friend or trust what he was saying. It sounded like he lived in a different country than me.
I’m ashamed to admit that it was not until I was in intimate community with African-Americans and heard their stories that the depths of racial injustice became personal for me. While opening my eyes to injustices, my friends also showed me God’s mercy and patience in helping me see how race relations deeply shape our discipleship as Christians in this country.
Put simply, in the Kingdom of God, God’s people are reconciled to Him and to each other. This is clearly not the case in our culture in which deep racial divides are the norm. I started to wonder why this was. How was it possible to be a Christian and not see all the ways that brothers and sisters of color were mistreated, devalued, and hurting? Their stories echo so loudly. We need to stop, listen, and let them shape us as disciples of Christ.
What is Discipleship?
In the opening lines of Confessions, St. Augustine writes: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Expanding on this notion, philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith argues that human beings are primarily desiring creatures, not thinking or believing ones. Therefore, it is our desires that dictate our actions and behaviors. In short, we do what we love. Smith doesn’t refer to superficial “likes” or mere preferences. He is talking about our heart’s deepest desires, what we yearn for, what we crave.¹ This is fundamental to human nature and to understanding discipleship and formation. Discipleship is discerning how our desires have been deformed by the world and submitting to the Father to reform us through the Holy Spirit to become more like Jesus.
So, what does God desire for us to desire? In the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1:28, God commands mankind to be fruitful and multiply, to cover the earth and subdue it. As His ambassadors and image-bearers, we were to spread His Name and glory across the wide array of creation. As we adapted, people would develop different cultures that would reflect the broad and expansive glory of God.² In fulfilling God’s mandate, we would find rest in Him.
Of course, we failed, and our desires became warped and distorted. Only Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could make us right again. The Holy Spirit directs our discipleship and formation toward the Father’s will and desire to make us more like His Son. Because we are desiring creatures, the Holy Spirit reorients and transforms our loves to align with God’s. That is what it means to be in the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is where God’s rule and reign are perfect and where His will is perfectly realized. Though our world is far from that, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection ushered in God’s Kingdom and we can now see glimpses of Glory in and through the Church. In fact, Revelation 7:9 provides a very hopeful foretaste of the Kingdom: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” loudly worshiping Jesus. God delights when all of His people worship Him to reflect the many facets of our infinite and awesome God! God longs for His people to be reconciled to Him and to each other in worship.
There is very little in American history and culture that orients its people to this Godly vision for mankind. None of this should surprise Christians. We know that our hearts are bent toward self-worship and rebellion. As a result, the cultures we formed, which were supposed to spread God’s glory, instead destroy, consume, and exploit people and all of God’s creation. In God’s Kingdom, every nation, tribe, people, and language stand united before the throne in worshiping the Lamb. In America, segregation and separation are the norms. “Us” versus “them.” God’s Kingdom is inclusive; American culture is exclusive.
In order to be a disciple of Christ in America, the first step is to understand that God seeks to change what we desire and love from ourselves to Him. We need to taste, see, and experience that Jesus is the Bread of Life, not fortune, fame, security, or comfort. We need to yearn for God above all else and delight in what God delights in — reconciliation with Him and with each other. The fruit that God bears from reconciliation fulfills His cultural mandate and we find rest in Him as reconciled people.
In my personal discipleship journey, hearing personal accounts of racial injustice opened my eyes. Reading about the massive scale of racial oppression throughout this country’s history was a punch in the gut. Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith is perhaps the most important book I read on the state of race relations in America and why it matters to the American Church. Published in 2000, the hard truths from their research still resonate today. Emerson and Smith unpack the deep cultural forces that divide White and Black Americans and why this gulf is even more significant among Christians—particularly evangelicals. If you have not read it, stop reading and go buy that book.
As I read the book, the Spirit prompted me to repent many times for my own complicity in racism, discrimination, and segregation. I repented of taking advantage of my Korean-American male privilege. I also started praying that God would open the eyes of the American Church to the ways that we have enabled and furthered systemic and individual racism and that we would repent. Every book I read on the list below and every account of injustice I heard or read led me to deeper repentance.
Racial injustice is a discipleship matter because God intends for all of creation to be reconciled to Him, flourish, and reflect His glory. When a culture teaches dehumanization and diminishing of any people as “less than,” it is an affront to our Holy God. Instead of trusting what our culture says about people and the world, we need to look to Scripture for the truth.
Throughout the Old Testament, God called on the Israelites to remember the exodus from Egypt and how He saved them from slavery. God did this because He wanted the Israelites to remember who they were, where they came from, and who rescued them. He calls us to do the same today. A crucial part of Christian living is remembering. A congregation that doesn’t regularly remember where they came from and how far God has brought them will forget who they are and to whom they belong.
As American Christians, we obey God when we call for our nation to remember its history. We call to memory that the very foundation of this country’s formation and growth were erected upon the bodies of subjugated and slaughtered Indigenous Peoples and dehumanized and enslaved African peoples. White imperialism’s form has changed and evolved over the years, but it still thrives today. The devastating effects of segregation, federally-mandated housing discrimination,³ unequal access to quality education, and uneven enforcement of the law literally shape many of our cities today.
Yet, there seems to be a national amnesia about the atrocities visited upon Black and Brown people throughout history. Perhaps the most visceral example of America’s terrorism of its own citizens is lynching. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, over 4,000 cases of “racial terror lynchings” occurred in 12 southern states and many more in other states between 1877 and 1950.⁴ This ugly history is largely glossed over, but the sins of the past do not stay dormant. Countless recent stories of nooses used to intimidate and threaten Black people across the country show that the specter of lynching is alive and well. In fact, according to theologian James Cone, the lynching tree is a powerful corollary to the cross.⁵ Lynching is a visceral reminder that America is Babylon to many of its citizens.
Because of our national sin of forgetting, discipleship in America means that we are responsible for learning this history, practicing deep and ongoing repentance for our racial sins, and confessing our complicity in those sins. We must specifically repent for how some of us have grown very comfortable and have enjoyed our culture’s benefits at the expense of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. God desires to form us as people who glorify His Name and spread His justice and shalom, not to be beneficiaries of injustice.
The Church’s Work: Repairing by Submitting
In the face of hundreds of years of oppression and the concurrent work of our culture to form us to forget or downplay that oppression, what can one pastor or congregation do? For this, we look to ancient Church practices. We should repent, grieve, and lament regularly and together. When we gather in worship, our Christian habits and practices of singing praise, praying, greeting each other in the Name of the Lord, taking communion, and hearing from God wash us of the ways that the enemy and our culture tries to direct our desires. In worship, the Holy Spirit disciples us, transforms us, and reorients us back toward God and His Kingdom.
In addition to worship, here are some health checks for your church to see if you disciple all people. Is your worship hospitable to everyone? Who is asked to stretch? In other words, who is made to feel uncomfortable most of the time? If it’s just non-White people, then there’s a good chance your church practices are conforming to unhealthy cultural norms, not to the Kingdom of God’s. Pastor Duke Kwon posted a diagram (below) that I find extremely helpful in discerning your church’s posture toward people of different races. The example on the left does not acknowledge the reality that American churches, particularly majority-White ones, default to White cultural norms. The example on the right depicts a more hospitable approach that acknowledges the challenges people of color face in White-dominant spaces.
Some tangible practices to critically consider are preaching illustrations and examples, musical styles, and liturgies. Assess which groups stay at your church and which leave. People of color will often leave churches without being forthcoming about why they are leaving. However, many reported leaving majority-White churches in the absence of prayer or discussion of the impact on people of color after the 2016 election, police shootings of young Black men and women, or disparaging immigrants.⁷
In all facets of worship, we need to teach that God is the Protector of foreigners, refugees, widows, and the poor. It is God’s will and delight to protect the marginalized. That means that we must share, believe, and elevate the stories of suffering and resilience of our Black, Latin, Asian, and Middle Eastern sisters and brothers. This means that we repent for and confess individual sins such as sexual impurity and greed, and for how our collective sin manifests in systemic forms. Just as I should have immediately believed my friend’s stories of hostile police encounters, we need to believe and elevate the stories and experiences of the marginalized and oppressed because we know that our culture can tell lies about them.
If you aren’t sure where to start, I suggest reading books on the list below, particularly the selections from “lived experiences of people of color.” I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to give you fresh eyes and an open mind. In addition to reading these accounts, reach out to Christians of different backgrounds than your own and submit to them. Give them authority to speak into your life and influence your point of view. One option is to seek a spiritual director from a different racial background.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult step, share leadership and submit to people of color. Consider the make-up of your church’s pastoral staff, elder boards, and lay leaders. How many are women? How many are people of color? Who has the power in your church? Until people of color have prominent and regular authority and decision-making power to lead your church, your church’s discipleship posture will not be hospitable enough.⁸ A more diverse leadership body brings you closer to that great multitude of every tribe, nation, people, and language.
Jesus calls us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to make disciples of all nations and to teach them to obey everything He commanded.⁹ The church is to fulfill the cultural mandate and spread God’s diverse and splendid image across all of creation. In doing this, you will be questioned, misunderstood, and vilified. Then you will know you are where you should be. This is hard Kingdom work, but it is in this good work that our hearts will find rest in God.
Discipleship: You Are What You Love (Smith), A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Peterson), Liturgy of the Ordinary (Warren)
Important American History: Divided by Faith (Emerson & Smith), The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), 13th (documentary by Ava Duvernay), Rethinking Mass Incarceration (Gilliard), The Color of Law (Rothstein), Race & Place (Leong), Prophetic Lament (Rah), The Cross and the Lynching Tree(Cone)
Lived Experiences of People of Color: Between the World and Me (Coates), Tears We Cannot Stop (Dyson), Reconciliation Blues (Gilbreath), Dear White Christians (Harvey), Let Justice Roll Down (John Perkins’ autobiography)
The Church’s Work: Roadmap to Reconciliation (McNeil), The Next Worship (Van Opstal), Segregation to Solidarity (Swanson), Duke Kwon’s teaching
¹ James K. A. Smith: You Are What You Love
² Brenda Salter McNeil: Roadmap to Reconciliation
³ Richard Rothstein: The Color of Law
⁵ James Cone: The Cross and the Lynching Tree
⁸ Sandra Van Opstal: The Next Worship
⁹ Matthew 28:19–20