by Wayne Stapleton
NAB VP of Cross-Cultural Engagement
We need to grow in the church. We need transformation and healing. And one of the areas where healing is needed involves the relationship between Christians of different races. While the struggles of Latinos, Asians, and others with regard to race and ethnicity are very real, the racial distinction that has dominated and created American history for four hundred years is the one between Blacks and Whites. The history of the divide between Blacks and Whites is deep and far-reaching.
In the midst of protests and riots stemming from the death of George Floyd, and even before this flashpoint when news stories related to unarmed Black men being killed by White police officers would come to light, it seems that people in the United States are prone to retreating into their racial and socio-economic corners, even inside the church. Because the church can proclaim an eternal transformation in Christ that supersedes so much, it is problematic that we still hang on to racial, political, and socio-economic distinctions. We even read the Bible through these distinctions instead of letting the Word of God transform these distinctions.
The church’s job is to show Jesus. In a racially diverse country like the United States, with so many folks deeply impacted by the history of racial segregation and conflict, it is disingenuous to believe that folks can truly know one another well while ignoring the impact of race on who they are and who they have become.
And if the church really has the answers for humanity, it must have the answers in this area as well.
With this in mind, below are some thoughts about taking racial conversations to another level. Consider them ground rules for relationships, for hearing one another’s hearts, and hopefully, for making progress. These are ideas for how we can show the unity that Jesus seemed to have in mind when He prayed to the Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20–21 ESV). If the race distinction inside the church isn’t encompassed by this prayer, I am not sure what is.
- Enter into the conversation with an attitude of prayer. Keep Jesus central, pray beforehand, pray afterward, and pray during if you feel the need. Remember that division is what the enemy wants for the church, but unity is what Jesus died for. Jesus is stronger. We must depend upon the resources of Christ to achieve the purposes of Christ.
- Begin with the end in mind. The end is not to change minds but to embrace brotherhood, knowing one another better. White people cannot experience what it means to be Black when they hear how it feels to be Black but a White person can hear the heart of a Black person, even if the White person doesn’t change their mind. Black people must reconcile the fact that, even though in many cases they have needed to learn more about Whites than vice versa, for occupational advancement and general cultural engagement, Blacks don’t know the hearts of White people any more than Whites know the hearts of Blacks. Dialogue is necessary to know one another, and this knowledge and awareness is the goal.
- Seek to build on an already established base of mutual respect. Tough, personal conversations are best had when both parties respect one another beforehand. How one feels about race is very personal and exposing, so these conversations should take place when the risk for damaging the relationship is low, very low. The issue of race is extremely emotional; mutual respect goes a long way to minimize emotion. Don’t enter into this conversation as foes but as allies, as siblings with the same Father.
- Open up a space of grace. If you are Black, allow the White person to be himself or herself. Understand that they won’t understand. Let them hear, even clarify, without being too soft, but don’t judge them for their response; they are being them, just like you are being you. Also, don’t make your goal getting the White person to say “I’m sorry.” If your goal is their guilt, you will lose long term. (See #1 and #2.) If you are White, don’t respond as if you have the answer to how the Black person should feel. You don’t. How could you? Your goal in listening is to hear the heart of a Black person. Don’t respond in such a way as to exonerate yourself from guilt, for example, by talking about what Black people are doing to each other or by distancing yourself from any racism at all. It is ultimately not about you personally; it is about the fishbowl of a system we all are swimming in – the historical, sociological, economic water that surrounds us all.
- Exercise care with communication. Hear hearts beyond the words. People will bring a whole lot of defensiveness to this conversation. Often we don’t articulate feelings very well. But if it matters to have the conversation, then give people the benefit of the doubt when they speak in less-than-precise ways. Try not to use loaded, judgmental words.
- Be gospel-centered. There is pain on the journey, but its destination is deeper unity, even love. While this is valuable to non-Christians who are genuinely caring people, it should be seen as necessary to Christ followers who claim unity in Christ. Unity in Christ can be tricky; we each benefit from it, but we don’t achieve true unity on our terms alone. One person dictating all of the terms places them in a position of superiority. That’s not unity; that’s faux-unity. Ultimately, because of the cross and because of what was paid for our unity, each of us suffers in small ways in order to gain in great ways. More than we realize is at stake if we remain willingly blind to disunity because of race. And remember, Jesus became an “other” to reconcile “others” to Himself. If you are White, see the Jesus you claim and follow as becoming one of the oppressed – by sin, by the enemy, by sickness and death. He identified with the oppressed out of love, even when He didn’t have to. If you are Black, remember that the Jesus you claim and follow empathized with those different than Himself – humans, when He is God! – to pursue their unity with Him and the Father, at a great cost to Himself. He wasn’t standoffish, but He could have been.
- Let it be difficult. I have been in conversations where the difficulty gets stiff-armed with a joke or with a distracting comment. This discussion is painful and can be difficult, but the path to true relationship is through painful times, not around them. Respect one another enough to be willing to hear their pain. Being gospel-centered is critical for this. (See #4 and #6.)
- Don’t try to “win.” When one person wins, the other loses. Your struggles don’t lessen another person’s struggles. Life is hard in different ways for every single person. Playing the “what about me” game is not the point here; again, the point is to share hearts so you can be heard and known at a deeper level.
- Don’t steal the other person’s story. I have seen this happen when a White person responds to a Black person’s mention of oppression with a comparison to the Irish. Unless there are Irish people in the conversation, there is no need to bring them up. This conversation is about what has made the two people who they are up to that moment, to establish understanding, to hear hearts, and to empathize. Validate where the other person is, their own personal story, their own personal pain. If you are Black, understand that being human involves pain, and White people experience pain too. As is written in Romans 12:15–16, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”
- Empathize. If you are Black, do what you are asking your White friend to do in this moment. Give them and their life experiences a chance to be heard and an attempt to be understood. If you are White, please recognize that, because of White cultural predominance in American society, the Black person you are talking to has most likely thought a lot more about White people than you have about Black people. Recognize that in many instances, though not all, they have probably come closer to you and your culture than you have to theirs. Black people must bridge the cultural divide as a minority by needing to adapt to the majority culture. The majority White culture is seen as better or preferable simply because it is the majority, thereby implying that minority cultures are lesser.
I was recently talking with a missionary to Russia. He mentioned the challenge of needing to earn “chits” with the people over time there because of their history and the natural suspicion that has developed over the years. He seemed to be very accommodating to the background of these people with whom God has called him to share Christ. He seemed open to allowing them to be themselves and to taking the time to earn their trust. I am assuming this is because the call to show Jesus to them is that important.
I am fascinated that when an evangelical is called by God to enter a different culture in another part of the world, historical and cultural differences are understood and accepted. A need to learn the language and appreciate the suspicion of historical tensions is understood and accepted. In some sense, the “other” across the seas is allowed to fully be a person with a real historical background and experience.
But in the United States, perhaps because it is home, it seems that acceptance of the same types of historical and cultural differences is not as common. Learning the language and appreciating the suspicion of historical tensions is not embraced as easily. And how much more within the body of Christ itself is this important? What should the powerful gospel do when each of us applies it to our own personal place in the American historical, cultural system if God is truly seeking to make us one, not on Black terms or White terms but Jesus terms?
I want Jesus to be glorified. And I suspect that His glorification in our lives will come at a cost to us. Many of us, but not all, are willing to be the oddly-Godly and pay that price in the general culture. But fewer of us seem willing to pay the personal price of walking into deep relationship with our brothers and sisters who look different than us but who will spend eternity in the same location as us: around the throne of grace. If we are able to go deep into personal relationships across race, how much would the world be amazed at us?
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