Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, it’s hard not to notice the racial tension in America. Most recently, you have the premeditated killing of the “Charleston 9” in a historical black church by a white male. This particular tragedy has affected not only the African American community, or even the church body as a whole, but Americans in general.
As someone who is constantly surrounded by people who come from different ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures other than myself, I find I’m being asked these two questions: what does racial reconciliation look like both practically and Biblically and where do we go from here?
In order to look to the future, we have to look to the past. Not for direction, but for correction. Not to point fingers or assign blame, but to learn from mistakes so that growth can take place. Winston Churchill got it right when he said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Historically, we as the church have been far too silent when it comes to the issue of race. This silence either comes from a place of ignorance (both knowingly and unknowingly) or fear. Fear of not being politically correct, fear of angering those who disagree, and/or fear of not having all of the answers.
So how do we, as the church, go about righting the wrongs that have been done? First and foremost, racial reconciliation begins with acknowledging that a problem exists. Without first admitting to an issue, there can be no solution. Let’s look at a little history.
For roughly 300 years, America subjected an entire race to slavery. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans had to deal with the unfairness of sharecropping, Jim Crow, segregation, and other unequal treatment; all of which was enforced by the state and federal laws of the country in which they had to reside.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supposed to end all discrimination, but once a nation has spent almost 400 years treating certain people as second-class citizens, mindsets, ideologies, and paradigms cannot be expected to shift overnight. Fast forward to 50+ years later and whether it’s admitted to or not, we are still dealing with individual, institutional, and systemic racism, both overtly and covertly.
I’ve witnessed dismissive attitudes towards the pains of the past (and present) and heard many well-meaning voices in the church articulate a need to move past what has already been done and just try to do better in the future. Yet, if you were married and your spouse expressed a pain or deep frustration to you, you wouldn’t ignore it or tell them to get over it. Instead, you would acknowledge it or name the pain, apologize for the wrong that has been done, and take steps to ensure that the same wrong is not repeated in the future. Racial reconciliation requires a similar process.
Almost anyone who has knowledge of church history has heard of the Azusa Street revival and William J. Seymour. In the early 1900s, Seymour found himself called to ministry and hungry to learn more. He discovered Charles F. Parham’s bible school and wanted to attend. As an African American man during Jim Crow law, it was illegal for Seymour to go to a school with white students, so he was forced to sit in the hallway with the door open in order to learn.
This was the first documented, yet unacknowledged, injustice involving race and the church. Since the ending of the story is positive, we’ve chosen to overlook the fact that an injustice occurred. We flippantly pass it off as being a product of the time period and we unconsciously file it away as just a minute detail, instead of thinking that the church, even at the risk of civil disobedience, should have had the courage to do something about Seymour being treated by a different standard than his white counterparts.
In Acts 10, we see the story of Peter going to Cornelius’s house. Verse 28 in the Message version says, “You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other…” The phrase “highly irregular” is also seen in other versions as “unlawful”, which in Greek, athemitos, can be translated as illegal. It was potentially against the law for Peter to be visiting with someone of another race, but because he heard from the Lord, he chose to go outside of societal norms and what resulted was the Holy Spirit being poured out in an unprecedented way.
Imagine with me for a moment that Charles Parham did what Peter did and had actually went outside of societal norms and allowed William J. Seymour into that classroom…or imagine that later he didn’t allow the mixed racial composition of the revival meetings to offend him to the point of splitting off.
I dare to wonder if many of the racial divides we see in the Pentecostal movement today would even be. Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and the Assemblies of God (AG) denominations might have existed as one entity instead of two; predominantly African American churches would never know separation from predominantly white churches and racial division on Sunday mornings would be a lot less so.
What if breaking down the racial barrier opened the door to release the Holy Spirit being poured out in an unprecedented way, just as it happened in the days of Peter? What if the courage to bridge racial divides was the key to unlock spiritual freedom for generations to come?
The church is called to be the church regardless of what is happening in the world around us. We are called to a higher standard of living. For too long we have allowed the world to lead us in solving social justice issues (racism, poverty, trafficking, etc.), when it is first and foremost the church’s mandate. We are not called to silence or political correctness in the face of adversity or uncomfortability, we are called to be bold and be strong.
Isaiah 1:17 says,
“Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow (NKJV).”
And in Micah 6 it tells us that the Lord requires that we ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.’ These verses call us to action.
There’s power when “brethren dwell together in perfect unity (Psalm 133:1)”. The healing of the races is unto wholeness in the body of Christ. The healing of the races is unto seeing His kingdom manifest itself in great displays of power on the earth. It is my strong belief that if we continue to ignore wrong being done, specifically in the area of race, we run the risk of not becoming a truly unified bride, prepared for the Lord’s return.
So, where do we go from here? One of the most powerful things I’ve seen happened about four months ago when the family members of the victims of the Charleston shooting had the opportunity to address the person who brutally murdered their loved one. They had the opportunity (and in my opinion the right) to tell this man anything their heart desired. The world watched on in shock as, through tears and raw emotion, these three words were directed toward the shooter, “I forgive you.” I truly believe the church impacted the secular community that day. The beginning of seeing racial reconciliation practically looks like having the courage to move towards love and forgiveness in the midst of the pain.
In James 5:16 it says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed…” The beginning of seeing reconciliation between the races in the church looks like having conversations that may be uncomfortable. It looks like praying for each other. It looks like healing.