Following the first day of his freshman English class, Arthur explained, the professor called him aside. “Drop this course,” she warned, “because you won’t pass. And if you tell anyone I told you this, it’ll be your word against mine.” The only difference between Arthur and the rest of the class was that Arthur was its only African-American student. If racism has made the news more lately, it’s not because it wasn’t happening before.
After the deepest tragedy in my young life, an African-American grandmother and her five granddaughters embraced me as a member of their family. Their church circles nurtured me back to wholeness; I found that they knew how to deal with pain more deeply than the conservative white evangelical churches of which I’d been a part.
I had always believed that ethnic reconciliation was valuable, but as I began to explore Scripture it became clear how prominent the themes of justice and race were. Especially throughout the New Testament, as Jesus and his followers reached out to Samaritans or Gentiles, they modeled bridging ethnic barriers. One need look no farther than Romans, Galatians and Ephesians; the diverse peoples before God’s throne in Revelation; the Gentile mission in Matthew; and so forth. If God would summon us to surmount a barrier that he himself had established in history—the division between Israel and Gentiles—how much more would he summon us to surmount every other barrier, barriers established by human sin and selfishness?
When Jesus drove moneychangers from the temple, he quoted from Isa 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Mark 11:17). Although the Old Testament welcomed Gentiles as well as Israelites (1 Kgs 8:41-43), new interpretations of purity regulations now restricted them. The outer court was the only place where Gentiles were welcome in Herod’s temple; signs warned that any Gentile passing beyond this point was responsible for their own death. Yet this outer court was being co-opted by the organizational demands of the temple establishment, and Jesus protested it, warning of coming judgment (with additional words from Jer 7). Jesus came to establish a new place of worship that transcended such sites as Jerusalem or the Samaritans’ Mount Gerizim: “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:20-24).
Years later, Paul’s detractors wrongly accused him of having taken a Gentile past the dividing wall that separated the outer court from the inner temple precincts (Acts 21:28). Paul makes use of the occasion to preach about Jesus, but for him the true gospel of reconciliation with God had to include reconciliation with one’s prospective brothers and sisters in Christ. Once he mentions a mission to the Gentiles, however, the already suspicious crowd erupts with calls for his death (Acts 22:21-22).
This ensuing riot lands Paul in Roman custody, from which he authors a letter to believers in the same region (the Roman province of Asia) from which his accusers (and the falsely accused Gentile) hailed (Acts 21:27-29). For both Paul and his audience, there could be no greater symbol of this division between Jew and Gentile than this dividing wall in the Jerusalem temple; yet Paul audaciously proclaims that this dividing wall has been shattered by the cross of Christ (Eph 2:14-16). Indeed, Christ has established a new, spiritual temple by the Spirit, made of both Jews and the once-unwelcome Gentiles (2:20-22).
The world in which Paul proclaimed no spiritual difference between Jew and Gentile (Gal 3:28) was not a world that valued ethnic reconciliation; only a few years after Paul left Caesarea for Rome, Caesarea’s streets erupted into bloodshed as local Syrians slaughtered the city’s Jewish community. Nevertheless, the gospel is truth, whether its message is popular or not.
Because of Grandma Johnson and her granddaughters, I was able to hear Arthur and other African-American Christians as they shared with me their experiences of racism. In the racially-divided community in which we then lived, there were two sides; the white side, which had initiated slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and subsequent acts of racism, and the African-American community, which, as a group, had never even had the social power to mistreat the white community. It seemed clear to me which side the God of justice would favor. That’s why I converted—I became part of the Black Church, being ordained in an African-American church in 1991. Since then, at various points I have witnessed racism for myself as well as hearing other reports.
Of course, the dynamics vary from one place to another. To my surprise, my wife, who is from Congo, was openly told by a prospective employer in France, “We don’t hire blacks here.” She has reported no experience of racism in Wilmore or the Asbury community, though some African-American and international students have experienced it from individuals even here.
Jesus and Paul worked hard to cross ethnic barriers to reach even unbelievers. How much more ought we as Christians from different races to partner across ethnic lines to work for justice and peace.
Dr. Craig Keener is also a valued contributor to Seedbed.com.