After a long line of racially fueled events that have swept our nation, including police shootings and city-wide violence, Charleston, South Carolina enters the stage. It’s like a strange chapter at the end of a long line of racially divided chapters that have continually divided America. It’s the unlikely chapter in recent history. The surprise in the chapter is that it’s not about race. This chapter is about grace.
As we all know, the Charleston shooting has rocked our nation. The senseless act of murder carried out by a white man in the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston has brought the spotlight of the world to Charleston and what has been put in view is not what the the world expected to see. No riots. No SWAT team in riot gear. No cars being burned in the streets. Instead, it was the unlikely scene of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Bethane Middleton-Brown, the sister of one of the victims, said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry,” but “she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”
What can we learn from this horrible tragedy? Three clear things are put on display in this tragic scene that continues to unfold in Charleston.
Sin Transcends Race and Flags
What happened in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities across the nation was not about the Confederate battle flag. Although there are issues that must be addressed with the hate groups who use that flag as their icon of racism, the root problem in the Charleston shooting was sin – not a flag. I applaud Russell Moore and others who have spoken out about the need to retire the Confederate flag. I support the movement, but as I look at the big picture, I see two different issues. One is the Charleston shooting and the other is the symbol of racism that the old Confederate flag has come to represent. In fact, you can take flags away, and sin remains rooted in the racist’s heart. We must address the root issue, the depravity of the human heart.
According to the Bible, all of humanity stands guilty before God (Rom. 3:23). However, as Paul unpacks that truth in Romans 3, we see his reference to Jew and Gentile. Beginning at the end of verse 22, Paul clearly sets the stage to break through racial tensions by saying, “there is no distinction.” For the Jew who grasped the thought of Jewish superiority, Paul was making it clear that the Jew and Gentile are both on equal ground at the foot of the cross. Paul continues, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As Paul used the word “all” he is lumping into that barrel all races of humanity. In other words, no person has the right to boast about himself or his race. All are guilty before God.
Jesus Saves Sinners and He Isn’t White
I remember as a boy seeing the white Jesus pictured with long flowing brown hair in church buildings and even in the homes of Christians. It wasn’t until later in life that I actually came to the realization that Jesus isn’t a white man. That didn’t offend me, but it sure might offend those who believe their white race is superior to other races based merely upon the pigmentation of their skin.
As Paul wrote to the Jews in Romans 3, he makes clear that Gentiles can be saved too. It wasn’t about eating the right foods or observing the right holidays. It was about something far greater and more superior – the blood of Jesus. Grace comes to guilty sinners and it doesn’t stop at racial borders. Paul continues into verse 24 by saying, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” After making it clear that all races are guilty of sin, he then says, “[all] are justified by his grace as a gift.” Not in the sense of universalism, but in the sense of grace that goes beyond Jews to Gentiles – essentially to all racial groups.
Paul speaks of justification, grace, redemption, propitiation, faith, and the righteousness of God all coming upon “all” who have faith in Him – Jew and Gentile alike. Paul says, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). In other words, Jesus saves Gentiles and He’s a Jew. In our context in America, we could say, “Jesus saves sinners, and He isn’t white.” Paul labors to make known that God is the God of Jew and Gentile. The people of Charleston S.C. have labored to make that known in the aftermath of this tragedy. They have put on display a common bond that crosses racial boundaries. As they continue to talk – the world continues to listen.
Followers of Jesus Follow Jesus
It’s one thing to wear a t-shirt that has some catch phrase about Jesus on it, but quite another thing to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. What’s in the abundance of the heart comes out in the words of people in the aftermath of tragedies. Sure, it’s easy to misspeak when you’re stressed because of the pain of tragedy. However, the Charleston S.C. community is revealing the true beauty of Christianity. The Christian community is putting on display the hell conquering, race unifying, death defeating power of Jesus Christ.
As Jesus was being slaughtered on the cross, He cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In essence, that’s exactly what has been coming out of the mouths of the family members and church members of those who were killed by the gunman. It’s one thing to forgive another Christian when you’re sinned against, but to extend forgiveness toward a person who entered a church building and shot your family member is beyond normal. It’s extraordinary. The only explanation is that Jesus is Lord and His forgiveness is real.
We can learn much from this tragedy in South Carolina, but one thing that transcends all lessons is the genuine beauty of Christianity in a sin cursed world.
William Cowper, a friend of John Newton, wrote the following poem and we have it as a hymn in our hymn books. Cowper wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
It can be our prayer that God will hide a big smile behind this frowning providence. When Satan wants to divide races through a church shooting, Jesus can bring about unity that simply doesn’t make sense outside of the gospel. When a lost world watches, they see the love of Jesus and stand in awe.
How Can We Achieve Racial Unity?
#BlackLivesMatter is a popular hashtag that has swept through social media outlets in recent months. In recent years, we’ve been witnessing a rising tension among the different racial groups in America. Racial unity is something we in America have struggled with for many years, and only in these last few years have we witnessed our country take steps backward rather than forward. Last week, we all watched as the city of Baltimore was in a state of emergency as rioters and protesters burned cars and looted stores in order to gain the attention of leaders in Baltimore and beyond. It looked more like the 1960s than 2015.
From debates over immigration, religious diversity, and the controversial police shootings, the nation of America stands in need of racial unity throughout the general public. The media driven responses to the events of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other similar incidents are not always helpful. Young people are wearing t-shirts with slanderous statements that incite violence against police officers. Cars are burning in the streets, rocks are flying, moms are crying, and the younger generation is watching. With the political season starting to heat up, many people are starting to suggest options and solutions to these growing problems. How can we achieve racial unity?
Diversity Among Political Leaders Isn’t the Answer
The election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States has accomplished many things. First, his election has shattered the glass ceiling of racial advancement in American politics. Today, we see a great and wide diversity of racial groups represented among political leaders in America, including the highest office within the free world. Secondly, we have likewise witnessed under President Obama’s leadership a greater racial divide. He promised to bring races together and to unite the multicolored American population, but that has not been the case.
What can we learn from this scenario? We can learn that politics alone can’t solve the racial problems of America. Diversity among leaders will not bring about racial healing. President Obama has not provided such racial unity as our leader in America. Likewise, the city of Baltimore is governed by black leaders and that didn’t stop the citizens of their city from looting and burning buildings and cars under the statement of “inequality.” The problem is not the color of the skin. The issue is the condition of the heart. Politics and political leaders are unable to change the color of the skin and they can’t change the condition of the heart.
The laws that govern our land matter. The leaders who enforce the laws and govern the people are important factors that we must not take for granted. To point out inconsistencies and the need for reform in sectors of government and cities as a whole is not wrong. In fact, it’s healthy to point out the problems and deal with the issues. However, all responses to the problems we face must be acted out in harmony with the laws. What isn’t healthy is to foster a thug mentality or a rogue and rebellious subculture that views the government and police officers as the enemy of the people. Wearing t-shirts with rebellious and slanderous slogans about police officers isn’t the answer.
Not only is this unhealthy, it’s unbiblical. The Bible is clear in Romans 13, the governing leaders are ordained by God. Sometimes that’s mysterious to us when we see abuse and scandal, but we must trust that our God remains in control at all times. The system of government itself is not the problem. Sin is the problem. Depravity is the issue. The human heart is deceitful and full of wickedness. God uses the power and sword of government to govern the people in such a way as to bring about peace in the midst of different races and a pluralistic religious population.
A culture of anti-government or anti-police is not the answer to American racial division. Not only is this not the answer, such a rebellious attitude dishonors the victims of systemic racism and it dishonors the God who established the government system from the beginning. As Christians, we must be champions of societal unity. As we look outside of the church, this type of societal unity comes through a solid governmental system that operates according to laws and seeks to care for the wellbeing of the citizens. We must not teach our children that the “system” is the problem. We must not perpetuate a culture of entitlement that leads our children to burn cars and buildings if we think that our message isn’t being heard. An attitude of rebellion and lawbreaking will never deal with the real issues that drive racial division.
The Gospel is the Answer
Just because you’re born white and considered “privileged” doesn’t make you a racist. Just because you’re born black and you live in poverty doesn’t make you immune to racism. The fact is, racism exists on both sides of the fence. The racial problem is rooted in the heart and is caused by the appetite of our depraved human nature. Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden and he wasn’t white, but he was certainly privileged. Due to the sinful choices of Adam and Eve, sin entered the world and humanity has been suffering ever since that day in human history (Romans 5:12). All problems from fatherlessness, drugs, alcoholism, divorce, homosexuality, and racism are rooted in the sinfulness of our human heart – not the color of our external skin.
The problems of America will not be solved with political savvy, political correctness, or political tolerance. The problems we face in racially divided America are not simply due to the color differences of our skin. From Ferguson to Baltimore, we have problems that must be addressed. The right voting campaign from the ultra-conservative political leader will not save us. We can’t be looking for some political leader to fly in like Captain America and save the day. It’s not going to happen. I don’t mean to sound like I’m looking at the glass as half empty. However, I do want to communicate the truth, and the truth is – politics and political leaders are not the true answer. The Jews once looked at life through a political lens and they ended up crucifying the Messiah rather than following His leadership.
The real answer is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus Christ changes us, we will view the world through a different lens. We will start to see that while there are real systemic problems for many black neighborhoods (poverty, high crime, violence, fatherlessness, etc) to overcome – the real issue is rooted in sin. We may look at what some label as the privileged community of white America and identify racial biases and inconsistencies. However, Jesus Christ can wash away the sins of the poverty-stricken communities of America along with the racism of the privileged class.
If the church of Jesus Christ in America desires to see genuine healing from these deep rooted racial divisions, it will take a firm commitment to Jesus Christ and the spreading of His gospel across the soil of America. What would happen if we stopped using the church and the pulpit for political speeches and just preached the gospel? Following the donkeys and elephants around the country will not solve the issues. Attending Tea Party events will not bring about real racial healing. Saturating ourselves with rhetoric from talk radio or political commentators on the main stream news outlets will not bring about healing and unity.
Genuine healing will come as people bow to Jesus Christ as Lord. As white people, black people, hispanic people, and the multiplicity of other races in America bow to Jesus Christ as Lord, we will experience real unity (Ephesians 2:11-22). This Christian worldview will change how we view government, police officers, and systemic inequality. Christ will govern our hearts, our lips, our voting practices, and how we deal with instances of inequality and racial division. In Christ, we learn to value marriage and we place a high priority upon being a parent to our children. Christ will help us value all life – no matter what color of skin the person has. We will come to the realization that “black lives matter” because all lives matter.
In his famous I Have a Dream speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said:
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
In many ways we are still dreaming as a nation. Although we have experienced great healing from the days of the civil rights era and great progress has been made, we still have a need for racial unity. Our faith must not be in politics or men such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who often do more damage to racial unity than they accomplish. Our faith must be in the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone can bring about racial unity. His eye is upon the nations and one day a people from every nation and skin color on planet earth will be gathered before his majestic throne worshipping Him (Revelation 5). On that day, racism will be no more.