A black man taught me what it means to be civilized. He said that the meaning of civilization could be communicated in one word: Welcome. The world places conditions on who may be welcomed, and even citizens of the most “civilized” nations welcome some and struggle to tolerate others. But the church is called to welcome all, not because of any system of classification or merit, but “because God has welcomed them” (Rom. 14:1ff; 15:7).
God’s welcome transforms the “other” into our neighbor. This is not only true for the “other” who is a stranger to us, but also the “other” who is a family member, a friend—even an enemy. This welcome is not to be confused with tolerating sinful behavior. Rather, it is a matter of trusting that God is at work in every sinner’s life, transforming us into all we are meant to be. Whenever we welcome others as our neighbors, we seek to participate with what God is doing in their lives.
The Bible is full of resources for challenging status quos that reinforce divisions based on ethnicity, class and gender. This winter we will celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 17, and Black History Month in February. As black and white Christians in America reflect on our successes and ongoing struggles together, I would like to offer some examples of how reading the Bible together can help us heal from our divided past and move toward a united future.
The Exodus in black and white
The biblical account of the Exodus can not only offer hope to those in need of deliverance, but also convict the powerful of hardness of heart toward suffering in our midst. Naturally, we all prefer to cast ourselves in the role of the liberated Hebrews rather than the oppressive Egyptians. White evangelical Christians have often attributed our prosperity to God’s blessing as a result of our commitment to upholding the Christian values upon which this country was founded.
However, when we read about the Exodus in dialogue with our black brothers and sisters, many of us would find ourselves cast in the role of the oppressive Egyptians rather than the liberated Hebrews. Our prosperity may be attributed to racial privilege rather than God’s providence by those who have no nostalgia for our country’s early history, in which Africans were valued as property rather than people.
Seeing ourselves as Egyptians in this passage may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but the Exodus demonstrates the importance of recognizing our role in others’ suffering. Pharaoh’s hardness of heart led to further oppression of the Hebrew slaves but also to his own destruction. The first thing we learn about Pharaoh in Exodus is that “he did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). There was a time when Egyptians rejoiced with Hebrews who rejoiced (Gen. 45:16–20) and mourned with Hebrews who mourned (Gen. 50:1–3); there was once a Pharaoh who knew Joseph.
In the history of our own American context, white and black Christians have not known an analogous period of openness and mutuality—but it can still be a possibility for our future. Rather than hardening our hearts toward the history of profound suffering in our midst, white Christians can repent of the ways we have participated in its perpetuation so we can participate with God and neighbor in its transformation.
Pentecost in black and white
One of the greatest challenges the early church faced was overcoming cultural and ethnic divisions. For example, in Galatians 2 Paul rebuked Peter for refusing to fellowship with Gentiles. Although these divisions were present in the early church, the critique and the corrective were also present. The church surely would not exist today if God had not created a way to overcome divisions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2:11ff.).
Paul may have confronted Peter about his racism, but the Spirit convinced him. The Spirit empowered Peter to proclaim the gospel to people “from every nation under heaven”: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, Arabs (Acts 2:9–11). The Spirit called Peter to the home of Cornelius—a Roman—to baptize his household, in spite of his distaste for Gentiles. Peter testified that, “God has shown me not to call any person profane or impure” (Acts 10:28).
In Genesis we learn that civilization as we know it was founded in the midst of murderous rivalry between brothers (Cain and Abel). This conflict continued between rival wives and their sons throughout the history of God’s chosen people. But unlike the troubled relationship between Sarah and Hagar, Elizabeth and Mary recognize one another as mutual recipients of God’s favor.
In spite of their significant differences (Elizabeth was the elderly wife of a priest, but Mary was a teenager betrothed to a carpenter), Elizabeth and Mary were able to embrace one another and anticipate the time when God’s favor would be extended to all, according to God’s promise. They looked forward to a new kind of kingdom, established by a new “son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38).
The ground at the foot of the cross is level. The cross calls us to engage suffering with hope that does not disappoint, for it is grounded in God’s love (Rom. 5:5), not in human claims to power that alienate rather than integrate. Liberation that comes from Christ is just as urgent for the victim as it is for the victimizer, and this liberation is what will finally defeat the power that divides God’s creation into these destructive roles.
The mission of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was first of all “to redeem souls.” In the context of the segregated South, one of the outcomes of this mission was civil rights for black Americans. Redemption and transformation does not neglect the kind of political justice the world so desperately needs—indeed, wherever they are practiced faithfully, revolution will inevitably follow—in individual hearts, in families, in nations. In Christ, former strangers can welcome one another as neighbors and work together to transform civilization as we once knew it into the kingdom of God.