Healing Our Ugly Racial Wound: When the Church Should Do What the Government Cannot

By Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46527326

By Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46527326

© 2016 Robert Osburn

Last Wednesday, police fatally shot Philando Castile just over three miles, or a leisurely 30-minute jog, from our home.  Triggered by that shooting, along with another in Baton Rouge, a black man then killed five Dallas police officers whose families now also ache with emptiness and loss.

In the midst of my gloom, I hear the bright voice of my Phoenix friend, Dr. Bob Moffitt: “The church is God’s agent for transformation!”   A peripatetic traveler and teacher in poor communities around the globe, he believes the church should demonstrate God’s superior wisdom to earthly and spiritual leaders and authorities by finding what governments cannot: solutions for our worst problems (Ephesians 3:10).  I like to say that the church should be a model nation.

Where is the church’s transformational impact during racial crises like the one convulsing our nation?  Instead of black and white evangelical brothers and sisters working together to solve the problem, more often we are on opposite sides of a racial fence we both wish were torn down for good.

That fence is built on a bad idea: We expect more of government than they can deliver, and less of the church that can.  In other words, we look to the wrong institution, hastening to legal solutions---whether Black Lives Matter protest marches, lawsuits, reparations, Justice Department inquiries, lawmaking, and new law enforcement policies and practices---when, in fact, we need relational solutions that complement the structural solutions our nation has been pursuing since the 1960s. The well-meaning efforts of thousands of lawyers, policymakers, media experts, and protest agitators simply cannot match the wisdom of God poured through our churches. 

If only we will arise at this bleeding hour of urgency.

Here is life on opposite sides of America’s racial fence: My many black friends assure me that every African-American person feels, to one degree or another, harassed by law enforcement agencies.  They fear the police officer in a way that a white person simply cannot, for most white people perceive law enforcement as benign keepers of the peace who also help protect black people from the many blacks bent on criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

Whites trust the government that blacks fear.  But what they share in common is that both share too high expectations of government. It will fail us if it does not otherwise oppress us.  I remind my friends that the American Revolution of 240 years ago was a revolution for small government with limited powers.  We all have reason to fear a government grown big and fierce, whether its power is projected by an ever-present police force, zealous EPA inspectors whose sometimes-ridiculous demands drive entrepreneurs out of business, or by its thousands of ever-expanding laws.

Governments and laws can oppress, whether they mean to or not.  Those activists who call for further government-mandated structural changes to end racial injustice have a built-in problem: They want to expand the reach of government, but not expand its law enforcement powers. They want big government and little government.  That contradiction points to the simple fact:  Government simply cannot be the solution for our racial crisis.

This leads us to my core claim:  The church can fix many of our nation’s racial problems, but for one more terrible problem: We American Christians remain, by and large, racially segregated on Sunday mornings (as Christian Smith and Michael Emerson found so painfully in their brilliant 2001 study Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America). 

Government cannot foster friendships, but the church can, and friendships evidence the reconciliation of which Paul wrote so eloquently in Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…”   He wrote about Gentiles and Jews, but the application to blacks and whites in 21st century America could not be more apt.

We use inferior tools (laws) to fix our problem, when, in fact, many whites and blacks in America share the same resource (faith in Christ) best suited not only to undermine racism, but to restore our relational breakdown and cultural misunderstandings.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s great civil rights movement of the 1960s was built in part on this very truth.

In the past 15 years, a large number of multiethnic and multicultural churches have been launched in the USA, leading the way in this urgent Kingdom business.  But I fear that most of our pastors, overworked and struggling to pay bills, so focus on congregational business that they overlook the urgent business of the Kingdom. 

With guidance from Pastors Tony Evans (author of the 2011 book Oneness Embraced) and John Piper (author of Bloodlines, also written in 2011), the church can help heal America’s racial wound these three ways: By building a mass movement of reconciled believers---black, white, Latin, African, and Asian---who worship together, not episodically, but at least once per month in systematic and very intentional ways. (As I write this, I give thanks for the racial healing service being co-led in south Minneapolis by the white pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church and the black pastor of Great Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.) Secondly, you and I can each intentionally and vigorously pursue relationships with those whose racial backgrounds are unlike ours.   Thirdly, we must create a mass movement of monthly interracial small groups that will gather, alternatively in white, black, and other homes, for meals and to design local solutions for our deep racial wound.

God’s wisdom is much greater than government’s, notwithstanding what policymakers, bureaucrats, and academics might want you to believe.  Our bruised, bleeding black community, and our beleaguered police forces, are simply not equipped to solve our deepest problems with the long arm of government.  But we in the church do have the symbolic, spiritual, and moral authority to begin healing this wound that will fester long past the last Black Lives Matter protest march. 

Why are we not ready to do the daring work of racial healing in and through our churches?  Why cannot we imagine that the best program for evangelism and discipleship, at this juncture in American history, is a church radically and racially reconciled (John 13:35)?