This is the ninth article released in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” This article is by Pastor Keith Daniels.
The topic of race relations in America is certainly nothing new and has been long discussed and debated. However, in recent years what has become much more prevalently discussed, particularly within churches, is the subject of racial reconciliation. So, this Tensions article aims to briefly speak to the issue of racial reconciliation and related questions (i.e., what racial reconciliation is and what it should look like for believers, both within the church and outside the church in the broader context of the secular society). As with all our Tensions articles, the goal is to be concise and focus primarily on the broader questions and concerns. There will undoubtedly be elements of this issue that I will miss or not address, but I welcome you to reach out to me for individual discussion and further dialogue.
So, to begin, we must start with a definition. Exactly what are we referring to when we even hear the term racial reconciliation? The word reconciliation has been defined as the act of reconciling or the process of making compatible. In other words, to cause hostile parties to become amicable with one another. For the purpose of this article, the word race refers to a group of persons within humanity related by common descent or heredity. To be clear, biblically speaking, all of mankind is part of the broader human race; however, for our discussion we are referring to the idea of a subset of racial identity that is socially constructed based on physical characteristics, ancestry, or historical or shared cultural affiliation. So, in using the term racial reconciliation, definitionally, I am referring to the ideal of seeing people who make up different racial groups that have historically been incompatible in one way or another becoming compatible – capable of living together in unity.
While the historical context of race relations in America is the framework from which I address this topic, race relations and racial reconciliation is nothing new or unique to the United States of America. To be clear, the institution of chattel slavery and its aftereffects in America has certainly contributed to a greater level of sensitivity in our country. However, racial issues and the need for reconciliation have existed within every country and human context since the fall in Genesis 3. And even more notable is that reconciliation is at the heart of God and is seen within the grand theme of redemption throughout the whole of scripture. Beginning with God’s preservation and provision for Adam and Eve by covering them and removing them from the garden, the Bible is replete with evidence of God reconciling man to Himself and of His heart for reconciliation amongst mankind as image-bearers of Himself. Throughout the Old Testament, reconciliation is seen primarily in the numerous examples of God reconciling His chosen people, the nation of Israel, to Himself. And yet God’s purposes were broader, as His love for and reconciliation of His people served as both an example and witness to other nations and led many from Gentile nations to come to know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Then as the Advent unfolds and the gospel is unveiled in the pages of the New Testament, the definition of reconciliation takes on a whole new meaning. It is in the gospel itself that God goes beyond being a God of reconciliation to being the very essence of reconciliation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the message of Jesus taking on human flesh and being born in the likeness of man (i.e., the God-man) to be the reconciler. And having done so, being the man who is God, He not only seeks to reconcile but is the reconciliation between God and man. For it is on the cross of Jesus Christ that God’s redemptive work is completed, and a reconciled relationship between God and man is made possible for those who would believe. But not only that, the cross represents an even greater level of reconciliation, breaking down the barriers between people groups that were formerly hostile to one another. Ephesians 2:11-16 tells us:
“11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
So, we see that in the gospel of Jesus Christ there is not only hope for being reconciled to a holy God, having been separated by sin, there is also hope for reconciliation amongst men having been separated by race. In fact Jesus Himself is the epitome of this, as demonstrated in the Gospels during His earthly ministry. A prime example is seen in the narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, when He has an exchange that was unexpected and would have been deemed unacceptable by the woman, Jesus’ disciples, and all others. Of course, we know how the interchange goes and the outcome, but what is often overlooked in this very familiar story from John 4 is the fact that in verse 4, just preceding His encounter, John says of Jesus that “He had to go through Samaria”. Contextually and historically, it is understood that it would not have been the norm for Jews traveling to Galilee to go through Samaria, but on the contrary would have taken a route around Samaria to avoid encounters with the Samaritans, as the racial tensions between the people were extreme. In other words, John’s declaration is not as if this was the only way he could have gone, but the route taken by Jesus was by choice and intent. He was well aware of the situation and potential fallout of going this way, but He was less concerned with racial, socio-economic, and political implications and more concerned with the gospel realities. It was always Jesus’ intentional plan to cross racial lines to have a reconciling gospel encounter with the woman at the well because a greater harvest was at stake.
Now we must ask the question “what about us”? As those who have been reconciled by the power of the gospel, what is our responsibility to pursue racial reconciliation? Recognizing that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that has reconciled us to God Almighty, how are we to respond with the message of reconciliation now entrusted to us? In a world that is broken and marred by sin, we know that the only hope for healing that brokenness is the hope of the gospel. Furthermore, in a country such as our own that is so fractured by the sin of hatred and racial hostility, we know that the only hope for healing such strife is the hope of the gospel. And while we know both things intellectually, the real question is not just how do we know them cognitively or philosophically, but how do we make them a reality in our day-to-day lives? In other words, how do we live out the gospel as a gospel people who will boldly step across racial lines and into racially charged situations and conversations to share the hope that is ours in Christ? Are we willing to imitate Jesus; do we see the greater harvest at stake, as He did, beyond racial background, and enter into gospel encounters with those different from us? Contrary to the racial, cultural, political, etc., “reconciliation” agendas of the unbelieving world, our agenda is to be driven by our commitment to the greater agenda of the one who reconciled us and made us Kingdom citizens. I submit to you that the greater issue is not racial reconciliation for the sake of racial reconciliation, but racial reconciliation for the sake of gospel reconciliation. If we, as saints of the Living God, get serious about having the heart of God and living out the gospel of God, then what we pursue will be the natural outflow of His heart, and that includes racial reconciliation. Why? Because at the heart of racial reconciliation is the gospel, and at the heart of the gospel is the message of reconciliation!
So, the answer to the “what about us” question is resoundingly that we are to be engaged in racial reconciliation! That now brings us to a final question of how do we go about appropriately engaging in efforts towards gospel-centered racial reconciliation? Looking back at Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, what we see is that His was an intentional engagement with her by entering her “world” to draw her into His. Jesus drew her in by exhibiting compassion to understand her situation and then relationally sharing who He was. By the way, He did this not by avoiding the racial distinctions, but by acknowledging them in order to cross the lines. That is indeed what racial reconciliation looks like, which thereby allows for engagement in a gospel conversation.
This encounter with the woman at the well reminds me of another encounter of Jesus’, this time with a lawyer utilizing the parable of the Good Samaritan. In July of 2020, at the height of some more recent racially tense times in our country, I preached a sermon entitled “The Call to Enter In” from Luke 10:25-37, which highlights this parable. In that message, I outlined four key takeaways from the parable that I think are still very relevant for our engagement today:
- Entering In Demands More Than Mere Observation and Acknowledgement
- Entering In Involves Seeing Others with Sensitivity and Emotion
- Entering In Follows Up on Feelings with Action and Ongoing Follow-Through/Extended Care
- Entering In Requires Obedience and Intentionality
Since we have been reconciled by the gospel, the Bible declares in 2 Cor. 5:18 that we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation”. Therefore, if we are going to follow the command of the Lord to be reconcilers, it means that we must be willing to follow His example of entering in. In closing, when it comes to the somewhat sensitive topic of racial reconciliation, I do not know what your challenges may be, but I do know that we all have opportunities to more intentionally and effectively enter in. May we all make it a greater priority to build bridges of reconciliation with folks who are racially different from ourselves for the sake of the gospel.