Sunday service on June 21, 2020
Messenger: Pastor James Allison
The Gospel of Christ and the Struggle with Racism
To tell you the truth, I really struggled in deciding what to talk about today. What has been on my heart and mind is the terrible news we have been hearing from the U.S., my home country, about the race-based violence continuing there. I hesitated to bring this up as a topic of a Bible message mainly because we are here in Japan. My purpose in being here is not talking about my country and our problems. We are focused more on what God is saying to the people of Japan and those we know more directly here.
I hesitated also because there are so many loud, angry voices talking and screaming about it already. What could I add that would help and not make things worse? It seems wiser in most situations like this to listen a lot more than speak. I almost decided to give another message today (pull an “experienced” one from the old files) because it seems like everything there is to say about racism has been said a thousand times already.
And are more words what is really needed now? If talking about it doesn’t lead to concrete, effective actions, why waste our time and energy? It’s very possible to say or tweet or post videos online a lot, then pat ourselves on the back, thinking we have done something virtuous. That feels to me like a temptation to sin. If you have to begin “virtue-signaling” to feel virtuous, Jesus will call your virtue into question. How many selfies have people taken of themselves protesting racism so that they would have something good to post on Facebook?
Also, what action is there to take that would really help? You may remember a children’s message I gave a couple of weeks ago. If I need a glass of pure water and there is a rock in the glass, there’s a pretty good and straightforward solution to the problem, isn’t there. You take the rock out. In struggling with the age-old problem of racism, we have often made the mistake of thinking of the problem too simply. If only we could get the right laws in place, it would go away. If only we could change our leaders to better ones—people who think rightly, like we do—things would be different. If enough people fought back hard enough for long enough, we could force people to make a better world.
If we took enough money away from police budgets or shut them down completely, that would make a better situation. But the problem has not gone away. We’ve failed in our attempts to solve it. It isn’t that simple, is it. It’s more like that glass of water with ink in it. There is no simple way to take it out and make the water drinkable. Without remaking families and the hearts of individuals—remaking our cultures themselves—we won’t be free from the evil of racism.
And, on a personal level, there is also the fact that I am a white male. With so much of my country’s bad racial history coming from people in that category, some say that I have to earn the right to speak about issues like this. Some in this grouping have a feeling that anything we say will likely be heard in a negative way and so tend to be quiet.
So I nearly decided not to take on this task in today’s message. But as I prayed and tried to listen to God’s voice of direction, it seemed to me that His message of peace in times of deep division is one that people not only of my culture and demographic group but every background need to hear. It also appears increasingly clear to me that staying silent in the face of the clear evil of racism at some point becomes unacceptable. It slips into being a choice to allow it—maybe not actively accepting it but in effect passively enabling it.
That is not an option for the people of God. That’s because He teaches us that from the very beginning of the world, He made human beings like Himself. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own likeness. He created him in the likeness of God. He created them as male and female.” It doesn’t say He made some races more like Himself than others. We are all the same before God. And if God has made us “in His image,” as the King James Version says it, for me to see another human being in a bad way because of the color of his or her skin—or whatever reason—deeply offends the God who made that person. And sooner or later, God will punish evil. If I see people in a racist way, it damages my relationship with them, but even more, it cuts against my relationship with God Himself.
When we allow people’s ethnic background to become the basis for us to think of them as less than (or more than) anyone else, we have a problem that is at its root spiritual in nature. The political and economic and other social aspects of it are the ones we most
often hear about in the news. They are all important in their own way. But I am not an expert in those areas, and we are here in a church to learn about God and draw closer to Him. So in the limited time we have, let’s focus on the message of the gospel and what it tells us about our relationships with people of different backgrounds than ours.
A basic reason that human beings need the Gospel in the first place is that sin is in the heart of every one of us. Racism is one type of sin. People may not want to hear Christians talk again and again about such negative things. “Just be positive. Believe in the power of humanity to do good,” people will tell us. But if we are going to face the truth of our condition honestly, we have to deal with sin. Have we in our various societies been willing to seek the forgiveness of God and each other for the evil we have done personally and the evil systems in which we participate? It is really difficult to say that we have. Our unwillingness to do that is not unrelated to our centuries of failure to learn to live together in peace.
The Christian gospel insists on repentance. God does not offer us hope of salvation without entering through the door to it by genuinely repenting of our sin. The Good News of Christ is that we can admit we are going the wrong way, turn around, and go the way we know is right. That’s repentance in the way the Bible describes it.
And there is plenty to repent of, isn’t there. One of my childhood memories is visiting Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A., where my aunt lived, during summer vacation when I was nine years old. It was several weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been killed there. I remember going by the Lorraine Motel, where he was assassinated. We saw burned out buildings from the riots that had happened. Some people were focused on the evil of the murder; others had their eyes on the violence of the riots that followed. They saw them as at least as evil. Today after the killing of George Floyd and a string of other African-Americans by white police before him (and even after), it’s remarkable to me how similar people’s reactions are to the ones I saw as a boy. It’s deeply disappointing and even depressing. Many of us thought we had made a lot of progress. Now it doesn’t seem that way.
The town where I grew up in the state of Arkansas had no black people at that time. There were many in the general area, and it was known as one of the places with
the worst problems of racism. Just two years before I was born, the governor of the state had refused to follow U.S. law and allow black students to study together with white ones at Central High School in Little Rock, the capital. The U.S. president had to use national guard troops to enforce that law.
Where I lived, I heard stories like that, but with no African-Americans in sight around us, problems like that didn’t seem so relevant. It was possible for us to imagine that we didn’t have problems with racism because practically everyone there was of the same race. I never stopped to wonder what the reason was that we were nearly all white. How welcome were people of other races there? If they considered moving in, how much acceptance would they be shown? Would they be treated like everyone else if they tried to get a job, get in a school they wanted to enter, or marry a local girl or guy? Questions like that hardly ever entered my mind. We knew racism existed, but we thought it was someone else’s problem. “We don’t have that kind of trouble here. We’re all so much the same.”
The next time I heard people say things like that was after I came to Japan. I still hear that kind of comment from time to time. I have not heard it from Ainu people, those of Korean ancestry born in Japan, or refugees trying to enter Japan to escape danger in their home countries.
Looking back on my experiences and all the trouble with race that has been such a large part of the story of my culture, it seems very naïve to think that anyone could be completely free from racism. I assume it is part of who I am, probably most likely to impact me if I think it’s not there. The tendency in humans to think first about me, my rights, my privilege, my people, and our position of power is so deeply formed in our hearts, that it seems almost impossible to escape completely. I am in no position to judge, but I suspect that is true at least to some degree for people of every culture and time.
So what are we as Christians to do in response to the racism when we find it, whether inside or outside us? I will simply point to a few key things that our God continues to say through His word, to people of our age and every age.
We have already seen how racism deeply offends our God. He hates it, and He will not stay silent forever when it is in us. Sooner or later, He will punish all sin in upholding justice.
Also, our God is deeply committed to reconciliation. He wants to bring people who are divided by so many things, including race, back together in peace. To do that, He did not just sit back in the comfort and privilege of Heaven but sent His only Son, Jesus, into our broken, divided world to make it possible for us to live in peace. We call that the incarnation. Jesus actually “took on flesh” and became one of the people who were suffering injustice and oppression, a Jewish man suffering under the Romans. He entered into the pain of people who were being oppressed, stood with them, and suffered with them. The police and others in His people’s government and the Romans, all violated His rights, arrested Him when He had done nothing wrong, used brutal physical force on Him, and eventually killed Him.
That is our Master, our Lord. That is how He broke down the wall of hatred (Ephesians 2:14) that separated people from people, as well as people from God. And He did not only do that Himself. He also called His people to join Him in “the ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18, NIV). We need as individuals, families, a church, and parts of the larger society, to find the specific ways we can be active parts of building a better world.
The problem of racism often seems overwhelming to me. Many times it lies hidden in human hearts for a long time before coming out. It is tied together in such tangled, complicated ways with the systems and organizations in society. Yet Jesus’ teachings about overcoming it are surprisingly simple. At the heart of all His instruction about healthy relationships with people is this concept. It is so simple that a child can easily understand it. “In everything, do to others what you would want them to do to you.”
I don’t want people to judge me because of the color of my skin. So I need to look at them with an open mind, not assuming I know what is in their hearts. I want people to listen to me. So I need to listen to them, what they are really saying, even if they express in ways that are wrong. I don’t say that everyone should always have the same
amount of money, status, and so on. But I want to have a fair chance, an equal opportunity. So I have to start by refusing to let laws and organizations that I am in part responsible for deny that to others. I have to do my part to make sure we all have access to a decent, safe, peaceful life.
Then one day, with God’s help, when I join with my brothers and sisters from “every tribe, language, people and nation” (Revelation 5:9b) before our Father in Heaven, every one of them will be a reason for me to rejoice. I will not be a person completely different from the one I am in this world. That life will be a continuing and fulfilling of the process of growth into peace and oneness in Christ that I have already begun—together with you—in this life. God, please, make that happen. That is the prayer that is in my heart. Is it in yours? Will you join me in offering it to God now?
Heavenly Father of people of every race who call you our Lord, we know that before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed to you for His disciples “that all of them will be one” (John 17:21b). That is what we pray for our broken, divided world today. Forgive us where we need to be forgiven. Help us live with the habit of regularly repenting of our sins and living in the newness of life that is possible only because of your grace. Help us give to all the people around us the kind of forgiveness and kindness that we have already received from you. Heal our world, dear Lord. Heal our world. And show each of us more and more how we can be part of your work of bringing people together in the peace of Christ. In His name we ask it, amen.