Thoughts on Race and Justice in America

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Grief. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Dismay. And struggling to see what good might come from this. These emotions and responses have been swinging back and forth in my heart and mind since witnessing the video of the gruesome killing of George Floyd. In the days since that horrible day on May 25, our nation has witnessed peaceful protests, violent rioting, additional murders and maimings, and now, as I write, the largest city in the Northwest is partly under the control of protesters. Seattle, WA has succumbed to an “occupying protest.” Neither Seattle’s Mayor Durkan, nor Governor Inslee, have revealed a plan as to how to deal with the occupation of six city blocks in the Capital Hill neighborhood, which includes a police precinct building. It’s an embarrassing display of lawlessness, fraught with danger, and filled with irony.

There are many concerns churning within each of us. My primary concern is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of truth and justice and love and hope and forgiveness that we proclaim and live as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit. About one third of the churches of the Northwest Baptist Convention are led by non-Anglo pastors. Most of these pastors and churches worship in a language other than English, but we do have African-American pastors, and other ethnic minority pastors, whose congregations worship in English.

When I think of our diversity, I primarily think of language since that’s the biggest barrier to communication and understanding each other. Beyond language there are cultural differences. And then we get to differences in appearance, personal experience, age, etc. Several of our pastors have survived wars, genocides and severe persecution. Nearly two dozen came to our country as refugees from Burma, Cambodia, Bhutan, Vietnam, El Salvador and other countries. Many of our pastors grew up in the southern part of the United States, and the older pastors among us grew up with forced segregation of blacks and whites. I grew up in a small Montana town and never met a black person until I was in college. My first experience with someone of a different skin color were two Vietnamese boys whose family came to Whitefish, MT when I was 14. I got to know these boys by helping them learn English. By the time we graduated from high school they not only knew English, they drove two of the coolest cars in school because their family started a highly successful restaurant and they worked very hard to achieve aspirations made possible by coming to America.

We all have our own unique experiences, but what I want each of our pastors to know is that I love you. Even as I write, I know I say it out of ignorance as to who many of you really are, and love is not generic; it’s personal. This week I spoke with a pastor on the phone whom I met seven years ago but haven’t seen since. That’s the nature of our work and of our relationship. And yet, I love you because I trust that you have a love for Jesus and His people, as do I. I love you if for no other reason than the God who is in you, and who has laid claim to your life, is also in me and owns me. Whatever our particular views on issues and the things that are part of our human distinctions, I trust that we make Jesus and His Kingdom our primary concern.
This doesn’t negate varied viewpoints on how to remedy the injustices and disparities that exist in our world, but I do believe that our unity in Jesus is primary. If this is true, what does it mean for our cooperative mission work? God’s Word is the truth that must guide our thinking and behavior. From His Word, I would offer a couple things that I trust will be helpful. I do not intend this to be comprehensive, but I do believe it identifies key biblical truths.

First, the most fundamental truth about every human being is that he or she is created in the image of God. The Bible states this in Genesis 1:27 and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The dignity and value of every individual is tied to this fact. From this comes the Christian belief that individuals are precious and valued, not simply groups of people or nations of people or people of a certain color, but every individual person has equal value and dignity and the God-given right to be treated justly. It is correct to say that while individuals and groups have certain physical characteristics, we are fundamentally one race, the human race, distinct from all other created beings. God breathed life into human beings. We are His image bearers in a way no other living thing is. Acts 17:26 says that every nationality throughout the whole earth has descended from one man. The genetic variations required to produce the beautiful diversity in the appearance of individual human beings were present in Adam.

One reason human beings sometimes devalue or despise people of a different skin color (though skin color is not the only, or even the greatest difference between individual human beings) is because most people do not believe every single human being is created in God’s image and that we are all descendants of one man. Most people believe in some form of biological evolution of the origin of life. Although hatred of the other “tribe” has existed for thousands of years, for the past 150 years evolution has been used to support theories of racial differences and racial superiority. For example, in the early 20th Century an African pygmy was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of evolution (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/).

This was horrific, and clearly racist, but many historical examples and arguments have used the theory of evolution to argue that some humans are more advanced than others. About 75 million people died in WWII, three percent of the world’s population, because Hitler believed some humans had no value and weren’t fully human. The Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, all happening within the past century, were predicated on the idea that some humans have more worth than others. Soviet and Chinese Communism led to the death of at least 60 million people because atheistic communism denies the image of God in each human being, and thus the worth of an individual. These cannot all be necessarily be linked directly to evolutionary theory. Scholars have specifically argued that Hitler did not believe Germanic peoples descended from apes, for example. But any theory of humanity that falls short of what the Scripture teaches, which includes all forms of racism and racist theories, ultimately leads to devaluing human beings. Christians must argue from Scripture the fundamental truths that there is one humanity, descended from one man, and each person is created in God’s image with equal value and worth.
Second, while every person has descended from the first Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, has made peace between humanity and God, and between individual humans, through His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is our peace. God sent His son to reconcile humanity to Himself and to each other (Ephesians 2). Peace in the human heart, love in the human heart, love of neighbor and love of enemy is only possible in Jesus Christ. He is the only cure for hatred and bigotry because sin produces wrong and wicked thinking that only Christ can heal. Racism and all other sin will only be put to death when we are crucified with Christ and He comes to live in us. Even then, we are subject to acting in sinful ways. Solomon wrote, “The hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). But as Christians we have the objective truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, and the indwelling of God Himself, which gives us the ability to resist and overcome sin.

I want to briefly add that Christians have sometimes used the Bible to promote racism, slavery, and various forms of bigotry. Whenever and wherever that occurs it is to our shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. The biblical truth I have shared above should guide our exegesis of Scripture whenever we are tempted to think certain Bible texts support any form of bias against others for characteristics intrinsic to them.
So, what should Christians do in the aftermath of the brutal, public killing of George Floyd and all that has happened since? We should advocate that justice be done. We should work for justice, knowing that we are moving toward the Day when God will render judgement and right all wrongs. The biblical perspective on justice is that we can’t achieve it perfectly here, but God can and He will. We should love God and love our neighbor. We should do acts of love for people who look similar to us and different than us. This requires intentionality in crossing barriers of color and economics and education and language, among others. And don’t forget our law enforcement personnel. These men and women come from peoples of every color and are serving under incredible pressure, even as they wrestle with their own deep emotions and pain.

Do we have a vital role to play in the politics of our nation? Yes. We must select leaders who believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, and we must hold them accountable, regardless of whether they’re in our favored political party. Regarding the election of leaders, Christians need to get more involved in local elections and primary elections because that’s where we have the greatest opportunity to choose leaders who adhere to the biblical truth of the worth and dignity of each person, and who lead with the conviction that they will one day stand before God to be judged by Him. Most of the political issues that affect our daily lives concern school boards, city councils, and state government. Do you know your local representatives? Do they know you? That’s where a pastor and church can have the greatest influence on things affecting daily life in our communities. By the time we get to national, general elections we mostly have a choice between two candidates. Often neither provide a satisfying choice, though one will typically represent biblical concerns better than the other. That said, quality candidates are best sorted out earlier in the process.

The bottom line for the believer is that we must make disciples of Jesus Christ and teach those disciples to think biblically about all of life. It begins with loving God. It continues with loving our neighbor. It’s easy to say. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do. I, for one, am still learning, and I want to be an eager learner. I want to learn by listening to others, with the heart and mind of a missionary, but mostly I need to hear from God, and learn from Him, how best I can love others and share Christ in meaningful ways.

The Peace of Jesus or the Peaceful Bigotry of Social Theories

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I once heard an Irish poet say that the peace agreement that ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s did not cause enemies to love each other. It did not produce peace in people’s hearts. Rather, he said they had achieved a “peaceful bigotry,” meaning they still hated each other, but they had stopped killing each other. I would argue that “peaceful bigotry” is the best the world can do. We speak of peace in the Middle East. Peace in Afghanistan. Or even peace between political opponents in the Federal Government of the United States. But what the world calls peace is merely a cessation of violence, peaceful bigotry, not peace in people’s hearts.

The Bible tells us peace is found in the person of Jesus Christ. “He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). True peace in the human heart, and peace between enemies, can only be achieved as people meet at the foot of Christ’s cross, reconciling with God and then with each other.

This came to mind as I read that some Southern Baptists are embracing aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT), and other social and political theories, that promise answers to the ongoing problems of racism and racial division. At best, the application of such theories can only produce a “peaceful bigotry.” Peace will not be achieved by embracing theories. Peace is only achieved through Jesus Christ.

To look at this another way, the Bible defines and describes justice and it does so without adjectival modifiers. The Bible doesn’t use the term “social justice,” but simply justice. When you add a modifier to the word “justice” you get something less than true, biblical justice. “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully” (Prov. 28:5).

The message of the church is unique. The uniqueness of our message is the person of Jesus Christ. He is our peace. He is just. He enables us to understand what justice is. And on that coming Day, He will produce perfect peace and justice. Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31f).

We must not settle for peaceful bigotry. We must not commit to social theories that enable the continuation of hate, bigotry, and division, and deny the gospel as the only power to change hearts, thus producing true peace. The Church only has one message – Jesus. He is our peace.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention