Event Review: Columbia Faith and Action’s Panel on Race & The Gospel
The way Christians tend to talk about race is markedly shaped by secular discourse. It has become popular for us to classify just about everything—language, sex, race, and ethnicity—as some kind of power struggle. Within this framework, there are obvious barriers to constructive dialogue: if we cannot escape the eternal power struggle of racial issues, how can we truly communicate with each other? If there is nothing beyond the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, what hope do we have at all? And if the problem is unavoidable rivalry, can there be a solution?
Columbia Faith and Action’s Race and the Gospel panel centered on these questions—though they were never explicitly vocalized. At times, the panelists’ deep understanding of God’s truth and their longing for reconciliation led to truly profound statements about race and the Gospel. At other times, the zeitgeist crept in and muddled the discussion.
The panelists, Dr. Kyuboem Lee, Pastor Kenneth Hart, and UPenn Ministry Fellow Kelly Schaaf, fielded questions in an attempt to uncover the Gospel’s response to race issues. With the groundwork for the discussion laid, Dr. Lee provided insight into the relevance of the Trinity to social issues in the Church: our God is one, unified in three distinct persons, each eternally submitting Himself to Himself. There is unity, eternal sacrifice, and perfect love; but at the same time, there is a diversity within the Godhead that permeates central Christian teaching and worship. Unity and Trinity are equally important, and this Divine relationship can be modeled in the Church. The Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” 1 yet there is still a diverse slate of traditions, emphases, and skills within her. Though the analogy is not perfect, it makes a resonant point: we share our identity preeminently as Christians. Beyond that, there are certainly differences, but we take comfort in the fact that, without Christ, we can’t have effective conversations about race at all.
Had the panelists belabored this point a bit more, perhaps we would have arrived at something profound, but since the conversation was conducted entirely in the language of privilege and prejudice, we returned quickly to the parlance of our age. At different points in the panel, Jesus was at once a figure endowed with an unimaginable, Divine “privilege,” and a brown-skinned oppressed minority living under Roman imperial occupation. Yet this idea misses the point: it should matter very little to us today that Jesus was a “colonial subject.” His Gospel was not one of class struggle or organized resistance to the Roman Empire. What matters far more in this day and age is that Jesus is the Son of God, who humbly took on flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified so the world might be redeemed through Him and reconciled to God. He came not to liberate His people from an earthly power structure but from the worst kind of oppression in existence: sin. In so doing, He dealt a mortal blow not to Rome, but to Satan—mankind’s cruelest dictator. Thus, as God’s globally united people, we place our hope in His redeeming power alone rather than in the upsetting of the status quo. But the ambiguity of Jesus’ “status” presented in the panel shows that the language of privilege and struggle often makes Christian conversation on race miss the mark. We find reconciliation through the Word, both to God and to each other. We find unity beneath the cross of Jesus, who calls us to go “to the ends of the earth” 2—regardless of what racial tension we find—proclaiming grace without borders.
At one point, the panelists responded to the fracas around a recent Tim Keller tweet:
The whole world is not getting more secular, white people are getting more secular.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) February 6, 2017
Many of Keller’s Twitter followers expressed fervent disagreement and anger in response. The general diagnosis from the panel was that the negative response to Pastor Keller was motivated by the “white” Church’s frustration at losing its hold on Christianity. Undoubtedly this idea plays a big part, but in criticizing this mindset the panelists failed to see how many parts of the evening’s dialogue took exactly the same form. If the problem that the backlash reveals is “white” Church hegemony, then the solution can only be some exchange of power. But even this right-hearted approach is wrongheaded; viewing Christianity as an inescapable power struggle is like claiming that no system or framework can be more powerful. But as Christians, we know that the most powerful framework is built upon Jesus’ truth, the truth of the Gospel, which is the only legitimate foundation of our worldview.
Ultimately, the issue at the heart of these discussions is one of identity and self-definition. When we look into our hearts, do we principally see our family, tribe, race, or culture; or do we see God’s image shining back at us, sinners saved by grace? The Apostle Paul outlines at great length his own heritage—what we might term his “identity”—calling himself a member “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.” 3 Like the panelists at times, we might be quick to place this description within the language of power and privilege, but Paul would have us do otherwise, referring to himself: “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul made his worldly identities subservient to his identity in Jesus.
We may have distinct cultures and traditions—Paul himself belonged to more than one—but ultimately it is the Gospel that allows us to relate to each other. If we are to be like Paul, we cannot regard ourselves simply as bundles of taxa; instead we need to embrace the whole Gospel, casting aside our senses of worldly identity and suffering and privilege. Only then can we find our true selves in the Lord Jesus Christ. While the Race and the Gospel panel may have strayed from this understanding from time to time, it is comforting to know that one day we will all worship our Savior in an eternal realm where this broken world has passed away, taking with it every form of racism, oppression, and suffering.