by Alex Dean
One of the best things I’ve seen over the past several years in the world of sports took place on Sunday in Oakland. In silent protest to the remarks of Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, the team walked onto the court, gathered at its center, and removed their team warm-ups to reveal inside-out undershirts. Their public refusal to represent a brand owned by a man who has a history of deeply racist remarks and actions proves that unity can thrive in the midst of diversity and that this kind of blatant racism will not be tolerated in any public forum. There was no hostility, no vulgarity, and no retaliation from the team, just a unified and peaceful protest of intolerable injustice. Chris Paul, the team’s leader (and a professing Christian), was even quoted on ESPN.com saying, “We’re going to be one, everything we do, we do it together.”
While this public stand is absolutely commendable, there is one thing that this whole controversy has brought to light: racism is alive. Surely Donald Sterling is an outlying extremist, but it is no stretch to say that the roots of racism are still present. In some communities it is blatant, and in others it is dangerously subversive. What’s worse is that extremists like Sterling who hog the public spotlight actually mask the real outworking of the predominant and subversive racism in today’s culture. People respond to his comments with white-hot anger, and rightly so. But the extreme becomes the barometer. People look at Sterling and rightly recognize the darkness within his heart. But few of us tend to probe the dark roots of racism in our own hearts.
Think about it. If you are white, can you remember a time in which you stereotyped a black person and were proven wrong? My guess is you can think of several. And if you are black, have you falsely perceived a person’s motives for acting a certain way toward you as outright racism? Have you thought, “They can never understand?”
I would venture to say that whether you are Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, or a member of any other race, racism has shaped your thoughts more often than you’ve realized. Let me give you a simplistic example. When you say something like, “They are all alike,” you communicate the lie that diversity within races does not exist. Here’s another. When we say things like, “We don’t go to that part of town,” we incidentally declare that there are dividing lines within our communities.
Here’s my point. Racism resides in the heart, not only in the public forum. It is a heart-level issue that exists, on some level, within every man and woman. And it’s not just a matter of skin color. Socioeconomic status, age, gender, and many other factors come into play when a person seeks to place a value on his inherent worth.
I think churches today that are struggling with issues of racial diversity are not doing so because of a lack of cultural progress. I think we are struggling because we have treated the surface-level issues without touching the heart. I think we have mowed over the weeds without tending to the roots of discrimination that exist underneath.
Though I grew up in a metropolitan area, my church experience has largely been lived out in the suburban South. As I say in my upcoming book, Gospel Regeneration, racism has always been an ugly reality with which I have been confronted, even within the church. Even the language used in most places I have lived suggests the walls are more solid than we might think: “black church, white church, Hispanic church,” etc. And I understand that different cultures have differing worship expressions in terms liturgy, preaching style, and more. But it seems to me that the desire of the regenerate community should be to exalt Christ in shedding light on the reality that no one kind of music, dress, or skin color is ultimately more susceptible to God’s favor. We were all dead. God made us alive in Christ. Racial diversity in Christian community is something to be celebrated in light of this truth. God saves His people, no matter what corner of the planet they may come from.
You see, the only thing that is going to uproot the racist tendencies in our hearts is the gospel. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28, 29, ESV).
In the greater context of Paul’s writings, he is certainly not saying that distinction and diversity do not exist within churches. In fact, he is saying quite the opposite. Paul saw Jews, Greeks, salves, free men, wealthy women, poor men, and so many more come to Christ by the power of the gospel. For Paul, this diversity was something to be celebrated because—catch this—it glorifies God.
So how do we allow the gospel to transform how we see people from different backgrounds? First, we need grace to understand our current tendencies. Tim Keller, in Center Church (Zondervan), says there are basically two perversions of the gospel that we tend to fall into. “The moralist/conservative bias is to use truth to evaluate cultures. Feeling superior to others in the impulse of self-justifying pride, moralists idolize their culture as supreme. The relativist/liberal approach is to relativize all cultures (‘We can all get along because there is no truth’).”
He is not simply talking about political persuasion. He is referring to the two great perversions of the gospel: religion and irreligion. Religion says, “I do things to get God’s acceptance.” Irreligion says either, “There is no God, so His acceptance is not needed,” or “God accepts everyone, regardless of what they believe or how they live.” If you tend to fall more often into the first camp, you will begin to think that your background, your financial status, and your cultural norms have some sort of hand in your salvation. If you look like you have it all together, you can be more acceptable to God. If you fall into the second camp, you fail to come to grips with the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation for anyone— no matter how culturally accepting you are.
The gospel has an answer for both of these perversions. In Christ, God chooses people of all races. But Christ is the key! He is the cornerstone. He is the Head of the Body! Without Him, there is no Body at all. In Him, the Body is made up of diverse parts, all contributing different gifts, backgrounds, experiences, etc. The gospel teaches us to celebrate diversity because God’s plan for salvation is much bigger than any one culture. The gospel begs us to seek out diversity in our churches because, in our diversity, God is seen as all the more beautiful!
In the ancient Near East, eating together was more significant than in our culture. Dining together was a sign of fellowship and inclusion. In today’s churches, we often feel that if we simply sit next to someone who is different from us, then we have done our part regarding inclusion. But the Biblical concept of Christian community goes much deeper than that. We are to share our lives with our brothers and sisters. Now, this is difficult in medium-to-large churches because we can typically find enough people who are similar to us to share our lives with. However, for the sake of the gospel, the Bible calls us to embrace diversity. Just as Paul defended the truth of the gospel when he confronted Peter, we need to defend the truth of the gospel. We need to ask ourselves, “What is at stake when we stick to only our cultural subgroups within the body of Christ?” What kind of message are we communicating to the world when our pews, our small groups, our various ministries are segregated on the basis of race, background, socioeconomic status, etc.? Should the church put forth a more concerted effort to live in line with the truth of the gospel?
The gospel brings all of God’s people to the same table. With that in mind, how much effort do we put forth to diversify our table? Here are a few very practical steps we can take toward embracing diversity.
- Meet your neighbors. How many people from different ethnicities live in your neighborhood? Do you know their names? How about their kids’ names? How about where they work? Build bridges to the people who live closest to you by taking a genuine interest in them. Invite them to church. Even crazier—invite them into your home!
- Get to know your kids’ friends. Schools are the most diverse places in America. Who does your child interact with on a daily basis? Who are their parents? Are you introducing yourselves to them at soccer games, school plays, and the like?
- Test your thoughts. This one is tricky. But ask God to help you catch yourself when racist thoughts enter your mind subversively. Ask God to reveal the heart behind those thoughts.
- Go on a missions trip. Go to another country, or go do urban, inner-city ministry. Go somewhere that’s out of your comfort zone, and get exposed to a culture that’s totally new to you. These kinds of experiences have a way of totally reshaping your understanding of culture.
God, for Your glory, help us to embrace gospel-centered diversity!
Alex Dean (Dallas Baptist University) is pastor of student ministries at Heritage Baptist Church, Lakeland, Fla. He is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. This article has been reprinted with his permission from his blog at gospelregeneration.com. Find Alex on Twitter @alexmartindean.