Racism, Violence, and the Gospel

On July 7, we were once again confronted with the problem of violence and the state of race relations in our country as Micah Xavier Johnson shot and killed five Dallas police officers and wounded many more. The deadly attack followed the police shootings of two black men—Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. In the aftermath of the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings, tensions soared in both communities, and protests erupted in different parts of the country.

No one knew until the night of July 7 that Micah Johnson was preparing his own reprisal for what he believed to be another unjust shooting of African-Americans by police. As we all know by now, before the night was finished, Johnson carried out his deadly attack until Dallas Police ended his life shortly thereafter.

On the morning of July 17, we all learned of the deadly shooting of police officers in Baton Rouge by Gavin Long, leaving three officers dead and one fighting for his life. The investigation is still underway, but it appears yet again that a lone gunman filled with hate targeted police officers.

The mainstream cable media across the gamut have once again controlled much of the narrative in the aftermath of these events (not to mention the impact of social media!), offering their own spin and inviting commentary from parties on both sides of the debate. One side believes that an inequality of justice exists in America against people of color, which often leads to the targeting of young black men by police. In the wake of slavery, Jim Crow, and the long struggle for civil rights, this side asserts that systemic racism still exists. Others acknowledge that racism existed in the past but fail to see its current presence in society.

The other side points out that that most murders committed in America are “black on black,” not “white cop on black,” and that it is duplicitous to ignore the former and fixate on the latter. This group believes that the police are being targeted and unfairly portrayed as racist. In the case of police shootings of black men, police believe they are presumed guilty before due process has gathered and adjudicated all of the facts. Voices of reason on both sides have affirmed the need to cease ascribing the actions of the few to the whole and to seek nonviolent solutions together as a country.

How are we as Christians to think and act in the wake of these events? Christians can and should respond from a thoughtful, biblical perspective, believing that the Bible provides us with a sufficient and infallible guide to viewing the problems and solutions of life in this world and in our country from God’s point of view (Rom. 12:1-2). In short, the Bible should progressively shape our narrative of all that we experience in this life, allowing its message on the dignity of all human life to critique and undermine deeply ingrained cultural and racial assumptions.

Clearly, the gunning down of innocent police officers is a heinous act of murder that a civil society must reject. The current climate of hostilities and the shooting of police officers are undermining the fabric of democracy and the rule of law. Likewise, the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deserve and demand a fair and impartial investigation by federal and state officials to determine any wrongdoing by the policemen involved.

Our interpretation of these tragic events is in one way or another affected by our own cultural perspective and upbringing. Often, racial tensions in our country can inflame unexamined feelings of racial hostility that are the result of our cultural conditioning. As Christians, however, we must not allow the world or our impulses to do our thinking for us. Now is the time to be biblically reflective and lovingly engaged, refusing to be baited into hate by the media or demagogues on both sides. We Christians must not react viscerally and without reason, aligning ourselves out of loyalty to one political or racial view without filtering our thoughts, words and actions through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The standard for Christians is to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The loving thing to do as Christians is first to listen (James 1:19). The church must pay attention to majority and minority cultural voices in society to discern the deeper need among different segments of the population and apply the only solution to what ails the human heart and rends asunder the human community—the word of the cross. As John Wesley said, the world is our parish. As a result of the fall, racism and violence will always be with us. We are ambassadors of Christ to whom God has committed the word of reconciliation—a vertical reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:20) and a horizontal reconciliation among men (Eph. 2:16).

We view the diversity of races in the human family as the display of God’s creativity and grandeur, believing all human beings to be created in the image of God and those for whom Christ died (Gen. 1:26). We should never call unclean what God has called clean (Acts 10:15). Christians must view all people regardless of race or social status as the objects of God’s love and those for whom we labor tirelessly to bring to faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

Times of racial tension are opportunities for the church to act on our view that all life is sacred and to work out of the Gospel for a more just and fair society; the church does so by lifting high the message of redemption in Christ by word and deed. Christians are a Gospel people and believe that the Gospel offers the only real hope for racial reconciliation and a cure for violence in society.

The church must also affirm that God has ordained government to maintain order in a disordered world by providing equal justice under the law (Rom. 13:1-7). Good government provides protection against anarchy, tyranny and unjust treatment of people based on race or religion. As with any government, the police who enforce the laws of the land do not get it right all the time and, as a result, are subject to the laws of the land.

Christians have the responsibility to support and uphold the rule of law as long as it does not contradict the commands of God. Christians also have an opportunity to contribute by serving as police officers, public officials and concerned citizens to bring the Gospel to light in the discharge of their duties. Those who serve and protect the public deserve our respect, support and accountability. Their job is an increasingly difficult one.

Divisions of race and class are ever-present realities in our society. The Gospel is the only real and lasting means for reconciliation among races and social classes. The church is God’s reconciled community and has the opportunity in every generation to exhibit a new way of relating to others despite disparities of race and income.

The church is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city set on a hill called out by the Holy Spirit through Christ and His Gospel to enjoy a common fellowship and membership in God’s household (Eph. 2:11-22). The hostilities between races have been destroyed in the cross of Christ. Christ has made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one new humanity and one new body (Eph. 2:13-16). In Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

John, the revelator, saw a vision of members from every tongue, tribe and nation together at the great eternal worship service in heaven, singing the praises of the Lamb of God, who has bought us all with His precious blood (Rev. 7:9-10). The church has the opportunity today to make that future gathering more of a present reality by making disciples of all ethnicities, offering society a visible solution to racism and violence. As God’s new humanity, the church, through the Gospel, can and should offer a new way of living in human community, displaying the united Kingdom of God among the divided kingdom of man.

John David Massey

John David Massey

Associate Professor of Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Massey is an Associate Professor of Missions and teaches in the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions. He is married to Vanessa.
Twitter: @jvmassey2
John David Massey

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