The Gospel and Race: A Truly Dangerous Idea

Late last year, the Sydney Opera House hosted the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, an annual event that features discussions on a number of contemporary issues and controversies.

I was excited to be attending one of the festivals most anticipated talks in its line-up: Why Black Lives Matter. The premise of the discussion was simple: considering our world’s treatment of black people, their inherent value must be a ‘dangerous’ idea. That is, dangerous to the various parties who have profited from the exploitation, subjugation, and oppression of black people.

Yet despite its namesake, what I heard from the stage was far from the most dangerous thing I reflected on that night. Instead, I walked away from the discussion with a new realisation: the gospel is not only good news – it’s a dangerous idea.

Agitators For Justice

A casual glance at the world renders two things obvious: it is profoundly broken, and it thirsts for justice.

The news coverage emerging from America in recent months has been a hideous montage of violence, hatred, and the abuse of power. Despite a long history of seeking freedom, Black Americans continue to live in a country that degrades them, patronizes them, and defaces their dignity. A country that has witnessed black man after black man gunned down in an orgy of racism, gun fetishism, and police brutality. A country that from 2001 onwards has seen one out of six black men incarcerated. A country that watches children die from disproportionate police force and remains unmoved.

Here in Australia, the release of a 2016 Four Corners Report has exposed the harsh reality for indigenous youth in detention. Despite a national apology and a more prevalent discourse on reconciliation, Australia has failed to both face up to, and adequately repent of, racial prejudice. Black Australians continue to be second-class citizens in their own country, living with the consequences of the injustice perpetrated against them. Our first peoples are dying in prison, suffering in poverty, and continually treated as a national problem to be solved.

For the Christian, there is no excuse not to act. So for God’s sake, what are we to do about it?

The gospel demands that we agitate for justice. We are followers of the one, true, living God; the God of perfect justice (Deuteronomy 32:4, Isaiah 30:18, Psalm 146:7-9), and throughout the Bible he commands his people to reflect his character (Micah 6:8, Leviticus 19:15, Matthew 5:48, 1 John 4:7). Indeed, throughout God’s word we see that to be a member of God’s people is inextricably linked to seeking justice. We are to both build a society that is just, and speak up when we fail.

Throughout history, Christians have both succeeded and failed at living this mandate. At times, we have been scared to speak out against injustice, afraid to lose power, influence, or credibility. Australian Christians were complicit in the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and lore, which remains a powerful reminder of what can happen when we become passive.

Other times, we’ve been the voices, the bodies, and the cries on the frontier of change. It’s been those times when our prayer ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10) has moved us to action. When the surety of justice in the new creation has not rendered us impotent, but motivated us to act. When we have listened to the cry of the oppressed and remembered that we are to be a light to the nations; a reflection of the just God we serve.

This is a dangerous idea. It is not always easy to speak up for justice. At times it will be necessary to forgo our comfort, our position, and sometimes our safety to speak out against it. It is easy to sit back and let other people fight racial prejudice, to see the extent of our engagement as offering petty platitudes on social media. But the gospel is the story of God stepping into history to make himself known, to fix a profoundly broken humanity, and reveal true and perfect justice. As beneficiaries of this good news, we too must step into the brokenness of our world, agitate for justice, and make the love of Christ known.

“We Are Not Enemies, But Friends”

When we are responding to racial injustice and the people that perpetrate it, we must remember who we are. Once God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), we are now his friends (John 15:9-17). Jesus Christ never picked up a sword or led an army, but he brought empires to their knees. As his followers, we cannot succumb to the temptation to extinguish evil with violence or hatred. To do so would not only be futile, but flagrant disregard of Jesus’ command ‘love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).

In 2015, in the American city Charleston, a young man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine members of the EAM Episcopal Church. I, like so many people across the world, watched in awe at the response of the families whose loved ones had been killed. At the preliminary hearing, representatives of the dead communicated a simple message to Mr Roof: “we forgive you”. Only a matter of hours after the tragic hate crime, they chose to obey Christ’s command to love their enemy. They chose, in that moment, to reassure him that he could change. They chose to forgive a man that did not deserve it.

Where forgiveness is required we must give it. This is the dangerous truth at the heart of the gospel. The gospel that tells us that victory takes a different shape, and that grace is the medium of change.

Dylann Roof has since been sentenced to death for his crimes. He remains unremorseful for his actions, and claims never to have ‘shed a tear’ over what he has done. And yet, I continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would convict him of his prejudice and bigotry. I continue to pray that in the time he has left on this earth, he will encounter the Lord Jesus, seek his forgiveness, and repent of his bloody hatred.

For when confronted with the love of Christ, there is hope even for a man like Dylann. Hope, that even now, as his life of bloodshed draws to a close, he can change. Hope that he can find forgiveness for all he has done.

When Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address he attempted to bring together a radically divided nation, a country ravaged by a civil war that became its bloodiest. In it he declared:

“We are not enemies, but friends […] though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

It’s a statement that Lincoln paid for with his life. Even more powerfully, it’s a truth made possible by the blood of Christ. We are by nature, children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). There is no good in us, and even our righteous acts are as filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6). Yet, Christ died for us. His death not only securing our forgiveness, but also the indwelling of his Spirit. It is the Spirit of God that makes us alive, changes us, and enables us to see what we otherwise would not be able to. As John Newton, a former slave ship captain once wrote: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

For the perpetrator of racial injustice, wether it be John Newton or Dylann Roof, we must remember that no one is outside of God’s reach. No one is beyond redemption. No one is beyond his amazing grace. To be sure, people are capable of great evil, and we must not convince ourselves we don’t have enemies. But thanks be to God, who not only defeats his enemies (Colossians 2:15), but makes them his friends (John 15:9-17).

“We Shall Overcome”

The protest song We Shall Overcome promises that we will overcome ‘some day’. For the Christian, that day will only be fully realised when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, when ‘there will be no more mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). When in that great multitude, people from every tribe, nation, and tongue will cry out ‘salvation belongs to our God’ (Revelation 7:10a).

Contrary to the old adage, the gospel reminds us that justice delayed is not justice denied. That as we seek justice and speak up against racism, we are living in light of that final day – when prejudice and hatred will be no more, and when we will all be judged in perfect justice. When the nine killed in Charleston will rise again in glory, and Dylann Roof will stand before God and receive a sentence immeasurably more final than the one given to him by a jury of his peers.

And yet, we live in the shadow of the cross. Where on that day two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ overcame sin. Where three days later, he walked out of the tomb and overcame death. And where now, he sits at the right hand of the Father in glory.

We are a people who have overcome, and yet wait for that day when we will. We are the people of “now, and not yet”. Not only does this reassure us when we are confronted by the brokenness of our world, but it comforts us when we are its victims.

As a woman of colour, I have experienced both racism and prejudice. I’ve heard questions like “do your parents have a job?” and comments telling me to “go back where you came from.” In the tapestry of my life are interwoven threads of bigotry, hate, and narrow-mindedness. Yet, God is weaving something beautiful out of the brokenness. In his perfect time, he is seeking justice for me.

As I wait, I remember my Jesus. I remember the death he died so that I could become his friend. I remember that the colour of my skin was inconsequential when he chose me to be his. I remember that when I die and rise again, the scars of injustice will remain in the grave. I remember that to live like Jesus is to live dangerously.

Lord, haste the day.

“O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind; in whom to dwell is to find peace and security; toward whom to turn is to find life and life eternal, we humbly beseech Thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldst be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, Thy saving health unto all nations. We also pray for Thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by Thy Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to Thy Fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed in mind or body. Give them patience under the suffering and power of endurance. This we ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.”

A prayer written by US civil-rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.