In Galatians, the Apostle Paul discusses his call to be an apostle the Gentiles (people who are not Jewish). One of the points of the case he makes is that Gentiles do not need to undergo circumcision and they do not need to become Jewish. They can put their faith in Jesus and be adopted as children of God (Galatians 4:5-7) and continue to be Galatians or Ephesians or Philippians.
This was revolutionary. There was a hard line in Paul’s world. Jews were the Chosen People of God and gentiles were unclean. In social circles and in religious practice, this line was rarely crossed. Yet Paul, himself a Torah-observant Jew, believed Jesus transcended racial, ethnic, and religious divisions. One of his most famous statements is “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In a world marked by divisions, Paul declared unity in Christ.
He does not, though, mean that all particularity is lost. Galatians 3:28 does not mean Christ followers are colorless, nationless, androgynous humans. No such person exists. We all come from a particular culture. We all have a specific worldview. And Paul knew this. In Galatians 3:28 he means to say that there is no preference. A Jewish Christ-follower is not more valuable to Jesus than a Gentile Christ-follower. A man does not matter more to Jesus than a woman. All of us are equal in Christ.
Today, it is entirely appropriate to take the sentiment of Galatians 3:28 and extend it. We might say “there is no longer citizen or immigrant, there is no longer Jew or Arab, there is no longer black or white; for we are all one in Christ.” In America, the black-white distinction demands concentrated attention and this is especially true for white Americans.
White people in America have enjoyed tremendous privilege. Our society has been controlled by white people in positions of power and thus is built for white people. As of today, there are more non-whites in America than whites, but white people still enjoy privileged status. Therefore it bears heavily upon Christ-followers who are white to do their part to make Galatians 3:28 a reality. Other races and ethnicities are also called to work for brotherhood in Christ, but here, I specifically address the responsibility the privileged class has. The impetus for working for equality and brotherhood falls on white people. We have to acknowledge our own privilege and actively work for a more just world, a world more welcoming to non-white persons.
There are more ways to do this than I can cite in one short blog, but I’ll share with you something I have done recently. This is only one way to advocate for justice, but this practice will spur us to more involvement in justice movements. And because we are disciples of Jesus, everything we do is done in His name, for His sake, and at His prompting.
Today is the last day of February, Black history month. I have dedicated time this month to educating myself by reading stories from communities of African, African American, and African-European people. I am going to list books I am reading. I say “am reading” because I have only finished one of these. The others I pick up and read a bit at a time, 3 pages here, 10 pages there, etc. I will peck away at these books until they’ve all be read.
I am sometimes asked how I find time to read as much as I do. One answer I give is that I read a bit of a book in short spurts and just keep at it until the book is finished. It took me 3 years to read Dickens’ David Copperfield. But I’ll tell when he falls in love with … (nope, I won’t spoil it. You’ll read it yourself, but it comes around page 650); the moment I read that he fell in love with her, I felt so good. It was worth the wait. It took me a couple of years to slog through Atlas Shrugged. But I am glad I did because now I know why I disagree with all of Ayn Rand’s conclusions.
Lately though, my nibbling approach to reading has been in the areas I mentioned, in books related to race and the experience of being black. I think it is my responsibility to do this. Blacks have to receive American history (and the way it is taught, this is mostly “white history”). If they want to graduate from high school, they must study curriculum developed, by and large, by white people. How I can befriend my African American neighbor if I have never invested time in knowing his story? How can I work for justice in the name of Jesus if I don’t understand the pain of those who’ve suffered injustice?
This is no great thing. I do not write this to say, “Hey look at what I’ve done!” I write it to say to my Christians brothers and sisters who are white, “This is what we all must do.” I am writing this and providing specific examples in hopes that you, my reader will join me in entering stories our privilege allows us to ignore. Join me in rejecting the idea that the world revolves around us because we are white.
All white Christians, out of love for our black brothers and sisters, need to understand the experiences black people have. It is our responsibility in Christ to do this. This is not a rejection of white cultural expressions. It is an acknowledgement that white voices aren’t the only voices. White stories are not the determinative stories. For Christians the determinative story involves a cross and an empty tomb. The Resurrected Lord is the one who drives me to try to understand my neighbor who is different than me.
So, I share what I have begun reading and will continue to read. I know not everyone likes to escape into the pages of a book the way I do. You might pick up just one of these books. And that’s a start! Many are at the library. If you live near me, I have some I can loan. Some I bought for less than a dollar at yard sales and thrift stores. It is possible to get into reading without spending a lot of money. But it may will you to spend a bit of time. I suggest reading like the type of reading I describe here is more valuable that nighttime TV in helping us become who Christ wants us to become. Cut out one show and give that time to reading about stories of black Americans or Asian Americans or Native Americans.
Some of these stories are not Christian in nature but if we respect people enough to listen to their stories, our compassion is expanded. Our evangelistic worldview grows. The content in these books help us enter the stories of others as we try to be compassionate witnesses to the Kingdom of God in an ever diversifying world. And if the books on my list aren’t for you, then find ones that will challenge you to think outside whatever box contains you. As you pray about how God wants you to share his love in the world, enter the stories of people different than yourself.
Here’s my list:
My Grandfather would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teague
Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend by James Gregory
Hope is cut: Youth, Unemployment, and Future in Urban Ethiopia by Daniel Mains
Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party by Curtis Austin
Auto Biography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
The Preacher King by Richard Lischer
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 by Goran Olsson
Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness by Rebecca Walker