A play date! That’s what Deidra Riggs said fixed things. She was talking about a when her husband Harry was 4 years old. At a birthday party, he and another 4-year-old almost came to blows over a helium balloon. His mother decided the way to solve this pre-k feud was to call the other boy’s mom and schedule a play date. The boys became good friends and stayed that way for over 50 years.[i]
Oh that we could settle things with playdates.
Oh that we could all see as 4-year-olds see.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said that (Matthew 18:4).
I know the issues that divide people are complicated. As a white, educated, middle class, American male, I am acutely aware of particular divisions between people perpetrated by individuals like me. White males of means displaced, killed, and emasculated the indigenous people in the Americas. We (white males) enslaved Africans, hauled them to the Americas in the horrific middle passage, and then tried to strip their humanity in ‘the peculiar institution.’ We replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and Jim Crow with mass incarcerations. We put American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps. And today millions of white Americans, blissfully ignorant of any of this history, profess their innocence and their disinterest.
Understanding our own collective racism is too complicated. We just want to be happy and go to Heaven when we die. Dealing with the complexities of generational, systemic, institutional racism is too messy. To get into discussions about privilege threatens us with guilt. We came after slavery and Jim Crowe, we say. Those things aren’t my fault. We want to claim we are “colorblind” and then spend our energy and resources pursuing our own happiness.
It’s not that simple. But it is. Riggs’ book is not about playdates. But it is. She knows how complicated and how simple human relationships are. Her book is about loving God and loving neighbor and doing the work to overcome divisions that separate people. That I am reading her book as I enter a Sabbatical from pastoral ministry is providential. Matthew 10:39 (‘those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it) is the theme verse of my Sabbatical. I am learning what it means for me as a disciple, as a dad, as a husband, and as a pastor to ‘die to self.’ Deidra Riggs’ book One is one of my primary non-Biblical texts.
My church has sent me away for four months of rest, renewal, and new focus. One of the things driving me on this Sabbatical and, I believe, in the future of my ministry life is the call of God on the church to bring people together in Jesus’ name. Uniting diverse people is a direct effect of the Gospel of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Look at Ephesians 2:11-21. Look at Revelation 7:9-10. Read the entire book of Acts. Crossing cultural lines and breaking down racial barriers in order to unite divergent groups in Christ is rooted in the Gospel. All who are a part of Christ hold in their hearts a deeps concern for crossing racial barriers for the sake of loving the neighbor and bringing people together in Jesus’ name. Let me restate that for the sake of emphasis and clarity. To love and follow Jesus is to actively oppose racism and to actively advocate for justice and the coming together of all people in Jesus’ name. The Christian cannot be indifferent concerning racism and still be a Christian.
This, by the way, is a blanket condemnation of Christians who supported Jim Crowe and segregation (not to mention slavery). There can be no lionizing of our predecessors in Christianity in America or anywhere else where our forbearers tolerated and even promoted the degradation of one racial group while simultaneously exalting another. Such blatant racism is foreign to the Gospel and that was as clear in 1865 as it is today.[ii]
Unity, equality, diversity – these words have a Gospel aroma when they are understood in light of the passages I mentioned above as well as John 17 and other New Testament passages. The yearning for these things is a yearning for the Kingdom of God, where people of all shades and backgrounds joyously come together as one family in Christ. I believe the church in North America is positioned to sound a clarion call for unity and togetherness. I especially believe those with privilege (middle class educated whites) are called to sacrifice our own tastes and preferences and to willingly give up power so that minorities who have been held down by systemic racism can have a seat at the table of leadership. The church is called to set the pace as this generation moves toward equality for all people. If we, church leaders, can do this, we will help the church show the world the goodness of the Kingdom of God. And that’s our mission, to help people enter the kingdom of God as Jesus’ disciples.
With this sense of calling in mind, Riggs’ observation about how we (“we” humans) approach conversation and interaction is a guide for the Christ-follower. First, she quotes U.S. ambassador Samantha Power who says, “Some people put themselves at stake when they get involved in a cause.” My opposition to abortion is as much about my ability to defend pre-birth life as it is about the pre-birth life itself. I find myself more concerned about how I advocate for the Ethiopian orphan than I am worried about any particular orphan. No matter what the cause is, when I become strident (for or against it), I am more worried about my own image, which I happen to have attached to said cause. Ambassador Power’s point is well made. Whether or not I ever prevent an abortion or a child from starving, I want to make sure my identity and ego are preserved in how I represent myself.
Opposite this self-aggrandizing approach, Riggs makes this salient point. “Our identity is not impacted by whether or not others agree with us, or even by what others think about us. Instead, finding the right perspective on who we are is based on understanding whose we are.”[iii] Hear this. We are God’s possessions, God’s children, people made new in Christ. He is master, we are disciples. He is Lord, we are servants. Advocating for the unborn and the orphan and the victim of racism and injustice – these are all stances we take and works in which we invest ourselves as a part of our discipleship.
I don’t fight racism for the sake of fighting racism. I fight it because that’s what a Christ follower does. I fight it because in Ephesians 2, we read that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall. This is true for any cause or in any decision or interaction. I try to act and think and speak in ways that align me with Jesus. When I do that, I find myself forcefully rejecting racism. I find myself exhausted by the yearning for diversity, the longing to see the church today stand as a living embodiment of Revelation 7:9-10.
Riggs shows just how difficult this step into the work of reconciliation is. She shares a litany of people represented by actions you may support or decry:
- Women who have had abortions.
- Men who dress in drag.
- White people who shoot unarmed black men.
- People who shoot up crowded movie theaters and elementary schools with automatic rifles.
- Gay teens from Fundamentalist Christian families.
You may go through her list and wonder how she compiled it. Maybe you sympathetically identify with some on her list and angrily despise others. Maybe it is offensive that some on this list would be cited along with others. I know Deidra Riggs could make a list 2 or 3 times longer than this as could you or I, with people much more divergent than those listed here. There is but one thing that unites everyone on this list, and this is the author’s point. God loves everyone on this list.[iv]
Christ followers have two assignments, straight from Jesus. First, we are two love these people just as God does. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s easier to draw a line in the sand and determine who’s on our side,[v] but God wants us to see it his way. So, we have to die to our own sense of injustice, to our self-perceptions and self-righteousness. We have to die to self and see as Jesus sees and love everyone as Jesus loves them; even those we would hate. Second, we have to help people who don’t know Jesus come to know Him and become his followers.
That second assignment comes later and in most cases what we actually do through words and actions is witness. We testify to God’s goodness. Whether or not people become Christians after hearing our testimony is between them and God. But whether they ever do or not, our call is to love and to be God’s agents of reconciliation.
“Reconciliation invites everyone to the table, the wraparound porch, the picnic on a summer afternoon. All of us, even those we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to invite. And isn’t that the point? We are not in charge of the guest list. We are guests along with everyone else.”[vi] Remember, it’s not about who we are, but about whose we are. Meeting for coffee or talking over beers is the way adults have playdates.
I went to a playdate like this a month ago at a Durham (NC) mosque. There were Jews there, Muslims of course, and Christians. The food was delicious. As a “faith leader,” I was, at the last minute, added to the program. I knew that might happen and had a few remarks prepared. But when my time to speak came, I shoved my notes in my pocket and ignored them.
Instead, I began my speech by thanking our Muslim hosts for their generous hospitality. Then, I repented of the ways Christians have demonized and “hated on” Muslims. I didn’t affirm Islam. I didn’t deny the evil done by extremists. I just stood up, and with a voice that surprised me by its cracking said, “I am sorry. On behalf of Christians who have been hateful, I am truly sorry.” Why did I do that? Because on a playdate, you have to say sorry if you hit your friend. Also, I did it because when the Holy Spirit prompts us, we need to follow that lead.
I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to go on Sabbatical and prompted my church to celebrate this decision. I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to study racial reconciliation as an act of discipleship and to read One as a part of my study. I now proceed seeking to learn, to love my neighbor, and to follow the next prompting of the Spirit as it comes.
[i] D. Riggs (2017), One: Unity in Divided World, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.24.
[ii] In this paragraph, I am not suggesting that specific individuals who claimed faith in Jesus but also supported racist systems and held racist thoughts in their own hearts are condemned to Hell. Eternal destiny and eternal condition are God’s to determine and I make no effort to say who’s going where after death. What I am saying is white people who grew up in the Jim Crowe south knew it was wrong at the time. Failure to stand up to racism is a sin of omission. To stand idly by and watch as black people are lynched and degraded is as bad as participating in the lynching and degradation.
[iii] Riggs, p.26.
[iv] Riggs. p.33.
[v] Riggs, p.34.
[vi] Riggs, p.41.