If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “Alvin, I don’t see a black man; I just see a man.” Though my colleagues mean well when they tell me this, I always inform them that this comment is not warm and hospitable to me! The desire to live in a color blind society must not override the reality that the United States is overwhelmingly racialized. Color blindness assumes it is possible for us to operate from a mindset that is not racially influenced.
Our understanding of race and how we apply it to our lives matters.
We influence others to follow Christ through the witness of our lives, as demonstrated by the Christ in the Gospels. Therefore, our understanding of race and how we apply it to our lives matters. Before we apply anything to our lives, we must understand that though we are uniquely created in God’s image, we are inescapably influenced by the society in which we live. These two aspects can never be isolated from each other.
Saying we are always partly unique and partly a creation of society doesn’t mean we lack individuality or that we can’t possess a theology that embraces absolute truth. We obviously have a choice to form our own personal identities. Yet our unique self is shaped both by our society and our unique choices. The way forward is to account for this reality in harmony with biblical truth.
Beyond Diversity, created by a partnership with Barna Research and Dr. Michael O. Emerson and the Racial Justice and Unity Center, is must-read for every Christian. It is the most comprehensive study concerning race relations in the church. I participated in some of the research and sat in on the webinar reveal earlier this year. The findings are bleak.
Whereas practicing, Bible-believing Christians were about 100 yards apart on issues of race just 20 years ago, we are now 110 yards apart. With findings like this, why bother with racial reconciliation? When doing racial reconciliation work you must believe and understand the ramifications of Genesis 3.
The world we live in is a far cry from the one God created.
The world we live in is a far cry from the one God created. The fall broke everything, and the good earth that God created is marred forever until Christ returns. We live in a fallen, broken world and the idea of race has been viciously used by the enemy to cause divisiveness. Scientists have proven race does not exist biologically, but it does sociologically so we must understand what that means for our lives.
I’ve worked for racial reconciliation for 30 years, and I’m convinced of three principles that move a practicing Christian beyond diversity and toward reconciliation. The principles are countermeasures to the biggest challenge that must be overcome, which is the effect of racialization. According to Dr. Emerson, a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships; and allocates different economic, political, social, and psychological rewards to groups along racial lines. Therefore “color blindness” is not the answer, but following these principles provide a pathway forward.
- The first principle is proximity. Those who “get it” are those whose life experience is multi-racial in a major way. They have lived in diverse communities, served in the military, played on multi-racial athletic teams, etc. They have enough examples in their life experience to counteract the often-negative narratives consistently put out by media outlets to be able to see the benefits of racial groups living in harmony.
- The second principle is knowledge. Do you know what the Bible says about race? Nothing! Because during biblical times, the idea of race was not dominant in the way it is today. However, ethnocentrism operated in the same fashion as racialization. We can use Scripture to address racialization by applying Scriptural principles concerning ethnocentrism (see Acts 10). We also need to learn from resources like the research found in Beyond Diversity.
- The third principle is advocacy. Maybe the biggest barrier to racial reconciliation is the constant attempts of practicing Christians to explain away injustices experienced by people of color. The Book of James is very clear: faith without works is dead (James 2:26). As a witness to our broken world, we should be actively working to right the wrongs that have been done under the guise of race.
The way forward is combining our heads (information), hearts (emotions), and hands (application). May God be with you on your racial reconciliation journey.
Alvin Sanders, Ph. D, is the President/CEO of World Impact. Author of Bridging the Diversity Gap (Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013) and Uncommon Church (IVP, Oct. 13, 2020), he previously served as a pastor, urban church planter, and denominational leader. He and his family live in Cincinnati.