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White Christians, Racial Reconciliation is a Gospel Issue

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Race and racism are complex categories with different functions in the biblical world and in the modern world. Race in the Bible was not a category created for the purpose of supporting racial hierarchy. In the modern world, race was created by racists to argue for white supremacy and black inferiority. Racism in the modern world flows out of this racist construct.

In general, white Christians and black Christians have very different experiences with and opinions about racism. White Christians generally think we live in a post-racial world since the US elected a two-term black president and since white people generally don’t experience racism as a normal part of their daily narrative. However, black and brown (=non-white) Christians believe racism is normal and that many aspects of both the U.S. and the church are still racist.

In a similar way, white Christians generally think about the gospel in different ways from black and brown Christians. White Christians (especially white evangelicals) usually limit the gospel to the announcement of how one becomes a Christian, asserting that matters such as poverty or racism are social issues instead of gospel issues. Black and brown Christians generally understand the gospel to be both vertical and horizontal, including an announcement of how one becomes a Christian but also an announcement of how Christians should live in relationship to one’s neighbor. In this piece, I would like to demonstrate from selected Scripture passages that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue and that Christians should therefore be in hot pursuit of racial reconciliation as a natural part of Christian discipleship.

The Root of Racial Division
The Bible teaches that racial division is a universal power that rules and reigns like an evil tyrant over all Jews and Gentiles because of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3-4, 11; Romans 5:12-6:23). Adam and Eve were part of the human race (Gen 11:6). Their transgression resulted in both a vertical (Genesis 3) and a horizontal curse of the entire cosmos (Genesis 4). The vertical curse separated humans from God and the horizontal curse separated them and their offspring from each other, evident by Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, in Genesis 4. This murder represents the first violent and hostile act between the human races in the Bible. Cain and Abel were part of the human race (e.g. Genesis 1-2; 11:6).

Cain’s desire to perform a violent act against the human race existed in his heart before he murdered his brother because of the transgression of Adam and Eve (Gen 3). This is one reason that God states in Gen 3:15 that there would be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The narrative of Gen 3-4 immediately shows this enmity when Eve’s seed (Abel) and the Serpent’s seed (Cain) were at enmity with each other. Yet, Cain’s desire for violence against his brother first began in his heart and revealed itself by means of murder. The internal hostility in his heart is one reason God exhorts Cain to master his sin. His sin was crouching at his door and eager to seize him (Gen 4:6-7). Yet, the Bible teaches that Jesus, the new Adam, died and was resurrected from the dead in order to kill all forms of sin and to reverse Adam’s vertical and horizontal curse over the entire cosmos by restoring vertical and horizontal relationships (John 1:29; Romans 3:25; 5:12-21; 15:8-21; Galatians 2:11-3:29; 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-3:8; 5:16-26; Colossians 1:19-22; Revelation 21:1-22:5).

Paul generalizes humanity’s division by calling it Jewish and Gentile division in a few of his letters. For example, he calls the Ephesians “Gentiles in the flesh” (Ephesians 2:11) [1]. Ethnic/racial division between Jews and Gentiles in the Old Testament, and then continuing in the New Testament, was based on Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), neither on the color of one’s skin nor on the racist idea of biological inferiority or biological superiority. Jews and Gentiles came in all shapes, colors, and sizes in the ancient world—just read, for example, Gentiles describe the complexion of other Gentiles in numerous ancient texts. “Gentiles” (ethnē) were separated from the commonwealth of Israel when they were dead in transgressions and sins prior to their association with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, because they were not Jewish (Ephesians 2:1-11). As descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people received circumcision as the sign of participation in the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17:10-14). Without this sign, Gentiles were racially separated from God’s promises to Abraham to be fulfilled through Israel’s Messiah (Ephesians 2:11). This sign eventually became part of the Mosaic Covenant (Leviticus 12:3; Joshua 5:2-9).

Ephesians 2:12 affirms this interpretation with the words “without Christ,” “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” “strangers of the covenants of promises,” “without hope,” “and those living without God in the world.” “Gentiles” were separate from God’s promises of salvation to Israel, God’s covenant people (Romans 3:1-2; 9:4-5; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:4-6), separated from access to God’s Messianic promises given to Israel in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:11-13; Psalm 2, 110), separated from God’s covenantal promises made to Abraham regarding land, seed, and a universal blessing (Genesis 12:1-4; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:1-21; Eph 2:11-12), separated from the promises to David regarding a descendant to reign over his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12-17; 23:5; Psalm 89:3, 27-37, 49), and separated from the promises to Israel and Judah regarding a future restoration (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezek 36-37).

Breaking Down the Dividing Wall
Sin vertically alienated humanity from God and horizontally from one another (Genesis 3:15). However, the law further divided Jews and Gentiles from one another when it entered history (not because the law was evil or promoted legalism), because the law revealed a knowledge of sin (Romans 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-25; Galatians 3:19) and because it served as a dividing wall between the children of the covenant (Jews) versus those who were outside of the covenant (Gentiles). In Ephesians 2:14-16, Paul describes the law as a dividing wall, a fence, hostility, and a source of enmity between Jews and Gentiles. God’s covenantal promises anticipated the inclusion of the Gentiles from the very beginning (Genesis 12:1-13; Isaiah 42:6-9; 49:6; 60:1-3). Moreover, Paul states that Jews will receive those promises only by means of faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 9:1-5; 9:30-10:13; Gal 2:11-5:1). However, Jews at least had an ethnic connection with the Jewish Messiah with God’s promises to Jews and Gentiles (Genesis 49:10; Deuteronomy 18:15; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 2; 45:3-5, 5, 17; Isaiah 40-66), unlike the Gentiles (Romans 2:14).

Paul states in Ephesians that God accomplished reconciliation for Jews and Gentiles. Paul asserts that Gentiles were brought near God’s promises of salvation to Jews “by the blood of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:13). According to Ephesians 2:13 and 2:14-16, the good news of the gospel is that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, died so that he would put an end to the dividing wall of hostility (=the law of Moses) between Jews and Gentiles, so that he would reconcile Jews and Gentiles to God and to each other, and so that he would create Jews and Gentiles into one new man into one body through the cross (Ephesians 2:14-16). By means of Jesus’ death (Ephesians 2:13, 16) and resurrection and exaltation (Ephesians 1:15-23), God recreated Jews and Gentiles into one dwelling place of God, in whom the Spirit dwells (Ephesians 2:18-22). And Jesus himself provided the model for this racial reconciliation in that he preached this gospel of peace (=reconciliation) to Jews near the promises and to Gentiles far away from those promises (Ephesians 2:17; also Matthew 15:21-28). The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is the mystery of the gospel that Paul discusses in Ephesians (Ephesians 1:9; 2:11-3:8). Racial reconciliation, therefore, is a gospel issue.

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* Portions of this piece have been published in Jarvis J. Williams, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010) and in Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones (eds.), Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African-American and White Perspectives (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2017).

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of biblical texts are mine.

Jarvis J. Williams is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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