Monday, October 01, 2007
The Little Rock Nine 40 years later
Last month was the 40th anniversary of a group of students known as the Little Rock Nine. They were the first group of black students to integrate the previously all white Central High School in Little Rock AR in 1957. The transition to integration was anything but smooth and things got to a point where the only way the African-American students could enter the school safely was with the protection of a 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army.
Some have looked back on this incident to gauge where we as a society are regarding issues of integration and diversity. I bring it up to foster our discussion on the church’s role and responsibility to address the issue in such a was to promote the gospel, display our unity and glorify our Lord. I also wanted to use this post as an answer to a very good question by brother Wesley Handy on the Jean 6 post. He asked “How can we handle these situations in a way that lead to unity?”
To begin I want to establish my conviction that unless the church hits this issue head on much of our talk about cultural relevance will be just that, talk. Whether we like it or not the issues surrounding race and ethnicity are here to stay. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. That doesn’t mean that we are doomed to handle these issues the same way the world does, just that as the church of the living God charged with speaking the truth and discipling our culture we will not shrink back from this challenge.
We grapple with this issue not because we wish to be politically correct or have a need for diversity for the sake of diversity. We do so because Scripture gives ample example of the ethnic strife and tension among different groups of people. (see John 4:7-8; Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:11-14) We do so because it gives us another opportunity and avenue to speak up for and demonstrate the reality of the gospel and the implications that flow from it. We do so because failure to act will give the enemy of the church and gospel more opportunity to separate God’s people, soil our witness and mar God’s glory. Is this the only issue that the people of God must target in our effort to witness of the truth of the gospel and follow our mandate to disciple our culture? No it is not. But along with abortion, global warming and homosexuality it’s a cultural issue that we have the responsibility and opportunity to tackle in a theologically driven manner.
How can we handle these situations in a way that lead to unity? A first step might be to put the issue of race and ethnicity in its proper place. There are times when I think that the church views race in a similar way some view Satan. Some in the church see Satan everywhere and affecting everything while others act as if he’s nowhere and apart from a few isolated incidents has little influence. The reality is somewhere in between those two poles. The church must talk to each other and not past one another to honestly come to a realistic gauge of how race affects our society. This will help us to speak to the mainstream dominant culture and minority subculture more effectively without falling into their ideological sand traps.
Speaking of sand traps the church must start thinking through this issue in theological not ideological terms. Our goal isn’t to protect and promote our own people’s ethnic agenda but to seek God’s glory and the promotion of His gospel. If issues of race are hindering the gospel’s impact than we deal with it not ignore it. Because race (I use the term to describe the tension within our society among various ethnic groups) is an equal opportunity challenge I’m convinced that black believers must speak faithfully and honestly to black unbelievers regarding race and whites should speak to whites about it. While this might not increase our popularity within our own groups it may show that we’re serious in treating this like a theological and not ideological issue.
Once we begin to think more theologically it may be helpful for the church to begin to demonstrate genuine unity by observing the issues that are important to one another with regards to race. Paul’s writing regarding humility is helpful here “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” Phil 2:2-5.
Before going on it’s important to note that these steps build on each other. If we can’t come to an agreement on the effects of race in our society and if we’re unwilling to think through these issues in a theological and not ideological manner then it will be nearly impossible to take a genuine interest in how race affects our brothers and sisters.
In a way the issue of race may be a great blessing to the church. Here’s what I mean. Up till now the church has for the most part dealt with significant cultural issues at arms length. Whether it’s homosexuality, the war in Iraq, evolution, global warming, abortion, secular public schools etc. we tend to talk to, write for and interact with those on our side without the thought of really having to face or engage those who oppose us. Most of us (perhaps the vast majority) probably have few close relationships with people who differ from us on these issues to the extent that we can consistently talk with them about our differences.
Race may be the one issue that presents us with a unique difference and challenge. Like it or not it appears that most African-American believers differ from our white counterparts concerning how we think, view and feel about the issue of race in our society. Yet in spite of that difference we’re still bound by the covenant of the cross. We still hold to the belief (even if it’s only in theory) that our new birth ushered us into a new reality in which our chief identity is no longer defined or bound by our natural ethnicity. We still are convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings authentic reconciliation between God and the human race with the consequence of bringing peace to those ethnic groups that were previously hostile toward each other. And despite our current difficulties I believe that most of God’s people want to see the church show and demonstrate genuine biblical unity as a witness of the power of the gospel, the truthfulness of God’s word and the supremacy of our savior Jesus Christ.
To Him Who Loves Us…