History is alive. And in the United States that history is racial.
I recently watched the PBS special, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is a multi-part series detailing centuries of African American history. The latest episode tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Ruby Bridges Story
One well-known incident in the struggle against segregation involved a little girl named Ruby Bridges. When Ruby was six years old she became the first African American to integrate a previously all-White elementary school in New Orleans. Amidst a loud and cruel mob protest this little girl had to be escorted into her new school by armed Federal Marshals. And after little Ruby walked into school that first day White parents carried their children out in protest.
Mrs. Bridges is now married with four children. She is a dignified woman who continues to work towards racial healing in the land. Fifty three years after the incident and Mrs. Bridges is just a shade out of her 50s. Ruby Bridges, the child who became an icon in the Movement, is still alive. Those White children whose parents set that example are still alive as well.
The Presentness of the Past
Countless scores of men and women who experienced the Civil Rights Movement firsthand are still with us. James Meredith, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and Myrlie Evers for starters. These veterans remind us that we are still surrounded by living witnesses to the battles for racial justice.
But contemporary examples of the continuing effects of our racial past remain as well. Regardless of his politics, many American citizens of all colors will remember where they were when the first Black President of the United States won the election. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case will forever be remembered as yet another painful episode in our nation’s struggle to emerge from racism. And the impending shift in demographics from a White to a Latino majority has been well-noted.
The Country Is Not Post-Racial
If such history is so present then conversations of living in a “post-racial” society seem premature. The term post-racial means that our culture is “beyond the point where race is a consideration“. In other words, race is irrelevant in current conversations because enough has already been achieved so that Americans of all races are on a level-playing field of life. According to such a definition, though, we are not post-racial. The very presence of people like Ruby Bridges and continued racial strife imply that the wounds of hate are not so quickly healed. The presentness of our past reminds us that race is still relevant.
This does not mean we haven’t moved forward. We can and should acknowledge the significant progress we’ve made as a culture in terms of race relations. Although numbers remain small in some cases, ethnic minorities have ascended to the highest levels of politics, business, sports, entertainment and more. Popular culture increasingly recognizes the equality of all races and instances of racism and stereotyping are rightly decried.
The Church is Not Post-Racial
Despite meaningful gains we are not post-racial yet because the church is not post-racial. The majority of our churches remain racially and ethnically homogenous despite the growing diversity in our communities. The nation looks on as Blacks, Whites, Asians, Latinos, and others each file into their own congregations and Sunday remains segregated. If there will ever be a day when we are post-racial then the church in the U.S. will have to become known as a Christ-exalting, biblically faithful, racially and ethnically inclusive body. Not because of a social agenda, but because of the gospel.
Faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ reconciles us first to God and then to each other. The gospel is how Jews and Gentiles could finally eat together, worship together, and be the church together. And the gospel is what enables Blacks and Whites to find unity in the midst of this country’s constant relapses into racism and conflict.
The God-Glorifying Witness of Racially Inclusive Churches
We pursue racial solidarity in our churches not as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement but as Christians pursuing justice and proclaiming the healing power of Jesus Christ. Our unity in the church testifies to the authenticity of Jesus as the Son of God (John 17). Our intentional, outspoken, persistent, humble, and gracious fight against ongoing forms of racism and ethnocentrism are a public and personal defense of the hope that we have in Jesus.
Changed hearts, not just changed laws eliminate the pride that breeds racism and segregation. Racism is a sin issue and only Christ is the solution. Until the church models racial healing within her walls, our nation will continue to operate under false assumptions of racial progress.
So we praise God for the progress He’s allowed to happen, but we continue to press forward with all His might to see racial justice extended in our hearts, homes, churches, and society. As Christians we have been entrusted with the bridge-building, barrier-breaking message of the gospel. Let us then be faithful stewards of the faith handed down to us from the apostles as we labor to live out its implications in racially and ethnically diverse churches.