Jesus, justice, & the multicultural church
As I look at the church, I’m quite concerned about the white-washing of Jesus, the toxic absence of justice, and the potential dangers of the multicultural movement. Which is why I am so thrilled to spend the next few days with the great civil rights activist Dr. John Perkins. He lives for the biblical Jesus, true justice, and a truly multicultural church. Here are some random thoughts to prime the pump for anybody joining us this weekend.
The earliest church was multicultural from the jump. Acts 2 describes an incredible variety of backgrounds from Rome to Asia to Egypt and everywhere in between – ethnic Jews and Gentiles alike. Racially and nationally, the first church was all over the map. When the power of the church was the greatest, the membership was the most diverse. We read about the same reality in the Azusa Street awakening at the turn of the 20th-century. Led by the African American preacher William Seymour, the revival united people of all racial and demographic backgrounds. “One of the most remarkable things was that preachers of the Southern states were willing and eager to go over to the black people in Los Angeles and have fellowship with them,” Frank Bartleman wrote. “The color line was washed away in the blood.” As potent and far-reaching as that movement would become, as soon as racism set in, the power was diminished as everybody ran back to their homogeneous sides of the racially divided church.
The very diversity that reveals God’s glory challenges man’s sensibilities. Racism is not a 21st-century phenomena; it’s not a white or black thing; it’s a human thing. Wherever there has been power, and whenever there has been a majority who possessed the privilege associated with that power, there has been human struggle.
When I hear Christians express their desire for diversity, I wonder what they mean. If what we mean is to be in a room with a variety of colors on people’s faces, this is not only insufficient, it can actually be dangerous. If we want someone’s face on a stage but do not want their voice where it counts, then this is a deceptive diversity that insults the very image of God. It is a diversity of color, but not culture. And whoever sits in the seat of majority will always have a privilege that is as natural to a human as water is to a fish.
This is why, when a black man and white man engage in multicultural relationships (or church), it usually comes with a very different cost. In the mind of a white man, unity means he needs to flex a bit. Maybe 10%. That 10% feels like a significant concession, since he’s not used to giving much up. For the black man, that same unity usually means he’s moving 90%. The “unity of the Spirit” has a higher price tag for the minority than the majority. When diversity means minority adaptation to the majority culture, we’ve performed spiritual malpractice. What does this mean? For starters, it means Jesus is not just asking the minority to move toward the majority, He’s asking the majority to move just as graciously toward the minority. This is the “one new man” Paul described as who we are becoming.
It’s helpful to remember that the early church – which was turning the world upside down – had these same struggles. But they confessed it, they addressed it, and the they invited God to be God. You cannot change what you will not address.
Because many churches have majored on a righteousness-message that functionally starts with Pauline epistles while neglecting the totality of Scripture (like the Prophets) which never divorces righteousness and justice, much of our message rings hollow to our hearers. When we present the words of Jesus without doing the justice of Jesus, we lose our credibility.
If only this world could hear the whole Gospel.
Jesus. I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus because it really is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. Jews, gentiles, black and white. They are precious in His sight. No more white-washed, justice-neglecting, majority-leaning Jesus. Let’s have courage to embrace the real Jesus with His whole gospel and become the church that turns the world upside down once again.