The recent arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home is one of the latest flash points in the conversation about progress in race relations. For some, this episode shows that deep racial divisions remain in the United States. It may be difficult to finally discover all of the facts related to the event: Was Sergeant James Crowley following standard procedure and patiently trying to perform his due diligence with an investigation of a potential break-in? Was Professor Gates perhaps initially overreacting to the officer by expressing his concern that the incident was happening “because I’m a black man in America,” or is there some credence to his view that he was the victim of a rogue policeman? I’m unsure, and perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the stances of those who give vent to outrage at Gates’s arrest and the voices that vigorously defend the Cambridge police force.
Whatever the merits of the case, we again face one of the major dilemmas in our world. How far have we come when it comes to conflict between races or ethnic groups, particularly in democratically-oriented societies? If we surveyed the news bureaus in many nations, we probably wouldn’t have to take much time before we discovered some incident related to racial or ethnic strife. How can we advance further toward genuine mutual understanding across differences of culture, history and personal experience?
Often, attempts to arrive at genuine reconciliation or harmony produce more heat than light because anger or frustration quickly emerges on both sides of the divide. In the United States, for example, those who are part of the majority may point to notable changes in society over the last several decades and assert that they personally do their best to treat everyone equally; they are frustrated that this is not given due consideration. Members of minority groups point to recent racial incidents, as well as the lingering effects of legacies such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation as manifested in the form of inequalities in housing and education; they are frustrated by the failure of many in the majority to recognize the need for further structural changes in our society.
It would be false to claim that things have improved little since the 1960s, and there are at least two generations who have grown up on the other side of the signal victories of the civil rights movement. However, the reality of such significant change does not equate with the arrival of a social eschaton characterized by a truly post-racial world. The journey continues.
The church is not beyond these mutual frustrations. I remember learning about this firsthand while I was involved in campus ministry in my early twenties. I came to a ministry that had recently made a decision to have groups split along the lines of black and white. The ultimate reasons for this still remain unclear to me, but it was an example of a pragmatic decision that would reduce the potential for ongoing misunderstandings around issues of leadership, worship style and even political commitments.
I learned more about this kind of decision when I did interviews for an article about the low numbers of minorities at evangelical seminaries. Two types of responses stood out: (1) there were the comments of minorities who were exhausted and frustrated with efforts to be full participants in evangelical organizations (you can also see this expressed in Ed Gilbreath’s book Reconciliation Blues), (2) the conclusion expressed by a seminary president who stated that perhaps it was just best to have separate organizations instead of trying to significantly integrate churches and ministries due to the difficulties which work against the goal of unity.
My recollection of these responses raises the questions of hope and expectation for racial and ethnic reconciliation and inclusion in the church itself, and in self-identified evangelical organizations. How hopeful should we be? How much understanding, harmony and cooperation can we expect to achieve? Do we need a large dose of realism because we live in a fallen world and can only expect racial and ethnic conflicts to be resolved when Christ sets everything right at the end? Is the Revelation 7:9 vision of many tribes, tongues and nations worshipping God together something we can only expect on the other side of that grand renewal to be effected by Jesus? Is it better to encourage different groups to flourish “among their own” while occasionally paying each other a visit? Are the advances in society merely a little bit of gravy?
A vision of God’s kingdom does not allow me to settle for such a conclusion. After Pentecost, the presence and power of the Spirit makes expressions of God’s kingdom possible. One such expression is the committed practice of the second greatest commandment: Love your neighbour as yourself. At times, the church has obeyed this remarkably. I believe it can happen again with this stubborn challenge. We see the kingdom in the patient practice of understanding and loving those who are other to us in seeking their best.
Another moment has arrived which calls us to demonstrate a possibility that our world finds difficult. Can the church lead society to seek the flourishing of all? We have the power of the Gospel, the power of the Spirit. We need the commitment.