The Church After Dallas: First-Century Unity in a Twenty-First Century Context

What we as a nation collectively experienced this past weekend was a time of mourning.  Black lives matter.  Blue lives matter.  We see the chasm but nobody has a real sense of where to start building the bridges.  We hear the conversation in our head but nobody knows the right questions to ask.  If your heart is connected to the Gospel, it might have been enough to gather with your local community of faith and remind yourself to share the love of Christ without any qualifiers.  As we return to our places of work and our Monday to Friday routine, it would only be too easy to slip back in our normal patterns of behavior and count down the days until the preseason begins, which is not real football and no one will convince me otherwise.  Instead of longing for the opportunity to watch fourth, fifth and sixth stringers take the field, perhaps we should use our time to begin the tough conversations now before the next tragedy threatens to swallow our Facebook feeds whole.

As an Evangelical, I look back to how the Bible could possibly speak life into the crisis we are all experiencing.  It would be easy to remind ourselves that there is neither Jew nor Greek in the Kingdom, that there is no distinction in the eyes of God and that we should essentially be colorblind and “see no race.”  The problem with this notion is that even while Paul was speaking these truths and building those bridges that we are desperate to find, he never stopped being Jewish or a Roman citizen.  On numerous occasions, Paul evokes his Roman citizenship to assert his legal rights.  When he returns to Jerusalem, he leads a group of goyim (non-Jewish individuals) in a purification rite at the Temple.  He participates in Jewish customs.  

Broadening our scope beyond these events the first-century church as a whole, one of the largest questions concerning communal identity was what to do with all of these Gentiles who had decided that the Jesus train was cool biscuits.  What is it that makes someone Christian?  Is it rooted in long-held religious practices, confined to a rigid system of doctrine  or can it be divorced from what was and be shaped into something entirely new and unique?  Can I even answer this last question in the context of one blog post?

I believe that we experience the same difficulties when we attempt to make sense out of what it means to be “Christian” and what it means to be “American” (‘Murican?).  For the past seven years or so, I have cherished the value of divorcing my religious identification from my national origin so as to remove the shackles of practicing a bastardized version of Christianity that does not seek to make disciples of all nations but rather seeks to establish liberty among all nations.  What I am realizing as I get older is that what is good for this goose is not something that can just be blanketed upon the gander.  It does not even work out for me on a personal level at this point.  I am a Christian.  I was born in Wisconsin, a great American state.  I thought I made great strides in establishing who I was but my nationality is one part of who I am that continues to force itself into the daily going-ons of my life.  It is not a stretch to say that more and more evangelicals are working their way through this same social battle.

So what can we draw from the biblical narrative?  How do events such as the Council of Jerusalem and Peter’s visit with Cornelius inform our present day racial strife?  What are some big ideas we can take away from this?

For starters, consider the virtue of being “color blind” in today’s society.  I understand the sentiment that is being expressed; everyone is equal and thus deserve the same considerations in public spaces.  We as Americans should be familiar with the antithesis of this belief as it was not that long ago that we had separate bathrooms, schools, etc for black and white people.  Expressing one’s colorblind filter is admirable in that it allows one to publicly announce that they see everyone as equally deserving of love, compassion and safety.  The ironic thing is that this unity can only exist if all participants deny their ethnic distinctions.  It is an artificial homogeneity that inadvertently strips people of what makes them unique.  That is not how the early church carried itself.  The Jewish community was still Jewish in practice and the gentiles were still gentiles.  Any semblance of unity existed not because they ignored those differences but because they painfully worked their way through it (Acts 15).  Pulling this forward some two-thousand years, we must realize that we will never find true reconciliation if we constantly seek to escape the pain and discomfort that accompany the difficult conversations.  If justice was as simple as saying all men were created equal, we might have abolished slavery right at the start.

What else can we strip away from this mine of irresponsible exegesis?  You could say that the Jewish side of the early church struggled with the concept of how to balance culture with religion.  Yes, you can follow Jesus but we also need you snipped if you are to become a full citizen of this new kingdom.  Swapping these out with modern symbols, one might say that yes, you can follow Jesus but you also need to vote Republican if you to prove that you are a full citizen of this kingdom.  We take what is sacred and attach the profane.  We are more than thirty years beyond the Moral Majority experiment and we see that it was a failure.  Establishing morality and religious freedom through legislation placed the American church on a trajectory that is just outside the bullseye in terms of fulfilling the Great Commission.  It is not so far off course as to be labeled outright apostasy but enough to cause some among us to GET WOKE and realize that maybe we have been doing it wrong.  Yes, we are American and we never stopped being American, but being Christian should mean something WHOLLY different (1 Peter 2).  At some point, the American in us took the Christian in us and straight up Cain’d him (or merc’ed, whichever you prefer).

I will be honest here.  I do not know the way forward but we need the conversation.  We need the pain but most of all we need grace.  I would recommend checking out Christianity Today.  Remembering far back as Ferguson, they have published numerous articles that all of us would do well to give some thought to.  Will you commit to at least exploring the first steps towards racial reconciliation?  Now more than ever, it is a matter of life and death.

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