Our struggle of race is not new. We look back at the 60’s and the Civil rights marches and the effort of Dr. Martin Luther King and realize, we have been fighting this for over 50 years. Then we consider that was over 100 years after the Civil War, which was almost 250 years after 1619 and the introduction of African slavery. The Christian story goes back even further. We see the problem emerge in the first pages of scripture. Yet, we see it come to fresh realization for the early church. The following is a reflection upon how each of us can come to terms with our experience of race, and experience Jesus leading us towards a more just and loving life.
“Now I realize that God does not show favoritism.” ~Peter, Acts 10:34
The apostles were stuck and the movement of God broke down. Thousands in Jerusalem had believed and the faith was advancing until it wasn’t. All of a sudden, this movement of new Jesus followers into the thousands got stuck and there was squabbling between Greeks and Jews, there was entitlement and church discipline, and there was the promise of Jesus that these men and women would bear witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And the movement broke down. It got to Jerusalem and Judea but stopped there.
A persecution then broke out and these thousands of believers were then scattered through the Roman world. This suffering was a part of God fulfilling the purpose of his promise.
But Peter was still stuck.
After the persecution, he had settled on the outskirts of Jewish culture in a town near the sea called Joppa. In Acts 10 (Acts is the portion of the New Testament that tells the story of the early church), we see God intervene in Peter’s heart in visions where heaven speaks and says, “do not call unclean what God has made clean.” Peter, though called to move past his Jewish roots to fulfill his calling (Acts 1:8) to bear witness to those in Samaria and the broader world had not ventured past anything Jewish. God was directly dealing with him on the topic. Peter was still resistant. His entire life, non-Jews were the problem, were enemies and were a source of misery for he and his countrymen. These thoughts, affections, sentiments and fears had landed in his heart, and even three years with Jesus himself, the miracles of the resurrection and the healings (through his hands) could not get him past this stronghold that was established in his heart regarding those of a different culture. We use the word racism today to describe Peter’s struggle here.
It bears reflection for us to see that Peter himself struggled mightily with this and apparently was also blind to it. He had been with Jesus in Samaria, in the Decapolis, and saw Jesus heal the children of Roman officials. He had heard Jesus’ command to bear witness throughout the world, yet, he still resisted and didn’t see his culpability.
There was a knock at the door.
While Peter was having these visions, another man was also having visions. This one was a Roman centurion named Cornelius. This man was not just a Gentile, but also part of the Roman police force who were responsible for the brutal death of Jesus. At the door were men sent by Cornelius inviting Peter to come and speak to his household. The voice of Peter’s vision told him to follow along.
Then Peter came to the doorway of Cornelius’s home. Peter was trained to never enter the home of Gentiles, those who were racially different than he. It wasn’t God’s law, but rather a custom of the Jewish people, a layer of racial separation that God had not made.
Then Cornelius shared his story and it lined up with Peter’s story. God had been intervening on Peter’s behalf for Cornelius’ salvation and for Peter’s maturity. There he stood in a place he had never been before, in a home with gentiles, and police officials who had once abused him and those he loved. Nudged by God’s Spirit, he spoke:
“Now I realize that God does not show favoritism.”
Really? Why did it take Peter so long to come to terms with his cultural, racial baggage? Much ink has been spilt through the years explaining this, yet it is good for us to hear. If Peter needed God’s help in this, surely, we do as well.
Let’s reflect on the word “realized.” Nobody ever on the planet had more intimate access to God himself than Peter. He still needed time and a major intervention of grace to come to terms with his cultural accommodations and the layers of racism in his heart.
The story of Acts had been silent on Peter’s ministry for years and it seems that the advance of the church had been stuck for years. Acts 10 shows the bottleneck on the advance of the church was in its leaders’ unwillingness to see beyond their cultural and generational assumptions and affections and see the gospel grow and multiply in other cultures. In Acts 10:34, we see the bottleneck wasn’t just the leader, it was in the heart of the leader.
“Now I realize…”
Personally, for years, I have been on a journey of realization. I remember starting Celebrate Recovery for ‘other people,’ until I realized I needed Celebrate Recovery. I am those ‘other people.’ In my doctoral studies, I was called to read and learn from authors who shared a different culture than mine and when it came to race, these were scholars who bore a different kind of pain than I had realized. I also had to come to terms with, and realize that I had been a beneficiary of the layers of institutional racism to which I had been blind. I felt shame and, frankly, didn’t want to hear it because of how the shame felt. I looked for reasons to discredit the authors, and find my way to a more comfortable set of facts. My heart was resisting this realization.
Here is what helped me.
The word “realize” is used a few other places in the Bible, and most helpful to me, it is found in my favorite prayer of scripture.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp (realize) how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ.” Ephesians 3:17–18
That word “realize” (spoken by Peter in Acts 10) is the same Greek word that is used as “grasp.” Spiritual growth, Paul explains, takes time and it takes power and is intimately connected to the way we see other people. When we see cultural differences, Paul urges us to grasp that the love of God is wider than our cultural assumptions, higher than our bounded expectations, longer than our endurance and deeper than the dark layers of racism in our culture and in our hearts.
Peter needed to grasp that he had layers of racism that had held back the power of the gospel and in the movement he led. I too, have to admit that I have layers of racism and self-protection in my heart that has held back the gospel in my life and the movements and family I lead.
Just like Peter grew up with layers of cultural accommodation and cultural institutions that helped him make sense of the world and to function in the world, we too have grown up in a world and need to accept and accommodate ourselves to cultural assumptions and institutions that keep our world moving forward.
Many of these cultural institutions and assumptions serve very good purposes in our world, yet as in Peter’s day, they are flawed as well. This cultural moment brings into sharp focus our complicity and passivity regarding institutions that we have benefited from but have been costly and sources of pain and shame for others.
It is a helpless feeling and a very uncomfortable feeling to “realize” this. It uproots my identity as someone who wants to do good, be good, and be seen as good. To “grasp” the tremendous brokenness of a world (not just a nation) that is built and shaped by human hearts bent inward and away from those who are culturally different and to “realize” that the cultural and institutional structures have been shaped for my success at the cost of others is a deeply distressing place to be.
This places three significant temptations in front of us.
1. To despair and plunge ourselves into self-loathing, hopelessness or even consign ourselves that “this is the way of the world.”
2. To minimize the problem that we feel “in us” by minimizing the problem “out there.” The human heart has an unlimited capacity to stay in denial. It is also tempting to look for cultural enemies who we can blame as the authors of the “racism narrative.” We need to remember that the narrative of racism began in Genesis 3. In a previous blog post I speak about how race is a gospel issue. We can avoid it by making it a political issue. If we can label it a political issue, then we can find the enemies of our ideological preference to blame for racism. Racism is not new. It is pervasive, and it is personal.
3. To accept the truth about ourselves but use the uncomfortable feeling that comes with that to judge others for not being “as aware” as we are.
The connection of these two passages have given me a better way. As these “realizations” of my complicity and the benefits I enjoy from a deeply racist world grow, these three temptations become increasingly attractive. Some of us haven’t been the beneficiaries as I have, but have also suffered the damage of these systems bent towards the privileged. However, when we experience this, we have options. We can plunge ourselves into despair, we can seek a distraction that will comfort us with denial or we can, with Peter and Paul, “realize” love at a deeper level.
God has seen the depths, the layers, the persistence and the institutions through which humanity will hurt one other and offers a different kind of healing. Jesus did not fight the power, he suffered under it.
By His wounds we may be healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
It was a long path to awaken Peter to “realize” these truths. It likely was well over a decade between when Peter was called by Jesus and when he began to grasp these things. Whether we have suffered under the injustices of racism or have been its beneficiaries, it is likely that we too have been on a long path to learn these things.
Yet, as we do realize these things, like Peter, we must act and bear witness to Jesus' resurrection to every aspect of life (Acts 1:8). A little over a century ago, Abraham Kuyper famously said,
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Jesus, the Lord of all creation, though all things are his, does not grasp them with power, he wins them with love. Each of us are given a set of square inches under our care. Jesus points to all that we have and all that we are given and says, “mine.” He does not selfishly grab that from us, rather, he entrusts it to our care.
Will we, with what has been entrusted to us, extend the reach of God’s love and grace and mercy and uproot the cultural perpetuation of racism? Will we seek a foundation of God’s grace, having our lives and its institutions rooted and established in love? (Eph. 3:19)
This is a challenge that is wider, higher, deeper and longer than any of us can accomplish. For us, could this be our Acts 10 moment, where “we realize” the favoritism that has existed in our world? Can we match it with an accompanying Ephesians 3 moment where we realize the expanse of God’s love for us and the potential for God’s love to express through us?
These are days of tremendous discomfort. Would we find our solace, not in our personal righteousness, awareness, activism or denial? Would Jesus’ love penetrate our hearts to give us humility, restraint, courage and wisdom to lay a deeper foundation of love and healing in every aspect of our lives and in the society under our care.