On Monday 25th May 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man died in the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the USA, in police custody. A video footage shows a White police officer kneeling on top of George’s neck. A couple of minutes later, after George had repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe”, clearly suffocating on the floor, he became non-responsive and was declared dead in hospital. This incident happened in front of the public, it was recorded through Smart Phones and published via Social Media for the world to see.
This incident has subsequently resulted in protests in multiple cities in the USA. Not only so, but other cities around the world have joined in. Protests have been reported in cities like London, Berlin, Auckland, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Rio de Janeiro etc. Other cities are still planning their protests. In the George Floyd saga, we are clearly dealing with the “pandemic” of systemic racism – a global condition that is resonating across cities and people-groups around the world.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus is linked to the George Floyd death. This pandemic has not only created an environment of reflection and contemplation in societies, but it’s also created a new sense of global solidarity as citizens of the world (perhaps not necessarily nation-states) feel more united around a common challenge. Therefore, the coronavirus pandemic has become a “platform” upon which we are now seeing thousands of citizens of the world in the streets.
The George Floyd saga is not only globalized but it has also been immortalized as his last words, “I’ can’t breathe”, have become a protest statement and a slogan against injustice. The killing of an African American man by police officers has become a lucid symbol of what it means to live in a world of systemic racism. Furthermore, to understand why George Floyd’s death has become a trigger and a tipping point, you must understand not only the colonial history and slave trade of Africans to the Americas, but also a series of recent and similar incidents of killings of African American males (on 23rd February 2020, a 25-year-old African American, Ahmaud Arbery, was confronted by two White males while jogging in a suburb in Georgia. This confrontation led to the shooting and killing of Ahmaud). In other words, George Floyd has become not only a systemic icon but also a portal and a lens for the world to see with greater clarity not only the heritage of colonial African slave trade but also the current reality of Systemic Racism in America. When we consider that last year marked the 400th anniversary of the African slave trade, then we realize that this problem has been prolonged and clearly entrenched in the consciousness of America.
This situation is not a strange phenomenon in South Africa. We can think of many who died in police custody, like Steve Biko back in 1977. The only difference is that we did not have Smart Phones and Social Media then, we often relied on the Apartheid government to give us reports of these incidents, where it chose to. Not only that, we’ve also seen a series of racist incidents in Social Media, clearly showing that we have not yet been successful in uprooting racism in the psyche of our nation.
The question may be asked, why is the George Floyd incident receiving so much attention? The answer to this question lies in understanding how certain life events can become triggers and tipping points in society. There are many evils in this world, and many other people have died because of injustice – all of these situations must be treated with a common sense of Sanctity of Life. However, we must understand that certain events tend to create iconic prophetic moments that bring to light the evils of the day. For example, there were many prisoners in Robben Island, but there was Nelson Mandela. There were many Black South Africans who died in police custody, but there was Steve Biko. Moreover, the fact that we are seeing protests in other cities around the world means that the unfortunate George Flody saga has become a mirror and a platform for different nations and regions to reflect on their own evils. To see a coin clearly, you must move it away from your eyes. That is, we sometimes get illuminated on certain situations by reflecting on events that are distant from us. It is also important to point out that the protests around George Flody’s death are not necessarily triggered by his “status in society”, rather, they are triggered by the nature and circumstances of his killing. That is, his death is a representation of a broader systemic issue and stubborn reality in society, in America and across the world.
Just as church has had to grapple with coronavirus pandemic, it must equally grapple with the issue of George Floyd and the systemic racism it reflects. Unlike coronavirus which was an external condition that took us all by surprise, systemic racism is a societal pathology – a virus that can commute between neighborhoods and church buildings. That is, since church is an integral part of society, and since church is called by the Lord to be a “city on a hill” that demonstrates a different standard, then we must not only be concerned about current events & developments but we must also reflect on how we as church can deconstruct this monster of racism.
The one way of dispelling evil is by proclaiming the truth, it is not in being silent or by looking away. Truth sets us free and truth shall set the world free. If we don’t proclaim truth, then the enemy, who masquerades as an angel of light, will fill the public space with “a form of righteousness” – ideological concepts that essentially don’t lead us to God.
Based on the account of Genesis, we know that God created human beings (Gen. 1:26), gender (Gen. 1:27), family (Gen. 2:18-25), mankind or humanity in general (Gen. 1:26-28) as well as people-groups (Acts 17:26). We cannot be able to define any of these human categories without revisiting the Scriptures.
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone” (Acts 17:26-29).
Human life is dynamic in that not only did God create categories or spheres of human life (as mentioned above), but He also created the very processes and mechanisms by which humanity would be expanded and sustained. That is, God created marriage, childbearing, children, youths, friendships, nation-states, political authorities etc. We know this because the Bible provides definitions for each one of these categories, processes and mechanisms. God has design for everything He creates.
For the purpose of the subject at hand, let’s focus on Acts 17:26 where we see God creating nations. The word “nations” (ethnos) means the ff. a people-group, a race-group, a tribe, a people who belong and live together, a people of common habits and customs, people who inhabit a common geo-political space. We can see straightaway that the word “nation” (ethnos) has different dimensions to it. The church of Jesus Christ is referred to as a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9).
5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? NIV
Deuteronomy 4 introduces us to other important words…
- “The nations” (vs. 6) – a people as a congregated unit, a tribe, citizens of the land. Emphasis of the word is on groups of people.
- “This great nation” (vv.6-8) – the word describes a troop of animals or the flight of locusts – the nation, a people or a country. The word carries the meaning of an organized people-group or a people who exist within a geo-political arrangement.
Of particular relevance to the subject of racism is the word ethnos (nations or people-groups) that is used in Acts 17:26. This word is relevant because it makes direct reference to God’s creative work in relation to people-groups and race-groups as we see them today. Remember, the act of human creation is not only the literal and initial work that we see in Genesis, but it’s also a dynamic and an ongoing process that includes childbearing and global human population of the earth (as seen in Genesis 1:28).
To understand and qualify what we are dealing with in Acts 17:26, we must consider the phrase, “nations of man” (ethnos anthropos) – this speaks of nations of human beings or race-groups of human beings. Part of what this phrase speaks into is the issue of people-groups as classified according to their shared characteristics. The Bible is not silent when it comes to human physical characteristics. In the Song of Songs, when Solomon describes his lover, he speaks about the nature of her eyes, her hair, her teeth, her lips, her neck etc. Thus, we can see that racial diversity is part of the order of creation. According to God’s creation plan – we are created as diverse human beings and people-groups with a common image of God (or common value-system) on the inside of us (Gen. 1:26). We must therefore celebrate our diversity whiles being conscious of our common humanity in God. This is what Jesus Christ has come to restore through the Church.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “race” is defined as a family, tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock; a people unified by shared interests, habits or characteristics.
Racism is the discrimination of one race-group by another race-group on the basis of colour and cultural traits. The discriminating race-group must essentially believe that it is culturally superior in society. It takes the following issues for racism to thrive…
- Racism is rooted in a corrupted doctrine of human creation – it is essentially rooted in a corrupted doctrine of the Image of God.
- Racism can only be effective when expressed by a collective.
- Racism is a product of a historical process – there must be an accumulative process of the same incidents over a period of time before we can clearly see racist trends in society.
- Racism is sustained by parenting and family doctrines – it is impossible to see same racial or discriminatory behaviors from generation to generation without these being perpetuated through the process of parenting. Even kids who escape being intentionally instructed evil things about other races, still catch on at least by observation and assimilation.
Systemic Racism defines a reality in which the culture of one people-group becomes a default, dominant and a host-culture in the process of administration of life in society. A process in which the culture of one people-group becomes the institutional filter shaping norms and standards of life. It is a silent requirement in which other cultural groups are required to conform to the dominant culture as a prerequisite for institutional integration and before they can be accepted to meaningfully participate in the enterprise of human life (e.g. schools, workplaces etc.). It is a way in which institutional life favours or gives preferential treatment to a set of cultural traits by default, no matter who manifests them.
Systemic Racism is not purely a matter of behavioral discrimination (although it will always be linked to this) but it’s a reflection of the way in which institutional life has been shaped by the culture of one people-group, over time. By default, systemic racism is in itself a heritage of a historical process.
The idea of “White Privilege” must therefore be understood in this context – it does not mean that all Whites are rich and wealthy, but it does mean that they have a cultural advantage and platform in society, that allows them to execute life easier than their counterparts. And so when George Floyd screams, “I can’t breathe” as he dies, this must be understood as a powerful political metaphor of cultural and racial suffocation. It is when institutions and systems of life are “pressing their knees on the necks” of other people-groups.
In a world of systemic racism, you will see the following realities…
- Race-groups (and perhaps even gender-groups) will have default systemic profiles, identities or images – this speaks into silent stereotypes and images that one race-group holds about other race-groups. It is the stereotypes that individuals must fight through and or enjoy, depending on their race and cultural profile. For example, a Black male may be seen to represent criminality and subordination whereas a White male may be seen to represent authority and wealth. A Black woman may be seen to represent servitude and timidity whereas a White woman may be seen to represent affluence.
- In some sense, these profiles may be reflected in systemic conditions. And so, do we have a higher proportion of Black men committing crimes? If so, what are systemic conditions that perpetuate this? Or perhaps do we have a higher proportion of Black men committing visible street crimes instead of invisible systemic crimes? If advertising agencies have for years been using a particular race-group or skin color as a symbol of beauty, then society eventually accepts this as a norm. The list goes on and on.
- We have systemic racism when certain achievements are silently attributed to certain race-groups by default, and where these achievements are thought of as an exception than a norm in other race-groups.
- We have systemic racism when life functionalities and competences are defined according to a cultural profile of one race-group.
- Systemic Racism has less to do with numerical dominance and a lot to do with cultural and institutional power – it is when the culture of those who own capital and or who lead institutions becomes the norm in society.
- Oftentimes, in a systemic racism reality, beneficiaries of the system do not even realize that they are swimming in a massive ocean of privilege. Systemic racism has that dangerous blinding effect.
In South Africa, the complications of racism and systemic racism (which includes racist spatial design) continue to shape conditions of society. Historically, Blacks have commuted between their native spaces (homes and neighborhoods) and workplaces where the host culture has been predominantly White. Beyond movement and transportation from home to work or even school, this has required daily cultural migration so that a person is able to live effectively in two but different worlds. Oftentimes, adult Black males or females have left their homes in positions of honour and have arrived at work as subordinates, security officers, garden boys, maids etc. – this is the daily migration in social status. Post 1994, we’ve seen this huge migration of middle-class Black families to suburbs. This migration has produced a situation in which Black families have been integrated into suburbs and churches whose host culture is White. Even though these Black families may own properties and be church members, they still have to conform to “something”. This migration has been one-sided for obvious reasons – it’s been a movement from the village or township to the suburb. It has resulted in racially mixed churches in which there is a dominant or host culture. And so therefore, the project of reconciliation and diversity has been a challenge in the church for the following reasons:
- The inability of pastoral leadership to engage the journey of reconciliation, resulting in the inability to lead congregations to the same reality. The principle is, “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
- Church building process that is focused and limited to homogeneous Sunday gatherings, rather than a broader and multi-racial society in which believers are called to live for Christ.
- Developing internal church relationships and friendship based on racial homogeneity rather than on authentic qualities of Christ.
- Lack of cultural perception: Paul says, “to the Jew I become like a Jew, to win the Jews…to those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law) to win them over…I do all this for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). This presupposes the ability to perceive a culture and interact with it in a non-offensive and redemptive manner. Remember, the purpose of it all is not to be a “culturalist”, it is to advance the gospel.
- The inability to exit our native culture in order to engage another culture according to the terms of that culture: Jesus told His disciples to “eat and drink whatever they give you” (Luke 10:7). Food is a key component of culture. Jesus knew that if you can eat their food, then you can win their heart. But beyond the food, Jesus was confronting the tendency to engage other cultures based on the norms of our own culture.
- The inability to quantify and establish the core cultural base of Christ that becomes a point of integration upon which church is built. Culture is simply a Way of Life developed over time. It is not culture if it happened only yesterday and today. If God is building a Church Community over time, He will carve and form in that Community, a core cultural base that becomes the expression of His Nature. This is what we call Kingdom Culture – it is the truth of God possessed by a collective as a Value System and a Way of Life. It is that same culture that becomes the draw card and attraction point to unbelievers of all Colour. In the absence of a clearly defined and developed Kingdom Culture or Way of Life in Christ, the culture of the dominant group inevitably becomes the host culture.
Racism and Systemic Racism can infiltrate the structures and processes of church – we have examples in the Book of Acts…
Acts 6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. NIV
Acts 15:Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. NIV
Gal 2:11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? NIV
Acts 10:27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” …34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism NIV
Lessons from the Early Church
We see in the Scriptures above that the early church had to grapple with the issues of racism and systemic racism. Here are some of the things we can learn from them…
- In Acts 6, when cases of racism were reported, the leadership did not ignore them; they investigated the situation. Eventually, they replaced the racist team with a more just and kingdom-minded team.
- In Acts 15, when the Gentiles were subjected to cultural norms of the dominant Jewish group, the leaders and some mature saints met to discuss the matter. Once a doctrinal resolution was reached, they sent letters to churches to clarify the matter.
- In Gal. 2, when Peter demonstrated racist behavior, Paul confronted him in front of the saints. And Peter yielded himself to the rebuke of Paul in humility.
- In Acts 10, Peter went to the household of Cornelius with deep suspicion and racist attitude. But he opened his heart under the convicting light of the Holy Spirit. Once he was convicted, he went back to Jerusalem to defend the cause of the Gospel of Reconciliation.
Paul confronted his ethnic superiority for the sake of Christ and the Gospel…
Phil 3: If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. NIV
Paul did not only confront his own ethnic superiority (as shown in Phil. 3), he constantly defended the Kingdom of God from the evils of racism – by confronting Peter in Antioch (as shown in Galatians 2) and by defending the church against Jewish racial hegemony in Acts 15.
In Christ, we are called to be a holy nation of diverse people-groups who share a common humanity in Christ. Sharing common humanity means the ff. (1) we have mutual identification in Christ that far surpasses our earthly racial identities and (2) we have a common base of value system from which we express life in this world. It therefore means that God can use us as His church, to proclaim Wisdom, a Way of Life and a consistent Civil construct across the nations of the world. This is what Kingdom Humanity means! The power of the Gospel is not simply in the process of preaching, it is in the consistency of life and civil construct across the nations of the world, one that is rooted in the Nature of Christ and in the ideals of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Racism and the Mission of the Church
Mark 16:15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. NIV
John 17:18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. NIV
In both Mark 16:15 and John 17:18, we see that the Lord sent us to the world. The word “world” is the word kosmos which means “an orderly arrangement”. Jesus did not send us to an arbitrary environment. He sent us to a people living in a systemic environment characterized by certain conditions and evils. Paul declared, “see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8, NIV). The phrase, “basic principles” (or rudiments) also defines something orderly in arrangement, basic and essential elements of life. This word also describes an orderly military procession of soldiers. In all these scriptures, we can see that we are sent to a people who live in a structured and systemic environment. To fail to understand the structural conditions in which people live is to fail to serve them. “For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…” (Acts 13:36, NIV). In Acts 13:36, we are introduced to the word, “generation”. This word means a multitude of people living at the same time, an age or a space of time, circumstances of a particular period. David served his generation. He discharged ministry that spoke into the circumstances of his time. Emphasis is on both relevance and effectiveness of David’s ministry during his time.
When we consider our mission as church, we must reflect on the arrangements and circumstances of life that characterize the generation we are called to serve. If we are blind to these realities, then our ministry will not be effective. This necessitates for us to engage in the exercise of analyzing and profiling systemic conditions and evils of our times and generation, of which racism is part. It also requires a deep and intuitive understanding of our own respective Callings and talents. In the end, we must not only be consumed by our own specific burdens and ministries, but we must have a general understanding of these systemic conditions and know how we can draw from a pool of Gifts and Talents in the house of God, to confront these evils.
This church generation serves a society that has been shaped by European colonial era. Ours is a society in which “Whiteness” has become the default, dominant and hegemonic systemic culture that sets norms and standards. There have been other epochs in the history of the Faith, the Church and the Gospel. For example, the early Church functioned within an environment of the Roman Empire, they preached the Gospel in the colonies of Caesar and or to societies that were under Roman oppression and rule. They therefore had to understand political and cultural nuances of their day. Equally, Israel had to confront 400 years of systemic oppression in Egypt. God’s response to that situation was that “I have seen the misery of my people…I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers…I am concerned…and I have come down to rescue them” (Ex. 3:7&8). What is it that God sees today? What is He hearing? What is He concerned about? Do we share these concerns with Him? And how is He intervening in the human condition today?
We are advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom in a world characterized by European imperialism and hegemonic Whiteness – we must understand the cultural and political nuances that come with this.
Understanding the Mission: Kingdom Humanity – Church is called to express the civil construct of the Kingdom of God
In understanding our mission, we must understand how exactly we are called to express the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in the earth. Prophetic Scriptures tell us that “darkness and thick darkness” will fall upon the peoples of the earth (Isa. 60:2). Jesus says that wickedness will increase, to the point of causing apostasy within the House of God (Matt. 24:10-13). In other words, because of the conditions of life, the saints will grow cold and will become disillusioned. The idea of “darkness and thick darkness” suggests a progressive and cumulative process of disintegration of society, the kind we have seen in the situation of George Floyd. How does a man die in the streets in the USA in front of the public and in the hands of police in 2020? This means that not only must the church understand the world and generation she is called to serve, but also how the human condition is evolving into the future. If the church is armed with a proper understanding of the current and evolving human condition, then she will be able to have a prophetic and pragmatic response that displays the kind of civil construct- a Kingdom Humanity – that the nations must be sensitized towards. And so in the same Isaiah 60, the response of the people of God is “to arise and to shine as the Lod rises upon you”, with the outcome of “nations coming to your light” (Isa. 60:1-3). It is therefore important to understand the way we confront evils of our time: (1) we must evangelize people so that we can witness conversions of hearts towards the grace of Jesus Christ, (2) we must proclaim and advocate for righteousness (morality and justice) in society and in the world, (3) we must build within the church to produce model communities of faith that become the expression of a civil construct of the Kingdom of God. The one mistake we make as church when it comes to systemic evils is to major on advocacy without building from within our own ranks. We are in error as church when we expect a fractured world to display the righteous requirements of the Kingdom of God. At the very least, this reflects an incorrect eschatological viewpoint (or an incorrect understanding of the evolution of life and the human condition). Advocacy for justice, without building just and righteous communities of faith is an exercise in futility. It is nothing but a deferring of our apostolic responsibility to the world – our apostolic responsibility to be the light, not simply in word but also in form and deed. Instead of simply preaching against racism, we must demonstrate reconciled communities. It is in this context that Isaiah says, “nations will come and say “teach us your ways”” (Isa. 2:2&3).
When it comes to systemic evils in society, we have something to learn from Noah: he preached righteousness against immorality, but he built a boat to save his family. He showed us the need to strike a balance between advocacy and church building, in order to effectively advance the Kingdom of God. Essentially, the Kingdom of God is within us and it is among us, it is not “out there”.
Equally, we are in error as church when we try to fix systemic evils within the church, by using the tools and mechanisms of this world. “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:4-6, NIV). Paul says, “we demolish arguments”. The word “arguments” means reasoning, concepts and ideas. We’ll most likely see churches starting the conversation on racism and reconciliation after this George Floyd incident, this is not a bad thing. However, it remains to be seen whether church will elevate the principles and doctrines of the Kingdom of God above the ideologies of man. Here is the issue: if the world had such great concepts, tools and mechanisms to solve its problems, then it wouldn’t be what it is today! It is a big mistake when pastors relegate their responsibility to lead the churches to reconciliation in Christ, to those perceived to be “knowledgeable and ideologically astute” on matters of racism. This does nothing but polarize the conversation, leading to more questions than answers. Pastors may consult others, especially their pastoral peers and especially those who are not of the “same fold” – but they must eventually lead their churches. We cannot outsource this pastoral duty. Pastors must lead the charge, but they must do so filled with wisdom, courage, grace and humility, backed up by a testimony of personal transformation in the journey of reconciliation.
Eph 3:10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. NIV
The word “wisdom” used in Eph. 3:10 means to be skillful in the affairs of life, wise administration of life. This word emphasizes the need for a global community of faith that is the expression of the civil construct of the Kingdom of God. The manifold wisdom should be made known – the phrase, “made known”, carries the idea of proclaiming and broadcasting something. When Jesus declared, “I will build my church” in Matt. 16:18, He was not referring to a devotional service, but a global community (the ekklesia) that would broadcast the civil construct of the Kingdom of God in the earth.
One New Humanity: The Cross, the Gospel and Systemic Reconciliation
Eph 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man [one new humanity] out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household… NIV
Church must believe in the power of the Cross to effectively deal with the human condition, including racism. The administrative process of the Cross reflects some powerful principles that must be established in our lives and churches. Jesus reconciles conflicting realities: He is God and man, King and Servant, Eternal Word in Mortality, and a privileged Son of God who leaves heavenly glory only to be born in a manger. His crucifixion reflects a reality in which One who is holy and innocent is convicted as a criminal, and where One who is all powerful sacrifices His life in complete weakness. Equally, it reflects a situation where one who dies in weakness and shame is restored back to life, power and glory. These contradictions that we see through the Cross are the foundations of Classism and Racism in the earth, and yet Jesus brings them to a resolution through His death. No matter which angle you look at the Cross, every narrative is catered for and covered, and conflicting narratives of Class are reconciled.
Through the Cross, the one who has power and privilege is called to lay it down in the process of redemption, and the one who is wounded and marginalized is called to give away his pain in exchange for healing and restoration. That is, both White privilege and Black pain are forms of brokenness, they both will blind us from seeing the glory of God, and they therefore both require the saving power of Christ. Through this process of divine exchange at the Cross, reconciliation happens. As the one with privilege and the one who is marginalized both move to the Cross, they find each other at the Confluence of Redemption. Remember, the common problem that both the privileged and the marginalized share is one of sin – they both have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. They both share a fundamental guilt and sin of revolt and rebellion against God. They have consequently descended into a chaotic life and into the valley of the survival of the fittest. In this valley of human chaos, the narrative of justice is limited since it is shaped by the victim of human conflict and marginalization. But the Cross shines the light on that narrative, exposing the underlying hypocrisy and revealing that the core issue of injustice is not primarily between humans or people-groups, it is between collective humanity and God – the revolt of humans as a collective, against the arrangements of God. This is what Jesus comes to pay for – a penalty for the sin of collective humanity. And so through Him, our sins are atoned for and justice is served. Through Him, we, the collective humanity are justified and declared innocent again. Now we can begin the journey back to His righteous order. As we see in Acts 2 and 4, the privileged begins to live in fellowship and generosity and the wounded begins to live in healing and restoration – they are now one family, One New Humanity. They both must offer something in return to God’s redemption, the one offers back to God his privilege and the other offers back to God his pain – instead of having the gods of privilege and pain, you now have the true God, Jehovah, reigning over life again. Any cheating by anyone of the two violates the Cross – if the one does not give away his privilege or the other his pain, the system simply doesn’t work. In this way, we are crucified with Jesus Christ, both the privileged and the wounded. We are crucified to the world and the world to us. We no longer live but Jesus Christ lives in us and through our conditions. We now start the journey of following Him, carrying our own Crosses daily, having given away our privilege and pain. And we who were conflicted, start to find each other at the Confluence of Redemption. Now, we can be a part of the Community of the Redeemed, the Church. We can now look at the George Floyd crisis and offer the world a different narrative, a narrative of Christ (the Gospel) and not one of our native pasts. I’m not referring to a shallow and artificial tapping of each other’s backs and empty repentance, I’m talking about two lives that are subjected to the transformation of Christ and that can be used by God to reconcile irreconcilable narratives. This is what it means to be a Community of the Redeemed. We don’t go to the Cross to receive salvation and then walk away wiping our mouths in thankfulness to “God’s grace”. We go to the Cross to receive salvation and to give away our narratives and conditions (both privilege and pain), so that God can start us on a new journey towards reconciliation in Christ, as different people and people-groups. The Cross is the place of Divine Exchange. It is for this reason that Paul considers his Jewish privilege loss for the sake of Christ. And it is for this reason that Paul teaches the Corinthians that Jesus Christ died for us so that we would live for Him (2 Cor. 5:15). It is for this reason that he teaches the Philippians that we are not only called to believe in Jesus, but also to suffer for Him (Phil. 1:29). To receive Jesus and keep your privilege or pain is to cheat the process of salvation.
I recently shared aspects of my story of Personal Salvation in a podcast with a friend. In my salvation, I had to process in Christ historical moments of provocation by Systemic Racism (among other personal fragilities). I grew up in northern Zululand, in an underprivileged village. There are three distinct experiences that had to come to a place of resolution in my heart: (1) the first had to do with being exposed as a young teenager to Apartheid armed forces manning a funeral of the uMkhonto WeSizwe (MK) operative in my village – this incident provoked something in me as a young African boy, (2) witnessing the reality of plantations in deep northern Zululand each time I visited my uncles during school holidays – a few massive houses of White farmers in the midst of broken and poverty stricken villagers who worked in the plantations, (3) assuming a career in a pro-White environment in which I had to learn to switch between enjoying soccer during weekends and hearing stories of rugby on Mondays (interestingly, my son loves rugby now and I have since fallen in love with the game myself, although I used to view it through political lenses in the past). Unless my salvation could deal with these heart issues, then it would have been useless. But I had to learn to give away my pain, and trust that Christ had something better for me. Primarily, I was not giving my pain away for White people, but because of my love for Jesus Christ. I realized that I had a better inheritance in Christ, here on earth and in eternity. I’m sure that there are numerous similar stories across race-groups. This is the demonstration of the power of the Kingdom of God in our lives and times.
In Ephesians 2:14-19, the Gospel is not only about reconciliation of God and humans, but it’s also about reconciliation between humans and between people-groups. In this scripture to the Ephesians, Paul uses some important words to give us some clues about the process of reconciliation and the consequential formation of one new humanity:
- The dividing wall of hostility or the middle wall of partition (vs.14): “hostility” or “partition” describes a thorn hedge around a vineyard, a fence, a barrier. The picture that Paul is giving us is one in which people-groups are fenced by hostile cultural hedges, making it impossible for them to access one another. Any attempt by one people-group to reach out to another outside of Christ results in offense, pain and hostility. What Christ does is that He abolishes these thorny hedges, creating access again between people-groups.
- He abolished… (vs.15): this word means to render something ineffective, useless and inactive or to do away with. The idea is that while we remain in our ethnic profiles, and yet we may not flex our cultures before Christ or in the House of God, especially when they are in conflict with the Kingdom of God. Our cultures can be used in the process of preaching the Gospel, with the intent to redeem others (“to the Jew I became like a Jew in order to win them over”), but also, we can celebrate redeemable aspects of our cultural traits, provided they enhance and establish the reality of God as the Creator of diversity. However, in all of this, we are clear that we share a common image and humanity in Christ.
- He abolished commandments and ordinances (vs.15): this speaks of traditions and dogmas or established opinions, worldviews, and stereotypes. It speaks of critical beliefs that shape how we do life and how we engage with other race and cultural groups.
- To reconcile them (vs.16): this word “reconcile” has two meanings – (a) firstly it means to leave something behind, (b) secondly, it means to change mutually. This word therefore captures both the ideas of movement away from something and transformation into a new reality. This process of reconciliation is not one based on “negotiation” between humans, it is one based on Divine Facilitation of heart transformation by the Holy Spirit. This is a little different from talking over a personal offence. This is systemic reconciliation that is based on mutual obligation and transformation in Christ.
When we combine the ideas of “abolition of dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciliation”, we realize that God is dealing with Systemic Reconciliation in the church, and not simply the resolving of personal offence. The agenda of Systemic Reconciliation is set by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of His Word, through prophetic, thoughtful and intentional pastoral interventions and by the conviction of the human heart. It is when God reveals the underlying sin behind systemic pain and systemic privilege. The Scriptures are therefore truthful when they declare that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. If we are convicted by the Scriptures, we must then engage the journey to find out what that sin looks like in the context of our conflicting narratives. Systemic Reconciliation is the removal of structural fences that exist between race-groups and cultures. Although cultures of man come in different forms and shapes, they all have an underlying posture of pride, which is based on belief of authenticity of one’s culture over others. It takes Christ to confront this cultural pride and bring us to the freedom of the Kingdom of God.
What must the Church do to deconstruct Racism?
When we go back to the words “world” (orderly arrangement) and “generation” (conditions characterizing a particular generation and time), then we see that this church generation has been sent by the Lord Jesus Christ to minister to a world characterized by certain evils, including racism and systemic racism. Therefore, to engage this mission of the Kingdom of God effectively, we must build a holy church that is powerful enough to confront, deconstruct or demolish the evils of systemic racism. To do this, we must consider the following church building processes…
Preach the Full Gospel of the Kingdom of God: there is need to stop perceiving the issue of reconciliation as “political” and “ideological”, it is time to see this as a Gospel imperative. The full gospel of the Kingdom of God is not only about reconciliation of God and man but it’s also about reconciliation between humans and between people-groups (race-groups, gender-groups and age-groups). Just as we have doctrines that help humans to build a relationship with God, we must equally teach, preach and build on issues relating to systemic reconciliation of humans and people-groups in Christ.
Embrace Christ for Personal Salvation and as a Value System of the Collective: it does take hearing the same thing repeatedly over a period of time before we are able to internalize and embrace it as truth. Silence on certain aspects of truth therefore suggests to believers that these issues (like racism and reconciliation) are not that important in their journey of salvation.
Receive the King in the context of the Culture of His Kingdom: we have made a mistake of receiving Jesus within the framework of our own earthly cultures and cultural biases, and not within the framework of the Kingdom of God. There is no King without a domain. A domain is basically an arrangement of life – a composition of principles that define a Way of Life. Jesus can only be King in His Kingdom! We therefore can only be subjects of the King in His Kingdom! Therefore, beyond teaching on the Nature of Christ, we must start to teach more on the nature of His Kingdom. It is for this same reason that Jesus spent a lot of time teaching on the Kingdom of God.
Build upon a Model of Community instead of Devotional Service: it is impossible to establish certain important aspects of Community such as meaningful social interface where church is only about Sunday morning devotional gathering. For this reason, Jesus has called us to be a Community of Faith in the midst of our neighborhoods, and to be the Light of God in the midst of darkness and fractured life. Building solely on the premise of Sunday morning devotional platform compromises authentic relational engagement amongst believers. It results in a situation where believers only have Sunday morning as a platform of engagement. In this context, believers remain “strangers” and tend to gravitate towards those of “the same kind”.
Establish Leadership and Deacon teams that inspire Systemic Reconciliation: this is not only in terms of actually mixing teams where this is possible (and we know that the establishment of representative teams is a common biblical practice, but it must be done with discernment, wisdom and thoughtfulness), even where teams are homogeneous, their lives, conduct and lifestyles should inspire godliness, peace and reconciliation in the church.
Facilitate a Salvation process that goes beyond Personal Purification to include Transformation from Systemic Sins: walking with Christ involves not only seeing your personal sins but also the sins of the culture from which you were born and raised. In the words of prophet Isaiah, this is about seeing that “we are of unclean lips and we live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Intimate awareness of deficiencies of our own earthly culture, empowers us to better engage other cultures and to effectively represent Christ in society.
Engage in godly and intentional Parenting around issues of race: the Kingdom of God is not only advanced through Sunday morning preaching, but also through parental processes. Fathers (or parents) must bring their kids up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). In the Old Covenant, the Lord repeatedly instructed parents to talk to their children about law, history and matters of life. Parents must be intentional about having race-relations conversations with their children at home. They must be intentional about what they do and say when they are most relaxed, because kids learn by assimilation. And they must be creative about how they transmit and impart the values of the Kingdom of God to their kids. And most importantly, parents must be firm on themselves, their kids and others on issues of racism and reconciliation. Church must in turn equip parents to do their job correctly and effectively.
Recognize and Confront Discrimination as sin: if there is one thing to learn from Acts 6, it is that a lot can happen within the realm of deacon teams. In Acts 6, a team of deacons practiced discrimination, the apostolic leadership investigated the matter and dealt with it. In James 2:1-13, the issue of discrimination is recognized as sin that violates the cause of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. We must recognize this as such in the church today.
Realize that even as a homogeneous group, church is still not a social island, it exists in a diverse world: we must equip believers not simply for devotional or fellowship life within the church, but for effective life in a racially diverse and broken world. In this context, there is no such thing as a “homogeneous church”. Even the apostle Peter who was called to minister specifically to the Jews still found himself in racially and culturally diverse contexts where he needed to demonstrate a heart and conduct of reconciliation (Gal. 2:11-14).
Refuse to adopt the Culture of this World: we are encouraged in the Scriptures to not conform to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2). The word “conform” means to take the shape of the mould of the world, like liquid that takes the shape of its container. The danger of adopting the culture of the world is that we will inevitably allow racism and discrimination to infiltrate the house of God.
Develop a Comprehensive Discipleship Process that covers both Devotional Life and Civil Obligation for Public Welfare: the Kingdom of God is built on the foundations of love for God and love for your neighbor. According to the teachings of Jesus (Luke 10:25-37), the neighbor is neither the owner of the house next door nor a fellow church member. The neighbor is a fellow countryman and a fellow citizen (this obviously includes our fellow church members etc.). And so the application of the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” must find itself in how we engage public affairs and situations. We cannot be spectators of injustice when we are children of God. In this context, church can produce powerful believers and disciples who can advocate for justice and administer cultural and institutional reforms in society.
Promote cross-cultural ministry, teams and friendships: in Acts 10 we see a beautiful and yet difficult situation where the Holy Spirit sets the ministry date between Peter and Cornelius. Peter on the one hand, was the oppressed Jew who had his own cultural prejudice and racism in his heart. Cornelius was the Roman military officer who represented Roman hegemonic power. “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”” (Acts 10:25&26, NIV). Peter was clearly received with a deep sense of honour, almost to the point of being worshiped. And then something significant happened to Peter: “Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34&35, NIV). A senior military officer bows down before a Jew, in complete violation of the hegemonic power he represents, and the Jew is confronted in his heart and delivered from prejudice and racism. This is the fruit of internal cross-cultural ministries and teams in the church. That is, when we activate mixed and cross-cultural teams, we create an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to convict hearts and transform lives.
Advocate for Kingdom Justice in the world: there are three dimensions of justice from the point of view of the Kingdom of God: (1) since all mankind has revolted against God’s righteousness, we are all guilty of sin and have committed injustice against God. For this reason, we all need Jesus Christ. To expect an orderly and a just world in a context where we all have revolted against God’s order is deeply hypocritical. (2) In the scriptures, the word “justice” carries two meanings of morality and equity. Justice in the context of human brokenness is often viewed through the vantage point of the marginalized, it therefore tends to focus only on issues of systemic inequality and not necessarily on morality. In the Kingdom of God, there can be no justice where there is no morality and there can be no justice where there is no equity. It is for this reason that God liberated Israel from systemic oppression in Egypt but judged them later in the desert, for violating His righteousness. Although Israel was delivered from material and systemic oppression, they still did not fulfill God’s justice in that they began to indulge in sin. Equally, when Jesus intervened in the story of the woman found in adultery, He pushed back the powers that wanted to stone her to death, but He equally told her “to go and sin no more”. In this way, Jesus administered justice according to the requirements of the Kingdom of God. As the Scriptures state, we have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We are in error when we advocate the kind of justice that majors on issues of equity without putting God’s demand for morality (upon ourselves and upon the world). And here is what we must consider – issues of immorality tend to cut through race and class groups. In other words, the first step towards justice is a return to God’s righteousness. (3) There is enough evidence in the Scriptures that shows us that God does intervene in cases where one people-group is oppressed by another – this is contextual justice applicable to specific human conditions (e.g. Egyptian oppression of the Jews or Apartheid in South Africa). It is important to note that this dimension of justice tends to evaporate quickly where issues of morality are not addressed.
Empower Successive Generations – by removing “the reproach of Egypt”: in Joshua chapter 5 verses 1-12, God takes the generation of Joshua through the process of circumcision. Although this was a new generation that had been born in the desert and that therefore had not encountered oppression in Egypt, God still saw the need to circumcise them with the intent to remove “the reproach of Egypt” (Josh. 5:9). What was God doing? He was removing the memory and psychological trauma of oppression. In South Africa, we now have a generation that did not experience Apartheid, but that lives in the memory of Apartheid. On the one hand, we have a Black generation that hears stories of oppression of Blacks, on the other hand, a White generation that is aware of historical systemic privileges of Whites. Both these youths are encountering the past without anybody mediating the process to establish a kingdom perspective. And so they each want to advance their cause according to their historical narratives. This results in the kind of explosions we are seeing and the kind of racism that has played out in Social Media. This generation needs their own “Gilgal” experience of transformation so they can fully walk into their own destiny. It is therefore time for church to significantly change the profile of youth ministry, to allow the Holy Spirit to minister to the next generation. Amazingly, as soon as the generation of Joshua was circumcised, they celebrated a Passover. And we know that the Passover principle signifies transition from one era to another. This is what South Africa needs right now.
All in all, as we proclaim the Gospel amidst human and systemic evils, we must not lose sight of the way in which the Kingdom of God advances: Firstly, the Kingdom of God is within us. This means that the first step in sharpening the sword of kingdom advocacy is in allowing the Kingdom of God to confront our hearts. Secondly, the Kingdom of God declares all humans and people-groups to be sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. The fundamental sin of humanity is collective rebellion against the righteous requirements of God. It is therefore just as sinful for any human or people-group to assume that they can get justice in a world in which all humans have rebelled against God. Thirdly, the Kingdom of God builds from bottom up – from the foundation of the human heart to systemic issues. It is for this reason that Jesus may have appeared to some to be “unconcerned” about the issues of the day. He walked around ministering within what was a colony of Caesar, meaning that this was an environment of injustice and military occupation. Jesus offered healing to a centurion’s servant, and he even praised the same centurion for his faith (Matt. 8:5-13). He had dinner with a corrupt tax collector, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9). And He shifted the conversation when His own disciples were calling for a revolt against the Roman Empire (Acts 1:6&7). Why did Jesus do all of this? Because He knew that His own disciples still had lingering racism issues that still had to be confronted (as we see in the case of apostle Peter). Once the foundations of the human heart were clean, the church was ready to engage and confront systemic powers of Rome. Fourthly, the Kingdom of God is not a matter words, it is about practically carrying the Cross of Sacrifice daily, to become a conduit of public transformation.
The “revolution” of the Kingdom of God begins in the transformation of human heart, it is outworked in human lives, lifestyles and families, and then proclaimed to systemic conditions and powers. Equally, every proclamation we make to systemic powers, must become a platform and a measure of self-evaluation. The greater the gap between our advocacy and personal transformation, the weaker the Kingdom of God becomes – in such a context, we can achieve some “revolution” but never an eternal fruit of the Kingdom of God.
Please follow the links below to access other resources relevant to the current pandemic…
- Mr President: We shall err on the side of Caution
- On the Issue of Essentiality of Church
- The Lockdown Debate and the Issue of the Vantage Point
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 1
- The Doctrine of Suffering – Part 2
- Covid-19: A Prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 1)
- Covid-19: A prophetic characterization of the current pandemic (part 2)
- Restating the foundations of the New Covenant
- Drivers for effective life in the current season of the pandemic
- Doing church in the crisis of coronavirus
- Note: if you wish to listen to the podcast I referred to earlier in this article, on the story of my Personal Salvation and journey of Transformation, please follow the link A conversation with Ps Robert Ntuli.
Pastor – LivingStones Agency
Visionary Leader – Kingdom Humanity Fellowship
Robert Ntuli © 2020