The Courage To Combat Racism
After Moses died, God called Joshua to lead the people of Israel into the promised land. Joshua understandably experienced trepidation at the prospect of leading a throng of people into a land filled with enemies and succeeding Moses, the leader of Israel who spoke face-to-face with God. Sensing the fear that threatened to paralyze Joshua, God exhorted him. Three times in the first nine verses of the book of Joshua, God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous.
Joshua 1:6-7, 9 NIV Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
The words “be strong and courageous” came in the form of a command, not a suggestion. In the face of the most difficult role of his life, God ordered Joshua to have strength and courage so that Joshua could faithfully execute his calling. In much the same way, the church today must receive God’s command to show strength and courage to combat racism.
When it comes to racism, the American church does not have a “how to” problem but a “want to” problem. Given ten minutes, a pen, and paper, most American Christians could come up with a list of ways to increase racial equity in our congregations and communities. We know that we need a more diverse leadership, that we should develop relationships across racial and ethnic lines, that people who continue to peddle prejudice should be opposed. Though solutions abound, racism remains. In my experience of talking to hundreds of Christians—black and white, men and women, young and old—I have observed one primary reason more of us do not exhibit the strength and courage required to root out racism: fear.
The second chapter of Galatians illustrates how fear can sabotage interracial solidarity. The apostle Peter had been eating with the gentiles, an act forbidden by Old Testament Jewish law. Christ had broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and gentile.
Ephesians 2:14-16 NIV For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Yet the old prejudices remained. At a certain point, Peter withdrew from fellowship with the gentiles, and the Bible explains why. A certain group from James came to meet Peter, and “he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group”.
Galatians 2:12-13 NIV For 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. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
There it is again. Fear. Peter withdrew from the gentiles because he feared human beings more than the Lord who sits on high.
Iam convinced that a fear of other people—what they will say, think, and do if we stand against racism—holds the church back from more aggressive action to bring about justice. Indifference certainly plays a role. Apathy has its part. But when confronted with a choice to oppose racism or to acquiesce to business as usual, people of God too often shrink back. This goes for Christians of all colors. Even minorities fear causing too much of a stir over racism for fear they will lose their job, money, status, or opportunities (and with good reason!). Fear affects us all.
Another type of fear that may affect some of us is the fear of getting it wrong. We worry that we do not know enough yet, that our good intentions may have unintended negative consequences, or that the very people we seek to serve will rebuke us for our ignorance or missteps. I cannot say this will not happen. Standing for racial justice involves risk. But effective advocacy is a skill just like any other, and skills can be learned. Ultimately, though, you cannot read your way, listen your way, or watch your way into skillful advocacy. At some point you must act. Go forth not in fear but in faith that even your mistakes will increase your capacity to disrupt racism.
As the American church considers facing racism, we must remember that God’s command for Joshua to be strong and courageous also came with a promise. “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go”.
Joshua 1:9 NIV Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
The guarantee that God’s people can do what God commands is the promise of God’s presence. For Christians God’s promise is a person—Jesus Christ. Immanuel, which means “God with us,” took on flesh to make God’s presence real among us.
Jesus crossed every barrier between people, including the greatest barrier of all—the division between God and humankind. He is our peace, and because of his life, death, resurrection, and coming return, those who believe in Jesus not only have God’s presence with us but in us through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have the power, through God, to leave behind the compromised Christianity that makes its peace with racism and to live out Christ’s call to a courageous faith. The time for the American church’s complicity in racism has long passed. It is time to cancel compromise. It is time to practice courageous Christianity.