The gospel is the end of racism

Guest commentary by Samuel Son

“Black lives matter.” That’s how I started my sermon on July 10th, the Sunday after the withering week of the murder of two black men and five cops.

A few days later, Chad Chapman, our praise leader, sent an email attached with a screenshot of a Facebook comment on the sermon from the Kiser family. It was their second visit. Nervous, I scanned the subject line for a hint, and even considered ignoring it. I expected heat.

I wrestled with the sermon. From the first word, it wrote itself differently than I anticipated. My sentences are usually long with, I admit, haughty Latinates, vestiges from my seminary days. The sentences I typed were short, guttural and bare. Shorn of hesitating conditionals and conjunctions, the words felt naked, vulnerable and muscular. And I “heard” the opening sentence: “Black lives matter.” Even to the second I stood up to preach, I debated if that truth might be heard better if I worked up to it.

I stood up, saw my family, my congregation and with a voice that rose from somewhere deeper than myself, I said:

“Black lives matter. Every life matters, because every life matters to God.”

I opened the email and enlarged the photo attachment. Rachel and Colin Kiser. They were blond, blue-eyed and white, with a dimpled-smiling toddler and an infant. They could have graced the cover of Good Housekeeping. A deep breath. I read Rachel’s words: “The first words out of our pastor’s mouth this morning were, ‘Black lives matter.’ So grateful to hear those words and see them in action.” Colin liked it and added, “And with no qualification. It was breathtaking and emotional. Can’t stop thinking about the power of his message and the true hope we have in Jesus.”

The church has been timid and ineffectual in racism because we have lost confidence in the gospel. Colin’s one-sentence comment captures why the church must battle racism head-on and with hope – with the gospel. Sadly, we whisper the gospel, as if we are ashamed of it, or we talk of the gospel as an old “outdated” uncle whom we tolerate but never talk about.

I called my friend BonJin Ku in New Jersey, curious to see the tragedy from his atheist, anarchist, Marxist horizon. “I hear some pastors talk politics and I’m like what the fudge (clean version)!” BonJin’s speech accelerated, which was already at the brisk New Jersey pace, “I mean I know the importance of social analysis. I’m a Marxist for Christ-sake! But I know I bring something to the table if I am confident about my narrative, that it’s all class. If I adapt myself to all the other narratives, then I don’t have any explanatory power. It’s not that I can’t bring other narratives,” he accelerates and stutters, “but if I explain my narrative with other narratives, I don’t have one anymore. Your Kingdom-of-God as social justice has nothing new to give. But the church has this unique narrative about the crucified God! But you don’t tell that story. Instead, you only talk about social roots of racism, which any undergrad can parrot!”

I wondered, did he read Lesslie Newbigin? “Every proposal to seek authorization elsewhere than in the gospel itself must lead us astray.”

The Christian narrative roots the value of human beings in the image of God, a location deeper than human experiences and expressions. This deep immanent valuing of the person radically challenges all pricing of humans by social categories. Racism is evil because it contradicts God’s values.

After this deep diagnosis, the Christian narrative goes in and removes the cancer with a most invasive surgery, the crucifixion. Christ dies a historical death on the most gruesome human torture machine. That death dismantled all enmity built on denial of God’s image in others and reinstated the full value of all humans so “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Not a single brick of division is left standing after the earthquake that is Christ. There is now only one human community: “Christ reconciled both groups (Jews and Gentiles) to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death” (Ephesians 2:16).

The work of reconciliation is not an ideal to be wished for, but a reality to be lived. That is Good News!

So why are we hunched when we should be marching? Murmuring when we should be proclaiming this gospel that ended racism?

Because this is not the story of most of our churches. We are not one church of Jews and Gentiles, but fragmented to white churches and black churches.

Eighty percent of American churches are monocultural. Ninety percent of Presbyterians are white. Whites are 65 percent of America. There is more ghettoization in the church than the society. We lack confidence in the gospel because we haven’t found it true in our own communities.

“The Way Forward” (as the General Assembly committee tasked with figuring out these next steps was called) is the PC(USA) church striving to remove the dissonance between its rhetoric and its reality. I appreciate all the days and hours put to the study, employing all available tools and learnings to understand our past and present so we can stamp our foot on the right path. But we don’t need much study to know what is the next step. The way forward for the PC(USA) is the way forward for all the churches. It is simply for the church to be the church and confidently live the gospel as a community where racism is dead.

If we spend days – sometimes years in the PC(USA) – arguing about methods, then when we fail through disobedience, we can always blame the methods. It is easier to admit we made the wrong decision than that we disobeyed. But at this critical juncture where society is fractured down race lines, the church that is disobedient will be irrelevant.

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary and a Presbyterian pastor, said to us gathered for training as Micah Group (a pastor formation group) facilitators, “The only relevant church for tomorrow will be the multiethnic church.” A truly evangelical church is a multiethnic church.

When pastors ask where I serve and I say we are a multiethnic church plant, they respond, “You are blessed. We try to be diverse but it’s hard. We are so white.” I nod vehemently about the blessings of New Life Triangle (the church plant), because it wasn’t my idea. I never wanted to plant a church. I don’t have a single entrepreneurial bone in me. Six years ago, before I moved to Raleigh, I went to a church planter network meeting. They did bunch of training and tests. I failed. So I joined the staff at Duraleigh Presbyterian Church as an associate to run the English Ministry for Korean-American young adults. I enjoyed it.

But then non-Koreans came and stayed. We were surprised that they stayed because Korean kimchee and bean-paste soup was stinking up the fellowship hall and the sanctuary (there isn’t a single Korean church in America whose kitchen is not working overtime on Sunday). We tried our best to play cool with our surprise.

We were astonished when a black family of five, Gerald and Dana Gayton with their three teenage boys, joined us, returned, then covenanted with us. Then it finally hit us: God is pushing us out to start a church where our non-Korean members can lead as session elders. So although I failed the church-planter assessment, I didn’t tell anyone and we went ahead. Two years later, and thanks to lay leaders, New Life exists and Gerald Gayton is an elder in our session. So yes, New Life is a blessing and not an achievement.

But when pastors say their churches can’t be diverse, I sigh silently. I hear it as an excuse for disobedience that they don’t even recognize. There is nothing in any congregation that keeps them from inviting and accepting people of different race. Discrimination is not in its rules or in its buildings. So what makes it impossible to be diverse when everyone is already brushing skin with people of different colors throughout the day?

My brother, Daniel, is a church planter. He passed the assessment with flying colors. He is a more compassionate pastor than me and a more gifted leader. His 2-year-old Church of the Beloved has grown to a strong and enviable congregation of 120. I don’t usually ask him for numbers. The Southern Baptists Convention takes pride in him and invites him to tell his success. His wife, Lydia, even addressed church-planter’s wives. No such invitation for my wife or me yet.

He complained to me, the week after the tragedy, that his church was growing – they received five more families, but they were all Korean-Americans, making them 75 percent Korean-American. “Jerk,” was my first thought. He continued, “and we prayed for the tragedy, but hyung (Korean for older brother), even as we prayed I realized that for most of us, there is a distance from the tragedy. I want to tell the Korean-Americans to go to other churches.”

It was time to be a hyung. “Don’t be upset about the large Korean-American families in your group. That is not what is keeping people of other colors away. When a person comes, he won’t be turned away by so many Koreans. He will be turned away if no one talks to him. Train your people to love the guests beyond the smiles and handshakes. Those 100 Koreans can bring 100 non-Koreans.”

As I said, PC(USA) is 90 percent white. That is great! We have lot of white people in America and white people need God too! But we are not fated to that percentage. We can change that this week: Invite your non-white friends. If you don’t have non-white friends then pray and God will introduce you to one. Invite them to your home for a dinner. Then invite them to your church, even if you think your (new) non-white friend will feel like a cat in a dog’s party. Tell your church friends to make extra efforts making them feel welcomed. The onus of comfort lies with the host, not the guest. So if the guest felt uncomfortable, don’t sell yourself short saying you tried your best. You didn’t. Review your hospitality and fix it. When a person feels she can belong, she will return. Every person coming to church should feel like he or she belongs.

Last Sunday we had a farewell dinner for Sooah Han, a Korean-American young adult. We gathered at La Rancherita, a Mexican restaurant, two miles from Laurel Hills Community Center where we worship. On the second floor, the waiters put five tables together to make one long table sitting 25 of us.

As I was finishing my steak quesadilla, Gerald turned to me and said “Sooah was our first friend when we visited New Life. She made us feel welcome. That is why we returned. I want to cover her lunch.” He has been with us three years. All this time, I thought he stayed because of my sermons.

The gospel is a strong enough epoxy for all our differences. Church, be more confident!

Clarence Jordan started the Koinonia community on simple principles: love everyone, share everything. Gospel principles. During the civil rights movement, the Klu Klux Klan bombed his market, filed lawsuits and threatened his life to his face. Clarence welcomed them to their homes and prayed for them. Now Clarence did not mobilize his people for boycotts or sit-ins. But the KKK was scared of Clarence because Koinonia contradicted their claim that blacks and whites cannot live together. His community confidently proclaimed the gospel. Some repented and some tried to kill the prophet.

The Sunday after the shootings was followed by a terrorist attack at Nice, France. It felt like the end was near. On July 17th, our children’s pastor, Andrea Chapman, invited people to pray at her home after worship. She felt helpless and needed to be with others who felt helpless.

Eight of us sat around that small living room, sharing our fears and worries, reading scripture, desperate for the tiniest spark of hope. Jamila Simpson, a black woman in an interracial marriage, joined us late. She was feeling under the weather and had missed Sunday worship but felt the same desperation to pray.

After prayer she told us of a heart searing recent realization that even some of her best friends did not know what she was going through as a black women. Then wiping tears with both palms, she told us, “I worry that if I were to be shot, my life won’t matter. That no one will care that I died. That most will look for why I might have been shot, searching for some criminal record. My life won’t matter.”

That is when I realized why the Spirit had me say, “Black lives matter.” Because Jamila needed to hear the gospel, from the church.

Samuel Son portraitSAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a columnist for North State Journal. Visit his website.