The issues of injustice and racism in our world are troubling and disheartening. Changes are needed, and there are many opinions on what change should look like. But agreeing on a way forward is difficult. Our society is so polarized and highly charged that genuine dialog is rare, and there’s virtually no common ground.
The complexity of the issues also makes it hard to separate the symptoms from the disease, so to speak. The measurable outcomes of the racial issues we’re facing (inequality, biases, abuse of authority, etc.) show up in a variety arenas (social, economic, historical, political, etc.). If we offer solutions that only address the visible outcomes or a specific arena and don’t get to the root cause, we’re just treating symptoms. It may make us feel better, but it ultimately won’t solve anything.
When it comes to addressing the root cause of racial injustice and inequality, there is good news and bad news:
- Good News: The solution is actually quite simple.
- Bad News: The solution is anything but easy. Implementing it will require more of us personally than we probably understand.
I’ll get to the solution in a moment, but first: some background
One Man’s Story
I’m intrigued by the apostle John. He was an activator. He was passionate, so much so that Jesus nicknamed him a “Son of Thunder.” At one point John asked Jesus if he could call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, judgment for their refusal to give Jesus housing accommodations because he was a Jew (Luke 9.54). John also asked Jesus for a special place of honor next to Jesus’ throne after he became king (Mark 10.37).
Mere months later, Jesus’ death and resurrection radically changed John. From then on he referred to himself simply as “the one whom Jesus loved.” He spent time going through (likely) the same Samaritan villages he’d earlier wanted to destroy, sharing the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ (Acts 8.25). His gospel and three letters in the Bible all have a simple, dominant theme: Love.
Love turned John’s misdirected, shoot-from-the-hip, I’m-right, divisive passion into a mission statement that shaped the New Testament church. As the oldest surviving of Jesus original 12 disciples, John’s message of love fueled the church’s viral growth in the first 300 years and completely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Among other things:
- Crucifixion was discontinued as a form of capital punishment
- Gladiatorial games ceased
- Infanticide and concubinage were discontinued
- The emancipation of slaves was encouraged
- Women’s rights were greatly improved
- Care for the sick (instead of abandonment) increased life expectancy
Everyone recognizes the value of loving others. In fact, I often hear people (secular and religious alike) appeal for “loving your neighbor as yourself” as a solution for our current troubles. So is this appeal making a difference? Perhaps, here and there. But clearly it’s not impacting the meta narrative of racial injustice and inequality.
Jesus ranked “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22.39) as a part of the most important of all the Old Testament laws—it’s clearly significant. But we should be careful that we don’t reduce “loving my neighbor as myself” to “intending no ill-will on my neighbor.” Avoiding ill will on my neighbor is noble and good, an expression of respect for my neighbor’s rights. It’s the golden rule of treating others like I would want to be treated: fairly and with common decency.
Yet while not intending ill on my neighbor is well-intentioned, it’s still inherently self-focused because I’m evaluating what’s ill and what’s not. Since I mean my neighbor no harm, I judge that my actions are morally positive—or at worst morally neutral. I’m seeing my neighbor through my lens. As long as there’s no misunderstanding or offense that threatens my interests, we can coexist.
Throw in differences like language, culture, gender, age, ethnicity, etc. and lines invariably start getting crossed. The danger in reducing loving my neighbor to not harboring ill will toward my neighbor is that it doesn’t prevent me from being (like John) a son of thunder, operating with a justified, righteous indignation and wanting to call down fire from heaven.
It’s interesting that Jesus upgraded the Old Testament commandment for his followers:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another.” (John 13.34, emphasis mine)
Loving as Jesus has loved me requires me to do so unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. It compels me to be my brother’s keeper: to go his neighborhood, live among him and experience life with him. It requires me to reject boasting and pride. It calls me to trust, sacrifice, turn the other cheek, bear other people’s burdens, to not keep score of offenses and to love my enemy.
Jesus is asking his followers to walk a path he’s already laid out. He left the comfort and glory of heaven to live in our neighborhood. He placed his God identity and ability inside a human container. Though he did nothing wrong he endured false accusation and brutal execution at the hands of prideful people who feared the loss of public status and privilege. In doing so, he died in our place: Taking the consequences of our sin condition so we wouldn’t have to.
That’s how he loved us. And that’s how he calls his followers to love others.
“He left the comfort and glory of heaven to live in our neighborhood.”
If you are not a follower of Jesus, I hear the retort coming: “Yeah, but most Christians don’t live that way!” I concede the point, and it saddens me as much as it irritates you. Personally, I think the church has a history of being distracted away from the priority of love toward other things; I know I was for many years. But at the risk of appearing to excuse hypocrisy, I ask you to consider three things:
- Christians are human, just like you. Have you met every lofty standard you’ve ever reached for?
- Just because some Christians fail to love doesn’t mean all do. There’s a good chance that the ones who’ve loved like Jesus didn’t get any public notice.
- Failing to meet the standard doesn’t invalidate the standard. If anything, it elevates it. If it were easy to reach we wouldn’t need God’s help to do so.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a couple of options:
- Continue living as you are, whatever that may be. However, please recognize the world around you is watching. God’s reputation is impacted (in part) by your behavior.
- Begin a process of reflection and repentance toward loving others as Jesus has loved you. Consider what changes in your life would allow you to do this more completely.
Our current troubles are an opportunity for us all. Will we respond? I hope so. But each of us will need to change. Loving as Jesus has loved us requires us to do more than accommodate, avoid ill will or be understanding. If I may—and with respect—it involves more than participating in demonstrations or posting on social media. Jesus didn’t solve our sin problem from heaven, though he could have.
He came to us.
If everyone who “has” were to share with someone who “has not,” these issues would dissolve. “Has” isn’t just about money, it’s about all the things relationship can provide: Knowledge, support, encouragement, mentoring, training, influence, education, networking, opportunity, employment, resources, counsel, advice, coaching, accountability … love.
Love calls us to go, to engage. Staying as and where we are blinds us to opportunity. Speaking to the African-American issues specifically, most middle-to-upper class white Americans simply have no idea of the scope of challenges many black people face. It’s easy to dismiss how hard it is to swim against the tide of a culture that has historically operated from a white perspective as the standard. Many blacks do not have access to the stability and benefits most whites take for granted: Social networks, supportive relationships, career pathways and resources, mentoring, etc. Many are caught in a social system that gives them just enough to survive but unfortunately offers no way to thrive.
“Jesus didn’t solve our sin problem from heaven, though he could have.
He came to us.”
And make no mistake: Loving like Jesus isn’t merely a black-white issue, it is about all people, everywhere, in every time period. Everyone is our neighbor.
The Bottom Line
We must consider that racial inequality and injustice are spiritual issues, not just social ones. As a spiritual problem, the root cause is sin. A spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution: Unconditional love.
Love can’t be outsourced. It’s not someone else’s responsibility. There isn’t enough money to create enough agencies to handle the problems. Love cannot be legislated, it can only be lived out.
While any amount of help, support and compassion is helpful, love is ultimately about relationship. Jesus put it frankly:
“…everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.35)
It’s telling that Jesus emphasized those who will enter his kingdom are the ones who practiced this love by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, healing the sick and visiting those in prison (see Matthew 25.31-40). If we really want to love others as he has loved us, we’ll personally invest ourselves in the lives of those who need help, and stay there for the long haul.
“Love cannot be legislated, it can only be lived out.”
I could tell you personal stories of how 1Body Church has been blessed to be involved in making disciples that transform communities through loving others as Jesus has loved us. But this is not the right space for it. However, I do want to encourage you: The stories are real, and If you need a place to start we’d be happy to show you where we began—and let you walk the journey with us.
So what will you do? How will you become relationally invested in the life of someone who can benefit from your love—correction: Jesus’ love in you?