Uniting All Peoples in Christ
The concept of reconciliation is to bring together things that have been separated. Therefore, the very concept of reconciliation begs the question of “what exactly has been divided?” This notion of division as a precursor to our very existence as humans should be easily seen in the world around us. We live in a word that is desperately alienated from itself. Genesis 3 tells the foundational Christian story of the fall. In it we see fundamental divisions which afflict humanity; 1) division between God and humans (theological) 2) division between humans (social), 3) division between humans and the garden (ecological), and 4) division within the human (psychological). In this we have all the spheres of life.
So if division comes in such a holistic way, so too should our concept of reconciliation. The work of Christ is one which creates a new way for all humanity to address the theological, social, ecological, and psychological alienation that we all experience. Yet, it is the notion of social, cultural, and racial reconciliation that finds itself to be so decisively out of reach. Reconciliation with God is expressed through the fruit of social reconciliation, “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Why does John say that the hatred of another human disqualifies from the experience of God’s love? Perhaps it is the connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor that so crystallizes the expression of the gospel. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). So the Bible makes a strong case for social, racial, and cultural reconciliation to be at the center of the gospel.
A Biblical Theology of Race and Culture
1) Creation as the foundation of reconciliation. “In the beginning God created” (Gen. 1:1). God makes humanity in his own image. “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). God designed within man diversity to grow from unity, many to come from one. From one man comes many different “races”. The word “nation” in the above text is almost always translated as “nation” yet almost always meaning what we think of as “race” or “ethnicity”. God made all the distinct “races” (or peoples) from one man and woman and they are one race. God has created in one race, many races. Much like within God himself there is one God but three persons. These persons are not different gods, but they are distinct in their diversity while synonymous in their unity.
Creation is the original unity that was divided and stolen through sin. Creation is the hope and knowledge that we are all made equally in the image of God. Creation is the rock on which true racial reconciliation is built. Without an understanding of our unity as created by a loving God, humanity loses its common footing and reconciliation becomes one more tool in a competition for moral power or social standing.
2) The fall as the need for reconciliation. As discussed earlier, the fall in Genesis 3 gives an initial description of the way in which alienation comes about. Adam and Eve disconnect themselves from God and find themselves radically disconnected from one another. Their son Cain murders his brother Abel and Abel’s descendent Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man or striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-seven fold” (Gen. 4:23-34). Immediately, we see the seeds of division sprouting and multiplying into murder and violence between peoples.
Perhaps the most striking account of how the fall impacts race and culture is seven chapters later in the account of the tower of Babel. Here we have humanity in an apparent unity against God. They specifically say, “let us make a name for ourselves so that we are not dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). God’s response is to create temporary divisions in humanity. He divides in accordance to language. And so people separate according to language and develop into the ethnic cultural groups that we recognize today.
3) The cross as the means of reconciliation. If God intentionally divides humanity to temporarily restrain their pride, than how does he plan to bring them back together in a way that won’t lead to the same pride? The answer is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. The work of the cross is fundamentally about this problem of a divided and violent humanity. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians when he says “This mystery [of the gospel] is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). Paul’s persecution in his ministry comes at precisely this point, when he preaches that gentiles are afforded the same rights as Jews through the work of Jesus.
Ephesians 2 opens up the mechanics of how the transaction on the cross brings together estranged groups. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:13-16). How does the hostility between racial groups become extinguished? By being reconciled to God together. In this way, he creates one new overarching social identifier in place of the two, so making peace.
4) Worship as the expression of reconciliation. It is essential to see that the ultimate reality of racial reconciliation is found only in the worship of Jesus Christ. Revelation 7 gives us the perfect ending to the story of reconciliation, “I looked and behold a great multitude that no one count number from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'” (Rev. 7:9-10). The community of God is the place where the ultimate expression of peace and reconciliation is available. It would be easy to chalk this vision up as the “sweet by and by” of heaven, too distant to be truly attainable. But in the work of Christ, the ultimate expression of peace and reconciliation is available now as the people of God. That reconciliation is available for all congregations in the name of Jesus.