On July 29, 2009

The Flames Of Heaven

“I hate to admit it, but I have reached a stage in my life that if I am walking down a dark street late at night and I see that the person behind me is white, I subconsciously feel relieved.”
-Reverend Jesse Jackson

So by now most of us have heard of the recent Harvard professor, Henry Gates, unfortunate arrest by the Cambridge police, and you’ve probably heard sound bytes of Obama’s unfortunate statement about said arrest, saying the police there acted stupidly. Which only furthered both sides of self-righteous indignation about the incident.

But I have another question…I’ve grown up in the South, I have had racist friends, and said racist things in my life. But the one thing I’ve noticed is that we don’t talk about racism that much, except to deny that we are a part of it.*

Did you know that in a recent survey only 6% of Caucasians said they believed that racism was still a problem? Just to put that in perspective 12% of Americans surveyed believe that Elvis is still alive.

So the possibility of racism existing is only half of that of the King still being around.

But 93% of African-Americans believe that it’s still a problem. And some of these are men and women who I deeply respect and honor. So I have to ask, is it possible that Caucasians (myself included) don’t know about it because it doesn’t really affect us? If a system is working for us then we rarely notice it’s flaws. This is why the prophets were so un-popular, they gave a voice to those who weren’t being heard.

But I don’t think racism is really a white problem, or a black problem…it’s a human problem.

The bent of humanity has said, since the fall, that the tribe that we belong to is a bit better than the tribe you’re in. So what if racism is deeper than a worldview, or more than just a symptom of some kinks in the system. What if it was a spiritual force or power?

Than I would think the church would be the one group who could do something about this.

I grew up in a church of 10 people. And when I went off to college I would come back from time to time to preach for this group of people that had shown me how to follow Jesus. And sometimes, we would bring a crowd. We wanted to give them a shot in the arm and encourage them.

One Sunday that we did that, Brother Foy, who is one of my all time heroes, stood up to say something to this huge crowd (of 40 people) before I preached. But Foy was always a loose cannon. You never knew what he might say. And here’s why.

Around 30 years earlier, Foy got convicted that he was a racist. So he moved to an all black town, and spent the rest of his career teaching at an all-black school. He lived out the word repentance to a tee. He took me and a few other younger guys to black churches often, just so we could rub shoulders with people who we weren’t familiar with, just to see how much we had in common. From the time that I knew him he had African-Americans living at his house with him, and had a black brother with him that morning.

But we didn’t.

We had brought 40 Harding students, and we were all the same.

So Foy stood up to say a few words, lead a song or two, he looked out over his audience and immediately said, “Good morning, I can’t help but notice you are all white. I brought a black person this morning. Where are your black brothers and sisters?”

Which was a bit uncomfortable. We laugh about it now, but I’m glad Foy (as politically incorrect as that question was) asked us that. I wish every church had someone asking that question.

Now we weren’t racist at that point in our lives. Nobody there had excluded anybody based on race, Foy’s point wasn’t that we were racist, but that we/I wasn’t pro-active about inviting people different than us.

Churches have come along way. Philip Yancey writes about growing up in a church in Atlanta where the deacons would wait in the foyer for any African-Americans to come in. And if they did they would hand them a card that said this:

“Believing the motives of your group to be ulterior and foreign to the teaching of God’s
word, we cannot extend a welcome to you and respectfully request you leave the
premises quietly. Scripture does NOT teach ‘the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood
of God’. He is the Creator of all, but only the Father of those who have been regenerated…”

It’s a tragedy that 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of our week. We have Black churches and white churches, Korean churches and Vietnamese churches, but rarely do we see a church that is filled with a mix of people from all backgrounds.

Dallas Willard once said that for some of the people of God the flames of Heaven will be hotter than the flames of Hell. I know that sounds strange, but this is a good example of what he means. If what we believe is true, that there will be a day when God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, and people from all nations are there, than maybe we need to start getting ready.

It would be rough to spend your whole life thinking less of a group of people, only to find yourself surrounded by them forever.

Maybe this is the reason God gives us the ministry of reconciliation, I think that what Paul said is still true. That in Jesus, God is making a new humanity, where the things that have marked us as different don’t matter nearly as much as what we have in common.

So maybe the next time someone asks you why you spend time with someone of a different race or background, maybe the best answer is, “I’m practicing.”

*I am not trying to add my voice to the “white guilt” that can be a part of our culture. That’s not productive. And I know plenty of people in the South and elsewhere who don’t have a racist bone in their body. The point of this post is that racism is a spiritual evil, one that the church is called to address.

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  • http://myjarofoil.wordpress.com KO

    Thats a great quote by Willard.

  • http://feetwasher.blogspot.com Philip Cunningham III

    I’m curious Jonathan: in how many of your sermons do you include some sort of variations on the phrase “I grew up in a church of 10 people?”

    Just kidding buddy :)

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Yeah I agree KO, Dallas Willard is a stud.

    HaHa, Philip excuse me Mr. Perfect. At least I don’t tell people they stink. :)

  • http://labelmeplease.blogspot.com Joe

    Generally, I respond with, “we’re dating.” Being in a cross-racial relationship has done a lot to prove to me how labor intensive it is to adequately understand another race/culture. I think even after we overcome prejudices we maintain their results (i.e. segregation) because it is exhausting not to.

    To bring about reconciliation requires that both parties consent to ‘practice,’ and then deal with the fact that ‘practice’ will, more often than not, leave you tired and frustrated. Most people just don’t care enough, or simply don’t have enough energy, to carry on practicing after it stops being interesting and fun, and begins to be tedious and trying.

  • David

    1 John 2:9 (NIV)

    Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.

    I want to be in the light! Jesus died once for all, not just once for while people. With all that being said, I who claim to hate the sin of racism, still struggle with it. It seems like it one of those deep seated, fear based sins that I can seem to justify in my own mind. Racism even seems to be encouraged by our culture against some ethnic groups (middle eastern people). One can be fooled into believing that we are patriotic for our hate of those who look like our country’s enemies.

    Great post. I pray that I continue to look at the motives of my own heart and not to judge others by the color of their skin. I, also, pray that we all stop accusing other races of bad motive. I pray for God’s power to clean up my side of the street.

  • http://www.joshuagraves.com Josh

    Jonathan: Thank-you for consistently talking about the deeper things of God. I appreciate that you discuss potentially volatile subjects with grace, careful readings of biblical texts, and power.

    I’m glad we are on the same team brother.

  • Maynard

    Hey man,

    You do such a good job of avoiding the complicated issues of society. Wow, I have so many thoughts on this subject…but will attempt bravery.

    I think I’ve told you how powerful it was for me to attend a multi-ethnic church in Little Rock (yes, of all places LR). http://www.mosaicchurch.net It was as close to a representation of the Body of Christ as I’ve come across. It was inter/non-denominational and economically diverse as well. It is making such a difference in a city torn from age old racial strife.

    Also, I was in a conference in Seattle this past weekend and met a native Arkansan now of L.A. (not Lower Arkansas) who is involved with this ministry: http://www.aslansplace.com. It’s a prayer ministry, but a part of what they do is a “cleansing of the land” and racial reconciliation.

    I believe Foy was right, but the more I’ve been open to this topic, the more I’ve realized that there are a number in the Body of Christ who are taking this topic very seriously.

    Still working on the brevity thing.

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Joe, yeah I guess you know something about this huh? You and Alcie are so good together, but I guess anytime different backgrounds come together our edges can seem sharper. You’re right, it requires practice on both sides, which needs to be communicated by both sides in any practice of reconciliation.

    David, thanks for sharing your life here brother. That verse is spot on. And I appreciate your candid honesty.

    Josh, thanks man, back at you. Walking through the museum of African American history with you was a powerful reminder of our past and potential future.

    Maynard, feel free to be verbose. Always love what you have to say, and thanks for the links. You’ve always been one to appreciate diversity, even it times and places where it’s not popular.

  • http://westcoastwitness.com/ Wes Woodell

    I grew up a racist, became a Christian in my twenties, and ended up dating a black girl who I later married. You know what they say…

    While racism is still a problem, I think it is totally overblown by some who obsess over it (Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, this Gates guy).

    I don’t believe racism will ever totally go away, but I don’t think things are as bad today as some would have you believe.

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Wes, Thanks for weighing in. Sounds like you had a Damascus road experience yourself. I agree that some talking heads in the media make this into something it’s not. But I have noticed a lot of my friends that do the exact opposite, they try to pretend that it was just something that happened in the past, and that there is not a problem today.

    Hey I put a link today for your blog on here. I enjoy reading your stuff man, you’ve got game.

  • http://westcoastwitness.com/ Wes Woodell

    Cool – thanks brotha. Linked you last week myself. :)

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