Dear James (6), Race, Reconciliation, and New Creation

Dear James,

While I am glad, of course, that you tell me you can now see the danger of your little fellowship in a new way, I feel, just a little, that I should stress that we are not having this conversation merely so that we can agree. Or, more to the point, merely so that you will agree with me. I’m not all that interested in being right in myself—I’m far more interested in discovering the truth and then working to get myself aligned with that truth as best I can. If you show me a place where I am inadequate, I must change! In this, let’s keep in mind that we are holding a conversation together side-by-side with the truth (as revealed in our Scriptures). After all, it seems explicit to me, in regards to the power dynamics of the church, that we are all equally bound to measure ourselves against the absolute standard of Christ. My rightness matters little—knowing and conforming to His rightness matters quite a lot!

You’ve asked a key question, from our discussion of race, about the business of reconciliation. If I’ve got it right, you seem to be saying something like this “This New People of God business sounds great, but what’s the role of reconciliation, especially when there are real and historical grievances?” You are absolutely right, of course—just because we are called to be the New People of God doesn’t mean the old humanity immediately goes away, or that race itself somehow disappears, or that there aren’t enduring difficulties. So what can we say about this?

First things first, of course, we must keep the first things first. All the business we’ve talked about so far comes into play here—the main thing is that Jesus is doing a work and making a new people out of the old divided humanity. That is the most important fact which gives meaning to all our reconciliatory work—it is a work which finds its ground and purpose in the cross of Christ. We cannot allow grievances, or pain, or history itself (no matter how grievous or poignant) to determine the contours of our conversations. The work of Christ, in the ministry of reconciliation, must have first—absolute first—place.

Just the other day I sat at a table with a group of men—by ethnicity we hailed from Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, First Nations, and me, a Puerto-Rican American. What we talked about together was Jesus of Nazareth and the world of the Bible. I experienced something sublime in that moment in the realization that what we had in common, sitting in table fellowship, was greater than everything we brought from our unique and varied histories together. What I share with you as a fellow believer in Christ is greater than our nationalities, greater than our ethnic histories. I have more in common with the impoverished third-world believer living on less than two dollars a day than I do with my own family members who don’t yet believe. That is the measure of how radically we are redefined by the work of Christ.

Does this make race irrelevant? By no means, but it puts race in its place—and especially the divisiveness of race in its place. The efforts of race and racism to divide humanity are products of Babel, not Pentecost. Babel, remember, was about creating a false unity of humanity based around power. God came down and frustrated our efforts at false unity, dividing our languages. In its place, God determined that He would be the source of our unity, and overcame the curse of Babel at Pentecost. What we see there is remarkable—not that God un-does diversity (as if sameness were the goal of the new people of God), but instead He transcends differences by means of His Holy Spirit. As the Church we are called to be a Pentecost people, unified in the midst of our differences.

Now Pentecost unity, to my mind, is quite different from the methods of reconciliation that are often utilized by the church today. In fact, I have a great deal of trepidation about the methods that many ministers employ today—to my perception, they are using shame, fear, and guilt as tools of power to equalize a discourse on race. They seem to me to be acting more in the spirit of Babel than Pentecost—especially when the authority of “race” and “racial experience” are converted into weapons to silence others. It seems as if revenge, in these circumstances, merely wears the clothing of reconciliation.

What happens, then, when the Church comes together to be this “New People,” but the “Old People” who are being made into this “New People” struggle with issues of historic or present racism? I think the single most important verse for us here is what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation—behold, old things are gone, new things have come!” It is a striking verse, and it is commonly read in a kind of devotional way, especially with new believers in mind. The message is that you are the new creation. This is true, but I don’t think it is Paul’s point. Paul, in 2 Corinthians especially, is speaking about the ministry of reconciliation, and this verse plays a critical role in how Paul envisions that ministry playing out. The point is not so much that I am the new creation, but that you, my disputant, my enemy, the person against whom I have a grievance, you are the new creation, and that therefore I must deal with you in a different way on account of this fact. This is why Paul opens the passage with those words about once viewing Christ “from a human point of view,” but that “now we do so no longer.” In other words, when Paul viewed Christ with merely human eyes he made a misjudgment—when Paul viewed Christ with spiritual eyes he saw something new. In the same way, in any matter where reconciliation is required, what I must do is commit to seeing my disputant as a new creation in Christ. Reconciliation, in other words, begins with my sight.

I think that if we took this verse seriously it would radically change our racial discourse. If my first commitment in relating to another believer who is of a different race is to see that person as a new creation in Christ, and that person’s commitment is to see me as the same, we are coming together, side-by-side, as equal conversation partners with this third thing, which is Christ. Most certainly I will need to change—then again, most certainly you will also need to change. No one who comes to the table of fellowship with Christ gains a specific advantage based on his or her ethnic or nationalistic profile. Jesus is neither white, nor black, nor Asian, nor Indian, nor American, Chinese, Russian, or Australian, but he calls all people to unity in himself which transcends our racial, nationalistic, and historical identities.

You might ask, “What about people who cannot, or will not, see?” Certainly there will be some, and some who struggle more than others. There will people of one race who refuse to admit the existence of race (a kind of willful blindness), there will be people of other races who refuse to see anything but race (a kind of poisoning the well). There will also be people on both sides who refuse to deal in the present but paint all members of one race or another with a broad, historical paintbrush—one kind of paint is unforgiveness, the other kind is ungracious; both are sin. What do we do in response to these? The same we are commanded to do with every other difficulty in the Church—commit to the vision of Christ, seek to create authentic communities around Church, and reject compromise with grievances and causes as the basis of our fellowships. The answer to badly formed communities is healthy communities, not reactive communities.

In the end, writing about reconciliation is one thing—actually doing it is what really matters. And what matters more is not that you, in your fellowship, wait for a person of a different ethnicity to begin practicing reconciliation, but put this “new sight” into practice at this moment. Racial differences do not create the need for reconciliation, they only highlight in a special way our need for reconciliation everywhere. Once again, if you refuse to practice this with your neighbor in the pew, what good will you be when someone of a different race comes into your fellowship? Are there people with whom you can begin to practice new sight right now? I’m willing to bet there are.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios


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