There has been some great discussion recently about whether or not “just preaching the Gospel” is enough to address the issue of racism. Some say it isn’t enough to preach the Gospel, that we need to do more to address racism. Others say it isn’t the church’s place to deal with social issues and we need to focus our attention on spiritual issues. I want to share some thoughts on this very important question.
What is Racism?
In the church, one of the greatest obstacles to unity and understanding is that we simply don’t have clarity around what is meant by terms like, “racism.” Some use “racism” simply to describe individuals who operate with the idea that one ethnic group is inherently superior to another. Others use “racism” more broadly to describe the way societies officially or unofficially arrange things in such a way that preference is given to a dominant ethnic group.
The latter definition of “racism” is much harder to identify and prove. For instance, it is easy to prove a member of the KKK is a racist. However, it is much more difficult to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction whether or not a certain community has unwritten policies that subtly discriminate against certain groups of people. Understandably, there is a great sensitivity regarding this second definition of racism, because individuals are told they can personally believe “all men are created equal” while still perpetuating an unfair societal arrangement.
So, when we say, “Preaching the Gospel will defeat racism,” what do we mean by racism? Do we mean preaching the Gospel will cause individuals to stop mistreating others because of race? Or do we mean preaching the Gospel will transform whole communities in such a way that social inequalities begin to disappear? Which definition of “racism” do we think the Gospel addresses or do we think it addresses both?
What is the Gospel?
Perhaps even more pivotal is how we define the word “Gospel.” You may know that “Gospel” means “Good News,” but Good News about what?
Unfortunately, for many, their definition of “Gospel” revolves around being forgiven of sins so they can go to heaven when they die. If this is what is meant by “Gospel,” I can see why someone might be confused about how the preaching of this very simplistic message could defeat racism. Using this version of the Gospel to defeat racism is like trying to slay a dragon with a pocketknife.
Those who define the Gospel this way tend to see “spiritual” and “social” issues as separate and distinct problems. They believe the Gospel should be used to address spiritual issues (i.e. how to get saved and go to heaven), but social issues (like injustice and inequality) should be addressed separate and apart from the work of the church.
All of this stems from a wrong definition of “Gospel.” The Gospel is not primarily concerned with the question, “Where will you go when you die?” The Gospel is primarily concerned with the question, “Who reigns as King?” The Gospel is about:
- the present and forever reign of King Jesus
- the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom
- the beginning of new creation
When Jesus was crucified, buried, raised, and glorified, he began to reign as King and ushered in the beginning of the new creation. Both heaven and earth were forever changed when the Son of Man sat down at the right hand of the Father.
In order to understand how the Gospel can defeat racism we must stop understanding the Gospel as primarily being about disembodied spirits and disembodied issues. The Gospel is about Jesus’ reign as King and how “by [his] blood [he] ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and [he has] made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Is the Gospel about forgiveness and eternal life? Absolutely! But it is also about a new way of being human, a new way of living in society, because of the current reign of King Jesus.
Reconciling the World
When we understand that the Gospel is about the reign of King Jesus, we can begin to understand that ethnic unity is at the very heart of the Gospel message. From Genesis on, humanity has been exiled, fractured, and at war with one another. God chose one ethnic group to save the rest. Through the Jewish people, God brought his Anointed One into the world to gather people from every nation back into a single united family (see Galatians 3).
The prophets all promised that the age of the Messiah’s reign would be an age of global and cosmic peace (see Isaiah 11). And King Jesus has already begun to establish that peace. He has established peace by reconciling his enemies to God and to one another through his own self-giving love (see Ephesians 2).
This is why the church living with one another in peace and unity is what the Gospel is all about. That’s why Paul spent his entire ministry dealing with reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. Ethnic, cultural, and racial divisions are in direct competition with the Gospel message (see Acts, Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians). Nothing is more central to the Gospel message than unity, and nothing is more contrary to the Gospel than racism.
Furthermore, when the Gospel is proclaimed, it undermines and exposes both individual and collective sin. When Jesus proclaimed the Good News of his kingdom, he exposed the collective sins of Jerusalem and Judea. The corrupt power structures of the temple and Sanhedrin were exposed as being full of darkness. The people who were oppressed and marginalized by their corruption were set free when the tables of the oppressors were literally and metaphorically “turned over” by Jesus becoming King (Luke 4:16-19).
As the apostles went about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ reign, it disrupted the status quo in every community. In Jewish communities, the Gospel disrupted the synagogue system (Acts 17:1-15). In Gentile communities, the Gospel disrupted the idolatrous economic system (Acts 19:23-41). Everywhere the Gospel was proclaimed, it exposed and disrupted the social systems of hierarchy, greed, corruption, oppression, and abuse.
However, the apostles didn’t come into a community trying to reform local politics and laws. They weren’t interested in making Rome a Christian empire. Simply by proclaiming Jesus’ kingdom and making disciples, the social order in every single city was challenged, exposed, and upset. When women, slaves, tax collectors, religious leaders, and uncircumcised Gentiles were all called to repentance and granted full inclusion in the community, it understandably upset the status quo.
Whole books could be written on how Gospel proclamation confronts and defeats racism. Sadly, books could also be written on how Christians have oversimplified, compromised, and failed to proclaim the Gospel, and thus fallen victim themselves to the snares of racism. Even so, nothing else can challenge and overcome racism like the Gospel.
On a theological level, the Good News about Jesus’ reign is the foundation of our multiethnic, multinational, multilingual community in which the Spirit of God dwells (Ephesians 2). And on a practical level, the preaching of the Gospel helps us understand that people from other social and ethnic groups often have different cultures, perspectives, and even burdens to bear (Romans 14-15). When we embrace the Gospel, we embrace our responsibility and privilege to to leverage our own wealth, status, and even our very lives for the good of one another (Philippians 2:1-11; 1 John 3:16).
I will say once again: Nothing is more central to the Gospel message than unity, and nothing is more contrary to the Gospel than racism. I know of no other way to deal with racism than preach and live out the Good News of Jesus’ reign.
I love you and God loves you,