Race & Faith (4): The Life of Christ

As noted in the previous posts, secular models fail biblically and properly to point the way forward in creating an environment hospitable to racial unity-in-diversity. They fail for various reasons, but they especially fail to understand human depravity, which underlies racism. They also fail to account for the life of Christ, which overcomes racism. In the most recent installment of the series we addressed human depravity. In this post we address the life of Christ.

In chapter nine, Yancey looks to Jesus for elements of the mutual responsibility model. He claims that we can learn much from Jesus because Jesus was at once part of a majority group, the Jews, living under the foreign rule of the Romans. Yancey finds the heart of reconciliation in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17; 114). From Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Yancey observes that Jesus surpassed all the weaknesses, while keeping all the strengths, of the four secular models for dealing with racial issues (115–118). Jesus also dealt in grace and truth in his interactions with Romans, those “in power” over him and other Jews. At the same time, however, he did not try to overthrow Caesar (120; cf. Matt 22:15–22).

The life of Jesus, therefore, illustrates the motives Christians should seek in mutual responsibility for racial reconciliation: “In Jesus we see the balance that we rarely see in our society. We see a man who, whether he was part of the majority or minority, sought relationships but also addressed issues of power . . . in all of his encounters with people of different groups, Jesus never deviated from the truth” (122–123). Thus, Jesus provided different lessons for majority and minority groups. “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . To people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry” (124). The next chapter addresses why Christians often fall short of Jesus’ example.

Yancey, in chapter ten, points to a subtle but powerful aspect of our sin nature that hampers any hope of racial reconciliation: fear. Out of fear of others and not God we can do things either to please them and gain favor, or excoriate them and gain emotional safety. Fear thus creates a vicious circle of dysfunction in race relations: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” This causes minorities to look for someone to point out racism and seek justice. Often times, “as a result, people of color begin to support leaders who foolishly play the race card but who at least uphold the importance of racial justice” (127–128). What, then, can Christians do to counteract this nexus of fear?

Yancey states that Christians “should work harder to create safe places in our churches” where we can “rid ourselves of the fears that drive racial mistrust” (132). Yancey proposes that the mutual responsibility model can help create such an environment. By applying corporate repentance and forgiveness to private and public discussions on race, churches might eventually become such environments. What is more, Yancey remarks that this environment must begin in our own hearts. After describing his fairly natural but racially motivated response to a news report of a police shooting of a man (“I hope that man was not black,” Yancey thought), Yancey discovered a scary but vital point: “racism is in me” (135–137). For racial reconciliation to begin, we must search our hearts for the sin that may lie buried deep within.

Chapter 11 contains Yancey’s conclusion to his argument for mutual responsibility in race relations. In responding to the question, “what would a Christian solution look like?” Yancey replies honestly: “I cannot say” (138). He can only sketch out some implications of his mutual responsibility model. Yancey theoretically applies this model to a controversial topic, affirmative action. He recognizes that it is not a popular answer for most whites. Yet rather than ask if Christians should support affirmative action, Yancey claims “we should ask whether or not this program serves the interest of all races” (142). There is no uniform “Christian” answer. Rather it is about Christians repenting, forgiving, and sacrificing for one another. “The Christian solution is not a direct answer but an attitude which leads to the correct answer. It is not unlike the attitudes of both partners in a good marriage. Both partners take into account the interests and needs of the other so their relationship thrives. A marriage in which one partner must acquiesce all the time is not healthy” (143).

According to Yancey, there are, however, some practical steps that Christians can take to demonstrate a Christian attitude of the heart. First, we need more multi-racial churches (144–145). Second, we need to belong to and create social networks (not only online, in person) with people of other races (145–146). Third, “we must reconsider how we participate in the political process” (147). Elevating one’s political party and goals above Christian fellowship does not hold promise for racial reconciliation. Fourth, we need Christian academic institutions––colleges, universities, and seminaries––that engage in honest, charitable discourse on race issues and reconciliation (149). Yancey concludes with the acknowledgement that he has painted an incomplete picture; his mutual responsibility model requires us to fill in the painting (150).

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  1. Martie Mangum   •  

    As I read your description of Yancey, it seems he trying to read his model back into the life of Jesus rather coming to those conclusions by studying Jesus. If he had taken this approach I believe he would have discovered that the reconciliation Jesus was primarily concerned about was reconciling man to God. In the John 17 passage he describes the extent of the oneness…”In Us” Why? “So that the world may believe that You sent Me.” We will discover the unity we long for as we are unified with our Triune God.

    I am fascinated by the conversation between Jesus and His disciples in John 4:31-38. This might at first seem out of place in the story, but in reality Jesus is teaching His disciples that they need to get over their prejudices and get busy preaching and reaping among the Samaritans. He wants men & women reconciled to Himself from all tribes, tongues, nations and a color groups.

    Practically, this means we need to broaden our focus in evangelism. We must not be too focused on one particular target audience, rather focus on those who are in our communities, places of work, extracurricular activities, etc.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thanks for checking in at BtT and offering these thoughtful and helpful comments. Concerning your thoughts on John 4, I say “three cheers for Martie.” Love it. As for your comments about John 17, you are right that the primary meaning of many “reconciliation” passages is reconciliation to God rather than to man. But at the same time, the pattern in Scripture is clear: reconciliation with God causes us to seek reconciliation with man. Love for God leads to love for man. So, if we’re careful not to usurp the biblical author’s communicative act/intent, we can apply those passages to reconciliation with man.


  3. Jay bailey   •  

    God spoke to Peter in a dream showing him animals prohibited by Jewish law to eat and telling him not to call unclean what God has has made clean to impress upon him to preach the gospel to Cornelius a gentile and baptize him. I think especially this lesson teaches us to give the gospel to all people groups and be reconciled to each other in the bond of peace in Christ Jesus. He taught Peter to do away with his prejudices against those who were a different race and also pagan and to not look upon any human as unclean or not worthy of being made clean in Christ

  4. Jessica   •  

    I suppose in all such searching we struggle to balance the need to name the details of our age that we need to recognize and respond to versus simply leaning more deeply into the universal truths of Scripture. Again and again in this larger discussion, the best suggestions for progress are always that we need to pursue real, inter-racial friendships. Love thy neighbor. Expand thy definition of neighbor and intentionally pursue him as Christ has pursued us. So while I’m thankful for this discussion, I feel a little disappointed that the balance seems too tilted towards an earthly and law-bound analysis (not without its place) but without the companion constant, soaring hopeful background and foreground of proclaiming “God can DO THIS!” There is no limit to the resources at God’s disposal to unite all things in Christ and there is no hesitation in His intention to do so. We need that loud reminder that joy is promised! This journey is not a burden but a gift and its success is not dependent on our faltering attempts at righteousness. Yes, let us strive vehemently to right wrongs through Spirit-empowered sacrificial love outside of our “tribe.” But let us do so not because we “have to”, but because we believe God’s promise to unite all in Christ, because we find His promise to be breathtakingly beautiful and we desire it as He desires it. This is not hopeless! This pit is not too deep for our God!

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