I started listening to NPR a number of years ago because I felt a need to hear a different voice, to listen well, and to give consideration to viewpoints that I did not share. Since then, as the tone of challenging conversations around race and politics have become more shrill and as opinions have become more ironclad, I’ve been thankful for quiet voices of reason that remind me of the holiness of diversity and the call to love. “Love that suffers long and is kind” invites me to trade my litmus tests for conversations with real people and to seek out opportunities within the body of Christ to remember that we are one.
Deep divides within the church on everything from immigration and the role of women to worship style and the definition of family challenge the body of Christ to be the force that passes through our differences all the way to grace. Deidra Riggs reminds me in her book ONE that Unity in a Divided World must be an intentional thing, something that we pray for and work toward. Jesus modeled this focused attention in his prayer recorded in John’s Gospel:
17:20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
Ambassadors of Unity
Riggs traces the path of reconciliation that leads to oneness by way of a humility that begs the question for this middle-aged, stodgy, and opinionated soul: Can I love my neighbor “without being concerned about whether [my] neighbor is right?” She invites readers into a listening stance in which the soul hears well and is, therefore, enabled to choose the God-honoring, others-serving path that may go against the grain, but is characterized by the willingness to:
- Ask challenging questions about our motives for living toward the homogeneous and the “safe;”
- Offer and seek forgiveness;
- Remind one another continually that we are one.
The Two Chairs
Whenever people come together, there are two chairs in the room. One is the seat of justice, and the other is the seat of mercy. “Only God has the credentials to sit in both of those seats and perfectly administer both justice and mercy,” (64) and while we may crave justice, it is critical to recall that God “does not ignore our broken hearts” when he invites us to sit in the seat of mercy and to view life from the perspective of someone who has wronged us. (75)
When Jesus prayed for his followers (present and future), he was not blindsided by our uniqueness—an outcome of his magnificent creativity! Even though differences of opinion can be a challenge, it would be more alarming if we all walked in lockstep on every issue.
“Oneness is not about conforming.
Oneness is about transforming.” (97)
The oneness that Jesus prayed for is bigger than our race, our position on an issue, or our political affiliation. The challenge is to love well—especially if disagreements make love an unlikely thing, for then the radical love of God is put on display.
Going to Ferguson
Because her heart was broken, and because she needed to see the fallout from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Deidra Riggs boarded a plane and spent three days in the sweltering heat, living in the midst of the tragedy and joining in the lament. Two years later, when Alton Sterling was killed, she employed the internet as a virtual gathering place in which the “Prayers of the People” became an invitation to come together around shared grief. Looking squarely at tragedy and acknowledging together that we live in the space between what-is and what-will-be can be the starting place for God-initiated transformation leading to oneness in heart and in mind.
Unity in a divided world requires personal and internal oneness which brings a screeching halt to the sacred/secular dichotomy and nullifies the “requirement” that I be all things to all people. Only Jesus can do that, and it turns out that his prayer in John 17 is a prayer for integrity, a heart’s cry from the Son to the Father against the “massive fault line that runs through the center of my soul.” (156)
The unity that Jesus prayed for among those who believingly follow him is a product of the “oneness within each follower.” (157) Spiritual integrity de-emphasizes lines of division, assuring our hearts that all of life is sacred. We care for and respect our one-and-only heart through radical practices of grace, going home to our roots for restoration, and recalibrating our perspective through regular observance of Sabbath, which Eugene Peterson defines this way: “Take nothing for granted. And do it every week.”
Gathered under God’s loving wings, may we look around us at all those within his vast circumference and find, to our great surprise, that this is what it means to be one; that this shared protection and provision is proof that God loves the whole world and delights in each one of us—no exceptions.
God’s heart of love comes through in biblical images of the Kingdom of God which defy an “us against them” mentality for “the Kingdom of God is us reconciled to one another.” Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker have responded to the brother-against-brother of racism with a collection of five essays on The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation. This slim volume is intended as a primer for equipping believers with sufficient background to free us from our fear of engaging in the conversation on race and to motivate us toward action that will make a difference.
- J. Daniel Hays traces equality among the races—and the dignity of all human beings—to our creation in the image of God, debunking along the way a good many myths and downright lies such as erroneous views of where the Bible comes down on slavery and interracial marriage. Because God depicts a multi-ethnic congregation from every tribe and language and people and nation at the climax of history, it follows then that the gospel is for all people and ethnicities.
- Identity in Christ overshadows all other identities, and Thabiti Anyabwile makes a strong case for the truth that the solution to racial strife will not be simply a matter of re-education. What is called for is a change at the “root of man’s being” which results in a longing for equality for all who bear the image of God.
- Trillia Newbell emphasizes love—for God and for neighbors—as the driving force behind racial reconciliation. Not only is our service more beneficial when we link arms with a diverse workforce, but, more importantly, the church that demonstrates unity in Christ through the gospel is putting the transforming work of the gospel on display. Coming from an era in which I was encouraged to be “color blind,” I appreciated Newbell’s encouragement to “see color” in a celebration of ethnic differences that trumpets God’s creativity. Open conversations about race beat a path away from apathy and its close cousin, racism, and toward open relationships.
- There is a theme of reconciliation that permeates the narrative arc of Scripture, and Eric Mason likens the potential for racial reconciliation in the church to the impact that hip-hop music has had on the culture at large, a restoration of friendly relationships (actual conversations!) based on a shared interest. The unity Paul calls for in Ephesians 4 is an element of the believer’s sanctification. Since, therefore, racism is sin, the believer is directed to war against it.
- The quest for diversity within the church must extend beyond Sunday morning, beyond a “reconciliation for hire” approach to staffing, and beyond a forced homogeneity that ignores the beautiful complexity of first-generation realities. Matthew J. Hall and D. A. Horton address the theological influences that shaped our unique, born-in-the-USA-brand of racism, stressing that “if we’re going to get this right, we need to be honest about where we have gotten it wrong.” May God in his mercy allow the church another opportunity to put the beauty of redemption on display and to represent him well in our approach to racial reconciliation.
By looking at the issues at the heart of racism, listening to the positions of those who are different from us, learning out of a generous position of humility, and living life together in a community that is redolent with the sweet nectar of Spirit-borne fruit, it may be that we can earn the right to speak truth into our culture. In the New Testament, there are no fewer than 22 injunctions for believers to love one another, and first-century Christians left their world looking for the reason behind their inexplicable love. What an honor and a miracle of grace it would be if the church could once again engage the culture with the gospel and embody a multicultural, multi-ethnic community that would render present-day culture “with no excuse for not pursuing the God who reconciled us to him and [to] each other.”
These books were provided by the publishers in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”