This article is part of the Open Letters series.
I’m sure you know that the seventh chapter of Revelation envisions redemption culminating with people from every tribe, nation, and tongue standing before our resurrected Savior (Rev. 7:9-11).
Imagine a sea of faces with varying shades of ethnicity: African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, European, South American, and Pacific Islander. In front of Jesus are Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, white and black Americans, Brahmins and Shudras of India, and white and black South Africans all confessing their love for Jesus.
God’s plan for redemption involved saving a multiethnic people. It’s why Jesus died.
I’m sure you know the name “Christian” began in Antioch (Acts 11:26). It’s the church Barnabas visited to confirm the work of God in a Jewish and Gentile setting (Acts 11:19-21). It’s where Paul confronted Peter about his hypocritical ethnic partiality (Gal. 2:11-14).
The city of Antioch was divided along racial lines. That’s one of the reasons the new name “Christian” was needed. The church wasn’t Jewish. It wasn’t Gentile. It was both.
Ethnic diversity marked the church and platformed the gospel. It made the church compelling.
I’m also sure that you know that all Christians possess an identity more foundational than all other earthly and cultural categories. Through the cross, Jesus tore down the wall of separation and created one new man (Eph. 2:14-15). Redemption transforms our most strident and obvious culture divisions. It’s what led Paul to say, “Here [in the church] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Reconciliation—vertical and horizontal—is the goal of the good news. Gospel unity creates racial harmony.
Only in Heaven?
I’m sure that none of this is new to you. But does the church of Jesus Christ reflect this reality? Do people marvel at your church’s other-worldly unity? Are people curious about your church’s harmony and care for one another across racialized fault lines?
Most Christians want the church to look like heaven. They know it’s the right goal. But many have resigned themselves that they’ll have to wait for streets to be made of gold before we can walk together in true unity. The result? The church is still divided. Our local assemblies don’t look like Antioch. If we’re honest, it’s hurt our witness.
Perhaps you believe racial reconciliation is part of the story of redemption. And perhaps you believe the church should look like heaven now. Perhaps your desire is stronger than your competency. Where could you start? What would make a difference?
As I’ve stumbled my way through this topic, I’ve witnessed how the language of lament can be helpful in a journey toward ethnic harmony. It can become a way to apply the command to “weep with those who weep . . . live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:15-16). Lament opens a door for racial reconciliation.
Let me be clear: the path is hard, and lament isn’t a silver bullet. But it can be helpful in the process of pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity in your church.
The Path Forward
The compelling vision of ethnic harmony requires tangible steps. As is often the case, it’s important to get things in the right order. Let me suggest a five-fold path that you might consider when pursuing racial reconciliation in the church.
What we believe matters. The church should engage in reconciliation because of our theological vision. Our union with Christ, incorporation into the family of God, and our collective bearing of God’s image compel us to love one another. The gospel creates this supernatural affection. And it’s what Jesus said would communicate that we really are his disciples (John 13:35).
A starting point for racial reconciliation is a commitment to love one another as we have been loved by Christ.
Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19). James lays down these important principles as he was attempting to help a church navigate volatile conflicts and live spiritually mature lives. Too often the tone of conversations about racial reconciliation is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes. Making progress toward reconciliation requires the humble posture of listening, the self-control of wise words, and the maturity of forbearance.
If we can start by understanding one another, instead of scoring argumentative points, there’s a glimmer of hope for progress.
The Bible is full of lament. It’s a prayer in pain that leads to trust. Lament is the language God’s people deployed when they faced sorrow, injustice, or any effects of the fall. It’s how the people of God expressed their angst over a world marred by sin, and how they walked together through the long journey of endurance. Lament is also the way God’s people wept together. Over a third of the Psalms reflect this solidarity in sorrow. Biblical lament is the language of empathy. It cries out to God and says, “I’m grieving with my brother and sister.”
In racial reconciliation, lament is particularly helpful. It affirms our unity. It leads with empathy. It appeals to God for help. It gives voice to what we believe. But there must be more.
Reconciliation requires learning. Our cultural backgrounds, understanding of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. However, in the context of love, listening, and lamenting, the stage is set for asking questions and working through disagreements. Dialogue leads to the discovery of new concepts or historical realities we didn’t understand.
The diversity of experience and perspectives make us wiser and more mature. This kind of learning helps us re-shape our thinking, choose better words, suggest wiser solutions, and avoid mistakes of the past. It pushes us toward growing together.
The final step involves action. The goal of racial reconciliation is not merely to pray about what’s wrong or to express our empathy. Our minority brothers and sisters grow weary of efforts that stop here. Depending on your context, you’ll have to determine what progress looks like.
We shouldn’t have to wait for racial reconciliation until heaven.
Reconciliation includes creating new relationships, speaking up when racially insensitive comments are made, practicing intentional hospitality, or reading a wider array of books. It also can look like increasing the ethnic diversity around your dinner table, expanding the style of your worship service, being intentional with diversity within your staff, eldership, and in your church at large.
Love, listening, lamenting, and learning are meant to lead toward change—in our hearts, our homes, our churches, and in our society.
This five-fold model gives us a framework to pursue racial reconciliation and show us the way lament can play a role. Lament opens a door for the church to look a little more like heaven—right now.
I don’t need to educate you on the eschatological vision for racial harmony. You don’t need a full explanation of the context behind the word “Christian.” Nor do you need a theological refresher on Jewish/Gentile oneness in Christ. I’m confident you are familiar with these biblical realities.
However, what you may need is the courage to dream of racial reconciliation happening now—in your church. The process isn’t simple. You’ll discover layers of brokenness along the way that shock the mind and grieve the heart. But isn’t that what the gospel is for? Isn’t that the compelling community that church was meant to be?
We shouldn’t have to wait for racial reconciliation until heaven. It’s beautiful. It’s important. It’s urgent.
I’m sure you know that’s true.
And I hope you’ll be among those who help give glimpses of how gospel unity creates racial harmony.
Come quickly, Lord!
Mark Vroegop is the author of Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation.
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