The average American can’t help but notice that we are living in a racially divided generation. On the news, we hear of the brutal deaths of unarmed black men and the shooting of police officers. (“Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed by Police This Year” 2016) Most recently, we have seen how this tension has caused rioting and unrest in Milwaukee. (Madison Park, Holly Yan and Ray Sanchez, CNN 2016) On a daily basis these deaths are being televised. Can the Bible contribute anything to the dialogue of hope and unity? The early church was charged to make disciples of all people including those from every ethnic background (Matt. 28. 18-20). What many people do not realize is that this charge was given in the context of a severe ethnic divide between the Jews and the Gentiles. The triumph of the early church to overcome these ethnic divides gives our generation hope that we too can overcome the racial divides that we face today.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,”(King 2010) suggesting the only two options that Americans have in front of them today. We must learn what it means to be racially and culturally diverse as a community in 21st century America or we will run into unequivocal chaos. King was an advocate of a racially integrated society based on equality and respect. However, many people view King’s perspective solely from a political standpoint when in reality King’s views of community and equality were rooted in the Bible. It is from the hope that he received in the Bible that he was able to prophetically call for an integrated community of equals. The question remains, where can this hope be found in the Bible?
After the death of Jesus Christ, the early church was faced with, not just a theological, but a social dilemma. Who would be allowed to have full membership into the infant Christian community? There were two options at the time, the Jews and the Gentiles (Gentile was a term that meant the people of the nations which is another way of saying everyone else, this included the Romans, Galatians and other neighboring people, many of whom also spoke Greek). At the beginning of Christianity all of its leaders including Jesus himself were Jewish. However something radical was happening at the earliest stages of the movement. In Acts we read that Christianity began to spread out from the Jews to the Greeks and to the rest of the Gentiles (Acts 9.15, 10.45). What many of us fail to understand is that the Gentiles (for instance the Romans and the Greeks) were traditionally enemies of the Jews. For hundreds of years the Jews lived under Gentile domination (Vanderkam 2001). This domination through the Seleucid, Ptolemaic and Roman empires brought the Jewish community into severe persecution. In one scene a Seleucid ruler named Antiochus IV Epiphanes mandated that all God fearing Jews should stop worshiping God or face imminent death. The successful revolt against this King resulted in the celebration of Hanukkah, a celebration which symbolizes the rededication of the Jewish temple to the worship of God.
After the Greek period, the Romans took control of Israel and were in power for a little over 60 years when Jesus was born. The hardships of this occupation were very much alive in the minds of the Jews of this time. The years of war and death were not easily forgotten. Many of these sentiments were alive in the first years of the early church. Despite this history, the leaders of the church were charged to welcome all ethnicities to become followers of Jesus, this included the Gentiles who were traditionally their enemies. In fact the apostle Paul’s entire ministry was to integrate these traditional enemies into the church (Acts 15, Gal 2.2). Paul fought not just for an integration on a superficial level or on a second class level, he fought for complete integration even to the point where Paul would conclude that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28 NRSV).
So much hope can be found in the apostle Paul’s struggle. The first thing we find is that it mattered for the church to be a place for all people to be welcomed equally. Paul was so convinced of this that at a certain point Paul reproves Peter, one of the chief apostles, because he did not stay to eat with the Gentiles (Gal. 2.11-13). Although there was validity to Peter’s concerns over Jewish eating customs which prohibit eating many of the things that the Gentiles would enjoy, Paul could not stand the idea that the Gentiles would not be welcomed equally to the table with Peter and the other Jews. The message Paul sent is clear, they were going to be one people, or not at all, they were going to become one community of equals in Christ despite any historical, ethnic or social divides.
To be clear, Paul’s message and his gospel were costly and caused Paul to be misunderstood, beaten imprisoned and ultimately killed for this gospel that he preached (Acts 15. 2, 2 Cor. 11. 23-27). For Paul the unity of the believers was just as important as the salvation extended to the world. Ultimately Paul’s struggle was successful. Two groups, divided by ethnic backgrounds, war and hate became one community in Christ. These two groups were challenged to rid themselves of their animosity and become one people. The Gentiles were so welcomed into the church that Christianity eventually became known as a Gentile movement and not a Jewish movement.
The hope that we have today is that Paul’s entire ministry was defined by the struggle to unite historically divided people into one community in Christ. The hope we have today, is that we can struggle for community and equality as he struggled, we can be antagonized as he was antagonized, we can be ridiculed as he was ridiculed, imprisoned as he was imprisoned, because the mission he was endeavoring to complete was a mission that he did not create but a transcendent mission that Jesus commanded him to accomplish (Matt. 28. 18-20, Acts 9.15). It is the mission to make disciples of all people, and to bring them into one undivided community in Christ.
Hope can be found in Paul’s struggle but unfortunately too many have been preoccupied with the theology of the Bible without regard to the social implications of it. If Jew and Gentile are said to be one in Christ, then socially it means that these historical enemies were joined into one community. What theological and social implications does this reality bear on us? Perhaps it means that the church should be just as concerned with the society that it is building, as the theology that it is preaching. Perhaps it means that the church should be just as concerned with mending racial divides as it is maintaining their church buildings. Perhaps it means that the church should have a major voice in the social dilemmas that the world is facing. Perhaps it means that the church should share the hope it has to be united with those who are desperately searching for hope. Or is it complacent with the way things are? Are people from other ethnicities seen as equals, or are they seen as less worthy and less dignified? Theology cannot be separated from social responsibility. Good theology should produce real social change. As James writes, “faith without works is dead (Jam. 2.17).” Our hope is that we have biblical precedence to fight for one undivided community. Our hope is that we have leaders in our history who gave up their very lives to ensure that every person that God created is seen as equal. This hope can be as small as a lone star in the vastness of the night but the light of that single star makes a difference in the night. May it shine its brightest in the darkest night.
The Bible gives us hope of one undivided community. Racism and inequality are realities in 21st century America, and we can no longer passively accept it. We should do whatever it takes to rid us of this evil. I am convicted by the fact, that we must fight to become one community or as King predicted, we will speed into untamable chaos. In light of hundreds of years of racial segregation, years of oppression and hate there is hope that God is able to mend divided ethnic groups to create one beloved community. We don’t have to run face first into chaos. The history of the Christian church is a testament to this kind of hope. Now it is our turn to be bearers of this hope to our generation.
“Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed by Police This Year.” 2016. The Huffington Post. Accessed August 18. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-people-killed-by-police-america_us_577da633e4b0c590f7e7fb17.
Madison Park, Holly Yan and Ray Sanchez, CNN. 2016. “Milwaukee Shooting: Curfew Imposed in Hopes of Restoring Calm.” CNN. August 15. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/15/us/milwaukee-violence-police-shooting/index.html.
Born and raised in Harlem, NYC, Jensy Acosta is an Associate Pastor at Trinity Church Harlem and has also served as an adjunct professor of The New Testament at Nyack College. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. With a fervent passion towards the perennial guidance provided by The Bible, he believes it is instrumental and vital in the restoration of a socially divided 21st century. On days off, he enjoys relaxing and watching a good superhero movie. Follow Jensy on Twitter and Instagram. Visit Trinity Harlem Church at www.trinityharlem.com