Just since 1992, when four LAPD officers were acquitted after beating Rodney King on film, there have been more than a dozen race-related riots in the United States. The death of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minneapolis, MN, kicked off protests in most of America's major cities, many of which have erupted into riots.
Contents under pressure eventually explode, and when they do, the results can be messy. These tumultuous moments force our country to address racial tensions that many white Americans are largely unaware of, but that brown and black Americans live with every day.
When it comes to race issues, how might Christians respond? How did Jesus address the topic of race? And, in light of the gospel, how should we engage in discussions about race?
Class and race in Jesus's time
Our Savior was born into a world full of divisions. Israel was occupied by Gentile Romans and many of their own countrymen served Rome as tax collectors. These traitors served Rome and made their living exploiting their fellow Jews.
On top of the tensions with the Romans, the Jews hated their Samaritan neighbors. In fact, there was a Jewish proverb stating that bread given by a Samaritan was more unclean than eating swine flesh. It was the height of insult for an Israelite to call another Jew a Samaritan. We often miss this insult in John’s Gospel when the Jews are talking to Jesus, "The Jews answered him, 'Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed'" (John 8:48)?
These kinds of problems have sprung up around race and class divisions since the beginning of time. Humanity's inability to celebrate the differences of others, care for one another in their unique struggles, and empathize with their experiences spring from our fallen sinful nature.
The scandal of good Samaritans (Luke 10:25–37)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus's most famous stories. After Jesus had summed up the Mosaic law as loving God and loving one's neighbor, a lawyer had intended to justify himself with a pedantic question about who exactly was his neighbor.
Jesus launched into a story about a robbed and beaten Jewish traveler left to die on the side of the road. At different moments, a priest and a Levite both come across this poor man—and both cross the road to avoid him. Jesus didn't give their motives. Why they ignore him didn't matter.
Eventually, a Samaritan stumbles upon the unfortunate man and has pity on him. He goes out of his way to care for this traveler, offering both time and personal resources for his care. He pays an innkeeper to watch over the man, even promising to come back, check on the traveler, and reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expenses.
When Jesus finishes His story, He asks a simple question, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The Gospel tells us the lawyer responded, "The one who had mercy on him."
To make a Samaritan the hero of this story wouldn't have been surprising—it would have been absolutely shocking. But Jesus wasn't just stretching their idea of who was capable of kind gestures. He was telling His listeners that they were responsible for loving everyone—even people they'd been brought up to despise.
Jesus's alarming views on race came up repeatedly. Imagine being the disciples coming upon Jesus chatting it up with a Samaritan woman alone. Her gender would have made that wrong. Her race would have made that wrong. And her lifestyle would have made that wrong. But once again, Jesus demonstrated that our relational obstacles and prejudices are not His.
In case there was any doubt about His desires, Jesus explicitly told the disciples, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He expected the disciples to extend kingdom invitations to their worst enemies.
Achieving unity in the church
From there, Paul and the New Testament authors unpacked the implications of the Christian's new reality. Paul tells the Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (Ephesians 2:14–18).
In Christ, the things that would normally separate us are woven together into a single beautiful tapestry. Things like race, gender, and class are no longer barriers to unity. They're what make our oneness so attractive.
In Revelation, John describes the vision he received of a glorified church:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
"Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Revelation 7:9–10).
It's critical to recognize that this multitude of worshipers didn't blend into one single race. They didn't have to lose those things that made them distinct for them to be unified in glorifying God. The wonder of heaven is the multitude of nations and tribes bound together in Christ, praising God in a multitude of tongues. God is glorified by the things that make us different from one another.
The goal of Christians on earth is to preview the kingdom of Heaven. Our lives, behavior, and community should give people a taste of what God's kingdom will be like. We should demonstrate what kingdom oneness looks like. But it's important to recognize that this doesn't mean that we "don’t see color." If all nations and tribes are going to be before the throne, then there is something divine and critical about our differences—something that needs to be recognized and celebrated.
Putting the kingdom on display
The devil loves to sow as much disharmony as possible. He'd love to turn racial justice into a partisan topic that forces people to choose a political side. And many times throughout history, he has. He'd love to encourage the Lord's church to land on a non-kingdom approach to this loaded issue.
But Christians are called to unity around the person and perspective of Jesus, seeing beyond the obstacles to racial harmony. Like Jesus, we should confront and address racial tension, rather than avoid it. And while we might not always agree on the best course of action, our identity in Christ should be able to soften those disagreements.
In the middle of a broken and hurting world, the church is an advertisement for a kingdom of reconciliation and unity. Please join Jesus Film Project® in praying and working for racial harmony in our cities and communities.