Friday, March 02, 2007

An appreciation for God-ordained diversity

I hope the time I spent last month venting my “Black self” was helpful in letting you know a little more about me, as well as giving you a tiny glimpse into what it’s like to be a Black person in an evangelical context. Others “out there” in the blogosphere have expressed the opinion that our identity in Christ should take precedence over race, culture, nationality, etc. I agree, but…the fact is, we’re human, fallen creatures of flesh. Denying my racial identity is kind of like denying the flesh.

Let me explain by using this example of a prominent teaching of the 19th century Wesleyan Holiness movement. According to many of the leaders of the Holiness movement, there was an experience into which the believer could enter, called “entire sanctification”. Entire sanctification was considered a “second work of grace” in which the believer was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the sin nature eradicated. Taking quite seriously the words of Galatians 5:16—“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh”—advocates of Wesleyan Holiness believed they had achieved an experience in which they could no longer sin. While I am sympathetic to the spiritual aims of the Holiness movement (what believer wouldn’t want to be utterly free from sin?), it erred in underestimating the pervasiveness of sin and misunderstanding the nature of the “flesh”. Sin has infected every aspect of our being. Even our best efforts are tainted with sin. The only way to eradicate the flesh would be to eradicate ourselves, so closely bound together is the flesh with our very persons.

I find the same thing to be true with our racial identities. Through faith in Jesus Christ, I am a new creation in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, an adopted son of God, and an heir of eternal life. Yet my racial and cultural identity as a Black American is so interwoven with my human personality until I don’t see how it is possible, on this side of eternity, to completely separate my cultural identity from my spiritual identity. In fact, I suggest that those White believers who criticize Blacks for “wearing their race on their sleeve” don’t successfully separate their White American cultural identity from their spiritual identity. In fact, I would further suggest that the two are so closely interwoven that most White Christians cannot even see how deeply their expressions of Christianity have been affected by White American culture (but, we non-Whites can see it!).

However, I am not criticizing. Rather, I am suggesting that it’s unrealistic to try to entirely eliminate racial and cultural influences. Why should “minorities” be forced to give up who they are racially and culturally when Whites aren’t even able to do that? And I’m not convinced that God ever wanted us to ignore our racial and cultural differences. Consider these verses of Scripture:

Galatians 3:28
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Revelation 5:8-10
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 7:9-10
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Theological liberals and evangelical feminists usually take Galatians 3:28 to mean that all distinctions are erased in Christ Jesus. But, when people came to Christ in Paul’s day, slaves did not all of a sudden become free; they were still slaves. Jews did not become Greeks; they were still Jews. Men did not become women, and women did not become men. Gender differences remained. However, through Christ all were made members of one Body, all became sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, all became partakers of one Spirit. What I want you to see in this verse, however, is that salvation doesn’t erase racial distinctions or obliterate cultural differences.

In the two passages from the book of Revelation (5:8-10 and 7:9-10), the same point can be made: Racial, cultural and national distinctions are not erased. You still have representation “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Sadly, in my county, there are a lot of unkind and hateful things printed on the opinion page of one of the local newspapers about Mexican immigrants. Statements are made suggesting that most of them are illegal and that they “need to go back where they came from.” Well, I hate to break the news to those that feel that way, but there will be Mexicans in heaven! There will be people from every country and every ethnic group. And it seems we will still speak our native tongue. The point is, not everyone will look like you! Not everyone will look like me. God has ordained that there will be diversity in heaven. Yet, all are one in relation to God and to one another.

When liberal Protestants and Catholics talk about diversity, what they usually mean is acceptance of sin, especially homosexuality. But, we should not let the devil spoil another perfectly good word. Diversity, as God designs it, is good—it has nothing to do with accepting sin—and we should be open to the possibility of creating God-sanctioned diversity in our churches. But, remember, I’m not talking about assimilation—making everybody act White or Black or whatever. I’m talking about appreciating and celebrating our racial, cultural and ethnic differences, and giving people the freedom to be different, because this kind of diversity brings glory to God.

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:13-14).

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