On Racial Strife: New Testament Style Goodwill Needed Today
It is no secret that the United States has been in the middle of a racial maelstrom for several years now. Most of the strife has centered on what some view as a racist police establishment that seeks to victimize young African-American men. Others, including myself, have pointed out that those holding a view that all white police officers are racist in their interactions with African-Americans are racially stereotyping white police officers. Surely not all white police officers are racists. Unfortunately, the stakes are pretty high as many police officers have been victimized themselves by what appear to be racially motivated, terrorist-style executions. The enormity of the problem facing the USA cannot be overstated as images of flaming cars and mayhem in our streets are common fare on national media outlets. Can persons who lived and wrote several thousand years ago give good advice to us today?
In John’s Gospel, a trip through Samaria is recorded where Jesus Christ encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. During his journey, he is in need of a break and even as he does so he “breaks” down a racial wall as Jews were known to despise Samaritans. In this short interlude, he says many profound things to this woman. After Jesus reveals that he knows of her personal affairs, the woman recognizes that he is no ordinary man, but a prophet. After stating this, she speaks to “the elephant in the room” or the racial tension between Samaritans and Jews mentioning her ancestors who worshipped on “this mountain” (4:20). In response to the woman, Jesus stresses the obsolescence of religious ritual and a new paradigm of devotion from a sincere and earnest spirit. Jesus Christ, as God incarnate, does not esteem one region’s religious customs over another region. As the encounter with Jesus continues, the villagers implore Jesus to stay with them two days and he does stay with them. The initiative of Jesus to bring the message of salvation to the Samaritans and then to stay with them for two days reveals that God is not concerned about one’s racial identity but rather looks at the heart of each individual person. Jesus breaks religious customs and ministers to and fellowships with a group that is considered “less than.” Jesus leads from the front in regards to displaying God’s goodwill towards a people group different than his own.
In addition to this example of racial unity, Jesus also shows the importance of one’s heart attitude over racial identity when he commends the Good Samaritan for caring for a Jewish robbery victim expecting nothing in return (Luke 10). In this parable, the Samaritan renders care for this injured traveler while other “more righteous” ones ignore their obligation to care for him. Jesus points out that one considered “less righteous” is actually the one who does the will of God and has his approval. In similarity to the ministry of Jesus to the Samaritans, Jesus’s parable points out that a merciful heart is more important to God than one’s racial identity. In addition to this well-known parable, God’s mercy towards all people is observed in the most well known Bible verse (John 3:16). God’s gift of salvation is not for those of a certain class, race, or sex but for “whosoever believes.”
After Jesus Christ ascends and the Holy Spirit is made manifest to the church, racial unity of the members of the early Christian church is also observed even though it is tested at several points. In the Book of Acts, God orchestrates the meeting of the Apostle Peter with Cornelius, a Roman centurion who is a righteous believer. After Peter has a dream, it is clear to him that God is breaking down a cultural barrier related to food and proclaims this new truth to those gathered at the centurion’s household. Summarizing what has happened as a result of the dream and his visit to the household of Cornelius, Peter states, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right (10:34.35).” Peter then stays with Cornelius for several days. God again displays impartiality between those of different races and Peter models racial unity by staying with the centurion for several days.
In addition to these instances of God showing his acceptance of all races, Paul also teaches about the unity of believers in Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses the body of Christ being one body composed of many members. In his teaching, Paul discusses that this unity in diversity extends to racial matters. Paul teaches that all were baptized and given the Holy Spirit upon conversion “Whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free. (12:13)” To Paul, there is no differentiation between these groups. Paul also discusses the unity of believers in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. In chapter two, Paul emphasizes the reconciliation of the Jews and Gentiles through Jesus Christ where Jesus Christ “himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household. (2:14, 19)” Again, the person and work of Jesus Christ breaks down racial barriers between people groups and provides a foundation for racial unity.
Of course, these instructions from the word of God are the way things should be but when humans are involved, we are going to get it wrong because of our fallen nature. Because of our brokenness as humans, we are going to have prejudices that crop up and need to be addressed. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul shares where he noticed that Peter had begun to discriminate against the Gentile brothers and sisters when Jewish Christians were around. When these Jewish believers traveled from the church in Jerusalem to the church at Antioch, Paul noticed that Peter no longer dined with the Gentiles but began eating only with the Jewish Christians. Barnabas also joined in with this hypocrisy along with other Jewish believers. In response to this prejudicial behavior, Paul opposed Peter and rebuked him for his bigotry in front of all assembled (2:11-15). This is instructive to us today. When we see others behaving badly towards those of a different people group, we should confront those who are fomenting ill will. If there is a police officer that is victimizing someone of a different race, then he should be disciplined in measure with the severity of his offense. But this “calling out” of prejudicial or bigoted behavior need not only to apply to just police officers. If some members of the community make blanket statements that all police officers are racist or support groups that execute police officers, they should be “called out” as well for their bigotry and ill will.
It has been my experience that when I have extended goodwill to others from other ethnicities, then it is almost always reciprocated. It is my belief that when goodwill is extended, God will bless this activity. As a narcotics detective in Portsmouth, Va. and when working in high drug areas, I would try to find opportunities to share goodwill with the residents there. Sometimes it meant telling them the truth but most of the time it was just being friendly to those on the street. Doing my job but trying to be kind when I could be kind. On one occasion, our narcotics street squad decided to set up a traffic checkpoint at a high drug area in order to discourage those who were driving in to purchase drugs. We also decided to bring a football, a boom box, snacks, and some soft drinks. What we found out is that those who resided in this neighborhood really responded to the good will gesture and we ended up playing football and sharing our snacks and drinks with not only the kids but also the adults. Instead of being strangers, they became people that we got to know.
When working on mission trips in Ghana, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, the fellowship was always great because I got to know those who were totally different from myself. Yet, amidst all of the differences in culture and language we had this genuine goodwill/love that covered over these major differences. It was always the case that I had intended to give my all during these times abroad. However, I realized that by the end of my time in country, I had been “out-given” by those that I was ministering to. The goodwill evident by all was palpable and goodbyes were always tearful yet joyful (if that makes sense). Within the USA, my past experiences when visiting African-American churches were also memorable for the great fellowship experienced as well.
When on a work detail in Savannah, Georgia a number of years back, I visited one of the oldest African-American churches in the country by myself (First African Baptist Church). Not sure of the starting time of the church service, I walked into the sanctuary. It was then that I realized that it was before the main Sunday service and there were several Sunday school classes meeting in different parts of the main sanctuary one of which was a men’s class. I sat down in the sanctuary but as I sat down, one of the African-American men in the class eagerly invited me to be a part of their group. What a joy it was to be included in their class! There was plenty of goodwill being displayed by this dear African-American brother and I thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school class and the service that followed. I could go on with other examples but this article is long enough already.
What is needed today is an injection of New Testament style goodwill as modeled by Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul. The words and actions of Jesus Christ, Peter, and Paul display a disregard for race/ethnicity when it comes to acceptance before God. God is more concerned with the state of one’s heart than he is with one’s skin color. After all, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the ultimate displays of goodwill for “whosoever believes” as proclaimed in John 3:16. Therefore, in keeping with these examples, the church should blaze the way in displaying this godly love. We should fellowship with and minister to/with others of other ethnicities. White, Hispanic, and African-American churches should seek out opportunities to fellowship and work together. Moreover, I have a vision where people from various races join together to speak out against prejudice, bigotry, and violence no matter where it comes from. When our communities are committed to displaying goodwill towards others and speaking out against violence/bigotry, only then can our nation make strides against hate based violence and rhetoric irrespective of its origin.