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Race and the Gospel: Is Justice Part of the Discussion?—Part 1

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“Surely the Good News of Jesus Has Something to Say to the Greatest Historic Injustice of the Last 500 Years.”

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Good news, like light, touches everything in the room. Like light, it spreads, rolling forward, never-endingly chasing away the darkness.

“Only he who cries for the Jews is permitted to sing Gregorian chant.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I recently saw an Instagram post of a woman holding a book in her hand while standing in front of the religion section at Barnes & Noble exclaiming, “I can’t wait to read this one!” The book is a recently published title by a friend of mine on the subject of race and how to unpack white privilege and white identity in a more equitable and Christian manner. Many people responded to the post, chiming in with encouraging comments like, “Ohhhh, that looks great!” and “I need to get my hands on that one!”

But one comment on this post stood out among the rest. A prominent evangelical thought-leader jumped into the thread with a warning and word of caution about this kind of book. Knowing only the cover and the concept, he presumed to know the content and, based only on his presumptions, he decried how unhelpful he feels these kinds of books are for the soul. It wasn’t until he was near the end of his comment that he admitted not knowing the content of the book. Nonetheless, he went back to issuing a spiritual warning before ending his thoughts.

The leader’s comments fit a pattern that has lasted, in some shape or form, through most of the history of evangelicalism. The pattern of thought is that the messier parts of reality can distract or interfere with the spiritual parts of our being and faith. Or, put more succinctly, as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, then what happens here on Earth, however unfortunate, is secondary. We need to “keep the main thing the main thing,” as I’ve been told. And that main thing is a spiritual telling of the gospel in tight, highly parsed language that is distinct from issues like race, privilege or worldly injustice.

The Flaw in Our Gospel

Over the last half-dozen years, I have had hundreds of conversations with pastors—many of whom are passionate about extreme poverty, government corruption on other continents or the refugee crisis around the world—who say quite plainly, “Justice is a good thing, but we have to be careful that we keep it out of our gospel conversations.”

The thought-leader and his compartmentalization and spiritual warnings in the first instance, and pastor-theologians trying to cordon off and protect the gospel in the second, all demonstrate the flaw in our gospel that has lingered in varying ways throughout evangelical history: We think the cross of Jesus is the gospel.

But the cross of Jesus is not the gospel, but a part of the gospel—a part, but not the whole; a means, but not the end.

When Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins on the cross, he was operating as the perfect sacrificial lamb—the sacrifice—that had always been foreshadowed by the sacrificial system in the temple courts.

Now, when Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says the heavens shook, the sun stopped shining and there was a great commotion in the temple. It is important to note that it wasn’t the altar (what the cross symbolized) that split in half. Rather, the 60-foot-tall temple veil was torn from top to bottom, symbolizing how, through Jesus’ death, we have been reconciled to God.

The forgiveness of sins served the purpose of restoring our relationship with our Creator. But forgiveness is never the end; rather, it serves reconciliation. While the cross was always a means to an end, it was not the end itself. As Paul explains the gospel in Colossians 1:19–20, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” The pleasure was in the reconciliation, which was accomplished by the cross.

The means cannot be taken in isolation from the purpose it served. So, I will say it again: The cross is not the gospel, but a part of the gospel.

Yet, for much of evangelicalism, our focus has been squarely on the cross alone—the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death.

Transaction replaced reconciliation.

Personal salvation for the individual took the spotlight rather than Christ’s redeeming work for the many. There was an overemphasis on salvation for me, which lessens the experiential significance of our adoption back into the family of a relational God.

If all we have is Good Friday, then we are missing Easter. If our gospel is cross only, then we cut off resurrection, which is the very hope we have as Christians and the one thing Paul says we need in order for our faith to not be foolish or us to be pitied (1 Cor. 15). How can we say that justice has no part in our gospel when Jesus came so that unjust people could stand next to a just God, as if we are just, through a process of justification whereby we are justified? (Hopefully the linguistic irony is evident.)

Somewhere along the line, forgiveness of sin, alone, went into our gospel box rather than the setting right (justice) of all that was broken (injustice) through the life and ministry of Jesus—what I would call the in-breaking of the right arm of God to work restorative justice for his creation. Or as Isaiah put it:

“The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him” (Isaiah 59:15¬–16).

If we can’t fully comprehend God without mention of his love or heart for things being as they ought to be, then how can we comprehend the gospel or his good news without reference to the same?

Much more could be said on this point, but saying that the gospel needs to be protected from justice language is to miss the point of the good news in the first place.

Next up: Part 2 of the discussion:
What Happens When We Compartmentalize Faith?”

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