For members of the human species, perception is reality. At least that’s the way it is for most mortals.
And perception is shaped by our own experience, the experience of our peers, and the images and messages that we consume.
When the O.J. Simpson trial aired on public television some 20 years ago, I followed it closely. When the verdict of “not guilty” was announced, the majority of the black community celebrated. The majority of the white community was baffled. To their minds, O.J. got away with murder.
Why the drastically different perceptions?
Because of experience.
Toward Understanding Reactions
Just a few years before the O.J. trial, Rodney King – a black man – had been beaten mercilessly by police, and it was caught on video. A few years later, the police who were involved in the beating were acquitted.
Blacks felt another injustice had taken place against their people.
Consequently, when O.J. was acquitted, the feeling in the black community was, “Finally, a black man has finally been set free by the system. We got some justice!”
For many blacks, the verdict was personal. A setting “right” to the many “wrongs” of the past.
Reaction to the Simpson trial is a small snapshot of what’s at work in the hearts and minds of many black Americans today. Living from a lineage of hundreds of years of oppression, the perception that many blacks have is that most (or even all) whites are racist on some level and the American justice system is dialed against blacks as a people. Right or wrong, true or untrue, this perception is deeply ingrained, reinforced, and passed on.
Some whites, on the other hand, have suffered personal tragedies at the hands of criminals who happened to be black. And that has defaulted their perception to one of fear, suspicion, and thinking the worst of black males in general. Stereotypes on television and movies have only hammered that nail in deeper.
If a local police force has battled with a great deal of crime in a particular black community, their perceptions are set to be suspicious of all black men. The deck, then, is set against all black males, even those who are upstanding citizens. Black fathers are forced to have talks with their young sons to be on their guard that a police officer may automatically assume them of wrong doing and be inclined to use excessive force, where if they were white they wouldn’t have to worry.
Having been falsely accused myself at different times in my life, I can relate in some measure to the horrendous experience that many black males feel.
When I was 17 years old, I was driving home from a Bible study I attended that ended well past midnight. As I neared my house, I was caught in a line of traffic. I soon discovered that police officers were pulling teens — my peers — off the side of the road to inspect their cars. Some were being arrested. Apparently, there was a party that had just broken up where illegal drugs were in use.
When one of the officers made his way to my car, he immediately accused me of participating in the party. I explained that I had just come from a Bible study. He laughed in complete disbelief. I then handed him my Bible, naively thinking that it would compel him to question his assumption.
He pointed his flashlight at the floor of the back-seat and said, “Yea right, and I see those marijuana leaves in the floor back there.” There were some bush leaves in the back-seat floor as it was the fall and leaves were transported from the my friend’s shoes to the floor. (In other words, I did a lousy job keeping my car clean!) I explained that they were bush leaves, and invited him to inspect them himself.
He retorted with, “Yea, right.” Anyways, I must have convinced him because he left me go.
But that day I got a small taste of what it means to be “profiled” with a group of my peers.
Granted, the reason why I was profiled is because many of my peers were in fact committing a crime that night in a certain section of town. I was the same age and in that same part of town.
I don’t think the police officer who got it wrong where I was concerned was a teen ageist (meaning, I don’t think he was bigoted against high school teens). Rather, he probably made so many busts with teens who used marijuana that he was more likely to be suspicious of a teen in that part of town that night than if I were in my 40s.
Undoubtedly, this principle operates when police officers “profile” people of a certain race or age. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every police officer who is suspicious of someone who belongs to a certain peer group is a racist or ageist bigot. It could mean that they are stereotyping based on majority numbers in their personal experience. This is wrong as well, but it’s different from being a bigot who believes that all people of a certain race or age are inferior to them.
The Reality of Privilege
The fact of the matter is this: In 21st century America, if you happen to be born white, you don’t have the same issues to deal with that those who are black have to contend with. The deck is set against you in ways you are probably aren’t in touch with.
Overall, you — as a white person — have it easier to be successful.
Now that fact is not an excuse for violence, revenge, or bigotry against whites. It’s just the way things are in this fallen world. Note that I’m speaking in generalities here. If you’re black and born into a rich family, you’re an exception. And you probably have it better than most whites.
However, until Jesus Christ returns to set this world in order, I don’t see things changing too much for many years to come. Yes, we’ll have more legislation. Yes, we’ll have a more sensitive egg-shell situation on both sides. And yes, we’ll probably have more dialogue where blacks and whites can better understand one another.
But I don’t believe there is a solution that’s going to end fear, suspicion, injustice, or all the problems that have arisen to the surface once again from recent riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, et. al.
There will be other incidents to come that will roll the same ball again. The specifics will be different, but the same racial tension, polarization, violence, anger, and divergent perspectives will reappear.
If someone is offering solutions, then I (for one) am monumentally skeptical. It’s easy to offer abstract solutions on paper.
“If everyone would do such and such, this wouldn’t happen again.”
“If the police would all wear cameras and treat everyone the same . . . ”
“If every person who is stopped or commanded by a police officer would just submit and obey . . . ”
Why, of course.
I can offer the same sentiments: If every mortal followed Jesus of Nazareth and lived by His life, then there would virtually no relational problems among mortals.
But bloodless abstractions and what will actually work on the ground are two drastically different things.
What I can offer, however, is what I believe to be a “Jesus response” to the root problem.
And I’m speaking here on a level that transcends the recent riots.
A Jesus Response
The Jesus response, I believe, is for every genuine Jesus follower to understand that our perceptions are shaped by our experiences. And for us and others, perception is reality, even though it may not be God’s reality.
One of the things that the early Jesus followers taught and practiced is that Jesus Christ can transform one’s own personal perceptions, heal their reactions to their experiences, and replace their perceptions with HIS perception — which is truth and reality.
Although the first-century Christians still struggled with their past perceptions of race, namely, Jews hated Gentiles and Gentiles despised Jews, those perceptions had crumbled under the weight of the reality of the new humanity that Jesus Christ brought forth by His death and resurrection.
The result? The world was amazed to see — for the very first time — the two people-groups who lived with profound hatred and hostility toward one another for thousands of years (Jews and Gentiles) love one another, take care of one another, marry one another, and bury one another!
Indeed, the first-century ekklesia was a countercultural community that modeled to the entire universe what humanity can look like when it is reshaped by the power and love of Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus Christ is not only the Lord and Savior of the world, He’s also God’s idea of a human being. Jesus often referred to Himself as “the Son of man” which can rightly be translated “the real human.”
And in His death and resurrection, Jesus brought forth a new creation, a new humanity, a new “race” where all natural divisions, prejudices, and separations have been abolished.
In other words, God’s answer to the problem of race relations in America is an transformative encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and an experience of His ekklesia, rightly conceived and rightly practiced.
On this score, Derwin Gray – a black pastor from North Carolina – and I coauthored an article that we feel is timeless in its message, for it embodies a “Jesus response” to the thorny issue of racial struggles and perceptions in America and the world.
Here it is . . .
The Race Card of the Early Christians – What They Can Teach Us Today
Media coverage on the racial tensions that regularly sweep across America has heightened passions on both ends.
Conversations about race, law, injustice, prejudice, guns, police brutality, etc. are all being argued and inflamed.
In this article, we don’t want to weigh in on the public debate. Instead, our passion is to encourage God’s people everywhere to transcend the debate that the world is holding on its own terms by seeing ethnicity through the eyes of our Lord. There is only one race, the human race, which is comprised of different ethnic groups (Acts 17:26).
We want you, dear Christian, to take your cue from the New Testament believers, for they can teach us a great deal about this subject.
A Walk Into the First-Century Church
The world of the first-century was littered with racism and oppression. In the mind of a first-century Jew, Gentiles (Africans, Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Asians, etc.) were created to fuel the fires of hell.
When a Jew called a Gentile “uncircumcised,” he spit it. It was a name of profound contempt.
If a Jewish person married a Gentile, the Jewish parents held a funeral service for their child. In their eyes, their child was dead.
On the flip side, Gentiles regarded Jews to be sub-human. Historically, the Jews have been an oppressed people, living under the thumb of one Gentile nation after another (e.g., Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome).
In all of human history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred, and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jew and the Gentile.
But alas, in the first-century, there emerged a group of people on the planet who transcended this racial hostility.
Here was a group of people who saw themselves as members of the same family . . . a people made up of Jews, Gentles, slaves, free, rich, poor, male and female.
These were the early Christians. The Roman world stood in awe as they saw a people who hated each other began to love one another and do life together in the Name of Jesus.
Watch them walking into the market place together, arm and arm, singing with joy in their hearts.
Jew and Gentile.
Slave and free.
Rich and poor.
Male and female.
Look at them closely. Jew and Gentile eating together, working together, greeting one another with a holy kiss, raising their children together, taking care of one another, marrying one another, and burying one another.
This fact blew the circuitry of every person living in Century One. It shook the Roman Empire to its very foundations.
The church of Jesus Christ was a classless society. It’s members didn’t regard social status, color, or position. For them, there was no Jew or Greek in the body of Christ. There was no slave or free. There was no rich or poor.
Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11
For the first two hundred years, the Christians only addressed each other by their first names. The reason? Because their last names indicated their social position in society.
Here was a classless, raceless society where all social distinctions were erased.
To their minds, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor no longer existed. The early believers saw themselves as part of the same family . They were a new race . . . a colony from another realm, not of or from this earth. Yet for this earth.
How Did This Happen?
Enter Jesus, a prophet from the ill-starred town of Nazareth.
In His humanity, Jesus was Jewish.
But take another look. He was something other . . .
“I am not of this world.”
“The Father sent me.”
“I came from the Father and I will return to Him.”
To borrow the language of Arthur Custance, Jesus Christ was a new species on the planet, a new creation, a new kind of human.
Jesus of Nazareth was the first child ever to break open the womb of a woman who would be part of a new creation. A human being after God’s original thought. A creature who lived by divine life, expressing God’s image in the earth.
And He had a holy intention that was shrouded in a mystery for ages (Colossians 1:25-28; Ephesians 3:2-6).
What was that intention? It was to take over the planet by establishing a colony of His own species on the earth. And He would do it in a way unthinkable to humans and angels.
He would die, rise again, and reproduce Himself, becoming the head of a new race, a new humanity, a new creation.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24
In His death, Jesus took all social distinction, all racial tensions, all forms of human separation, and He crucified them.
But that’s not all.
In His resurrection, He brought forth a new humanity out of Jew and Gentile, destroying the wall of division and hostility that separated them.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . 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. Ephesians 2:14-16
Jesus Christ became the firstborn of a new creation (Romans 8:29).
The Third Race
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God. 1 Corinthians 10:32
This little passage contains a monumental truth. Before Jesus Christ entered the pages of human history, there were only two races: Jew and Gentile.
But with His resurrection, three races appeared on the planet: Jew, Gentile, and the ekklesia of God.
For this reason, the second-century Christians called themselves the “third race” as well as the “new race.”
The body of Christ, then, is the restoration of God’s original image that creation was designed to bear. An image where there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
Within this new non-ethnic community, the dividing lines of gender, race, class, and social status are wiped away. And new distinctions of spiritual gifting are bestowed.
Watch how Paul opens his discussion on the functioning of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12—14.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12
This passage is perhaps the most mind-bending text in all the New Testament. It destroys all our natural assumptions about the church. If you read the passage quickly, you’ll most certainly skip over its explosive meaning.
Paul tells the Corinthians that, just as the physical body is one unit having many members, so also is Christ. Notice that he doesn’t say, “So also is the body of Christ.”
He says, “So also is Christ.”
In other words, Christ is a body who has many members. Or to put it another way, the church is Christ. While that sounds heretical to traditional ears, this is exactly what Paul wrote.
From God’s perspective, Christ is no longer a single person. He is a corporate person. Christ and the church are a single reality. The church is the bottom half of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s idea is not that the Head is somehow screwed onto the body. His idea is that Christ embodies the church. The risen Christ is a living, inclusive, “more-than-individual” personality.
Put another way, the church is the visible image of the invisible Lord. It is the corporate Christ. It is Christ in collective human expression.
What Does This Mean for Us Today?
Mark it down: JESUS CHRIST IS THE MOST UNIFYING PERSON IN THE UNIVERSE!
If Jesus can bring Jew and Gentile together to form a new humanity, He can bring any group of races together.
But here’s a very important question for churches and pastors: Church, if we are racially divided (87% of churches in America are homogenous), how can we heal a racially divided country?
A multi-ethnic local church, fueled by the grace of Jesus, is the ultimate public testimony against racism (Galatians 2:11-21). In reality, a multi-ethnic local church is the future church in the present (Revelation 5:9). Only in close proximity to one another does grace replace racism.
So from God’s standpoint, you, dear Christian, are part of a new race of humanity. You are part of a “new species”—a new humanity (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 2:15).
In the eyes of God, the church is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus Christ on earth. It’s a new species that’s kin to divinity; a body to the Son and a family to the Father. Kind of His own kind.
It’s no wonder that the dominating image of the church throughout the New Testament is the family. “Brothers,” “sisters,” “mothers,” “fathers,” “new birth,” etc. populate the Epistles when speaking about the ekklesia of God.
In this hour of clenched fists, God is looking for local communities of His people . . . ekklesias of God . . . made up of Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Jew, Gentile, living out of their true identities as members of the new creation.
A people who will know one another, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
A microcosm of the kingdom of God, where all racial and ethnic divides are erased and Jesus Christ becomes our identity.
A model for this world to see what God’s image looks like in visible form.
A people who will provoke the universe to look with amazement and say, “Behold how they love one another.”
Political solutions will only go so far. Adjustments to our laws will always be limited. Nuances to the justice system won’t do enough.
While all of these things are good and we applaud them, they cannot remove racism from the hearts of fallen mortals.
Only Christ can. And His ekklesia can show it forth . . . visible, tangible, touchable, experiential.
This is the “race card” that the early Christians held in their hands. And it is the heritage of all of God’s people today.
The earth awaits such . . .
See also Derwin’s new article Why We Need More Multi-Ethnic Churches