In the first post, I shared how I arrived at my conversion packed with ignorance and hostility toward black people. But becoming a Christian launched an adventure in unexpected transformation. It began shortly after conversion when I attended an urban campus of Westminster Theological Seminary called the Center for Urban Theological Study (CUTS). It was there, under the teaching of Carl Ellis, Jr., Harvie Conn, and Manny Ortiz, that my lily-white brain began to see in technicolor. After all, these scholars were giants in the field of racial justice and reconciliation. Under their patient instruction, God slowly began to excavate my soul and hack away at the roots of racism. And I learned that the hostility that once burned within my heart was part of a bigger story that went all the way back to the beginning.
Our Shared History
Our loving God launched history as the Creator. He methodically executed his will in a six-day creative adventure that culminated in the creation of two people. The Lord planted a garden in Eden and placed a man in the midst of paradise to cultivate and keep it. Though Adam dwelled with the Lord in a perfect environment, God still identified a need in him for companionship. God then made “a helper suitable” for Adam (Gen. 1:20) and arranged the first marriage. Genesis 2 concludes with man and woman dwelling harmoniously together in the garden, a vivid picture of the solidarity God desires for relationships between his people.
Think about it: Adam and the woman were different, though not ashamed. There were distinctions, but no divisions. The first couple lived in paradise, daily enjoying the unity and continuity of their relationship with God and one another.
Into this paradise of unity slithered the cancer of sin. God had made his will clear to the man and woman (Gen. 2:15-17), but they chose to disobey him. And their sin had a devastatingly dual-impact upon their lives. First, their separation from God; then their estrangement from one another. Let’s unpack these two aspects of separation in turn.
First, the purity and unity that once permeated the relationship between God and his people was maliciously severed. At one time, the Lord walking through the garden would have engendered joy and a delightful dance into their Father’s arms. But now his presence brought fear and shame. Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God’s omniscient eye. The relational cords had been slashed. All humanity was now alienated from their Creator.
Second, sin resulted in a strained relationship between the man and woman. After partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve immediately knew they were naked. Their physical distinctions, once a source of joy, now became a matter of shame. Fig leaves were found and everyone covered up. When God confronted them, the man shifted the blame for this catastrophe to the woman, who knowingly deflected blame to the serpent. The marital peace and unity evident in Genesis 2 evaporated and replaced with relational strain and disunity.
Sadly, this event was not an Adam-and-Eve thing confined to the garden. Their relational brokenness triggered the pollution of every relationship and every context where people interact. This means the advent of sin has permanently disrupted harmony between cultures, races, and ethnic groups. Our differences would become a point of division.
A Gospel Sighting
The news was pretty bad. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). We were all pasted with the failure of the first couple.
But our loving and merciful Creator was determined not to tolerate sin and its pervasive effects. In the horrors of this Fall, all the way back in the very beginning, we discover God had a plan. It surfaces specifically in Genesis 3:15 as God pronounces judgment on the serpent. The woman’s offspring would be bruised, but he would crush the head of the enemy. In the darkness and desperation of a garden-gone-wrong, the Savior surfaces. And he who knew know sin would become sin, that in him we might become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21).
If the polarizing power of racism seems wholly confounding and utterly overwhelming, consider the indescribable firepower of the gospel and remember: The same power that reconciled us to God is now available to unite us to one another.
Back to My Story
As I progressed deeper into the program and began pondering what I was learning, some unexpected things began to happen. For starters, I became acutely convicted of my own deep-seated racism. The scaffolding of prejudice that propped up my racial contempt was slowly dismantled by studying the Bible. God began to help me see that mere forgiveness and respect between historically embittered races was not the end-game. He wanted to “(break) down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16). The gospel uncaged an expulsive power. Division was expelled and replaced with unity. Hostility was swapped for peace. Because of the finished work of Christ, the destructive effects of Eden would be rolled back.
This vision gripped me. It was irrepressible and captivating. To the utter astonishment of those who knew me back-in-the-day, a fellow-pastor and I eventually co-wrote our 1989 Master’s thesis on Racial Reconciliation in the Suburban Context. Go figure. But as a pastor leading a large, white congregation in the Philadelphia suburbs, I became convinced that God wanted us to build a model of racial reconciliation right there, in a predominantly white suburb.
By God’s grace, there were a few successes. But to be honest, I think we had far more failures. But it didn’t matter. The theological roots of reconciliation had penetrated deep into my soul and nourished an undeniable desire to see the reconciliation promised in Scripture become the reconciliation realized in the church.
There’s more to say, particularly about all of the questions that remain unanswered for me. But I don’t need all of the answers right now, because I’m treasuring the promise that “he who began a good work in (me) will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).