Today, our country remembers and honors the inspirational and aspirational fight against racism waged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of that remembrance, I want to pass along some thoughts about the role of the church in the fight against racism written by New Testament scholar Dr. Richard Hays in his important book The Moral Vision of the New Testament.
In a chapter about ethnic conflict Dr. Hays states that “the church is to be a sign of God’s eschatological reconciliation of the world, and therefore a community in which ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Thus the church’s unity at table across ethnic boundaries is an outward and visible sign of the breaking down of these barriers, a prefiguration of the eschatological banquet of the people of God.”
After reflecting, in that same chapter of the book, on significant New Testament passages that describe the new community in Christ that the church represents, Dr. Hays writes the following: “Thus, the New Testament makes a compelling case for the church to live as a community that transcends racial and ethnic differences. Insofar as the church lives the reality of this vision, it has a powerful effect in society; insofar as it fails to live this reality, it compromises the truth of the gospel.”
Then Dr. Hays speaks about how the internal unity of the church relates to the world outside the church: “Once the church has caught the vision of living as a sign of the new creation in which racial and ethnic differences are bridged at the table of the Lord, how is it possible for the community of Christ’s people to participate in animosity toward ‘outsiders’? If God is the creator of the whole world who wills ultimately to redeem the whole creation…then how can the church that is called to bear God’s message of reconciliation in an unredeemed world (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) scorn or reject people of any race or tongue, whether they are Christians or not? This is not to say that there is no difference between the church and the world. Far from it; the church has the task of embodying ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ in the world. In other words, the church is called to expand and extend the same vocation that was Israel’s: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6). When the identity of the community is understood in these terms, participation in any form of ethnic division or hatred becomes unthinkable, and ethnic division within the church becomes nothing other than a denial of the truth of the gospel. That is why racism is heresy.”
We Christians must see the fight against racism as a fight for the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Christ, and the new world that God creates through Christ.