Category Archives: Race and Baptism

Plain and simple: It’s Jesus or race

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“His (Jesus’) life must mean the death of race in us.”

| Brian Bantum, The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World

It’s not hard.  Letting go of race is not difficult.  I know that it is not something that we would consider and that you didn’t ask for assistance with.  I know that you two have your problems but they’re your problems.  I know that I should stay out of it, that its a personal problem, a social conundrum, a spiritual dilemma.  I really should keep my nose out of it and my two cents.  But, I can’t.

While some people can’t get their minds around this race-less gospel, they shake their heads in agreement. Yes, it is a social construct.  Yes, it is not a biological reality.  I know that color and country are not synonymous, that color is not my Creator.  Yes, I am more than skin but soul and Spirit- filled.  Yes, but no.

No.  We have to stop right there because they can’t go beyond this intellectual acceptance.  Yes, that was their confession but no.  Getting rid of race is too hard.  It will take more time.  No talk of starting now and no mention of when this racialized existence would come to an end.  They just know that it can’t happen.  It won’t happen anytime soon, in the near future.  Strangely, they cannot see a future when race is not near.

“Because who would I be without my color?  I have always been beige, brown, red, yellow, black or white.  How would I identify myself?  Who would I identify with?”

So much to lose and not enough to choose from.  Race has them covered.  Life can only make sense to them if they are colored.

You would think that I asked them to peel off their skin.

They speak as if they would cease to exist and though Christian, the idea of being born again never crosses their mind.  There is no need to enter the womb a second time (John 3.4).  Enter water and Spirit.

But, for those who confess Jesus as Lord, it seems way too easy to put race to death through our new life in him.  New creatures, we simply cannot stop identifying with race.  And worse still, we imagine that God cannot be identified apart from it.  But, we can have one without the other and only one cancels out the other.

So, what will it be– Jesus or race?

Doing justice to our bodies: How race wrongs us (Part Two)

See the source imageWith an increase in the surveillance of bodies socially colored black, I feel it necessary to talk about the valuation of the human body and the Church’s role in such a conversation.  With some persons feeling it necessary to call the police as if a customer service agency for humans they deem damaged due the social construct of race, it is important that we not only talk about race but speak to its theological implications.  Made in God’s image, it would seem like an easy one to have.  The silence around the visibility of whiteness and the socially desired invisibility of those labeled and socially assigned the identity of black is dumbfounding.

Thus, I submit a second section of the paper I presented at the Baptist World Alliance in Zurich, Switzerland just a few weeks ago:

There are several familiar passages of Scripture that praise the creation of human beings, namely the Genesis account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[i]  Noteworthy, the narrator does not describe any physical characteristics or distinctions, not even based on their gender differences.  Unlike our hyper- body conscious society, there are no measurements, no height or weight, no mention of size, shape or any other perceived physical trait.  Man and woman, animals and insects, trees and rivers, they are described the same: “very good.”

God praises the work of God’s hands and the psalmist chimes in, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know them very well.”[ii]  Made in God’s image and identified in Christ, the believer’s identity has divine boundaries.  Buried with Christ, our new life with Christ is not expected to resemble the old self or its nature.  In Christ, we are new creatures.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[iii]

Paul’s point cannot be overstated. Even though they knew Christ “from a human point of view,” even though they knew his mother, Mary and his stepfather, Joseph, his birthplace, his siblings, his habits and human needs, they don’t know him in this way anymore.  There is a change in the way that they relate and desire to know Jesus.  This new creation does not require the information that the cultural, personal or social self might need.

For the new creation, it is unnecessary and dare I say, irrelevant. And it is a choice.  While they have personal information about Jesus, that perspective is not helpful to the work of ministry that he has entrusted to them, to the community that they have been called to serve, to the gospel they have been charged to share with the world.  They must know him and consequently, each other differently.  This is not human being as usual.

While the early Church initially wrestles with cultural inclusion as recorded in Acts 15 at the Council at Jerusalem, revelations given by the Holy Spirit make the gospel’s goal clear: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between us and them. Now therefore why are putting God to test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord, Jesus, just as they will.”[iv]

The presence of the Holy Spirit makes evident those who God has saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. No physical marking of the flesh, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a distinction not made with human hands but much like the children of Israel, it is a matter of the heart.  Anything more would be making salvation more difficult than it needs to be, harder than God has made it for them, the writer of Acts says.

They are identified by the Holy Spirit and found in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Galatia of their identity in Christ, which the outside world has nothing to do with it.  Baptized, believers rise with Christ no longer to be identified as they have been by society: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[v]  Baptized into Christ, there is a depth of identity to which all others will not survive.  This is more than an immersion; it is a death, a burial with Christ to rise to new life in him.

Theologian William Willimon makes a fine point in this regard,

What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?

In baptism, the text becomes Scripture for us, canon, laid on us as a new story that illumines our stories. In baptism, we are adopted into the people who answer to this story and are held accountable to its description of reality… Scripture suggests that authority has shifted from ourselves to Scripture’s use of us… Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.[vi]

If we profess Christ as Savior and Lord, then there is no longer black or white, red or yellow, brown or beige people. There is no longer immigrants and strangers, marginalized and centered, minority and majority, privilege and oppressed people; we are now one in Christ Jesus. Like Paul, we are to count as loss all that brought us gain so that we might know Christ.[vii]  Accepting race and its socially constructed identities ensures that we “boast in the flesh” and maintains our confidence in it.[viii]  But, baptism erases the lines and destroys our boxes. T.B. Maston asserts, “God is not a racial, national or denominational deity… so there is no racial discrimination in God’s family.”[ix]

When we accept the transformative power of baptism, the social construct of race will lose its grip on our skin and slip away.

Because we cannot serve God and race.[x]  When we are baptized, we must die to our racialized selves, drowning out the voices of culturally justifiable hatred, prejudice and supremacy.   Race cannot go down with us and come up in Christ Jesus— because race has no resurrection power.  If we are baptized and remain people of color, then we may need to stay under the water a little longer.

The point is made again to the community of believers at Colossae: “…seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”[xi]

How then does the Church in North America continue to speak of God and God’s people in color- coded terms, to speak of people of color and people of God interchangeably?  Because we cannot credit two creators.  Why does the Church in North America continue to employ the social distinction of race though we identify ourselves as people who are “led by the Spirit”?  How does the use of the social construct and its progeny, namely prejudice, stereotype and white privilege, survive baptism and continue to participate in our life with Christ and with other believers in community?  How does race help us to sing God praises for our creation and the creation of our neighbor?

Known for having all the answers, the Church in North America and communities of faith across the world must begin to question its long- standing relationship with race.

_______________________________________

[i] Genesis 1.26, 27, 31a, NRSV

[ii] Psalm 139.14, NRSV

[iii] Second Corinthians 5.16-17, NRSV

[iv] Acts 15.8-11, NRSV

[v] Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV

[vi] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7,

[vii] Philippians 3.8

[viii] Philippians 3.2

[ix] T. B. Maston, The Bible and Race: A Careful Examination of Biblical Teachings on Human Relations, (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959), 24-25.

[x] Matthew 6.24

[xi] Colossians 3.9-11, NRSV

Books can take you places

Image result for ruth haley barton life together in christAs many of us gear up for summer vacations with flip flops, sunglasses and sunscreen, I want to remind us of the journey offered in books.  Words can take us places.  Within their pages are invitations to journey not just to distant and magical lands but to places closer to home, to undiscovered holy sites within us.  Dependent upon our imagination, openness and receptivity to the Spirit, books offer more than an escape but a way in to the deeper places.

Recently, a book offered just that for me.  I was looking for a spiritual locale but not sure how to get there or if there was a guide.  The words of Ruth Haley Barton provided the transportation.  She writes in Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, “Community is the most ‘overpromised and underdelivered’ aspect of the church today. … There is another overpromised, underdelivered aspect of the church today that is equally disillusioning, and that is the promise of spiritual transformation. … I made the disheartening discovery that it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”

She was not putting words in my mouth.  She was speaking for me, repeating what I had been saying to myself.  The disappointment and disillusionment were palpable and I was not alone in this feeling.  What a relief!  Because the work of Christ must not be confused with Christ’s witness in us.  Church attendance should not be confused with Christ’s being present and tending to us.

The disconnect between Christ and transformation that causes me to groan most is that of the social construct of race.  That we, as Christians, continue to color in his body, that we allow the social construct of race to segregate his members brings deep grief and disappointment.  The power of Christ’s resurrection and our baptism into his new life is mocked here.

Still it must be said and said again, there is no community as ‘races.’  No one holy race.  No one human race.  For race cancels out community and gets in the way of our seeing all as humans.  The social construct of race says that there is no transformation.  We are only and always socially colored beige, brown, black, red, yellow and white people.  The stereotypes speak for us.

And to make believing harder, we have no faith that God can change us when it comes to the social construct of race.  The reach of Christ’s cross falls short here.  But, it is simply impossible to be God’s people and colored people.

***

I have a deep longing for transformation in community.  I want very much to experience life in Christ in ways previously unexplored and unexpressed.  I want to be a new creature, changed by my travels with Christ.  Returning home not with trinkets from my daily walk but testimonies of the difference that Christ has made in my life.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I want my heart to burn when Christ speaks (c.f. Luke 24.32).

I carry a collection of what I refer to as journey words.  These are words that I have met along the way, that I have run into or have been introduced to, that speak to where I am supposed to be.  Not only are they a source of encouragement but they keep me on track.  These journey words remind me of my identity and place in the world.

Barton’s book has affirmed the aim of my life.  More than the trip of a lifetime, I believe that I will have arrived where I belong when I am in a community that is transformed, with me as its first member.

Now carrying journey books in addition to journey words, my bag will be much heavier but the load will be lighter.  Knowing that there are persons walking ahead of me, who have not only been there but remain has taken my spiritual life to new heights.  I will not return the same.

 

 

Useless

images-1“It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

~ John 6.63

These are the words of Jesus and they follow a “difficult teaching.”  The disciples feedback was not favorable.  The message was not entertaining; the classroom of discipleship was not a fun place to be.  This was a hard lesson to learn. They commented, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it (6.60)?”  The words of Jesus made the disciples think that no one could pass the course, that no one would graduate.  But, the words that followed might also prove difficult for many of us to accept given our investment in race: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”

I taught a class on baptism at Panera this past Saturday.  Over soup, salad and sandwiches, I talked to a new convert about the new life, the fresh start she had been given.  Along with talking about Jesus’ life, she talked to me about hers before making this life- changing decision. She shared about her family of origin, her plans for the future, her interest in all things black.  Race.  I had not prepared to say anything about it.  It wasn’t apart of the notes that I had reviewed the hour before.

But, I understood her interest, her passion for the social identity and I told her as much.  After pointing to the black and white color combination that I was wearing and placing it against my skin, it was obvious to her that we were not seeing that we were black or that they were white.  So what were we really saying?

Then, I started talking about the funerals that I had recently officiated or served in.  The body was there.  They left it behind and they were gone.  “They are in a better place,” I heard friends and family members say.  Well, what of them is in a better place if their body is still here?  And if the flesh is so important, then why didn’t they take it with them?

It is their breath that is taken.  We speak of the evidence of death as the “last breath.”  She or he took their last breath.  Their spirit has left the earth, that which makes them animate and active is gone.  It is the spirit, the breath that is to be valued and over which we have no control.  The body is buried, left in the ground.  Useless.  This is why Jesus also says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10.28).

She would be experiencing a funeral of her own in just a few weeks.  The flesh and its old nature will be of no use to her as a new creature in Jesus the Christ.  Instead, she will be baptized in the Spirit and given a new and purpose- full life.   I pray that in time and over time, she will learn that society’s categories, to include that of race, are meaningless and that she does not have to be found in any of those boxes in order for God to use her, that she is already unpacked, revealed because of the spirit that is shared and that is never useless.

Christ Saved My Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChrist saved my life from stereotypes. “In Him, “I am a new creature and all things become new” (Second Corinthians 5.17).  I am not more of the same old colored people, another addition to the racial group.  I am not another number, added into the racial majority or minority.

Christ saved my life from prejudice. In Him, I am clothed. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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 3.27-28).  In Him, I am one.  Christ makes me whole.

Christ saved my life from segregation. “In Him, I live, move and have my being” (Acts 17.28). There is no basis for fences or boundaries, assigned seating or separate entrances, warning or caution signs in Christ.  All can come to me because I come from All.

Christ saved my life from hatred. In Him, there is perfect love and God is love perfected.  “There is no fear in love. But, perfect love drives out all fear” (First John 4.18).  God casts out, calls out, circles the fear in me.  It must leave me first before I can second guess the motivations of others.

I don’t have to be the person that race says that I will be because of the social coloring of skin, the external markers of race. Christ gave me another life and way of being that is outside of this world and its oppressions, outside of me but inside of Him.  And all of me that is worthy of keeping, He has saved.