Monday, June 8, 2020

Change the System As Well As the Citizen

Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
With all of the protests and unrest that's going on to highlight the injustices in our midst, I'm seeing different reactions from churches and clergy around the country. One reaction is to stay silent, retreat into the bunker of whiteness and try to wait this thing out. Another reaction is to go on the offensive and declare that this is all sin, to mischaracterize the protestors, many of whom are Christian brothers and sisters, and lump them in with the misguided or opportunistic groups that are causing havoc, destroying property and looting. Both of those reactions are not only harmful, in that they ignore or perpetuate the problem of injustice, but they are also sinful, in that they represent a failure to love one's neighbor. Focusing more on the people stealing shoes and televisions than the murder of a man made in the image of God is like running up to a police officer with his knee on the neck of a man to report a stolen car. 
On the other hand, I've seen churches take time to talk about the issue of racism and injustice, often awkwardly, with varying degrees of depth, but bravely risking criticism to tackle the problem of this particular sin - one that we don't name as sin nearly often enough. We should commend this, even as we lovingly engage and critique it. 
One critique I would, lovingly, make of some of the response to the sin of injustice and racism in America is against the idea that we should focus on just preaching the gospel, and not on creating solutions - legal and systemic solutions - to solve the problem. These pastors insist that racism is a "heart problem," and that the ONLY solution is to preach the gospel, to fill those hearts with the love of Christ that will banish the hatred of one's neighbor and inspire a new attitude towards race and those people who might look different, but are nonetheless made in the image of God. The assumption at work here is that racism or prejudice is primarily a problem of individuals being hateful towards others, not a systemic problem of unfairness and injustice towards people of color, specifically Black folks. The preachers who espouse this idea are generally well-intentioned, and envision a day when the landscape of our nation will look very different, with the Holy Spirit indwelling each citizen and guiding their individual interactions with others in love and humility.
The problem with this kind of thinking is not that it's necessarily untrue, but that it's not enough. It sounds like a wonderful vision, a whole nation of people loving their neighbors as themselves, putting the needs of others above their own. But as lovers of the Word, we know that the way to life is narrow, and there are only few who find it, while the road to destruction - spiritual, social, personal, and physical destruction - is wide, and the vast majority of us walk that road. We have to be honest with ourselves enough to know that despite our best efforts to share the Gospel and change the hearts of the people in our circles of influence, many will reject it, will either postpone it or outright reject it until their dying day. The Scriptures teach us that it is our job to sow the seed of the Gospel, but that God decides which hearts are going to accept it. In that parable, only a quarter of the "soil" that is sown produces lasting growth. The idea that every perpetrator of prejudice and racism will be saved from their sin and become a force for justice is just not enough to deal with the immediate and often deadly reality of the problem.
There are really two issues at work here, and the concept of "just preaching the Gospel" and ignoring needed changes to the law and systems only covers one of them. To be sure, one issue at play here is the "heart problem," and the Gospel is the only cure for this illness. There is hatred in the hearts of people that only the love of Christ can dispel. We should absolutely be preaching the Word and carrying the Good News to a world that is saturated in its wickedness. But the other issue is systemic, and no amount of preaching is going to solve this problem if it's not accompanied by a change to the system. The problem of racism in America is not located solely in its police departments. It is also protected and perpetuated in her banks, her courts, her schools, her capitols, and sometimes, unfortunately, sadly, in her churches. Even if every person in charge embraced the love of Christ and dedicated themselves to loving their neighbors, there would still be very little change if the laws, policies, and traditions that disadvantage other people are not abolished along with the hatred in their hearts. At best, redeemed and repentant people bound by a system of privilege and exclusion grieve over injustices even while they struggle to prevent them. At worst, unredeemed and unrepentant people exploit those systems to protect their own wealth, status, and power.
Is there any other sin that we treat like this? Do we say that abortion is just a heart problem, and the only solution is to preach the gospel until unborn lives are safe? Or do we lobby our government leadership, take our cause to the voting booth, protest in the streets, and donate to organizations that have proven successful in the matter?
Take the example of the Greek widows in Acts 6. There is a problem of partiality, exclusion, and possibly racism in the early church. The victims of this sin expose it by bringing the matter to their pastors, the shepherds who are duty-bound to protect them. The apostles didn't say to them, "This is a heart problem. What we need to do is just continue preaching the Gospel until the hearts change, and the problem will go away on its own." Instead, their response was two-pronged. First, they recognized, rightly, that the preaching of the Word was vital, and should not be disrupted or hindered in any way. Secondly, they understood that the problem the widows were addressing was systemic, and upheld by long-standing traditions and policies than advantage one group and disadvantage another. So they devised a systemic response. We'll create a team to deal specifically with the issue, a group of good men, full of the Holy Spirit, to make sure that this matter is henceforth handled with fairness to all. They dealt with the heart problem, but also with the systemic problem.
That's what we need to do today - approach these two-fold problems with two-fold attacks. We should definitely be praying and preaching the Gospel, because is the only way to drive hatred and racism out of the hearts of individuals. But we should also be taking our passion for justice and equality to the streets, the courts, the voting booths, and changing the fabric of our society, because that is the only way to drive racism out of the system.