On May 5th of 2019, for the first time, Miss America, Miss Teen USA, and Miss USA were all black woman. This was significant because in 1984, we crowned the first black Miss America and since then the number of black women who have held that title or similar have been less than 10. As expected, when all three women who held the title were black women, culture rejoiced in this remarkable moment. Black women around the world held their heads high on that day as if they were wearing crowns themselves.
I, too marveled at the moment. I felt a sense of pride and confidence. For me to say it was a good day would be an understatement.
Two days later, a cell-phone video was released of the arrest of Sandra Bland from 2015. Sandra Bland was a 28-year-old African-American woman who was pulled over by police for a traffic violation and arrested. Three days after her arrest, she was found dead in her jail cell. Following her death, protests broke out around the nation alleging racial violence and calling on the police to be held accountable for her death.
As I watched the recent cell-phone video of her arrest, bitterness and anger stirred up inside me. I felt a sense of injustice at her treatment and I struggled to process my feelings. Sandra was around the same age as me. As I watched one of the videos, the idea continued to play in my head over and over again, “That could have been me.”
As I consider my reaction to these two events, one which made me feel proud and the other, which made me feel sadness and anger. I had a realization: identity derived from race or culture is far more easily swayed by circumstances both positive and negative, than identity derived from God’s Word. I believe if our identity is placed in the Word of God, we can allow these situations and ones like them to touch us but never move us.
All throughout scripture, God the Father marks our identity with one word: son or daughter.
“And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:18
“So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” Galatians 4:7
I strongly believe God is inviting us to embrace a higher identity. From the beginning of time, God has desired a family. As we follow the storyline of the Bible we see His burning desire to make that happen. For example, in the New Testament, we see parables like “The Prodigal Son” and “The Wedding Feast.” Those stories show God as a Father, us as children and His desire for us to be a part of His family. God wants daughters. God wants sons. I am convinced this is the higher identity God is calling us to embrace above all else.
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” Ephesians 1:4-5
It’s an identity that isn’t based on our good works (For He chose us..).
It’s an identity that started before us (…before the creation of the world).
It’s an identity rooted in the love of a Father (In love… in accordance with his pleasure and will).
It’s an identity that has been tested and has succeeded.
An identity that is unshakeable and fierce.
An identity that doesn’t bow to the current climate of the world or the latest social cycle.
An identity that is rooted and grounded in God’s character.
It’s an identity that Jesus himself carried (Matthew 3:17).
An identity that requires only one thing from us, faith (John 1:12).
I can only imagine what the church would look like if we started seeing ourselves and one another as children of God first. I believe we will see such a massive shift in the church, then as a result, transformation in our culture.
Dream with me, the body of Christ walking around as though we had crowns on our head because we know who we are in HIM.
As I venture deeper into the work of uniting the church and facilitating tough conversations regarding race and culture, I keep running into the same theme. It’s deeply concerning. “Another prayer meeting? What action are we taking to execute justice against the systemic evil present in America?” It’s almost as if these individuals would say, “forget righteousness, give me justice.” On the other hand, I also hear comments such as, “We should not concern ourselves with history, systemic issues, or social justice. Nothing but the Gospel will fix this!” I find a sincere resonance with both and an inexorable concern. Both positions functioning independent of the other should grieve all of us. Because alone, these approaches are like a one-winged bird, it simply won’t fly. They are both indispensable ideas to the work of reconciliation and the Gospel yet inseparable.
What is at risk in this tug-of-war over righteousness and the mudslinging about justice? The Church’s credibility! ‘Are we credible?’ is the question. Continuing on the trajectory that the church is currently on, doubling down in our respective camps, the church continues to diminish its credibility in the eyes of the world. Righteousness alone can’t produce the fruit of love. Justice alone can’t produce the heart of love. Our witness is not one of love when we commit to one and not the other.
8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
– 1 John 4:8-11
Both righteousness and justice are present in the text. When Jesus went to the cross we got righteousness as a result, and God got justice against sin. This is the very scandal of the Gospel. So, what then are we to do? We are to love one another. The fruit of righteousness and justice working together in the heart of the believer is love.
34A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
– John 13:34 – 35
For the Lord is righteous and he loves justice; the upright will see his face.
– Psalm 11:7
The Lord loves both. We should love both. We should practice both. There isn’t a conflict between these two ideas, as there is no conflict in the heart of the Lord. Righteousness and justice are caught in an unquenchable love affair that has been burning since the beginning of time. Righteousness refers to the will of man that is bent towards the Lord’s pleasure. Righteousness refers to the deeds that are done out of a motivation of love and desire for that which is right. In the case of OneRace: catalytic prayer, authentic relationship, and tough conversations are all a part of our righteous responsibility and produce the fruit of love. THE LORD LOVES RIGHTEOUSNESS.
THE LORD LOVES JUSTICE. We should love justice. We seek ways to make wrong things right. In the American situation, there are many injustices that have been perpetrated over time: chattel slavery, robbing, and slaughtering of indigenous people, the Chinese exclusion act, and the subjugation and degrading of Hispanics presently. These injustices bear fruit that we are faced with daily: rampant murders in south Chicago, the prosperity of Ivey league schools founded with slave money, the public school to prison pipeline, DACA, etc. Is it the responsibility of the church to correct wrong things? Is it the responsibility of the individual believer to be a proponent of social justice? The Lord loves justice. He loves making wrong things right. He certainly loves it when we are swift to stand with the oppressed, the frightened orphan, and the wandering sojourner. The Lord loves justice. We should too.
I would contend that we have an ill view of the Father’s heart regarding righteousness and justice. I would contend that we have allowed our Gospel narrative to be seasoned with a peppering of nationalism, coated with a glaze of party politics, simmered in the humanized liberal agenda. I would contend that we are not being true to the Gospel when we forsake justice and forget righteousness. The Church must correct its course. The church must cleave to that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Lovingkindness and truth go before You.”
– Psalm 89:14
Church, if we are going to emerge credible in our witness, we must champion both righteousness and justice. We must pursue a higher ethic, which is love. We must correct our orthodoxy, what we believe. We must correct our orthopathy, what we feel. We must correct our orthopraxy, how to practice both. We must realize that righteousness is the progenitor of justice, and justice is the progeny of righteousness. And the fruit of righteousness and justice working together should look like and feel like love to the world. We can do it. We can emerge as the credible witness that Christ so desires.
I grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. As a child, after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, I watched his funeral procession through the streets of downtown. And I remember the race riots that erupted all over the country as a result of his assassination.
Years later, I marched on the National Mall in support of King’s birthday becoming a national holiday. I was militant. My entire life from infancy to young adulthood was steeped in blackness. I attended all-black schools, lived in all-black neighborhoods and espoused all-black causes.
Many Americans, black and white, have a viewpoint just like I did. But after receiving a renewed heart as a born-again Christian, my attitude began to change. The hearts and minds of Americans have to be renewed in the area of race, just like my heart and mind were, if we are to achieve racial harmony in this country.
God called me to view my role in this world as a Christian first, not as a black person first. I still had a driving passion for the causes of my people. But it became apparent to me that my hunger and enthusiasm for God needed to precede my enthusiasm for my race. And that’s exactly what happened!
The cause of Christ became the controlling force in my life, instead of the causes promoting blackness – without any realization on my part, because it happened over time.
As Christians, our minds are not renewed overnight. We still bring garbage from our former lives to the other side of the cross. God had to deal with me; it was a process. When I got filled with the Spirit, I began to hunger for God. I gained an appreciation for other preachers and other musical artists outside my culture. My spiritual hunger and thirst for God was so great, it took me past my ethnic comfort zone so that I was willing to learn from other people outside my culture.
If you have yielded totally to God, you shouldn’t put up a wall when God wants to bring His truth to you through a culture or race that’s not your own.
Too often, though, that’s what happens within the Body of Christ. I call it the “get it syndrome.”
When I talk to black people, they say, “White folks don’t get it. Nor do they want to get it. They don’t know our history. They don’t know our culture. They don’t understand how the impact of slavery and the cruel, involuntary separation of our families have destroyed our ancestry. They don’t understand the effect that Jim Crow laws had on our social, political and financial well-being.”
When I talk to white people, they say, “I get it. Now, black folks need to get over it! Racism no longer exists. We elected a black man and put him in the highest position in the country! You had a black president in the White House! You no longer need any special treatment or consideration. Besides, we didn’t do anything to you. It was our forefathers who made all of the mistakes, not us. So, get over it!”
Consequently, an invisible gulf exists between the races. This gulf represents misunderstandings by both parties. In order to bridge that gulf, members of both races must listen with spiritual ears to truly empathize with each other.
Many social and political advances have been made since I was a child, but one thing remains the same: the country I live in now is as racially charged as the country I grew up in. Despite the social improvements and legal advances, a greater change must take place in the hearts of Americans, black and white.
Just like I was, many Americans are at a crossroads today where their race collides with their faith. They want to really know how to walk as a Christian while not losing their racial identity. I discovered the answer to that question when I realized that God was calling me to view myself as a Christian first, not as a black person first.
My heart was heavy – not with anxiety, but sobriety. I packed my car the night before and laid half-awake wondering what God might do. In just a few hours, two friends and I would sit with the executive leadership team of an incredible Church to wrestle through the treasures of reconciliation and the tragedies of racial division in our midst.
At 5:30 am, I gave up on the idea of sleep, got on my knees, and asked the Holy Spirit for a fresh understanding of His perspective on reconciliation.
This is what happened.
With a been-there, read-that pace, I read Psalm 133. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers meet together in unity… for there the Lord has commanded His blessing, life forevermore.
I felt the Lord nudge me to reread it aloud, slowly.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity… for there the Lord has commanded His blessing, life forevermore.
Despite reading and reciting this passage many times, I never gave proper attention to what God actually said. He didn’t say, “it is good and pleasant when brothers meet together in unity.” He said, “dwell together in unity”.
Dwelling together and meeting together are NOT the same. The act of dwelling has elements of connection, vulnerability, longevity, and commitment that the act of meeting does not. Meetings have their purpose; however, the Body of Christ is more than a group of individuals who meet. Our dwelling place is the Kingdom and we are one big family – literally.
So, if God’s perfect will is that we (brothers in Christ), would dwell together in unity, why do we settle for meeting together instead? Because dwelling together feels like unnecessary work when we live in ignorance of its benefits. Communities that dwell together in pursuit of Kingdom reconciliation:
With such great benefits, you wonder why so few Christian communities live in pursuit of Kingdom reconciliation. I think the painful reality of divorce among Christians and the painful reality of cross-cultural division within the Body of Christ have some of the same root issues. We struggle to practice the basic block-and-tackles of the Gospel.
If I’m going to live in close relationship with ANYONE other than myself it will be because I intentionally pursue them, seek to understand, admit and acknowledge my failure, repent, forgive them in their failures, fight for their good, trust God for my own good, communicate when I’m hurt, give them space to communicate when they’re hurt, take my thoughts captive, intercede, do it when it doesn’t necessarily feel good, prioritize obeying God’s voice, enter into their suffering with them, enter into their celebration with them, hate their sin, love the glory that God has hidden in them, and consider their interest above my own. I’ll practice these blocks and tackles over and over and over again. That’s the only way marriages work, and it’s also the only way reconciliation works. It’s the only way brothers dwell together in unity. Apart from these tools, we can at best meet together for moments of warm feelings or at worst war against each other.
Our commitment to dwelling together will force us into a dependence on the Cross, the Word of God, and the power of His Holy Spirit in a profound way. It means we don’t ever get to stop growing, being humbled, saying we’re sorry, and learning. Dwelling together in unity will require that we grow comfortable being uncomfortable. (That in itself is a blessing in disguise because it’s really hard to bring and enjoy the Kingdom of God if we’re living as slaves to our own comfort. One might say it’s impossible – like serving two masters.)
So, how do we measure whether or not we’re actually connected and dwelling together?
In 1 Cor 12:25-26, Paul describes Kingdom connection saying, “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” If our love for unity isn’t bearing the fruit of an increasing experience with the sufferings and triumphs of the “others”, then we are likely settling for a worldly standard of unity. If I am numb to the pains and joys that a part of my own body is facing, I have a connection issue and need a doctor.
Praise Jesus! He came for the sick, and we don’t have to remain in our state of apathy, willful ignorance, and division. We can repent and align ourselves with His example, and choose the path that is full of His blessing – life forevermore.
The Glory of Unity
Two days after OneRace Stone Mountain I found myself on a plane heading to Asia to speak at a conference for underground house church leaders. With my heart still bursting with joy over all that God did at that historic gathering, the Lord began to speak to me from a passage that I’d spent dozens of hours considering over the last year – John 17. It was as if He was saying, “You don’t really know what you think you know about My true desire for oneness among My people.” For the next several days while I was there in the Far East to teach leaders about the Gospel, it became clear that God had brought me there to teach me about the Gospel. He took me on a journey through the Scriptures, unpacking John 17 in a fresh way, expounding on truths that I hadn’t seen before. I want to share some of those insights here. Let’s look again at a portion of this powerful prayer from the Son of God.
John 17:20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
Often times we think of Jesus’ prayer as a simple plea for unity among believers. However, when you consider the depth of His request, it’s evident that the unity He is interceding for is far greater than simple unity. “That they may be one just as We are one” is an appeal that can only be met by divine intervention. This is no shallow unity, he’s asking for a mystical joining on par with the oneness He shares with the Father.
Jesus never prayed that we would be united. He prayed that we would be one – a union that mirrors the union shared within the Godhead. He and the Father have always been one. Unity by definition is the joining together of independent parts. This is not nor never has been the state of the Godhead. Unity was not His request because unity does not go far enough for bride of Christ.
There is no human pact or agreement that can make individuals one in the way that Jesus envisioned. The oneness that He petitioned is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. This oneness is so important that He imparted His very glory upon us in order that we may attain it, “the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one.” No human effort or unity meetings can accomplish this, it can only be wrought by the glory of God.
To be honest, these insights surprised me changing my perceptions on where God is longing to bring the church. I hadn’t seen the depths of Jesus’ prayer before and as a result found myself deeply challenged by the Spirit of the Lord. Through OneRace we have started a journey that will culminate with Jesus’ bride experiencing the glory of God in oneness. While that’s exciting, the raw truth is that we still have a long way to go.
At the same time, I realize that the Lord authored this prayer in full faith, knowing that everything He requested of the Father would come to pass. I’m further encouraged knowing that this prayer was not only for that day but was directed in full faith for you and I today. I believe we will see Jesus’ prayer fulfilled in this generation. I believe we will experience the glory of unity that the Son of God dreamed about. I encourage you to freshly consider Jesus’ prayer of John 17 and believe with me for oneness to be manifest in the church in our day and time.