Editor's note:

Justin Camp­bell, a tri­al lawyer and long­time friend of Ren­o­varé, wrote this let­ter to his Chapel Class at Tal­lowood Bap­tist Church on June 232020

—Renovaré Team

Who do I say that I am? How do I iden­ti­fy myself to myself? What is my iden­ti­ty accord­ing to me? In the wake of the death of George Floyd, this ques­tion has been promi­nent in my mind.

But why? What is the con­nec­tion? Sure­ly we should sim­ply get on with pros­e­cut­ing the per­pe­tra­tors and with a rad­i­cal reform of police selec­tion, train­ing, pro­ce­dures and prac­tices. At this writ­ing, the police killing of George Floyd is not even the most recent instance of an African Amer­i­can not sur­viv­ing arrest! Yes. All of that and more is need­ed. But what hap­pens to African Amer­i­cans in police cus­tody, as hor­rif­ic as that is, is but one lethal man­i­fes­ta­tion of some­thing much larg­er. And some­thing much more per­va­sive will be required if change is going to come. 

Leo Tol­stoy famous­ly wrote, Every­one thinks about chang­ing the world, but no one thinks about chang­ing him­self.” The essen­tial first step in the right direc­tion is the trans­for­ma­tion of how we see oth­ers, espe­cial­ly those who we per­ceive as not like us. And that begins with the trans­for­ma­tion of how we see our­selves. Why? Because I will iden­ti­fy oth­ers accord­ing to the matrix of attrib­ut­es from which my own iden­ti­ty emerges. 

At this point a cou­ple of def­i­n­i­tions are need­ed. Accord­ing to The Aspen Insti­tute Round­table On Com­mu­ni­ty Change, Race describes cat­e­gories assigned to demo­graph­ic groups based most­ly on observ­able phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, like skin col­or, hair tex­ture and eye shape”; and Eth­nic­i­ty refers to social char­ac­ter­is­tics that peo­ple may have in com­mon, such as lan­guage, reli­gion, region­al back­ground, cul­ture, foods etc.” Eth­nic­i­ty is about the diverse ways through which human beings express human life. 

Race is a fic­tion. One can­not tell any­thing that ulti­mate­ly mat­ters about anoth­er human being based on col­or of skin, tex­ture of hair, shape of eyes or oth­er observ­able phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. Eth­nic­i­ty is real and impor­tant but is too nar­row to pro­vide a fun­da­men­tal basis for human identity. 

So, if the ques­tion is: Who do I say that I am? and my answer is: I am a white man and a South­ern Bap­tist who lives in South­east Texas, I have tak­en a false step. Accord­ing to that matrix almost every­one in the world is oth­er” to me and, there­fore, poten­tial­ly avail­able for dehu­man­iza­tion. Dehu­man­iza­tion begins with regard­ing those who I per­ceive as not like me as oth­er”, then as deplorable, then as a threat to my way of life”, then as sub-human and final­ly as an appro­pri­ate, even nec­es­sary, tar­get for anni­hi­la­tion. And be assured, that gun kicks as hard as it shoots. 

But is there avail­able to me an iden­ti­ty that is authen­tic and uni­fy­ing? How might I learn to iden­ti­fy myself to myself in a way that is real and that also embraces rather than excludes those who I per­ceive as not like me? 

To begin with, as a human being I am made in the image and like­ness of God and pre­cious in God’s sight. So is every­one else. And God loves me not because of who I am but because of who God is. The most deplorable, unbe­liev­ing oth­er” I know is made in the image of God and pre­cious to God, no mat­ter what. We know this because Christ died, not for the right­eous, but for the ungod­ly, his ene­mies. As I rethink my answer to the ques­tion: Who do I say that I am, this is the place to begin. But there is much more to consider. 

In his book, The Chris­t­ian Imag­i­na­tion: The­ol­o­gy and the Ori­gins of Race, Dr. Willie James Jen­nings iden­ti­fies the ori­gins of race, racism and the per­va­sive euro-eth­no­cen­tric­i­ty of our day in the the­ol­o­gy of Euro­pean the­olo­gians of the age of con­quest and colo­nial­ism. From that mis­guid­ed the­ol­o­gy, he dis­en­tan­gles the authen­tic and com­mon iden­ti­ty, root­ed in Israel’s sto­ry, of all who are in Christ. And, on the basis of this authen­tic iden­ti­ty of all who are in Christ, he envi­sions the church as a vis­i­bly bound­ary shat­ter­ing com­mu­ni­ty of lov­ing kin­ship (koinon­ia) in Jesus. 

In Dr. Jen­nings’ book, I find sober­ing truth and a vision for such a time as this. Per­mit me to pass along some of what I am learn­ing. (To the degree that I have under­stood him and faith­ful­ly reflect­ed his think­ing, Dr. Jen­nings is enti­tled to the cred­it. Of course, any errors are entire­ly my responsibility.)

God’s redemp­tive inter­ven­tion in human his­to­ry is Israel’s sto­ry: God’s Covenant with Abra­ham, ful­filled in Jesus of Nazareth the Anoint­ed One of Isa­iah 61, through the nation of Israel. The Bible tells that one sto­ry. To be sure, those who through faith belong to Christ are the descen­dants of Abra­ham and the heirs accord­ing to the promise. But God’s redemp­tive nar­ra­tive is Israel’s sto­ry accord­ing to God’s sov­er­eign elec­tion of Israel as the ves­sel through which God would res­cue humankind. 

We Gen­tiles are includ­ed as wild olive branch­es graft­ed onto the root of Israel, the olive tree that God has cul­ti­vat­ed. The Call of Abram, the Patri­archs, the Bondage, the Exo­dus, the Wan­der­ing, the King­dom, the Exile and the Con­so­la­tion are Israel’s sto­ry. By the mer­cy of God, we can be includ­ed in Israel’s sto­ry and share that his­to­ry with all who are in Christ. Oth­er­wise, as aliens from the com­mon­wealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, we Gen­tiles have no hope and are with­out God in the world. Jesus was not Plan B”. He is the ful­fill­ment of God’s covenant with Abra­ham and the one name giv­en under heav­en where­by we all must be saved. As Jesus him­self said to the Samar­i­tan women at the well, Sal­va­tion is from the Jews.” One is either part of Israel through faith in Jesus or not. This is God’s matrix, God’s defin­i­tive dis­tinc­tion among human beings. 

There is sim­ply no room here for a Gen­tile eth­no­cen­tric­i­ty of any col­or, tex­ture or shape. And the notion that the now dom­i­nant eth­nic­i­ty of per­sons of fair skin and Euro­pean descent define the lim­its of valid expres­sions of life in Christ is not only false but an affront to the sov­er­eign­ty of God. Jesus is a Jew and a man of the Mid­dle East. The col­or of his skin is nei­ther white nor black. No one is includ­ed much less put in charge on the basis of race.

Think of it this way: Jesus did not include you (or exclude you) because of the col­or of your skin or your eth­nic­i­ty. To the con­trary, Christ Jesus cre­ates in him­self one new human­i­ty. In him there is no longer Greek and Jew, cir­cum­cised and uncir­cum­cised, bar­bar­ian, Scythi­an, slave and free. In the words of Dal­las Willard, God’s pur­pose in human his­to­ry is the cre­ation of an all-inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ty of lov­ing per­sons with God him­self as its chief sus­tain­er and most glo­ri­ous inhabitant.” 

As Dr. Jen­nings writes, Israel’s sto­ry opens to all peo­ple the dra­ma of peo­ples liv­ing in the pres­ence of the liv­ing God. Israel’s God rup­tures the way peo­ples imag­ine their col­lec­tive exis­tence, reor­ga­niz­ing what they know about God and how they should under­stand them­selves in their space and in the world. Israel’s God has drawn an irre­press­ible dis­tinc­tion between the elect and those out­side Israel.” The only attribute that tru­ly dis­tin­guish­es among human beings is whether they are par­tic­i­pants in Israel’s sto­ry. And as Dr. Jen­nings writes, The Jesus move­ment offers a new com­mu­nion of kin­ship (koinon­ia) with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cul­tur­al inti­ma­cy between peo­ples. Bound­ary shat­ter­ing love between strangers and even ene­mies is now pos­si­ble in Jesus.” 

I am not say­ing that we should ignore the false cat­e­go­ry called race. The world that we actu­al­ly live in rewards and dis­ad­van­tages per­sons based on the fic­tion of race through its evil off­spring racism. We must con­tin­ue to keep track of that so we will know what to do in pur­suit of social fair­ness that tran­scends race and eth­nic­i­ty. Here I mean a fair oppor­tu­ni­ty to par­tic­i­pate in the ben­e­fits of our soci­ety unhin­dered by race or eth­nic­i­ty.

If you have any doubt about the need for this sort of change, lis­ten to your friends who are African Amer­i­can. Ask them to be ruth­less­ly can­did and real­ly lis­ten. If that is not an option, read George Floyd and Me by Shai Linne. 

Sec­ond, I am not say­ing that eth­nic­i­ties are unim­por­tant. As Dr. Jen­nings observes, Our knowl­edge of our col­lec­tive selves, of our peo­ples, of our ways of life, is not erad­i­cat­ed in the pres­ence of Israel’s God, but that knowl­edge is up for review.” This review is pri­mar­i­ly, almost exclu­sive­ly, the pre­rog­a­tive of those with­in a spe­cif­ic eth­nic­i­ty. Those per­sons are the ones to deter­mine what is and is not con­sis­tent with the claim of Jesus Christ on their lives. The rest of us encour­age always, offer advice rarely, cor­rect only when cer­tain and con­demn never. 

Final­ly, I am not advo­cat­ing assim­i­la­tion; but rather that we move beyond assim­i­la­tion. To under­stand what I am advo­cat­ing, con­sid­er our church. Those who attend our church are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the demo­graph­ics of our city, the most diverse city in the Unit­ed States. But we are not there­by a diverse con­gre­ga­tion. We are an assim­i­lat­ed congregation. 

Yes, when we gath­er on Sun­day morn­ings the many peo­ple groups who live in our city are rep­re­sent­ed. How­ev­er, and this is hard to hear, the implic­it require­ment is that all who par­tic­i­pate be white; that is, that all who par­tic­i­pate do so in terms of the eth­nic­i­ty of fair skinned peo­ple of Euro­pean descent. Read­ing the Bible or hav­ing some­one pray in a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish from time to time does not change this. 

To move beyond assim­i­la­tion is not a mat­ter of check­ing the box­es of some sort of quo­ta sys­tem. It would require a col­lec­tive will­ing­ness to sub­merge our­selves in and sub­mit our­selves to the ways that all in our midst expe­ri­ence and express life in Christ for the good of all con­cerned. To do that we will need peo­ple of non-white eth­nic­i­ties with deci­sion mak­ing author­i­ty con­cern­ing what hap­pens in the wor­ship ser­vices, else­where on the cam­pus and beyond the campus. 

Did you know that in South Korea dur­ing Chris­t­ian wor­ship ser­vices there is a time when each mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion prays out loud at the same time? My wife expe­ri­enced this while vis­it­ing South Korea. The pow­er of their prayers was so great that she was not cer­tain the build­ing would remain standing.

A year or so ago I attend­ed the funer­al ser­vices for a friend at St. John’s Unit­ed Methodist Church, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly African Amer­i­can con­gre­ga­tion. The senior pas­tors, Rudy and Juani­ta Ras­mus, offi­ci­at­ed and both spoke at length. How­ev­er, this ser­vice was con­duct­ed by the entire con­gre­ga­tion, who filled the sanc­tu­ary. In word and song they min­is­tered to Joe’s wid­ow and his fam­i­ly and their com­fort­ing love was pal­pa­ble. And dur­ing the con­gre­ga­tion­al singing, Joe’s wid­ow stepped into the aisle and danced beau­ti­ful­ly before the Lord as one who grieves but not as one who has no hope. For me, the way we do funer­als pales in com­par­i­son to what I expe­ri­enced that day. Per­haps we might be well advised to learn from those who express their life in Christ dif­fer­ent­ly than we do. 

The words of Dr. Jen­nings cast a vision of church beyond assimilation: 

Imag­ine a peo­ple defined by their cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences yet who turn their his­to­ries and cul­tur­al log­ics toward a new deter­mi­na­tion, a new social per­for­mance of iden­ti­ty. Imag­ine a peo­ple who enfold the old cul­tur­al log­ics and prac­tices of oth­ers inside their own. The words and ways of one peo­ple join those of anoth­er, and of anoth­er, and of anoth­er, each born anew in a com­mu­ni­ty seek­ing to love and hon­or those in its midst. In Christ there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new iden­ti­ty root­ed in the Res­ur­rect­ed Son of God and a process of trans­for­ma­tion that involves enfold­ing peo­ples and their ways of life inside one anoth­er through com­mu­nion with the Tri­une God. This is the way of peace and love with­in a vis­i­bly bound­ary-trans­gress­ing kin­ship (koinon­ia).

Of course, our church is not the only one that oper­ates out of an assim­i­la­tion mod­el. As far as I know most church­es do so. As Dr. Jen­nings right­ly observes: “… the church has failed to cap­ture this tra­jec­to­ry com­ing out of the New Tes­ta­ment toward com­mu­nion. The tragedy here is cumu­la­tive. If the strug­gle toward cul­tur­al inti­ma­cy was not faced by the church as inher­ent to the gospel itself, despite the con­stant work of the Spir­it to turn Israel and Gen­tiles toward one anoth­er, then over time the only oth­er option was the emer­gence of a Chris­t­ian seg­re­ga­tion­ist men­tal­i­ty.” Thus, we have white church­es,” black church­es,” Kore­an church­es,” Con­golese church­es,” Burmese church­es,” and all the rest. As mat­ters now stand, a per­va­sive Chris­t­ian seg­re­ga­tion­ist mind­set ren­ders the church ane­mic in the face of racism. 

To quote Willie Nel­son, It’s not sup­posed to be that way.”

Mako­to Fujimu­ra is a world acclaimed painter and Chris­t­ian speak­er and author. In his book: Cul­ture Care he likens the greater cul­ture to an estu­ary. Mako’s metaphor per­fect­ly illus­trates the unique role avail­able to con­gre­ga­tions that are will­ing to move beyond the pre­vail­ing Chris­t­ian seg­re­ga­tion­ist mind­set and the assim­i­la­tion model. 

In an estu­ary”, he writes, salt­wa­ter mix­es with fresh water, bring­ing togeth­er mul­ti­ple eco­log­i­cal lay­ers and habi­tats to form one of the world’s most diverse and abun­dant ecosys­tems.” He con­tin­ues: We can think of the riv­er of cul­ture as an estu­ary, a com­plex sys­tem with a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of dynam­ic influ­ences and trib­u­taries. With­in it are many nur­tur­ing ‑but not iso­lat­ed- habi­tats. Each indi­vid­ual habi­tat strength­ens its par­tic­i­pants to inter­act with the wider environment…”

The sort of com­mu­ni­ty of per­sons in Christ that Dr. Jen­nings invites us to imag­ine is pre­cise­ly the nur­tur­ing habi­tat” need­ed to form the sorts of per­sons who are able to pro­vide a dynam­ic influ­ence” with­in the estu­ary of our broad­er cul­ture for the change that must now come. Peace­ful demon­stra­tions are a good thing, part of our her­itage as Amer­i­cans. But the street is not where change hap­pens. Ulti­mate­ly, what is need­ed is peo­ple who are able to stand at the inter­stices of our soci­ety and end racism. 

And our church is, it seems to me, unique­ly posi­tioned to move beyond assim­i­la­tion and become a place where such per­sons are formed and matured for the good and the care of all in our culture. 

So now what? Well, who do you say that you are? Who do I say that I am? 

The small step in the right direc­tion that is first and essen­tial is to iden­ti­fy myself accord­ing to God’s matrix. This is to iden­ti­fy myself as part of a new human­i­ty in Christ where there is no Greek or Jew, bar­bar­ian, Scythi­an, slave or free. In humil­i­ty, I must come to see myself as a wild olive branch includ­ed in Israel’s sto­ry by the grace of God. I have been graft­ed onto the root of Israel, the olive tree that God has cul­ti­vat­ed. Jesus, in his mer­cy, does not exclude me (or oth­ers) on account of the col­or of my skin, the tex­ture of my hair, or the shape and col­or of my eyes or my way of express­ing life. This is my authen­tic iden­ti­ty and one that embraces rather than excludes oth­ers. For me and per­haps for you, this is a mat­ter that calls for sober assess­ment and repen­tance. And prayer that God would renew my mind so that I see myself and oth­ers accord­ing to God’s irre­press­ible dis­tinc­tion.” Before I change the world, per­haps I need to receive a change in the deep­est parts of myself. 

One final ques­tion. Does what I am advo­cat­ing apply to all who are in Christ regard­less of eth­nic­i­ty? Yes, we all need to take a step in each other’s direc­tion. But giv­en the per­va­sive pre­dom­i­nance of white­ness (the eth­nic­i­ty of per­sons of Euro­pean extrac­tion), those of us who share that eth­nic­i­ty must be the first ones to take this small yet essen­tial step in the right direction. 

Originally published June 2020

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