This is an edited portion of a talk I gave at the New City Conference on 6 October 2017
I have a confession. I am a racist.
In response, you could say, “But your wife is black and your kids are mixed-race. You’ve been living multi-ethnic neighbourhoods and working in multi-ethnic churches for over 25 years. What are you talking about?”
What I’m talking about is that I am a sinful man who thinks my way is the right way. Now, I didn’t say the “white way is the right way.” I would never say something so blatant as “ White is right.”
But the reality is that it’s pretty easy for me to think that my understanding of the world and my understanding of the church is right and yours is wrong. It’s even “natural” for me to question someone’s opinion just because they differ ethnically from me.
And our society reinforces my tendency to be a prideful man. I’m an American man. My skin is white because my ancestors came from Europe. In so many ways – often subtle ways – this gives me an advantage day to day.
I’m reminded me of Paul’s letter to the Philippians as he writes about his lineage in chapter 3: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
Paul’s society would recognize his credentials. And when Paul tells his story, he doesn’t omit his heritage or his ethnic background. “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.” (Acts 22:3)
I’m thankful for my ethnic background and my personal story. But I know there are challenges with being a white American man. Those of us from the majority culture might even think that God’s goal is a colourblind world. “Don’t think of race or ethnicity! We should all just be one, worship Jesus and not worry about that stuff.” But that’s a statement which can only be made from someone like me, who comes from the dominant culture.
Ethnic minorities must think about it! Maybe not all the time, but it does come up in the course of daily life. If your ancestors come to the UK from Russia or Spain, you’ll slide right into British culture after a few generations.
But if you’re grandparents came from Jamaica or Korea or India, there will be times when you will be considered part of the other “ethnic” groups in our society. Race and ethnicity can’t be completely disregarded by non-white people in the UK.
Theologically, we know that we serve a God who both recognizes and honours our ethnic background because He created us! We look forward to the day with every tribe and tongue praises Jesus around the throne of grace. This means there’s going to be ethnic groups in heaven!
By recognizing and engaging with my brothers and sisters from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, my understanding of God and his desires for us as his people is enhanced. When I “do church” with people who are different from me, together we encourage each other up to grow in Christ in ways that just can’t happen when we worship apart.
I need to be challenged by my brothers and sisters of colour at times when my pride shows itself in ugly ways. I need help opening my eyes to the fact that our society privileges my white skin. I need my application of the scriptures enhanced by theologians from Africa and Asia.
And it’s not just that I need to bring my power and my education and my privilege to help “those people”! No! I am deficient without the full body of Christ. We come into the church as mutually dependent brothers and sisters unity by the Spirit.
But because of my personal history and the way our society has developed, white men like me, need to take serious care when we come together in church. The benefits are glorious but the dangers are real.
May God have mercy on us all as He builds his multi-ethnic church.
(A helpful book on this subject is Daniel Hill’s White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White)