Summary: We are prone to reduce tensions by choosing not to live in diversity. But the Gospel calls us to embrace diversity and yet to recognize that all sin, all are worthy, all need the Gospel. Our issue is our own insecurity, which Christ’s death can address.
Takoma Park Baptist Church February 21, 1988
All of us, it seems, have a tendency to choose comfort. All of us appear to prefer to choose a way to live that involves as little tension, as little discomfort as possible. I am not talking just about luxuries and material things; I am talking primarily about our relationships. We want to live with as little discomfort as possible where our neighbors, our friends, our family are concerned. And one way to do this is to avoid people who are different, avoid people who make demands on us. If you want to live in a settled, easy set of relationships, well then, make sure you are in a community where everybody is just about alike.
All across America, particularly in the great northeastern cities, but other places too, this has been done through ethnic neighborhoods. Go to Baltimore and you can still see it: Little Italy, Polish blocks, German quarters, even a street or two filled with Lumbee Indians. Ethnic neighborhoods have a great deal of value and they mean for many people a place to live in some degree of comfort, with your own kinds of folks who place little challenge on you. We choose comfortable relationships whenever we can.
Sometimes that pursuit of comfort takes on an ugly twist: white flight to the suburbs in pursuit of some notion of property values or just plain comfort. Or it becomes a ghetto neighborhood where any intruder is subjected to jeers and catcalls and hostile looks, because those who live there just do not want anybody different around. We seem to have a natural tendency to choose tension-free surroundings, to want to be with and live with folks we think are just like us.
But one of the fascinating things about the Christian Gospel is that it calls us to live in the tensions, not avoid them. It calls us to live in diversity, not to wipe it out. And in particular, in our multiracial world, with a long history of tension and exploitation and misunderstanding, there is the ringing declaration of the Apostle Paul, summoning us to go beyond what we think of as radical differences, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
If Paul were alive and writing today, would his declaration include a phrase, "There is neither black nor white"? If Paul were teaching in this hour, would he have celebrated a Black History Month, would he have struggled with racism, would he have tolerated our continuing discussions about music that is particular to black culture or to white culture or whatever or would he have in some measure dismissed it all with a wave of the hand, “There is neither black nor white?”
Well, yes and no. Yes, I believe that the great apostle, thinking as he was about the great walls that separated people in his own day, would say to us, "There is neither black nor white, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." He would want to deal at a radical level w with one of the great dividers of the 20th Century.
But I also suspect that the Apostle would not in saying that be simply dismissing our differences and papering them over. I rather suspect that he would be pointing us to some deeper realities and to some possibilities for living out the Gospel, the Gospel of reconciliation, than we have imagined.
Living the Gospel in black and white -- can it be done? What is it going to mean? And what do we do with the tensions it brings? Is it worth doing at all, to live the Gospel in black and white?
First, we need to realize that living the Gospel in black and white does not mean pretending to colorblindness. It does not mean pretending that there are no real differences. Living the Gospel in black and white and hearing the apostles’ declaration that there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free – that does not mean that we close our eyes to the fact that in the world of here and now there are those realities.
Let’s remember that Paul was not trying to pretend that there was no such thing as a Jew, no such thing as a Greek. He knew well those cultures. He spoke of himself as a son of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, able to call upon his heritage and his culture. He knew that there were genuine differences in race and culture.
And obviously he knew that there really are differences between men and women, even though, as it seems, he was not married. Someone asked me in prayer meeting if there was Mrs. Paul; about all I could think of was that she is the one who makes fish sticks, I think! Well, Paul clearly knew that men and women are different biologically, emotionally, and as the French are wont to say, “Vive la difference!”