Race, Nuance, and Eschatology

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How’s it going to end? Is the end goal of the American justice system mass incarceration of African Americans and more black men shot by police? Or is the end goal a society where all people are given the same legal rights and protections?

Is the end of the Black Lives Matter Movement the day that black citizens receive the same benefit of the doubt as white citizens? Or does it end in more violence and dead cops?

How’s the world going to end? Will it end with all colors and languages and cultures singing the same song to the same Christ? Or with all people worshiping God in the separate space assigned him based on language and skin color?

Will the world end in perfect justice and perfect equality? Or in brokenness and pain? Will it end in a trumpet or a whimper?

My questions are more than rhetorical. I am genuinely frustrated, angry, and confused.  My generation is experiencing racial tension in a way that so many naively thought was a thing of the past. For others, vocalizing these issues is long over due. In an attempt to provide myself and others clarity, I am asking eschatological questions. I am asking–how’s it going to end? And I am wondering what that “end” means for us now.

In early Christianity, eschatology was concerned both with the final Kingdom of Christ on earth as well as the Kingdom that Christ preached in his first coming. Those who witnessed Christ’s first coming knew they were experiencing part of the eschaton, God’s perfect future. The guiding principle we find in the New Testament is an already/not yet paradigm. For instance, Christ’s first coming healed the sick and the blind, but his second coming will free humanity from all disease and sickness.  Likewise, Christ’s first coming broke the power of sin in the lives of his people; his second coming will abolish sin absolutely.

When it comes to racial strife, Christ’s death brought Jews and Gentiles together. This is a topic my friend Gowdy has explored profoundly. The unification of Jew and Gentile under the banner of Christ is one of the clearest themes of the New Testament. Unsurprisingly, this theme has an eschatological conclusion. Revelation repeatedly paints a picture of those from all ethnic backgrounds (“every tribe and tongue”) worshiping at the throne of God.

Another profound truth about biblical eschatology is that it is wonderfully practical. While there are different interpretations about the Church’s ability to usher in Christ’s Kingdom on earth, it is abundantly clear that God calls for His future to be alive in our present. If he is going to abolish sin, we are to root it out of our lives. If every tribe and tongue is to worship together, we must start now.      

      …it is abundantly clear that God calls for His future to be alive in our present. If he is going to abolish sin, we are to root it out of our lives. If every tribe and tongue is to worship together, we must start now.

I am privileged to have been in church services in West Africa where the congregation sang, “There is no Lobi, there is no Kulango, in Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, this song isn’t sung often in the United States. If there is going to be a day where Christ will reign and his law of love will be the only law of the land, we must start to love our neighbor as ourselves now. If Christ’s reign will bring about justice, we should do justice now.

Our glorious future; our complicated present

The future that God has for his people is one of unity, perfect love, and justice; but the present is more than a little complicated. One of the biggest frustrations I find myself having with the current debate over police shootings of black men, police officers being murdered, and the Black Lives Matters movement is that there is no common ground. Statistics are being thrown out on both sides that would lead one to the conclusion that either the Black Lives Matters movement is built on a total lie, or that the entire justice system in America is built on a racist foundation. If we listen to one narrative, we must conclude that every time a police officer shoots a black man, it is not only a tragedy, it is also a grave injustice. If we listen to the other side, it should be criminal to question the actions of any man or women who risks his life to protect citizens. I’ve listened to both sides; I’m not sold on either.

These debates remind me of an experience I had in a graduate history course. We read a brilliantly researched book on American Slavery called Many Thousands Gone by Ira Berlin. Berlin studied the whole of America Slavery, which took him from the colonial period to the Civil War as well as to Northern Sates, Western States, and the Deep South. One of his major arguments was that slave conditions and degrees of autonomy were different depending on region and time in history. Slavery was a dynamic institution. He gave an example of a slave that had the autonomy to go alone on horseback as a courier for his master. In short, Berlin’s research brought a nuanced conclusion. He did not shy away from pointing out the oppressive brutality of the institution of slavery, but he also did not paint hundreds of years of history in different geographic areas in monolithic terms. For many in my class, his conclusions were unacceptable. They couldn’t tolerate anyone bringing nuance into the slavery issue. They had to see it as a supremely evil at all times in all places. Despite his fierce moral and economic criticisms of the “peculiar institution,” my classmates were ready to call for Berlin’s head. His crime was nuance. His crime was honesty.

     Nothing rescues us from oppression like moral transformation. And nothing transforms our morals like the Spirit of God. We must reject our culture’s tendency to slide into truncated narratives and embrace God’s grand story.

I am willing to make the same “mistake” as Ira Berlin. I don’t want to take sides between black people and police officers. I don’t want to choose between two reductionist narratives. I want to see some nuance brought to this issue, I want to see change, I want to see healing, and I want to see honesty.

We must be honest about bad policing, but we also must be honest about high crime rates among young black men. We must recognize that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed and often does not give the same breaks to a black person that it does a white person. At the same time, labeling black people as perpetual victims does no one any good. The Marxist undertones of the Black Lives Matters movement are too simplistic and have never been helpful to rescue anyone from oppression. Nothing rescues us from oppression like moral transformation. And nothing transforms our morals like the Spirit of God. We must reject our culture’s tendency to slide into truncated narratives and embrace God’s grand story.

      If we truly cared about people, we would preach against the sin that enslaves them. We would preach against the things that so deeply hurt them and others. We would preach against racial violence. We would preach against drugs, extra-marital sex, and abortion. We would preach against these things that cause so much pain. We would preach to white people, brown people, and black people. We do this because we know the only real solution to the problem of police shootings comes from moral change brought about by the work of God.

A call for change

Our eschatology should give us a vision of the future and a call to change what is going on in the present. Because of Christ’s coming Kingdom, we envision a new creation where our ethnic and cultural differences are only used to unite us in a greater tapestry of worship. Because of Christ’s present Kingdom we strive for change. We first must change ourselves and secondly our worship. To the extent that America’s churches are divided on racial lines, we are only a reflection of our sub-culture and not Christ’s Kingdom. We must work to change that.

Our eschatology should call for moral change. Because the future is a world where righteousness reigns, this calls for change. It starts with me and my own vices and prejudices, but it does not end there. If we truly cared about people, we would preach against the sin that enslaves them. We would preach against the things that so deeply hurt them and others. We would preach against racial violence. We would preach against drugs, extra-marital sex, and abortion. We would preach against these things that cause so much pain. We would preach to white people, brown people, and black people. We do this because we know the only real solution to the problem of police shootings comes from moral change brought about by the work of God.

Our eschatology should help us call for change in our laws. The issues in front of us are matters of civic concern and it is absurd to not discuss civic solutions. Mass incarcerations are only perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence. Our justice system imprisons too many black people for too long. Mandatory minimum sentences often keep young black men (as well as whites) in prison for years for being at the wrong place at the wrong time or doing something like firing a warning shot. Youthful stupidity does not call for a 5 or 10-year mandatory minimum. Many of the laws that we have enacted to be “tough on crime” only lead to fatherlessness and more crime. They do not reflect God’s justice; they should be changed.

One of the geniuses of Martin Luther King Jr. was his eschatological vision. Two of his greatest speeches, “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” express a clear notion of what God will do in the future. They set forth the end goal of racial equality and called for changes to make this vision a reality. As the church, we too must allow God’s future to impact our present. When we do this we cast a vision of what life would look like when these vices are eradicated. It’s our job to cast this vision. It’s our job to live out this vision. Like Dr. King, it’s our job to call for “moral excellence.” It’s our job to shout, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang “I’m too sexy” for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn’t make videos back then.

5 thoughts on “Race, Nuance, and Eschatology

  • August 3, 2016 at 2:17 pm
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    Extremely important issues, David, and if not resolved, it could destroy this country. I appreciate your call for nuance and a better eschatological understanding of the Kingdom of God.

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  • August 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm
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    This is a necessary path forward for our times. We don’t have to buy into what the media is telling us. We can work for justice as part of God’s Kingdom. Excellent argument.

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  • August 3, 2016 at 4:27 pm
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    The media certainly portrays the main issue today as being black people versus law enforcement. No doubt, those issues are real, and run deep, are complex, and a matter certainly of high importance. The astounding thing? This slice of racism weaved into our justice system is amazingly just that — a slice. The prejudice against “the other,” is layered and intertwined in so many ways, in so many areas in this country. My eyes were opened and my heart broken when we began living as a transracial family. How quickly I became “less than,” and my children subject to unbelievable comments from strangers . . . all because my daughters have black skin. Classrooms who do not have black dolls, art projects that do not include an option for a skin color other than white, no books that feature dark skin children. Target rows of dolls with only a handful if we are lucky. There are numerous times I’ve searched for a black Barbie at our local Target and couldn’t find one. So much of our American culture promotes a subtle message: Black people are less important. I argue, like parenthood, the racial exclusion is even something you can’t fully ascertain until you live it. There is nothing like being treated with disdain and then seeing the relief on a woman’s face as your husband turns the corner. For minute, she thought I might just be the kind of white girl who’d have sex with black man. What a relief to see my husband is white! I do not worry about whether or not my oldest daughter knows her ABCs, can tie her shoes yet, or can read sight words. As she enters kindergarten this year, I worry about how she will be treated, how she will be valued. Will she be outcast? Will she be shown pity, as the sweet little black girl these white people so graciously saved? My heart can hardly bear it. Nothing brings me to tears more quickly. How will I explain Martin Luther King Jr? How will I explain nuances of slavery? To her? They are all unbelievable –whether or not some slaves were treated well or not. The only hope I have is the gospel. While we preach against hate and pride to every person, we must couple that with a message of grace. Without grace sin had no remedy. You can run from hate because God can turn your heart of stone into a heart of flesh. We can love our enemies because His Spirit works that fruit in our lives. Slavery sucks for any shade of skin; it has done its damage and continues to do so even now in the U.S. So, what do I do? I will tell her the reality of our world, how she can handle what she will encounter, and explain to her the hope, assurance, forgiveness, and life found in Jesus.

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    • August 3, 2016 at 7:20 pm
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      Great comment! You should be a preacher!

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  • August 4, 2017 at 9:49 am
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    I read your article once again, and was impressed and touched as before. I wish thousands could read it.

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