Below is the first non-academic theological essay which I wrote as a pastor, back in 1996. It was originally accepted for publication in the Christian Century, if I would modify the language of inerrancy. I refused and it remained unpublished. In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., I offer it here for the first time publicly.
It Started in Panama
Parked in a shady spot near a gas station along a highway in the Central American country of Panama, I noticed a dark object in the road a little bit away in the opposite lane. Four-year olds often perceive what others may miss. That ebony object in the road was not a dog or a wild animal, but a human being. What was amazing to my little mind was that a truck came barreling along and ran over that man's body as if it was nothing. I can still see the indentations in his flesh where the wheels of more than one automobile had crushed him. I had often taken my toy cars and pushed tracks into the wet mud in a similar manner. I looked to my father, "Daddy, why doesn't anyone stop?" He turned, surveyed the scene, and quickly hustled my brothers and me back into the car. He drove away without a word, but with an inexplicable look upon his face. How do you tell a three young boys that a black man's life is cheap?
Some months later, my father drove us into the "wrong" section of Panama City. There were several black boys who began throwing rocks at us. My father quickly turned the little red car around and gunned it out of danger. "Daddy, why did they throw rocks at us? We didn't do anything to them!" Again, no answer.
My daddy was from the mountains of central Pennsylvania, a stronghold of abolitionist Quakerism, but where few minorities dwelt. However, my mother was from the swamps and hills of northern Louisiana, a stronghold of racial segregation, and a deeply divided black-white population. My father was a life-long military man. Since he was transferred quite often, we were exposed to numerous cultures on the North American continent. We lived for periods of one to four years in New York, Panama, Louisiana, Illinois, Alaska, Maine, Indiana, and back to Louisiana again.
In the military of the 1960s and 1970s, the official policy was racial desegregation, and as we grew up in the same schools, most Air Force "brats" took little notice of the differences between our races and originating cultures. That is, until we were exposed to the local, native schools. In the north, they used to ask me to talk so they could hear my southern accent. The local bullies would jeer, "Hey, listen everybody! He's going to say 'ya'll' again!"
I became sensitive to being different. With every new move came a sense of depression. I lost old friends and had to make new ones all over again, an agonizing process for an introverted child. It was as if God arranged my life to make me empathetic to those who do not fit the mold, or who do not find it easy to change like chameleons with new situations. I learned to take people as they are, trying to suppress misconstrued, cultural judgment.
How? I learned to lean on the Jesus of my mother and father. This Jesus came to me in songs, songs like "Jesus Loves Me" and another old favorite,
Like most children, I took those songs and the red, printed words of Jesus in my Bible quite literally. Jesus spoke of loving your neighbor. In the story of the "Good Samaritan," I learned that my neighbor was anyone who was near me. So I loved anybody near me. Color did not matter. In my foolish, simple, little mind, that was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my confusion when a young friend and I were beaten up by a group of black boys in North Chicago because we happened to be the wrong color and had accidentally missed the bus home that day.
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Louisiana and Racism
Church Growth Movement
People-blindness occurs when churches do not recognize the important cultural differences which glue large social groups together and which can become barriers to the communication of the Good News. The notion that "our church can win anybody" is good rhetoric, but poor church growth thinking. God has given your church the ability to reach only a limited number and kind of people, and this you should be doing well. That is why I mentioned that, in writing a philosophy of ministry, you need to be explicit about the sociocultural profile of your congregation. While biblical ethics do not permit a church to develop a racist or segregationist philosophy of ministry, they do not prohibit narrowcasting the gospel and giving priority to certain market segments. At the same time, efforts need to be made to see that other churches are established which qualify for reaching each one of the segments of society. In that way the total body reaches the total population.Was Peter Wagner right? Had I violated a cardinal rule of the Church Growth Movement? I soon came to realize that such a gospel as this is not the gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles. Jesus did not come to divide people into "market segments" based on "sociocultural profiles." Rather, he came to break down the dividing wall of hostility.
The Inerrant, Authoritative Word of God
I discovered that racists used the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 as one of many proof texts for racial hatred. But my theological mentor, James Leo Garrett Jr., demonstrated that such interpretations are clearly errant denials of the unity of mankind.
In Numbers 12, Miriam objected to Moses' marriage to a black woman. A narrative reading of the text suggests that God responded, "If you want to be white, Miriam, I will give you white!" He then struck her with leprosy.
In the book of Jonah, God dealt harshly with a prophet who had forgotten the Abrahamic covenant. YHWH wants to bless all the families of the earth through his chosen people (Genesis 12:3).
The prophet Jeremiah was pulled out of the sewer, and a certain death, at the behest of a black man (38:7-13, 39:15-18).
Jesus broke down the walls of Jewish particularism. The Jew prayed, "Thank God I was not born a Gentile, a woman, or a dog." Jesus let the crumbs of grace fall to the very "dog" which the Jews despised.
Jesus went out of his way to point to the faith of a Roman centurion whose trust was greater than any Israelite's.
God allowed a black man the privilege of carrying Christ's cross to Calvary.
It was a Samaritan, a despised half-breed, who became the prototypical neighbor.
Philip, the liberal prophet--liberal, that is, in spreading the Word of God--took the Word to an Ethiopian and baptized him. He even took the Word to the despised Samaritans (Acts 8ff).
Paul was taken to task several times for his willingness to offer the gospel freely to those of other races and cultures.
Peter received the revelation of the sheet to open his heart to the Gentiles.
Yet later, Paul was compelled to remind Peter of the universal scope of God's grace (Galatians 1-2).
Finally, in the Revelation, we see around the throne, people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. There are no "market segments" in glory!
And on earth? Well, Jesus tells us to pray, "on earth as it is in heaven."It seems that the inerrant Word tears down racism, particularism, or the homogeneous unit principle, whatever one may call such wall-building. Any individual or church which takes the Word of God seriously cannot harbor racism of any kind in their attitude and ethics.
A Theology of Image and Koinonia
The "M" Group
One may hear sermons in New York upon almost any subject; one only is never handled, . . . namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness. . . .Bonhoeffer found a black church in Harlem--the Abyssinian Baptist Church--that taught the gospel faithfully. There, Bonhoeffer says he became a Christian. He subsequently returned to Germany under a divine burden and became a lone voice crying for the German church to deny Hitler and his antichrist laws. Like Bonhoeffer in Harlem, we discovered that the "M" group exposed the cultural accretions to the gospel we were preaching. Like barnacles attacking a ship, churches of all types have been left increasingly dead in the water because of their sanctification of cultural ideals. As black pastor and white pastor came together, we learned better what was culture and what was Christ. As different aspects of our theology and ethics revealed themselves to be profane or sacred, we adjusted our preaching and activities accordingly.