Monday, July 29, 2013

A Division Caused by Race

An elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there he looked up and saw before himself a family. The two children in the family were creating quite a scene. The little girl was yelling at the top of her lungs: “That’s mine. Give it back.” The little boy who was next to her yelled back, “It’s not yours. I had it first!” The man thought, “Oh, I've seen this before…sibling rivalry.” But then it got a little worse. “I hate you,” she yelled. “Oh, yeah, well I wish you were never born!” he responded. Before long these two were really going at it. Yelling insults back and forth, screaming, fighting. It made this man a bit uncomfortable. You know it can be quite unnerving to be in such close proximity to such tension. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn't surprise you. He got up from there and walked away. He decided he needed to get as far away from that “family” as he could get. How about you?  Have you ever been in the shoes of this man?  Have you ever been too close for comfort to a fighting family?

Or, maybe you've been a member of one of those fighting families…
Let’s be honest about something. It’s not always easy to get along with our brothers and sisters, is it?  Oh, we adults may try to fool ourselves into believing we can get along with anyone, but kids are more honest.  A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her class of five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to honor thy father and thy mother, she asked her class this question: “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat, one little boy answered, "Thou shall not kill." He gets it! Sometimes getting along with our family, sometimes getting along with our church family, sometimes loving our family is difficult work, isn't it?

Maybe that’s what led to Paul to write these words to the Corinthians all those years ago…

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6: 1-11

As I read this passage, I am taken back to 1998 when I was sitting in a seminar class at Emory University. That small group consisted of only three people: The professor, one of my colleagues (James), and me.  The class was called: “Pauline Christology.” The entire course was devoted to Paul’s view of Jesus. Who was Jesus according to Paul? On this particular day, we were looking at this passage in I Corinthians 6. Interestingly, James was a student in the JD-MDiv program. By the time he left Emory, he would be both a lawyer and a minister, he would have the credentials to send someone to prison one week, and start a Bible correspondence course with him the next! We read this passage, and the professor asked us, “Well, what do you think?”  James quickly spoke up. He said, “Well, obviously, Paul is being sarcastic here.” He said, “Up to this point in his letter, Paul has used sarcasm often. He’s also used hyperbole. Obviously, Paul is not serious. Surely, Paul would not honestly call Christians to ‘be wronged.’”

Well, what do you think? Is Paul being sarcastic here? Or, are his words so counter to how we think and act that some people in this world can barely entertain the possibility that Paul was being very serious? Paul was being quite literal? We have a tendency to treat as “hyperbole” any passage that is especially difficult for us—have you noticed this?

Matthew 19:24—“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”  “Well, that’s just hyperbole.” “God doesn't really mean…” “Notice, he said, ‘All things are possible for God…’”

Or, what about that text in the Sermon on the Mount?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:38-42

We respond, “Well, that’s just hyperbole. Jesus didn't really mean for us to turn the other cheek. A good lesson to teach children, but certainly not to be taken literally After all, we have our rights! If we ignore our rights our entire society would just fall apart!”

But what if Jesus was serious? What if Paul, here in I Corinthians 6, was serious?

What do you suppose happened that caused Paul to write this? Have you ever wondered that? It seems a bit out of place, doesn't it?  Just before this, Paul talks about “church business”—expelling the sinner.  Just after this, Paul discusses sexual immorality. But sandwiched right here between these “church issues” is this business about taking someone to court. Why this excursus about lawsuits? What do you supposed happened? Corinth was an urban city. Perhaps one of the church members owned a building there that he rented out to people. Maybe one of his Christian brothers was renting his apartment and was behind in the rent. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit. Or, maybe a certain sister was a dress maker. Maybe one of her Christian sisters refused to pay for the dress she’d made. I can see how that might lead to a lawsuit, can’t you? I can see how any of these issues might have led to some conflict: sides forming, names are called. Before long, the name calling stops and then, just silence! There’s nothing worse than coming into a family and hearing only silence—a sure sign that something has gone wrong! Maybe this wasn't an excursus at all. Maybe this issue is really at the heart of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Maybe this is really at the heart of God’s message to us.

I can see something like this happening in our world. Did you know that in the mid-19th century, there were many court cases which pitted Christians against Christians. As Christian denominations split before the Civil War, there were many property disputes. Who owns this building? The Southern Baptists or the Northern Baptists? The Southern or Northern Methodists? Churches of Christ never divided over the issue of slavery or the Civil War. At least, that is what some of our leaders claimed. They in fact pointed to our unity as a sign that we were really the true Church of God! I would argue, however, that we did in fact divide. Our division came a little more subtly and slowly—and may have been even more damaging. We saw the aftermath of that division in 1967. 

In that year,  African American members of Churches of Christ sued white members of Churches of Christ over their blatant racism. The entire story began a few years earlier, in the 1940s.  African American members of Churches of Christ raised money to build a school in Nashville. Their goal was to build a credible school on par with David Lipscomb College.  They raised money, they sacrificed, they purchased property, and they established the school. In its first few years, it ran into financial trouble and white members of the church stepped in to help. But they also took control—changing the make-up of the Board of Directors from 10 African American to 6 white and 4 African American. 

In 1967, the white dominated board closed the school, sold the property and put money into a scholarship fund for African American students at the only recently desegregated DLC (which desegregated a decade after the Supreme Court's mandate to do so).  African American members of Churches of Christ responded immediately. One African American leader called this move the “grab of the century.” He wrote, “Whites came in under the guise of paternalism and grabbed our school.” African Americans wanted the money to, at the very least, go toward Southwestern Christian College—the only other African American school in Churches of Christ. A lawsuit was filed.  The federal record of the lawsuit lists as the plaintiffs: “Black Members of Churches of Christ.”  As defendants: “White Members of Churches of Christ” This lawsuit did more than separate the few people involved. This lawsuit divided African American and white members of Churches of Christ for over 40 years.

In 1999, the administration of ACU saw the division that had existed for all of these years, and they set out to reconcile with their African American brothers and sisters. They hosted a meeting between African American and white leaders, a closed-door meeting. I've talked to some who were present at that meeting, and they all described it as very tense!  At one point, they talked openly about that court case. The question was raised: “Why were African American’s so resistant to attend David Lipscomb College?” One man’s response:

"For all those years you refused to allow any of us to attend your school, then you took by force and against our will one of the only rallying points we had, let it be swallowed up in your multi-million dollar operation and then you say to us, “You can come over here and be like us now. We still don't particularly value your culture and history and the way you live, and act, and worship, but you can come over here with us, as long as you just do like we do.” Can you understand the resentment expressed at this act?"

Brother against brother; sister against sister. Yes, this court case did more than divide a few whites and African Americans in Nashville in 1967. I think I know why Paul was so concerned about this. Such in-fighting can destroy lives, and the church, and it can even do more than that!

When we read this text, we sometimes become too concerned about the details… “Can you take a non-believer to court?” “Does this apply only to believers?” “What about civil court, can you take someone to civil court?”

I think we're missing the point. The main point is that when the family cannot settle their problems, the world is repelled by their dysfunction! Paul’s main concern throughout all of his letters is the message of the gospel, and he knew that if the bearers of that message could not get along, the rest of the world wouldn't get close enough to hear the message, to be changed by the message.

Church, are we modeling reconciliation to the world, or, do our divisions cast doubt on the very message we hope to share with the world? Sometimes our divisions are more obvious. They center on racism. They center on socio-economics. They center on denominational doctrines. But there are other types of divisions that sometimes are just as damaging. For example, the divisions caused by parenting techniques: Private school? Public school? Home school? Or, consider the divisions caused by our views on a woman’s role in the family. Should mothers work outside the home? Should mothers stay at home with their children? Or, what about the many divisions caused by our political views? Is it a sin to be a Democrat? A Republican? Can one be a Christian and vote for Barak Obama or Mitt Romney or any other politician? Are we known by our love…or are we known by something all together different? Do we allow our divisions to govern our relationships with one another? The effects of our divisions are often times obvious within these walls, but have we stopped long enough to consider their effect to our neighbors?

Our divisions repel the world, but the opposite is also true. Our efforts toward unity stand out in a world like ours. I believe our efforts can help a fallen world stand up again. In case you haven’t noticed, “racism” causes a lot of division in our country. In recent weeks, this issue has dominated the headlines once again. How can the church help in a time like this? I've thought a lot about that one question, not just in recent weeks, but over the last few years. Here is what I've come up with. It may sound a bit simplistic to you, but here you go: We could start simply by forming relationships—one at a time.

Let me be confessional with your for a moment. Our family took a trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago. We spent some time downtown. We took our children to the Martin Luther King Center. At some point during our trip, as we were walking around downtown, one of our young boys said, “I’ve never seen a black person like that.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like that…”—Pointing to a black man in a suit. My son had never seen a successful African American wearing a suit! That statement has kept me up at night recently. I confess that I have not done all I can in my family to help my children get to know people who do not look like them. What makes matters worse: I just wrote a book on this subject!

Kim and I have talked about that conversation a lot in recent weeks. We realized that our habits are shaping our children’s perceptions of race. One of the only places our children have real contact with African Americans is at the Liberty Arms Apartments, a government housing facility here in Tyler. They’ve gone with our teenagers throughout this summer to the Love Out Loud ministry.  They minister to African American families.  But all they see there are poor families, families “who need our help." Those limited experiences are shaping their perceptions of race. I want my children to grow up having wonderful relationships with people who do not look like them. 

And, I must begin by modeling that behavior myself. I am having lunch this week with an African American minister in town. I hope that lunch will lead to a new friendship—not only for me, but perhaps for this church. If we hope to heal this division in our world, we must get in the same room with each other—as equals—and form relationships.

An elderly gentleman was walking in the park one afternoon. He grew tired from his daily journey and sat down on an old, green park bench. As he was sitting there, he looked up and saw before him a family. He was particularly taken in by a brother and a sister. They were playing together. They were laughing together. He could tell they loved one another. An interesting thing happened: others began to join this brother and sister there in front of this man. First, another little boy came over to play with them. Then, a small girl who had been playing all by herself. Before long, the yard in front of the bench was filled with children laughing a playing together. Their joy…their love was contagious. And do you know what this elderly man did next? I guess it shouldn’t surprise you. He got up from there and walked closer to this family. This family made up of adopted brothers and sisters, this family made up of young and old, this family some people call the church.

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