Christian ethics (part 5): race relations

This post concludes a series exploring Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics by Todd Speidell. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123, 4.  

Last time, we noted that the Christian ethic taught by Thomas F. Torrance (TFT) involves joining Jesus in his ongoing life of service to others. Rather than a political or sociological concept, this ethic is about personally sharing in Christ's active love for people as individual, beloved persons. As Todd Speidell notes, this sharing begins at home with our biological and church families, and from there extends to nearby neighbors and friends, then to distant neighbors (for in Christ, all humans are neighbors who we are commanded by Christ to love).

Source: North Carolina Council of Churches

Concerning race relations

This localized, personal focus (which TFT refers to as a "filial" focus and approach) is applicable to the ethical challenges we face today, including that of race relations. Racism (and the injustices that flow from it) is widespread. How does a Christian ethic address such a problem? How does a Christian ethic advance racial reconciliation? As noted above, Speidell suggests that it begins by joining Jesus in what he is doing close to home:

Christians in the U.S. must address race relations in their local churches before denouncing larger and more distant issues of systemic racism. they should engage in local forms of service before global (and often abstract) discussions of justice and equality. When they do respond to the global dimensions of Christian social responsibility, they will then do so with integrity; they will do so with a sense of the humanity of their (even distant) neighbor. (p. 43)

A core theological principal here is that Jesus, the incarnate, crucified Son of God, stands in solidarity with all people--not in a merely general sense, but in particular, personal ways that lead to personal transformation:

The crucified Christ stands in solidarity with humanity, not merely as an example of confrontation with the world to be imitated by us but as the reality of new humanity in which we must and may participate. Christ gives us himself, not merely as a radical ethic of confrontational discipleship. He confronts us with his true humanity and our restored humanity, not simply slogans of peace and justice nor pronouncements against social sins that characterize a politicized church, which seems not to need Christ as it announces its own agenda.  (pp. 45-46)

Why a personal, particular approach to an issue that is so widespread (even systemic)? Speidell's answer is that there is only one source of true (and thus lasting) reconciliation between persons (and also between God and persons) and that Source is the divine-human Person Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and humanity, and between all human persons. As Markus Barth has noted (commenting on Ephesians 2:14), Jesus is "in person the peace between us." Quite literally Jesus "is our peace"--he is the one who has "broken down the dividing wall" that separates whole groups of people (such as Jews and Gentiles) as well as individual people  (p. 47). Barth continues:

To confess Jesus Christ is to affirm the abolition and end of division and hostility, the end of separation and segregation, the end of enmity and contempt, and the end of every sort of ghetto. [Jesus is the] abolition and abrogation of every and all hostility.... Faith in Christ... means that the two [distinct groups or persons] whatever their distinctions are--can and do live together: those who were formerly opposed, mutually exclusive, separated by what seemed to be an unsurmountable wall: To say "Christ" means to say community, co-existence, a new life, peace.... When his [Christ's] peace is deprived of its social, national, or economic dimensions, when it is distorted or emasculated so much that only "peace of mind" enjoyed by saintly individuals is left--then Jesus Christ is being flatly denied. (pp. 47-48)

The crucified, resurrected and ascended human person Jesus who is united by the Spirit to all humanity, is at actively working to confront all forms of racism with its hostility, discrimination, oppression and exclusion. Jesus does this work by imparting his true humanity to individuals who trust him. This transformation of individuals, over time, provides the basis for widespread, social transformation based on reconciliation. Thus the personal provides the foundation for the social.

The church, then, is called to share in Jesus' personal and personalizing work in the world, by the Spirit. It is vital that the church's work not be separated from who Christ is and what he is doing (his being and act)--were that separation to happen, the work of the church would be grounded on a truly shaky foundation, following an ethic that is not truly Christian. As Speidell notes (again referencing Marcus Barth) we participate in Christ's reconciling work only through actively loving our neighbor, and doing so requires that we go to 

where Christ is and act where he acts, participating by the Spirt in Christ's ongoing ministry and mission in the world. By meeting the stranger, by entering into a distinctively human relationship... we will meet Christ himself and find our own humanity.... The love of neighbor... does not mean that we repeat or replace Christ's action of love, but that we witness to the reconciling action of God in Christ by meeting our neighbors truly and honestly only as lost ourselves, i.e., exactly as we are, and not in the role of saviors. There is one Savior... who does not permit us to shield ourselves from our neighbor with our presumed goodness, but who commands us to be fundamentally open to others precisely as sinners to fellow-sinners. God shows us our neighbors as brothers and sisters. (pp. 53-55)

What then about the social/systemic aspects of racism/racial inequality? What does a Christian ethic say about that? Speidell answers:

Legal demands for social justice may provide rights, but not affirmation; legally assured conditions, but not personal relations; equality, but not respect; liberty, but not freedom.... The gospel calls us beyond (even though including) rights to reconciliation and responsibility, because God has bound us to one another in Christ. (p. 55)

Our challenge is thus to embrace Christ and his personal/filial ethic of love, and then follow where he leads -- sharing in what he is doing, in the way he is doing it. Is it always easy to discern Christ's activity? No, and so we must sharpen our skills of discernment, ones developed in community. Is it then easy to share in what Jesus is doing once we have discerned his activity? No, and so we must pray for our Lord's courage and commitment -- his gifts to us. Let us discern and pray together and then act together, sharing in the work of the Great Reconciler. Amen.