Resistance From Every Nation

The opening sentences of Paul Kjoss Helseth’s article Elect From Every Nation are very odd to read. One will stop to re-read the first few words thinking they have missed something when he says, “Principled opposition to the pursuit of ‘racial reconciliation’ in the church…” How could someone be opposed to racial reconciliation? It seems nonsensical, like having “principled opposition” to human happiness. What is more shocking, he believes that such opposition can be “evidence of eagerness to safeguard the primacy and sufficiency of the gospel.” This is because we “have already been reconciled to God and to one another by the Cross of Christ.”

Helseth’s main concern is for our efforts towards racial reconciliation to be to be thought of in terms of something Calvinism guards against, efforts that result in “earning salvation.” If we are not chosen, regenerated, and preserved entirely by God’s saving grace, then any effort we claim with regard to finding faith in God amounts to earning our salvation, and therefore undermines the gospel. Similarly, according to Helseth, “by speaking of reconciliation as a ‘goal’ that believers must strive to achieve through efforts to reduce ‘racial division and inequality’ in the church” we come “perilously close to supplanting the gospel of Jesus Christ with a version of the social gospel” that “breeds what Thomas Sowell calls a spirit of ‘self–congratulation.'”

I highly doubt this is the case. It is simply a strange notion to think that pride or human independence is what motivates racial reconciliation. Though it is possible to imagine, it is improbable to carry out, for if anyone has endured the labor of racial reconciliation one will know, to paraphrase John Stott, that humility is one’s greatest friend and pride one’s greatest enemy. Those that see racial reconciliation as a “goal” do so, because it is God’s goal. It is something that God cherishes and wants his people to have, and, as Helseth rightly argues, has made provision for it in the work of Christ.

Since Christ reconciled all believers to himself and created in them “one new humanity,” (TNIV) we are now objectively at peace, not only with Him, but with one another (Eph 2:11-22). Christ abolished the barriers that kept non-Jews out of “the covenants of the promise” doing away with the racial preference for Jews as the people of God. Therefore, “racial reconciliation” has already happened. Failure to grasp this is to call into question the very nature of Christ’s atonement. To believe that we are to labor for racial reconciliation on any other basis is to be in error.

The difficulty with this is not that it is faulty exegesis, but that is not easy to apply to our modern day racial differences. Strictly speaking, Paul only has two people groups in mind: Jews and Gentiles. The wall that divides them is the “law with its commands and regulations” found in the Old Testament, and the work of Christ was the objective removal of this law which “brought near” those who were formally considered foreigners. But how exactly does this apply to multiple ethnic groups or racial demographics that do not have the Law and its commands functioning as the objective source of hostility towards one another? How are Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian Christians supposed to apply this passage to their congregations in the wake of the terrible Balkan war in the 1990s? How would Hutu and Tutsi Christians read this passage? How could black and white Americans put into practice truths from this passage to build more integrated churches? It is much more complex given that the objective source of hostility between these groups has to do with past atrocities, not alienation from a covenant belonging to one people group or another. This is the key issue. Helseth seems to have an intuitive grasp of it, but somehow believes that those who work of racial reconciliation consequently undermine the teaching of this passage by their efforts. Yet he furnishes not one example of someone who would deny the truth of Ephesians 2:11-22, that Christ did not remove the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.

Instead, Helseth goes on to assert that those who labor to establish racial unity challenge the sufficiency of Christ’s work, because they presume that its establishment has not yet happened. Such efforts further presume that the source of our racial division has not been adequately resolved and that by our works of wisdom we can identify it and eliminate its cause. Those who might object to his view by appealing to the “already/not yet” virtue of New Testament theology are correct to hold the two in tension realizing that neither can be collapsed into the other. Nevertheless it remains troubling for Helseth that the reality of racial reconciliation can be affirmed on one hand, and denied on the other.

Be that as it may, we must avoid the implicit conclusion of this strongly stated “already” position that even Paul would be challenging the sufficiency of the gospel by his efforts to have Jews and Gentiles live peaceably with other another (See Rom 14). Paul isn’t completely in error because Helseth isn’t completely opposed to effort, and cites James 2 as a passage that supports the notion of “preserving what has already been realized precisely because it is alive.” We are to “labor to fulfill the Great Commission” and call people to “submit to the demands of the One who purchased their reconciliation.” These duties are imperative as they are the expression of a living faith in the complete work of Christ’s all-encompassing work of reconciliation. So it seems that we can have some sort of view that racial reconciliation hasn’t happened yet even though it has.

I assume that Helseth is referring to the latter part of James 2 when he provides a basis for good effort motivated by good faith, but the interesting part of the chapter is the first part that warns believers against showing favoritism. To be sure, James uses an example involving individuals to condemn it as sinful: “If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the one who is poor, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts (James 2:3-4)?” But notice verses 5 through 7:

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

This is significant, because James moves from an individual example to a collective example. He speaks of “the poor” and “the rich” and how “the rich” exploit “the poor” by using the justice system to cheat them out of their livelihood. These are blanket statements that James has no shame in ascribing to the faceless people group of “the rich.” Granted, they do not represent races or ethnicities, but the collective nature of the example stands as an important counterexample to Helseth’s analysis.

Helseth is skeptical of reconciliation between collective groups, because no one can adequately take responsibility for a group’s actions. Individual Christians can, and often are, at odds with one another and are in need of Christian reconciliation. Yet he is uncertain to suppose that this fact of Christian life is transferable to people groups. A person from one demographic is not necessarily at odds with a person from another demographic, even if their respective demographics have had a history of strife between them. To believe that one can sin collectively by believing that the individual is simply a part of the whole reduces the individual to an impersonal cog in a wheel destined to perpetuate racism and racist systems. Those that think this way, according to Helseth, are more influenced by a “Marxist analysis” that divides people groups into classes of the oppressor and the oppressed. Yet, in light of the counterexample from James and what he thinks about “the rich” as well as the variety of counterexamples of racial and ethnic strife (such as the “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans) that do not fit into Marx’s economic reductionism, it is safe to say that those who confront favoritism (like James) and those who labor for reconciliation among people groups in the face of historical atrocity are severely caricatured by Helseth’s view.

To be sure, Helseth does not believe that Christians are to believe Christ finished the work of reconciliation and then be done with it. He certainly acknowledges that “real problems in the church resulting from racial or other differences” exist. He realizes that divides among racial lines stem from complex problems that go deeper than simple differences in theology. And he is even aware of how this affects his thesis. He says,

If even believers who are not themselves personally guilty of overtly racist acts are nonetheless impersonally guilty of systemic racism due to their inadvertent complicity in the collective sin of their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic community, we simply cannot say that Christ’s work on the Cross was fully sufficient to reconcile believers to God and to one another. For in this case, the objective source of our enduring estrangement—which Walter [Helseth’s sparring partner] presumed related to the accidental characteristics of one group or another rather than to a lack of access to the “covenants of promise”—remains in place.

This is what I have alluded to earlier in the problems of applying Paul’s teaching of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. The matter of difference is one of covenant, not prejudice or atrocity. Helseth is wrong when he says the objective source of these estrangements are “the accidental characteristics that distinguish us from one another” because he fails to realize that the causes go much deeper. Historical events and ideological beliefs are imported into our notions of race and ethnicity in ways that they are not when we consider eye color. No one is really “white” in the mathematics of the color wheel as no one is really “black.” There are different shades of brown and beige colored skin accompanied by different kinds of hair texture. It is when we start to consider things like the slave trade, the abuse of human rights, Jim Crow laws, preferential treatment (favoritism!), and derogatory stereotypes that supervene on these skin colors do we start to understand that there is more to our alienation than meets the eye.

It may be true that if our emphasis is on things like race, class, and socioeconomic status and not on what separates us from God, then Christ has not objectively removed our walls of hostility. But if this is the case, the problem is not that Christ’s gospel is being emptied of its sufficiency, it is that it is being ignored and God’s law, which calls our egregious acts of favoritism into account, has not convicted our hearts of wrongdoing. The fact remains that if we are to be reconciled to one another, we must be reconciled to God first. The primary problem is that efforts to expose our deeds of favoritism are continually resisted by means of ignorance, excuse, and self-righteousness.

One can surely agree with Helseth that attempts at racial reconciliation without appealing to the objective work of Christ will collapse into the moralism of some vision of political and social action. However, the function of the objective work of Christ is to break down the walls that separate us from God and the blessedness of his Kingdom. It does not simply atone for racial sins and allow our favoritism to remain un-repented of without any confrontation from the Law of Christ. Racial reconciliation in the Kingdom of God can only come from the shared baptism in Christ’s name that gives us equal footing and no advantage over one another at the foot of the throne of God (Gal 3:26-28). And this can only come from the acknowledgement of racial sin, confession of its presence, and repentance of its practice. Unfortunately, just like in evangelism, our stubborn resistance makes this the most difficult part of the process.

One thing is for sure, though, “principled opposition” to racial reconciliation will do nothing to help this process along.

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2 Responses

  1. nice work – thanks for cranking this out !

    I’ll write some more to you later!

  2. Thanks, Marque. I look forward to dialoguing more.

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