5 biblical ways to take action against injustice and racism
In our first two installments on this topic, we approached biblical diversity from the perspective of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We've answered the question: "is there racism in the Bible?" Our conversations around the Imago Dei, Abrahamic covenant, inclusion of foreigners in the Jewish law and consistent emphasis of God’s heart for the poor, oppressed, widow and orphan in the Old Testament were followed by New Testament ties to biblical diversity such as the incarnation of Jesus and the focus of his earthly ministry, the Great Commission, the model of the ministry of Paul and the early church, the emphasis on neighboring and the ministry of reconciliation as well as the makeup of heaven.
The constant dialogue of Scripture around God’s desire for biblical diversity is hard to deny.
But what do we do with all this? How do we take action against injustice and racism? It is one thing to know the truth of Scripture — it is a completely different skill to know how to apply it to our present situation.
In this very tumultuous season in our country, all of us are being bombarded with messages through relational connections, news media and social media that seem to draw lines in the sand. Phrases such as “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “implicit bias” and “intersectionality” have increased the learning curve of many. Calls for immediate action bombard many people who have yet to arrive at conclusions.
Yet we cannot let our fear of not understanding everything cause us to do nothing.
The church was designed to be on the forefront of the conversations about race. The church has been called to speak out against oppression, defend the marginalized, live as peacemakers and lead their communities in reconciliation and transformative change.
There is no group more prepared for this moment and equipped by God to delve into these divisive issues in society than the people of God filled with the Spirit of God and informed by the Word of God. We must recognize these gifts in this moment and bring the hope of Christ to what seems to be a hopeless situation.
We know all this. To do nothing would be wrong. To say nothing would negate our witness. But where do I start?
In the past few years, Dr. Harold Lewis, our vice president of Biblical Diversity, has taught me a fourfold filter for personal interaction with people from other cultures, colors and classes. I have benefited from applying these actions when I engage with people who have a different view or experience in life. While this is not the primary focus of our conversation today, it may be helpful to explain these steps as a foundation for our main topic.
Listen. Learn. Lament. Lead.
Listen: Seek to hear rather than be heard. Seek to understand rather than be understood. Increased awareness will increase understanding.
Learn: While you cannot stand in another person’s shoes, you can learn from his or her experience in this world. Taking a humble, teachable posture validates that their experience can be different than yours and may empower you to walk alongside your friend more effectively.
Lament: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. The ability to “grieve with those who grieve” as well as take responsibility for any part you may have played in their pain creates connection and trust.
Lead: Once understanding is gained, connection is established and trust is earned, you can now walk together into expanded conversations and actions that strengthen your relationship with one another and influence others in your life who need to join the journey of awareness and action.
While these four actions are great personal steps for us as individuals, church leaders are desperate to find corporate pathways to lead others. While leading self is always the first step in leading others, the track to employ a congregation of believers with their community goes beyond personal interaction to corporate engagement.
Though I feel like I am still on the steep learning curve of this conversation, I have found the following paradigm to be helpful as both a starting point and a measure of health for churches that want to move forward on this priority and change the narrative in our communities.
1. The ministry of prayer
True change begins and ends with prayer because prayer turns our focus toward God. One of my friends tells me all the time: “What we focus on is what we move toward.” If we focus on the problems, they will get bigger. If we focus on God, we will see his power to speak into our lives.
Repentance is one facet of prayer but is essential in the church in this season. Repentance always precedes repair.
Repentance, not only for ourselves but for our people, is common in the Bible. Many examples exist in Scripture of going to God to acknowledge the sins of both groups and generations (2 Ch. 7:14, Ne. 1:5-7, Ps. 106:6, Je. 14:20, Dn. 9:1-19). In 1 Peter 2:9, we are called a “royal priesthood.” Priests, by occupation, intercede on behalf of their people.
As that priesthood, we should go to God not only on behalf of ourselves but also our families and our country. We are to seek God on behalf of our leaders (1 Tm. 2:1-6). There are both examples (Gn. 18, Acts 7:60, Rm. 10:1, Lk. 23:34) and expectations (Ez. 22:30) that people would stand in the gap and approach God on behalf of others in prayer.
I encourage church leaders to develop powerful prayer ministries as an integral part of the strategy to prepare the people of God to engage their communities and prepare the people of the community to receive the people of God and their message (Col. 4:3).
I’ve had the privilege to oversee the celebration of life of many dear people who have gone to be with the Lord. The circumstances surrounding these gatherings are varied — some responded to the death of their loved ones with relief, while other situations were tragic and emotionally charged. Very often, before these events, I would be approached by an acquaintance who had no idea what to say or do in the presence of those who are in pain. My response has always been the same, “That’s OK. You don’t have to know what to say or do — your presence is your ministry.”
Jesus knew the power of presence. As he called his disciples, the first descriptor of their discipleship was “that they might be with him” (Mk. 3:14). Presence with Jesus was a part of their training. God uses our presence to:
When it comes to present-day issues surrounding injustice and race, the lack of the presence of the evangelical church has been discouraging to people of color and culture, while the absence of their voice has been deafening.
As we have seen from previous installments of this conversation, the church was designed to be a voice that speaks out against injustice and a presence that intervenes for the marginalized and oppressed. The power of the church’s presence in these situations would be hard to deny or ignore. We have to learn how to stand with and speak for friends, fellow congregants and the people of our community when they have been treated unfairly. Our presence can be powerful.
3. A plan for personal growth
Spiritual growth is not automatic. A quick look through the pages of the New Testament clearly reveals that challenge and correction were a normal part of Paul’s interactions with the church. Jesus reminded us in the parable of the soils that it is not unusual for the inertia of everyday life to slow us down, choke us out or dry us up (Mk. 4:13-20).
However, if I had to give you advice, I would start with a thorough study of the book of Ephesians. The emphasis of chapter 2 on the reconciling work of Christ that impacted not only our relationship with God but with each other is a foundational teaching on this topic. The conversation around oneness in this multiethnic church and what it means to mature together in chapter 4 sets the tone for how the church should operate in our very diverse world.
Once a biblical foundation is laid, our personal growth plan can include many other facets of exploration.
Consider reading books and blogs on the subject that are recommended by trusted friends who are biblically faithful and culturally astute.
Consider reading on topics like the history of our country, racial reconciliation and increasing cultural intelligence.
Watch sermons and listen to podcasts of pastors from other cultures to get their perspective on the application of Scripture to current events.
Consider taking trips to experience the many historic sites around the country that give you a better understanding, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Take advantage of the resources on the subject that have been developed by Converge, Bethel University and other organizations. (Our Office of Biblical Diversity will soon release a guide for these kinds of things).
Regardless, do something. You can’t grow if you don’t know.
Paul emphatically calls the church to overcome evil with good (Rm. 12:21). James challenges us to not only be hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). Jesus calls the church to “let our light shine” in such a way the world sees our good deeds and glorifies our Father in heaven (Mt. 5:16). Participation in good should be a normal part of every believer’s experience and every church’s ministry.
In the days following the death of George Floyd, the churches of Converge did just that — they converged on the communities that were devastated by destruction and riots. Christians swept up streets, cleaned up communities, swept up glass, prayed with the hurting, fed the hungry, housed the homeless and spoke the truth in partnership with other local congregations and community leaders.
Others were too far away to have a ministry of presence but sent prayer, supplies and finances to rebuild these areas. All these partners know that once the crisis is over, what remains is not only a cleaned-up community but the possibility of ongoing relationship and ministry.
Partnership is the pathway to relationship. Relationship is the pathway to trust. Trust will open the door to the depth of receptivity, vulnerability, understanding, compassion and commitment necessary to begin steps toward lasting change.
Every church should consider developing long-term relationships and partnerships with other churches in their community to care for, learn from, work with and walk beside each other.
Your community may not have a crisis on the streets like they did in Minneapolis, but I promise you that there is a crisis in the hearts of people from different backgrounds. Our society teaches us to question people who look, act, speak or live differently than us.
Scripture tells us to embrace the beauty of God’s diversity of color and culture, reminding us that there is only one way to salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12), one body of believers (Eph. 4:4, Col. 3:15) and one life to make a difference in this world (2 Co. 5:10, Hb. 9:27) and that he wants the transforming power of Christ to not only impact believers but also change communities. This all begins with participation and partnership.
5. A focus on policy change
God calls the church to make their communities better. In the Bible, we see the church impact communities in powerful ways (Acts 17:6, 19:17, 1 Th. 1). The Bible tells the people of God to defend those who cannot defend themselves and speak out on behalf of the marginalized (Pr. 31:8-9). It tells us to think about others first (Ph. 2:3-4), sacrifice (1 Jn. 3:16) and be generous (1 Tm. 6:17-19). Societal heroes have these same traits, and I believe God would love for the people of the church to be seen as the heroes of our communities!
These principles not only apply to personal life but also societal power constructs. Unfortunately, way too often, Christians have allowed their party views to blind them to biblical responses to society.
For example, the Bible is just as clear in its language asking the church to speak for the oppressed and serve the under-resourced as it is about the sanctity of all human life and the preservation of biblical sexuality. Why are we letting a binary political system divide God’s church over four clear calls to his people?
What I am about to say is my opinion and my observation on society. Some of you will agree, while others will cringe at the thought. We have a wonderful system of law in our country. While it is obvious that no system of oversight in this world is perfect, ours has a built-in opportunity for us to make adjustments.
Our founding fathers could not have anticipated all the changes becoming an independent country would bring, but they knew that they wouldn’t! They also couldn’t see the social blind spots and spiritual strongholds of their society (For example, as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they could not see the dehumanizing act of slavery was directly opposed to this thought). Knowing this, they developed a system that provided opportunity to change things to better serve this forming nation.
While we have a good system, no human system is perfect. Human law is systemic. It is built on the precedent of previous generations and upheld by the powerful in the present generation. Politics, by nature (fallen nature in this case), are used to develop policies that protect the power and preferences of the dominant group or culture. Policy is designed to teach people to obey, not to think or question. Long-standing policy is designed to maintain the status quo and, if a society is not careful, instinctively dulls and desensitizes people to needed change.
If culture is unhealthy, unaware or unwilling to see inequity, it taints the system. In such cases, it often takes crisis (and often tragedy) to bring the attention of all to the need for change. Christians, informed by God’s Word, led by his Spirit and sensitively engaged in their communities, can be a great force in leading to God-honoring systemic change.
Christians should filter the strengths and weaknesses of their communities and culture through the lens of Scripture.
As citizens, we have rights, but as Christians, we have responsibilities to intervene on behalf of others. Our voice and our vote are both stewardships in a democratic society with freedom of speech.
My hope is that Christians would get more involved in local organizations that bring needed change to local communities and use their power of voice and vote at all levels to help the marginalized get relief and the minimized experience justice.
Prayer. Presence. Personal growth. Participation in good. Policy change.
Everything we do as believers is, as our friends at Bethel University say, for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good. The constant political and polemic talk of this season should never move our eyes away from the ultimate mission of our ministry — to help people meet, know and follow Jesus by starting and strengthening churches together worldwide.
However, it should help us recognize the opportunity God has given us to truly serve our communities as ambassadors of God’s grace and truth. I believe our efforts in this call to action paradigm will prove both helpful and winsome toward this cause.
I love the churches of Converge. I consider it a privilege to be a part of this movement. For some reason, this group that started as a way for immigrant Swedes to gather together around the gospel has now blossomed into a truly multicultural movement.
I believe God has given us the ability to discern biblical truth and its society application and positioned us to influence other church movements along the way. Let’s not shrink back from this stewardship, but fully embrace the opportunity that God has given us to model biblical leadership in our congregations and our communities.
God has blessed us. He has designed us to live for something bigger than ourselves. We are better together. And by his grace and for his glory, the best is yet to come.
May God give us the wisdom to know the right thing to do and to have the courage to do it.
Scott has served as the President of Converge since November 2014. Prior to that he was the Director of Generosity for Converge from 2007-2014, concurrently with his time pastoring at Sun Valley in Gilbert, Arizona, for 22 years. He also serves on the Board of Church Multiplication Partners, Bethel University and The Timothy Initiative. He and his wife, Lisa, have been married since 1988 and have three adult children, Jon, Ashlyn and David. He loves God, the local church and simply wants to help people meet, know and follow Jesus.