“Daddy, he looks like me!” My young black son pointed to the only black basketball player on the court that night at my overwhelmingly white seminary. Even at a young age, he immediately felt represented by the one man on the court who shared his appearance. Without knowing it, my son was experiencing “representation.”
What is representation?
Representation can describe either the way different kinds of people are portrayed or the presence of someone who represents something about us. The way different kinds of people are portrayed is important, because it shapes both the perception and self-perception of their group. Similarly, the absence or presence of people like ourselves can send a powerful message about how we might be received in a group we’ve encountered.
It was good for my son to see a man who represented him on the court that night. But if he grows up seeing black men portrayed only as athletes or entertainers or criminals, he’s being told that athleticism or entertainment are requirements for his success… and that criminality is a way society might view his manhood. In the same way, if my black daughters grow up with only classic American dolls, they’re subtly learning that light peachy skin and straight blonde hair and baby blue eyes are the standard — a mono-cultural image they can never replicate, and one that discounts their own striking features.
If you want to understand representation, look no further than the outpouring of love, honor, and grief over the recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who became an international hero for people of African descent through his portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Playing an African king, Boseman displayed goodness, dignity, humility, and strength — especially when the world learned that he was silently battling cancer during the later stages of his rigorous career. Many testified that T’Challa represented blackness with nobility and honor, challenging many of the less noble portrayals of blackness in our world.
It’s helpful to remember that we’re always representing and being represented. This isn’t wrong; it’s just reality. Because human beings are God’s image-bearers, we represent his rule in the world (Gen. 1:26–28). Adam represents humanity as our first father (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 47–49). Children also represent their parents, employees represent their companies, athletes represent their teams, and bands represent their labels. When a pastoral scandal is exposed, I can’t pretend like it doesn’t relate to me. I’m a pastor, too, so I grieve over the deep pain of the survivors and the fresh shame on the profession.
Because of how we’re wired, we consistently portray both ourselves and others in specific ways, whether we realize it or not. I was once working with an all-white team on a missions event. We were looking for videos to communicate our message, and someone played an example. Its verbal message was biblical, but its visual message was disturbing: the people doing good were virtually all white, while those who were dirty, desperate, and hurting were all black and brown. In the world of this video, which exposed the worldview of its creators, one race does the saving, while all the others need saving. Black and brown people were nothing but the mission field, and apparently, whiteness was a sign of holistic health.
Even well-meaning Christian communities are not immune to internalized attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority. The implications are far-reaching if we’re willing to search our souls.
So why did I notice, and why did I care? Because I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching over the years — a happy and humbling journey of discovery that will continue for the rest of my life.
A seat at the table
Many years ago, Cindi and I attended a traditional black church during our senior year of college. We were some of the only non-black believers there (I’m half-Japanese; she’s white). We were loved well, and gained some lifelong friends. But we also learned what it felt like to be different at church. Over time, our perspective kept widening as we adopted four African children, traveled to different countries, talked candidly with black friends, saw racial themes surging through Scripture, embraced racial matters as lifelong issues, and recently moved to a global city where we hope to live this out in community. God’s vision of a new humanity redeemed from all nations and gathered before his throne is now very personal to us (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 148:11–13; Dan. 7:14; Acts 2:5–11; Eph. 3:6; Rev. 5:9).
But the most practical reason why that missions video stood out to me is this: four beautiful black faces have a permanent seat at our table, so their perspectives and concerns are permanently represented in our hearts. As a family, we instinctively notice the ethnic makeup of every space we enter — a church, a school, a restaurant, even a video. We also notice how black and brown people are portrayed — especially when they’re denigrated. So after the video played, I was compelled to point out its biased portrayal of the kind of people who need the hope and help of Christ. I shared my perspective with our team, challenged us toward a more biblical worldview, and urged us to create promotional materials with a variety of people both hurting and helping.
Cultivating appropriate representation is a worthy pursuit, but it’s not simple. The path is rocky, and there are pitfalls. For starters, it’s tempting to content ourselves with visual diversity alone. But welcoming someone’s color while sidelining their culture isn’t much of a welcome. Selfish or shallow pursuits of diversity can produce tokenism, where somehow all three black students at the small Christian school end up in the admissions brochure each year, without the school ever growing in its ethnic reach. Or the way photo selections from the mission field can expose that we’re more concerned about sharing our exploits than helping those in need. Tokenism exposes that we’re more concerned about perceived diversity than true community.
Even in a mixed community, we often settle for clumpy diversity, each of us magnetized to our own groups. Or we flatten people’s unique features by viewing them only as interchangeable symbols of their “kind.” Our passion for inclusion can even lead us to ignore or condemn certain groups simply for their demographic clout, falling into a second ditch as we flee the first.
Wisdom calls us away from seeking diversity for its own sake, a twisted path that always ends in some form of favoritism. Instead, our pursuits should follow the flow of God’s own redemptive storyline: his creation design, his Abrahamic promise, his reconciling gospel, his integrated church, his unifying Spirit, and his promise of a new risen humanity, international heirs of a new creation (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 96:1–3; Isa. 19:23–25; Rom. 15:5–7; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:14–16; 3:14; 4:1–6; Rev. 5:9–10). On these firm foundations, a diverse Christian community can rise, bonded with a shared faith and a common love.
Intentionality will always be required, because left to ourselves, most of us gravitate toward those we deem similar and easy. But intentionality must never become partiality, because Christ calls us to love all kinds of people. Along the way, we must stay thoughtful and reasonable, patiently considering the nuanced dynamics of each situation, the makeup of our own groups and communities, and the pointed guidance of God’s Spirit.
Representation in Scripture
On the surface, it’s easy to claim that biblical impartiality should make us blind to color, culture, and class, and if we’re consistent, gender and age, too. But Scripture tells a different story, a story filled with eye-opening concern for every kind of person. It’s true that every human being bears God’s image, making us equal in dignity, value, and purpose (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–2; 9:6). Yet our distinctions are often highlighted, not downplayed, to show God’s fatherly care for the full spectrum of humanity.
Abel, the first victim in the Bible, is clearly righteous, not tarnished (Gen. 4:3–10; Heb. 11:4). Rahab’s gutsy faith brings Israelite spies into her home and a Jericho prostitute into God’s family (Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Mephibosheth, handicapped by a childhood accident, is sought out and restored by David as a representative of Saul’s fallen family (2 Sam. 9).
A nameless little slave girl introduces her Syrian captor Naaman to the healing ministry of Elisha (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). The same Syrian general is later used to illustrate God’s border-crossing grace (Luke 4:27). A Ninevite king bows before Jonah’s God in a citywide revival that angers the prejudiced prophet (Jonah 3:5–10; Matt. 12:41). Esther’s courageous representation in the Persian court keeps her adoptive father from execution and her Jewish people from genocide (Esth. 4:13–16).
The presence of Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary in Jesus’ genealogy is a symbol of God’s equalizing grace that includes abused, foreign, or culturally scandalized women in the messianic line (Matt. 1:1–17). Jesus’ own ministry to the marginalized shouts a joyful welcome to broken people of all kinds, and his magnetic ministry to children puts the littlest among us front and center (Matt. 4:23–24; 19:13–15).
The Gospels often highlight the rejected and powerless both to dignify them and to confront the proud and presumptuous (Mark 3:1–6; Luke 16:19–31; John 9). The paragon of virtue in Jesus’ most famous parable is a “half-breed” Samaritan, while a prominent priest and a pure Levite are condemned as cold-hearted contrasts (Luke 10:30–37). The Gospels also tell how Zacchaeus the tax collector is transformed, a Roman centurion is enlightened, and two Pharisees honor the crucified body of Jesus, so that even the rich can know that God can fit them through the needle’s eye (Matt. 19:23–24; Matt. 27:54; Luke 19:1–10; John 19:38–42).
As the gospel spreads, the terrorist Saul is dramatically saved on his way to persecute Christians so that no one can doubt God’s mercy (1 Tim. 1:12–16). The Jewish Paul then takes on apprentices like Timothy and Titus as he plants racially mixed churches throughout the Gentile world (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). When God’s kingdom dawns in Philippi, it liberates a high-end fashion dealer, a demonized slave girl, and a Roman jailer who is likely a military veteran (Acts 16:11–40). And when Paul writes to the Roman church, he goes to great lengths to greet his wildly diverse network, a mosaic of ethnicities and personalities showing off the gospel’s reconciling grace surging through the empire’s capital city (Rom. 16:1–16).
Whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, rich or poor, civilian or soldier, powerful or powerless, prince or prodigal, every kind of person is represented in the redeemed church of Jesus Christ. Keeping in step with the Spirit’s work, Christian movements should humbly desire the same dynamic.
Inclusion and influence
For those on the fringes, being represented signals two main possibilities. The first is inclusion. When a Chinese man walks into an American church and sees people from his culture already present, belonging looks possible. When an elderly woman sees grey hair on the worship team, she can feel the possibility of participating. When the youth group sees a fellow teenager baptized, they can sense that grace and change are possible for someone their age. Representation embodies the possibility of belonging, participating, and being included.
But inclusion alone is not enough. Representation is needed at a higher level — the level of influence. All believers are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). And the body of Christ needs every part fully operational in order to mature (Eph. 4:15–16). Therefore, a healthy church or organization will always be identifying and removing barriers to biblical forms of influence.
We can start by initiating conversations and hearing people’s perspectives. If we don’t pursue that family with special needs, who will tell us how our ignorance might be keeping them from full participation? If the elderly have no voice in our churches, who will let us know when we’ve skewed so contemporary that we’re unhinged from our own heritage? If a multiethnic group is led by monoethnic leadership, who will point out cultural idols, blind spots, missteps, needs, and opportunities? Most importantly, if our churches and movements and organizations remain homogenous, how will we make up for all the virtue, knowledge, talent, experience, and vision that our varied brothers and sisters are ready to bring to the table?
In Acts 6, when the gospel is spreading and the church is becoming more diverse, racial tensions ignite. The Greek-culture Christians lodge a legitimate complaint because their widows aren’t being cared for like the Jewish-culture widows (Acts 6:1). The church’s response is a masterclass in humble, strategic, unified representation. The apostles admit there’s a problem, they involve the whole church, and the church appoints seven Spirit-filled leaders to expand the care ministry across racial lines (Acts 6:2–3). Strikingly, all seven appointees have Greek names (Acts 6:5).
The Jerusalem church recognized that Hellenistic believers would be most effective at serving the widows from their own culture. Racial inequity was acknowledged, a homogenous team was diversified, “and the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).
Leaders who learn
Our family once toured a Christian school that was almost exclusively white. We asked about racial diversity, but rather than recognizing its absence, the principal emphasized their handful of black students — by name. She had fallen into a common trap that sees token representation as meaningful diversity. We would’ve been more encouraged if she’d acknowledged the lack of representation and explained how her team would be thoughtful learners and leaders. Yet this same administrator would later disallow our black daughter from having a typical black hairstyle because of a monocultural policy ignorant about the intricacies of black hair. We appealed as winsomely as we could, but it didn’t matter. Only one kind of accessory was allowed: “Just put a ribbon in it like all the other girls!” she told my wife. Black women everywhere know how naïve this sounds. But there was no one else to help this leader see what she didn’t know — or to help her team reevaluate the deeper assumptions keeping their school an ethnocentric community.
In contrast, I have a black friend who took an internship at a white church. The dress code for the program would have required that he purchase a whole new wardrobe—because the “equivalent” dress in his culture was unacceptable. Thankfully, he was courageous enough to speak up, and the leaders were humble enough to hear his perspective. They adjusted their culture-bound requirements — and no doubt grew in their own perspective. Later, my friend told me he would often wear his jeans and Timberlands to church, not out of disrespect, but to show any visitors from his culture that they too could belong.
As a pastor, I want to be a leader who listens. I want to know when people are being left out. An empty-nester recently told me that one of his adult sons said he wouldn’t fit at our church because he has a big beard and tattoos. I’d like to think he’d be welcomed, but there’s a reason he feels like an outsider, so I’ve kept his comments in mind.
I was recently talking with a Japanese family new to the States and growing in their English. They were attending a Christian church — our church — for only the second time in their lives. As I talked with them after the service, I wondered: Had I preached clearly enough for them to understand? Was I thinking about people like them in our international city? Or had I gotten caught up in the moment, maximizing my vocabulary to engage only a certain kind of person here in west Houston? There’s always a balance, but had I considered second-language souls like this new couple when calibrating my approach? In the global city where I serve, I should.
Jesus our representative
As God’s divine Son, Jesus represents God to us, and as our human high priest, he represents us before God (John 1:18; Heb. 1:3; 2:14–15). To represent us, “he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way” (Heb. 2:17).
When we look to Jesus, from incarnation to ascension, we see a full human being. Jesus is human, like us, but lived righteously. Jesus was tempted, like us, but never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Now that we’re united with him by faith, we share in all that belongs to him: his righteousness, his sonship, his ministry, his family, and his future.
The message is clear: Our salvation and service, our redemption and participation, our inclusion and influence, are all possible not only because Christ is God, but because he came as the God-man — because, in my little boy’s words, “He looks like me!”