The following lecture was delivered on October 29, 2014, as the 2014 Herschel H. Hobbs Lecture.
In his breviary on sin, former Calvin College president and professor of systematic theology, Cornelius Plantiga, Jr., narrates a scene from a movie that introduces his treatise on the topic. His recounting of that episode is as follows:
In the film Grand Canyon, an immigration attorney breaks out of a traffic jam and attempts to bypass it. His route takes him along streets that seem progressively darker and more deserted. Then the predictable Bonfire of Vanities nightmare; his expensive car stalls on one of those alarming streets whose teenage guardians favor expensive guns and sneakers. The attorney does manage to phone for a tow truck, but before it arrives, five young street toughs surround his disabled car and threaten him with considerable bodily harm.
Then, just in time, the tow truck shows up and its driver—an earnest, genial man—begins to hook up to the disabled car. The toughs protest: the truck driver is interrupting their meal. So the driver takes the leader of the group aside and attempts a five-sentence introduction to metaphysics: “Man,” he says, “the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.”
This cinematic vignette provides the name for Plantiga’s book—Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be—and sets the stage for Plantiga’s discussion on the doctrine of sin. The title for this book as well as this opening movie scene serve as an apt introduction and description for the issue that I believe our Lord wants us to consider today in this lecture.
Our world finds itself perpetually grappling with the multifaceted complexities that are the result of the Fall of humanity in the Garden. A primary expression of that horrific event in Eden is the ongoing struggle each generation has with the issue of racism and racial prejudice. A cursory look at current media reports certainly attests to the reality and ever-present struggle of the tensions and conflicts among the people in our own country and among the nations of the world. The human race is mired in a seemingly endless conflict of racial tension, strife, and war. To borrow the title from Plantiga’s book, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Much to my chagrin, racial challenges and tensions are not limited to contexts external to our campus. As members of the global community, the modern Christian university find itself, surprisingly yet not unexpectedly, confronted with the realities of the Fall and with the sinful consequences that ensue from that event. The Christian university is not immune to the struggles of race and racism. To state it plainly, we who are involved in Christian higher education find ourselves grappling with the realities of sin in general and with racism in particular today.
I have served in Christian higher education for nearly twenty years. In my time of service, I have participated in a multitude of discussions and witnessed numerous incidents that are directly connected to or are reflective of the ongoing struggle of racism. Listen to a sampling of examples that I personally know of that have been verbalized among students.
“Why are black people so loud?”
“Is living in the dorm the same thing as living on the reservation?”
“Can I touch your hair? And, why do you black people always carry lotion?”
“Why do you people never look at other people in the eye when we meet on the sidewalk? Are you ashamed of being Indian?”
“I wish I were Asian, then I would never have to study. After all, all Asians are smart.” Another form of this sentiment is: “I wish I were Asian, then I would never have to work because all Asians have money!”
“You people have it made! You can live on casino money.”
“You need to speak English here and stop speaking Spanish! You aren’t south of the border anymore.”
When the individuals who made such comments are confronted about these statements, the following responses are offered as justification:
“Hey, I’m not racist. I’m just stating the obvious.”
“Hey, I’m not the only one around here who feels this way.”
“Hey, this is a two-way thing. Those people feel the same way about us as we feel about them.”
I could cite more examples, but I think you get the point. These comments uttered on college campuses are representative of what I suspect are greater numbers of comments and actions. More recently, anonymous, cowardly individuals have been enabled by social media and anonymous phone apps to make bigoted, prejudicial, racist, sinful comments, profoundly demonstrating the need for followers of Christ to take action.
A Christian university must be committed to the ideals of the Christian faith. Our mission (what we do) expresses our founding and ongoing commitment to be a distinctively Christian university. Our core values (how we do what we do) assert our conviction that we conduct ourselves in accordance with the ways of Christ. We speak of all truth as God’s truth. We speak of the pursuit of truth as the pursuit of knowing God.
We work to integrate our understanding of the Christian faith in all facets of the university. We believe that the “uni” in our understanding of “university” is the Christian faith, that which ties all of the diverse components of the university together into a coherent whole. And yet, despite our institutional commitments and initiatives that seek to embody and express these ideals, we find ourselves engaged in the midst of struggles regarding race and racism. To quote our catch-phrase of the hour, “this is not the way it’s supposed to be.” This is not the way our university is supposed to be.
The parables of Jesus point us to the realities of life in His Kingdom. They remind us that we were created for a reality different than the one in which we presently find ourselves, a reality in which things would be the way they are supposed to be. Jesus’ parables awaken our imaginations of what life in the Kingdom would be like. His parables are “revolutionary revelations” of the purposes of God in the Kingdom of Jesus.
The human imagination is a powerful thing, an expression of being created in the image of God. The human imagination moves us to creative expression, prompts us to exploration of truth, and pushes us from complacency to action. Our imagination can move us to seek beauty and goodness, and our imagination can lead us to corrupted, prideful, self-indulgent thoughts and actions. We are fallen creatures, living in a sinful world, and our internal and external sinful corruption affects our imagination. By the grace of God and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, however, a redeemed imagination can help us to follow Jesus by conceptualizing what our life would be like if our world were “really as it ought to be.”
So, as we confront the issue of race and racial reconciliation, let us briefly consider the parable of the Good Samarian (Luke 10:25-37): “Being a neighbor” in the Kingdom of Jesus has unlikely and unexpected expressions. Mercy (neighbor behaviors/actions) comes from unexpected sources. In this Kingdom, our enemy becomes our neighbor. In the Kingdom of Jesus, an enemy (a person of a different race, different culture, different appearance) becomes my neighbor, my brother, my sister. We were created to live in a world where our enemy is transformed into our neighbor.
Imagine life in a world like this, in a Kingdom like this. Imagine living in a Kingdom where the King of the Kingdom rules in perfect love and righteousness, a reality where the sinful corruption of racial prejudice and racial animosity do not exist. Imagine if that world were presented to you now—today. This world, the Kingdom of Jesus, is in fact a present reality. We can begin to live in that world, in that reality—now—today.
In our fallen world, in the kingdom of this present age, we too often see those of different nationalities, different ethnicities, different cultures, as our enemies. These attitudes breed racist words, birth racist perspectives, and prompt racist actions. These expressions are sinful and contrary to the way of the Jesus. If nothing else, the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals to us that the sin of racism has no place in the Kingdom of Jesus. In His Kingdom, Jesus transforms enemies into friends.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, in fact all of the parables of Jesus, capture our imagination about His Kingdom, an eschatological reality that many scholars describe as “already/not yet.” On the one hand, the Kingdom of Jesus is not fully present. His Kingdom is a reality that will one day be completely and fully consummated, but that Kingdom is not yet fully present. In this sense, the Kingdom is “not yet” here. On the other hand, Jesus Himself declared that His Kingdom was at hand. In His first advent, Jesus proclaimed that His Kingdom was manifested by and through His coming. The inauguration of His Kingdom began at His first coming and is unfolding presently within human history. In this sense, His Kingdom is “already” present.
Although the full and final expression of His Kingdom is future, we as His followers do live presently in the actual reality of His inaugurated Kingdom. As His followers, we are a people transformed by the power of His gospel. We are people of redeemed words, redeemed feelings/passions, redeemed thinking, and redeemed actions. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has transformed how we live with and relate to one another.
As members of a Christian university, we are to reflect the reality of the Kingdom of Jesus. Our university must be a place where the ideals of Jesus are lived, taught, declared, and practiced. As a Kingdom school, our university should be a place where the power of the gospel transforms enemies into neighbors, where those who speak, look, and act differently are transformed into brothers and sisters.
I want to propose to you today a way forward for Christian institutions and universities in matters of the gospel, the university, and racial reconciliation. I believe a biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, Jesus-focused university has a revelatory mandate from the living God to do gospel work—to declare and take action to make a Christian university reflective of the Kingdom of God.
To help us understand our mission and mandate, we must understand our identity as Christian universities. Our universities are the convergence of the vision and mission of hundreds of believers and churches with the distinctive mission of Christian higher education. In a real sense, a Christian university exists as the “academic arm” of the Church.
A Christian university exists to assist the universal church and the local churches of our state convention to equip disciples in a Great Commission, Great Commandment mission.
A Christian university exists exist to assist the Church in her mission to see that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
A Christian university exists exist to assist the Church in her gospel message and mission.
A Christian university exists to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to declare His Lordship in gospel word and gospel deed.
The founding mission statement of a one Christian university captures well the prevailing purpose for any Christian university: a Christian university exists to lead students to Jesus, to teach students of Jesus, and to train students for Jesus. We today must continually embrace that core conviction that defines our raison d'être.
Because of these commitments, we as a community of confessing believers should model the beliefs and dispositions commanded by the New Testament. These Christ-like dispositions are true for all followers of Jesus, including those of us who work and study at a Christian university. Although a Christian university is not a local church, we are to think, feel, act, and live as members of the Church.
These convictions and commitments speak directly to the issue before us this morning and, I hope, provide us a path to follow and teachings to guide us as we seek gospel reconciliation within our university community. I believe that a Christian university should model the power of God to reconcile followers of Jesus, from all nations and all peoples, in and through the gospel.
I am proposing a way forward for us on this matter. The ideas and actions offered are nothing new or original; much of my presentation is to remind us of what we may already know. Toward that end, I first offer a few definitions that shape my proposal, followed by a brief reflection on two biblical texts. I will then develop some theological ideas that should shape our vision and our mission. I will conclude with some practical steps to start us moving, followed by a final challenge.
The first concept that I want to define is “gospel.” In its most basic expression, the gospel can be defined as “the message of salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ.”
In Romans 1:16, the apostle Paul defined the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” In this statement, Paul clearly declares that the gospel has implications for issues involving race and reconciliation.
John R. W. Stott defines the gospel as “the message that in and through Christ crucified, God substituted himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserve to die, in order that we might be restored to his favor and adopted into his family.” As J. I. Packer rightly notes, this belief “is a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity; it ‘takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.’” This substitutionary, sacrificial understanding best embodies the overall biblical witness of the gospel and will serve as our working definition. When I use the term “gospel” in this lecture, this is what I mean.
“Justice” is the next term to be defined. The concept of “justice” is a faded entry on a dog-eared page of our society’s lexicon. When someone is the victim of a heinous crime, we sometimes hear, usually in emotive, unflinching terms: “I want justice.” What they often mean is retribution. When civil liberty spokespersons talk about “justice,” they tend to think in terms of Robin Hood: dismantling systemic exploitation and redistributing money and power. They likewise often intend to be the beneficiaries of this “justice.” Because the term justice is often used like this, it seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment.
Of further concern is the ongoing dissection of justice into sub-categories. Concepts like “social justice,” “racial justice,” “economic justice,” and so on, are regularly bantered about, yet these types of uses only denude the term of any real meaning. Bifurcated justice only serves the interests of the sub-set of individuals who are offering the particular plea at that moment. This is not justice.
In Jesus’ Kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution, redistribution, or special interests. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that justice in the Kingdom of Jesus concerns restoring humans to God and others. In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes “making something right,” and for something to be “right,” there has to be a standard.
The ultimate standard of justice is the act of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The cross of Jesus established once and for all the righteous, just standards of God. The cross of Christ revealed the magnitude of what justice demanded and what love provided. The resurrection was the vindication of the just act of God and demonstrated the acceptance of the Father of the sacrifice of the Son.
The quintessential expression of the justice of God is most visibly expressed by the justification and the spiritual transformation of a sinner into a Christ-follower who now loves God and others. The Christian living the Great Commandment and Great Commission becomes a powerful force for manifesting the justice of God. The follower of Jesus is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness [or justice].” To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love God and others and work for ways to express such love. Only gospel justice can satisfy this hunger/thirst and express this love, thereby “making things right, the way things ought to be.”
Understood in this way, justice needs no adjectival qualifier. Of course, justice is social. Of course, justice confronts economic injustices. Of course, justice addresses racial issues. All of these areas (and many more!) have relational components and, as such, are encompassed by a robust, biblical understanding of justice. Of particular concern for us today is the fact that gospel justice does in fact speak clearly and unequivocally to matters of race and reconciliation. Gospel justice demands the eradication of all sin and sinfulness, and this certainly includes racism and prejudice.
The next term to be considered is racism. Racism can be defined as discrimination against those of different ethnic background. Racism is an expression of the sin of pride. As such, racism is an attitude or action that verbally or physically oppresses another person or group of persons on the basis of the belief that the person or persons who are executing the acts of oppression are ethnically superior to the other person or persons being oppressed. At its core, racism and racial prejudice are sinful and contrary to the purposes of God. Racism has no place in the Kingdom of Jesus. Racial prejudice is an affront to justice in the kingdom of Jesus.
The final term to be defined is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the act of bringing together two parties who previously were estranged. Specifically, reconciliation is God’s divine act of removing enmity between Himself and humanity, on the basis of Christ’s death, in which God’s holy displeasure is removed. Human beings thus can be restored to a proper relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The result of reconciliation is called salvation.
The atonement of Jesus Christ is the power of God at work to overcome the devastating enmity and hostility created by human sinfulness. The gospel is the power of God to reconcile us from exclusion and alienation. Reconciliation flows from the love of God and removes the hostility between God and us.
The divine-human act of reconciliation serves as the basis for authentic human-to-human reconciliation. The gospel of reconciliation is the foundation of and our only hope for true reconciled relationships in all spheres of human existence. The Kingdom of Jesus is a God-created community where reconciliation is the permeating culture. God the Father is creating a community of the Reconciled by the power of His grace. Racial hostilities can now be eradicated in human-to-human relationships. Because of gospel reconciliation, authentic racial unity can now be realized. In the Kingdom of Jesus, the gospel is the justice of God in pursuit of reconciliation (in all its expressions) overcoming and eradicating human sinfulness, including racism.
As followers of Christ, we have been commissioned by the resurrected Lord to have a message and a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5). In this sense, reconciliation is not only a reality of life for believers, but it is also a primary purpose for Kingdom ministry. Gospel reconciliation is the real and meaningful removal of barriers, of hostility, of estrangement. Gospel reconciliation is an expression of the justice of God and is the embrace of peace, relationship, and community. Gospel reconciliation is a real thing, a way of life, for followers of Christ. Gospel reconciliation is the heart of and a way of life for a Christian university.
The book of Acts provides for us the account of an event we call the Jerusalem Council. The early church convened this council in order to address issues that were at the core of gospel, including racial issues affecting fellowship and ministry. The council would address how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could come together in true, authentic ministry and fellowship. Strangely, I take comfort from this and other similar biblical passages that remind us that racial struggles are not new. The church has had to wrestle with these issues from its inception.
The issues addressed were profoundly complex and systemic and, at a human level, seemingly insurmountable. By the gracious and providential leading of God, however, the early church developed ways in which both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus could enjoy meaningful reconciliation while honoring the unique cultures and ethnicities of both groups.
This is not to say that racial tensions were forever resolved and never again arose in the Church. This is not to say that the Church has been perfect in its appropriation of reconciliation. The Church consistently has had to wrestle with the notion of reconciliation and how it would play out in the lives and ministries of God’s people. The Jerusalem Council did, however, demonstrate for us that the gospel of Jesus could create a unified people from all nations, from all peoples, and from all races.
The second biblical passage for us to consider is Ephesians 2:11-21. Perhaps no other book in the New Testament stresses unity in the church as much as Ephesians does. Reconciliation and unity in Christ are the central message of this epistle. Ephesians is supremely concerned about unity among the people of God. The centerpiece of Paul’s argument concerning unity is found in Ephesians 2:11-21:
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
After discussion of the salvation of the individual in 2:1-10, Paul unveiled in vv. 11-21 a new aspect of the work of Christ: the reconciliation of believers not only to God but also to one another. Salvation is more than believers receiving forgiveness of their sins. Salvation includes union with Christ and with one another. Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with His people. You cannot have one without the other. In fact, the biblical witness is that the reality of reconciliation with God is demonstrated by the reality of reconciliation among His people.
The implications of this passage are profound and immediately relevant to the challenge before us today:
First, in Christ separation and alienation are removed; the separated are now connected to Him and to His people. The alienated are now adopted into His family and are made citizens in His Kingdom with His people.
Second, peace (reconciliation) is foremost personal. Jesus Christ not only brings peace, He is Himself our peace. True peace and reconciliation are only found in Him.
Third, the atoning work of Christ breaks down sinful divisions and abolishes hostilities.
Fourth, the Kingdom of Christ is characterized by one race of human beings. The atonement of Christ brings the re-creation of fallen, alienated, fragmented humanity into one, peaceful, reconciled race of Kingdom people. Through His gospel, Jesus creates a new race of people for His kingdom.
Fifth, to be joined to Christ and His people is more than just a welcoming of presence. We are joined together in mutual contribution and participation in His Kingdom ways and mission.
The theology of Ephesians is significantly crucial for confronting racial hostility. Christians of all races belong to Christ and are part of His church. Divisions cannot be tolerated or allowed to continue. Racial barriers and hostilities are a festering wound in the body of Christ. The perversion of both active and passive racism must be confronted and removed. Although we as the church must engage with racism by means of the gospel on a societal level, we must first address it within the body of Christ. The point of Ephesians is not only that all Christians are equal and that hostilities have been abolished. The point is that all Christians have been joined to God and to one another.
Countless other biblical texts and teachings speak to this issue. The biblical metaphors for the church (such as a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a family of faith, the temple of God, the body of Christ, the fullness of God, the bride of Christ, etc.) have profound, nuanced meaning for racial reconciliation within the church. The prophetic oracles of the Old Testament against the oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized likewise have application to this matter. The overall biblical narrative speaks to this issue, for “in the beginning” we find the people of God (Adam and Eve) standing in unity in the Garden in the presence of God, and at the conclusion of the biblical account (in the book of Revelation), the nations are standing in unity in the New Earth, as one people, before the throne of the Lamb of God. From beginning to end, the purposes of God on this matter are crystal clear and unequivocally undeniable.
In light of these definitions and brief considerations of biblical teachings, let me offer some theological considerations. First, authentic reconciliation, the kind we long to have and the kind we were created to have, is only found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation is therefore Christo-centric; the reality of true reconciliation will not be, cannot be, realized apart from the resurrected Lord. As such, authentic reconciliation cannot be humanly manufactured or legislatively dictated. Behaviors can be restrained and guided, but only the Lord Jesus through the power of His gospel can transform a heart and bring reconciliation.
Second, reconciliation is an essential component of the Kingdom culture of Jesus. Reconciliation is a primary expression of the way of Jesus among His people. As Paul asserts in 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21, the love of Christ compels us to embrace a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel message and ministry of the church. A primary expression of this reconciling message and ministry is racial in expression.
Third, to be joined to Christ is to be joined to His people. Evidence of the authenticity of our salvation is expressed in our capacity, willingness, and action to pursue with all vigor and zeal reconciliation in the family of faith. With this in mind, we have every right to question the integrity of the claim of someone who confesses to be a Christ-follower yet denies or resists a life of reconciliation. One who claims to love Christ and yet is racist toward others at best makes his or her claim dubious, and at worst, is simply lying about the authenticity of their faith commitment to Jesus.
Fourth, reconciliation brings not only affirmation but also participation; that is, inclusion and opportunity. With regard to racial reconciliation, the biblical metaphors for the church reveal to us that the gospel demands the following for life in the Kingdom of Jesus:
For the “family of faith:” anyone from any ethnic background who has received the new birth that the Holy Spirit brings has a place at the family table and a voice and influence in family affairs;
For the “temple of God:” anyone from any ethnic background who confesses Christ is an essential building-block, a “living stone,” to be placed in the structure of the temple of God next to and alongside all the other “living stones;”
For “the body of Christ:” anyone from any ethnic background who claims the lordship of Jesus, is a vital, necessary member of His body and is essential for its healthy function and enjoys direct access to the Head of the body, Jesus Himself;
For the “priesthood of all believers:” anyone from any ethnic background who has received the gift of salvation is a priest in the priesthood and is expected to embrace the priestly duties of sacrifice, service, and mediation and serve alongside all other priests;
For the “the heavenly communion:” anyone from any ethnic background who confesses Jesus is Lord is a part of the worshiping community, surrounding the throne of God, declaring with all the saints, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power, dominion, and glory forever!”
This is the power of the gospel. This is what reconciliation is. This is the way it’s supposed to be.
Implications for a Christian University
What are the implications of all of this for a Christian university? As a Christian university, the community should look like, must look like, the Kingdom of Jesus. The Kingdom is composed of diverse ethnicities, a racial mosaic. Our universities should reflect this reality in appearance and in conduct. This is our conviction and our confession. We work toward this reality not because of societal expectations or political correctness. We embrace this conviction because such is the heart of our Lord. As followers of Jesus, His passion is our passion. We become “reconciliation universities” because the gospel demands that we do so.
The commitment to be a biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, Christ-focused university has significant implications for us that shape our university culture in every way. Allow me to address a few of these.
First and foremost, on the basis of all that I have said up to this point; my conviction, the conviction of the college, the conviction of the board of trustees, and the conviction of the faculty and staff—minority students, minority faculty, and minority staff must be genuinely welcomed. The message needs to be communicated clearly: “You are welcome here—at this university! You belong here—at this university! You are invited to participate in the mission here—at this university. Your participation and opportunity is essential for us to advance the mission here—at this university! You belong here!”
Our Christian universities were founded to be reflective of the heavenly mosaic of the nations, expressing the heart of our Lord Jesus. Whether Asian, Hispanic, or Indian—whether black or white—or whether a combination of some or all of these, we must reach out and unequivocally declare: you are welcome here, you have opportunity here. Jesus has invited you to be here to know and to love Him, His ways, and His people.
Second, our efforts in these matters must be biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, and Christ-focused. We must allow our Christian faith as revealed in the Bible to be what propels and shapes our convictions and efforts in these areas. Although sensitive to and mindful of social, economic, and political issues, concerns, and challenges—we do what we do, and we believe what we believe, because our identity is found in Jesus Christ and is expressive of our citizenship in His Kingdom. Although we are not a local church, the beliefs that dictate what we do (our mission) and how we do what we do (our core values) are biblical in foundation, theological in expression, and ecclesial in practice.
Third, our ongoing quest must have tangible, meaningful action. We in the academy love a good conversation. We attend professional conferences and workshops, we write books and articles, we give presentations and lectures, so that we can have a good conversation. We can discuss and converse on any matter, on any subject, sometimes into utter, glassy-eyed oblivion. And although this is a conversation that needs to be had (we are starting it today!), our discussions must yield action. We must come to conclusions that move us forward in tangible ways to be a reconciliation university.
As such, all organizational facets of the Christian university must embrace this conviction and responsibility. Those of us that serve in administration, on the staff, and on the faculty must embrace this conviction as core to our identity and mission. Those of us that are students here must likewise understand that reconciliation will be a normative expression of our gospel convictions. This is the way it must be!
Further, let me propose that the classical bifurcation between administration and faculty cannot and should be not manifested on this issue. Although there is a place for a healthy distinction between these two groups, when it comes to gospel reconciliation, there is no “us and them.” We all must be likeminded and model to one another the unity and peace we desire to see rampant in all segments of university life.
To our students and student life staff: student life functions must provide structures, events, and opportunities that are unique to minority students as well as inclusive of minority students. Both are appropriate and needed. For example:
The student government association must develop leadership opportunities and student organizations that are inclusive and encourage participation of minority students.
The student development staff must develop organizations and implement events and opportunities that are meaningfully relevant for minority students.
The student ministry department must recruit minority leaders & participants in global outreach events and initiatives.
To the faculty: we need to learn and/or improve pedagogical techniques that account for and are sensitive to the needs of our minority students. To illustrate this need: a black female student recently shared with me her concern (maybe even her fear) regarding when she discovers that she is the only minority student in a class. She told me that she cringes at the thought of being the only black student in the room, knowing that if any topics or discussions arise about race issues or civil rights, in all likelihood, she will be expected to speak authoritatively and passionately about these matters, representing the concerns and the history of all black people. She then said to me, “I just want to run and drop the class. I don’t want to be singled-out because of the color of my skin. I just want to be a regular student, treated like any other student in the class.”
Those who serve on the faculty of a Christian university must intentionally take these and other like concerns to heart. Pedagogical methods must be designed and implemented to enhance and encourage learning for our minority students. Our teaching must embody and express the reconciling work of the gospel.
I could address how reconciliations impacts other areas of the university, such as recruitment/enrollment, advancement, athletics, spiritual life, and so. I think, however, you get the point. We can do better, and we will do better.
The challenge before us today, before this generation of Christ-followers, before our Christian universities, is to be ever diligent in this matter. Sin does not simply disappear when one generation engages in gospel work to eliminate or alleviate its manifestation. Rather, each generation of Christ-followers must intentionally confront the challenges and realities of racial division and racist attitudes and practices.
My own university where I currently serve—Oklahoma Baptist University—has a history of engaging racism and racial discrimination. In one sense, our university implemented initiatives in the early days of the civil rights movement that were on the forefront of racial reconciliation in Christian higher education. The decision to take those steps was right and necessary. It is appropriate for us today to celebrate the efforts of those who have gone before us and confronted the racial prejudices and practices of that era.
But neither we nor any Christian university can rest upon these past actions for the ongoing quest of gospel reconciliation in the present. What was done in the past is only as meaningful as we in the present continue to move forward in the legacy of gospel-reconciliation. Each generation of Christ-followers must rise to the occasion and join the effort for the continued advancement and propagation of the gospel and the expression of that good news in all its manifold ways, including racial reconciliation. For us today, the primary, historical event that sets the agenda for our unrelenting quest of gospel reconciliation is not the past actions or decisions of bygone university leaders, but rather the decision of God the Father to send God the Son to achieve atonement for sin through His death on a cross.
Permit me a moment to speak to those for whom the gospel realities that I have described are not applicable. These students may be at a Christian university because of the outstanding academic reputation and quality education. These students may be at a Christian university because of athletic or other student-life opportunities. These students may be at a Christian university because of a relationship with a young man or woman. These students may be at a Christian university for any number of reasons. Whatever the case may be, if these students were completely honest this morning, they would have to admit that they are not at a Christian university because of the distinctively Christian mission of the school. For them, gospel reconciliation is neither a pressing concern nor a present reality.
First, let us assure these students that they are welcome. We affirm their educational pursuits at our institutions. We are glad that they have chosen to pursue their academic endeavors at a Christian university. Let me say to these students: we are praying for you. We pray that you will discover and embrace the Lord Jesus and His glorious gospel.
For those present among our university communities for whom gospel reconciliation has no meaning or purpose, let those of us who confess to follow Jesus challenge these students. Invite them to consider the claims of Christ. The life of love they long to have, the life of significance they desire to have, the fulfillment of their deepest passions—these can only be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. By grace through faith, these students can know God the Father through the atoning sacrifice of God the Son.
If any harbor racial resentments, animosities, or hatred toward other human beings, there is hope. Jesus Christ bore the guilt and penalty of sin, including the sin of racism. The Lord Jesus can pardon and forgive sin, including the sin of racism.
To those outside the family of faith, I am a living testimony to the grace and forgiveness of God. If someone like me can receive forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life with God, so can you. He has done this for me, and through the gift of His gracious salvation, He can forgive you. Through Him, you can be reconciled to God and to others, to Christian brothers and sisters of all nationalities. This type of life is real, and you can become a member of His family—now—today. Should you reject the call of Christ to embrace His gospel and confess His lordship, please understand—and I say this with all love and compassion—you will be the minority. Our intention is to cultivate a gospel culture that is perpetually pursuing reconciliation with God and His people. I invite you to consider His purposes for your life. Be reconciled to God the Father through Jesus the Son.
To those who belong to the family of faith, we must encourage our minority students, faculty, and staff. We must tell them and affirm to them that they are at a right place, a loving place, a university where the lordship of Christ is evident and inviting to all races of all peoples. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ and a person of color, I invite you to join with me, our administration, faculty, staff, and student body—to engage this issue directly. Racism is sinful, ugly, and prideful. Left unchecked, racism will destroy our university community and each of us as individuals. The overt and latent racism recently expressed at certain Christian universities is reflective of a small group of people who do not know Jesus as Lord or who need to repent of their sin and receive the gracious forgiveness of our Lord.
I encourage you to pray about standing alongside me in this spiritual conflict. I truly believe this is spiritual warfare. I implore you, brothers and sisters, despite what a few may have expressed or what you may have experienced, do not allow the sinful evil of racism of a few to direct your decisions or influence the course of your life.
To minority students who may have considered transferring from or dropping out of one of our Christian universities because some have sinfully manifested racism directly or indirectly toward you, I appeal to you to stay and stand with us and with our Lord. We cannot allow evil to dictate university culture or shape university identity. If you are a follower of Jesus, we need you—godly men and godly women—of all colors from all nations and all ethnicities, to join together in the gospel ministry of reconciliation—to resist and rebuke the present evil of racial division that reflects the “spirit of this age.” I am praying that you would stand with me, with our sister institutions and their respective trustees, administration, faculty, staff, and students; with all those who know and love the Lord Jesus and who have embraced His gospel of reconciliation.
Gospel reconciliation is the will of Jesus for our universities. Jesus is building kingdom universities, “reconciliation universities.” Brothers and sisters, let us be reconciled to the Lord and to one another. This is the will of God for me, for you, for us. Will you stand with me? After all,
Cornelius Plantiga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995), 7.
John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 7.
J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 3.
Many Christian thinkers have shaped my understanding on the biblical view of justice, but the author who has significantly shaped my thought on this matter is Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).
Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), s.v. “Racial Prejudice.”
R. Stanton Norman, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), s.v. “Reconciliation.”
For an excellent overview of reconciliation, the gospel, and the glory of God, see Christopher W. Morgan, “The Church and God’s Glory,” The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church, eds. Kendell H. Easley & Christopher W. Morgan (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010), 213-35.