This is the first part in a two-part series.
The year I began college was a year of international unrest, national anxiety, and angst. It was also the year that I began to understand that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet realized. It was the year of my rude awakening about race and the beginning of a lifelong education about race relations—one that continues today.
One of my best friends in college was African-American. One night we were eating at a local restaurant when I became aware that the waitress was intentionally ignoring us and serving others who had come in after us. I became irritated, and when my friend noticed, he cautioned me to never offend a person who handled my food.
There, I saw my friend and his reality with a new perspective, and my heart dropped. It was if scales had suddenly dropped off my eyes and I saw for the first time what was happening. The waitress was intentionally behaving this way because of his skin color. It dawned on me that what was new and offensive and so troubling to me, was nothing out of the ordinary for my buddy. So began a deeper set of conversations between the two of us, and so began a greater awareness of the realities around me when it came to race and race relations.
We still have so much to do when it comes to race relations in our country, in our churches, in our universities, and in our homes.
As far as we seem to have come on so many fronts, there is the tragic reality that we still have so much to do when it comes to race relations in our country, in our churches, in our universities, and in our homes. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but what was missing then is missing still—shalom: completeness, contentment, wholeness, peace.
What does shalom have to do with it?
I want to focus attention on the hard work of shalom as it relates to racial reconciliation. Some may argue that this problem will never be solved, and that focusing on such difficult subjects only exacerbates the problem. But I reject the notion that this topic is too difficult to solve, or that we should ignore the subject because too much focus exacerbates the problem. We must address this because reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. We cannot ignore this, because we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. We are called to address it because those of us in theological education are Christian scholars, equipped and prepared to think through, work through, and lead through the hard issues of our day. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon us to speak out when events unfold.
We must not equivocate, either as Christians or as Baptists. Let us always be clear. We reject white supremacy as un-Christian, anti-gospel, and antithetical to the Word of God. We echo the words of ERLC president, Russell Moore who wrote,
White supremacy does not merely attack our society (though it does) and the ideals of our nation (though it does); white supremacy attacks the image of Jesus Christ himself. White supremacy exalts the creature over the Creator, and the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against it. This sort of ethnic nationalism and racial superiority ought to matter to every Christian, regardless of national, ethnic or racial background. After all, we are not our own but are part of a church — a church made up of all nations, all ethnicities, united not by blood and soil but by the shed blood and broken body of Jesus Christ.
We must remind ourselves of the message of reconciliation and unity found in the gospel and in passages like 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Stan Norman reminded us of this in his Hobbs Lecture in 2014 on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist University,
Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with one another. 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. . . . 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.
Because we are a university, charged with thinking, scholarship, and leading, it is incumbent upon us to work through these issues. Nicholas Wolterstorff described a college as a place where disciplined study is at the center of its project, and where shalom and the delight that is found in right relationships energize its work. He writes, “A college is a school, and as such, it places disciplined study at the center of its project. But the lure of shalom will direct and energize it. The goal of the Christian college, so I have begun to think, is to promote that mode of human flourishing which is shalom.”
As a university, we must speak out on these issues because they are matters of great importance and relevance for our culture. We must speak to these issues because we promote that mode of human flourishing which is shalom. But because we are a Baptist university—because we are a Southern Baptist university—we are especially accountable for speaking out on this particular issue. When an individual or a group has committed a particular sin, there is a commiserate burden. Given the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding, its particular sins of racism in its past, the Convention and its entities and organizations carry the added weight of responsibility for speaking out often and repeatedly against racism. Not just because it’s right or needed, but because we bear particular responsibility.
Pete Menjares challenges Christian universities seeking to be more racially and ethnically inclusive, writing, “This inclusive model for the kingdom has practical implications for spiritual formation, chapel programming, and leadership. Looking to the future, will the Christian college be directed and energized by the lure of shalom, and will it seek the shalom of the individuals and places it serves?” My answer is yes, the Christian university must seek the shalom of the individuals and places it serves—without question.
In another article, we’ll look at what this means for individuals and Christian universities.
Editor’s note: Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, John Piper, Jackie Hill-Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason and many others. Learn more here.