Hope for a racially divided nation

Jim Eaton

Lead pastor, Mosaic Church

Point Magazine // September 2020

Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd and others. This summer the biological pandemic of COVID-19 has been overtaken by a racial pandemic, burning into our collective heart once again the agonizing truth that we remain a racially divided nation. Our “original sin,” as James Madison so long ago described it, is still very much with us.

In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Non-cooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves…the end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of a beloved community.”

Yet, more than 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite the appearance of success on many fronts among Black and Brown Americans, we stand little closer to the beloved community. Indeed, we stand in a place of deep and excruciating wounding, of profound and heart-breaking division.

I write this article with profound humility and many battle scars from the journey, but with a steadfast hope. My hope is embedded not in government, business, education or the social sciences, as helpful as all these may be. My hope is in the Lord, the God who makes dry bones live, Red Seas part and blind men see. My hope is in the living God, who has promised us that if we pursue this righteous journey with a pure heart for our suffering brothers and sisters, “Your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. At that time, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry out, he will say, ‘Here I am’” (Isa. 58:8-9, CSB).

My perspective is somewhat unique. I was born in the U.S., but at the age of 6, I moved with my family to Bangladesh, a little-known country in South Asia. There my parents served in a mission hospital and church planting environment, serving the poorest of the poor — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.

I was raised in a magnificent bicultural environment — part South Asian, part American; part white, part Brown; part minority, part majority. As I grew, I transitioned constantly and fluidly among all these worlds.

My hope is embedded not in government, business, education or the social sciences, as helpful as all these may be. My hope is in the Lord, the God who makes dry bones live, Red Seas part and blind men see.

Returning to the U.S. when I was 16, I was thrown into full-blown culture shock, trying to make sense of the America I had studied in school vs. the America I was experiencing. This life experience made me into what sociologists call a third-culture person.

Third culture means your parents’ culture and your host culture fuse into a hybrid culture. While your exterior retains a monocultural appearance, internally, you become a complex cultural bridge, with one part firmly embedded in one culture and the other in another sometimes-conflicting culture. Like an accent that stays with you throughout life, this third-culture experience enables a constantly expanding capacity to see, sense and understand multiple cultures simultaneously.
While broadening one’s perspective, third culture also creates a life of mystery, paradox, misunderstanding and great pain. It’s from this perspective that I upload my soul to you about how I see hope for our racially divided country.
Centuries ago, the prophet Jeremiah relayed God’s perspective, writing, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14, NIV).

For all our intelligence, technological innovation and prominence on the world stage, we keep trying to heal our cancer of racism with a Band-Aid. And the cancer is metastasizing.

I’ve been grieving these past months. But I haven’t lost hope.
Through a lifetime of serving diverse peoples in Asia, Africa, Europe and America, my wife, Natalie, and I have learned three vital principles from the Word of God that can transform racial despair into hope: racial justice, racial reconciliation and intercultural relationships.

1. Racial justice

We must lament a great injustice. To lament means to publicly mourn a great loss. We Americans love stories with happy endings. But the first step in addressing our national wound is not to “move forward,” or “get over it,” or some other trite cliché.

When someone you love is hurting, you grieve. Your first thought shouldn’t be to fix it or move on — it should be to grieve. Your future soul health depends upon your grief. We must learn to grieve our nation’s injustice because we have grieved God’s heart.

Racial justice is one aspect of biblical justice. Justice forms the core of God’s character.

Isaiah 59:14-16 (CSB) says, “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far off. For truth has stumbled in the public square, and honesty cannot enter. Truth is missing, and whoever turns from evil is plundered. The Lord saw that there was no justice, and he was offended. He saw that there was no man—he was amazed that there was no one interceding.”

Justice also forms the core of the gospel. Consider Paul’s words: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith” (Rom. 1:16-17, CSB).

We have no problem linking sex trafficking to the call of justice. We have no problem linking abortion to the call of justice. We have a problem linking systemic racism to the call of justice. And that’s a problem for God.

When I moved to the United States, I knew the narrative. I had studied American history in our mission school — I knew about the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty and how we liberated Europe in World War II. We were the global beacon of liberty and justice for all.

As a child living in Asia in the Cold War, the narrative became personal. Around the dinner table, I listened to the tragic stories of Christian refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam as they described the persecution they had endured at the Communists’ hands. America was the freedom country, the liberty country, the justice country. The greatest country in the world. When I moved to America, I was eager to experience all this myself.

And yet when I arrived, I was confronted with another narrative I didn’t understand. As we traveled through city after city, I wondered why all the poor neighborhoods were Black? Why did I feel hostility and tension in Black neighborhoods? Why weren’t we Americans experiencing freedom everywhere domestically even as we projected freedom internationally?

America is a complex place — one of the most complex in the world. We are a nation of all the peoples of the world. And a nation with not just one narrative but two.

It was as if there were a family secret nobody wanted to talk about. And I was determined to find out what it was. So, from that day to this, I’ve studied America intently, because I passionately love this country — this country of my birth, this country of my naturalization.
America is a complex place — one of the most complex in the world. We are a nation of all the peoples of the world. And a nation with not just one narrative but two. This second narrative Black people know intuitively.
Even as Thomas Jefferson penned the ingenious words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” he held slaves in squalid housing on his Monticello estate. As the 13 colonies transitioned into freedom from England, eight of these new states were slave states.
Unlike England, which abolished its slave trade by a bloodless act of Parliament, we crashed our way through a costly and bloody Civil War to basically move Black people from three-fifths human to fully human. To negate the outrageous and wicked ideology of dehumanization put forth by Supreme Court Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision. To grant the basic human right we had championed all along in our national documents.
But then Reconstruction gave way to the Lost Cause and Jim Crow. And here we are today, with our stain of racial injustice still seeping throughout our national psyche.
Thanks to a wealth of scholarship and media that is coursing through mainstream culture, we have no excuse as white members of the body of Christ to remain ignorant of this narrative. Consider the following resources to help you learn:

  • The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein
  • The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The 2019 film Just Mercy
  • The 2016 film 13th
  • The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, American TV series by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • The 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.)
  • National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Montgomery, Alabama)

These options don’t even include the wealth of movies available on Netflix and YouTube. As white members of the body of Christ we have opportunities to grow in our understanding of this narrative. As author and speaker Chrystal Evans Hurst said, “With God and Google you can do anything.”
Google it. Order it on Amazon and read it. Find it on Netflix or YouTube and watch it. Educate yourself. Say something. Do something. Pursue justice.
Communities of color have lamented the loss of justice for generations; it is time the white community stepped forward in equal measure alongside our Black and Brown brothers and sisters.
Author Brené Brown says, “Not power over, but power with.” Our relative silence may be borne of awkwardness or indifference or apathy, but whatever our motive, silence is no longer an option. We must leverage our position, come off the sidelines and play the game to the same full measure as Americans of color.
We are in this together. We are our brothers’ keeper.
Our nation is rich in ideals and moral character. We must not shrink from these exceptional traits that the world’s peoples see as they come here to make America their home. We struggle with an immigration challenge precisely because the peoples of the world want to live here.

To travel this journey, to become an ally for righteousness for your brothers and sisters of color will cost you. It has cost Natalie and me far more than we ever anticipated.

And yet, for all our strengths, we must corporately lament before the eyes of heaven that, throughout our history, we have also corporately wounded people of color, from the Middle Passage to the Cherokee Trail of Tears to Hispanic and Chinese immigration injustices to Islamophobia. We must lament. It is not right for communities of color to feel they bear the burden for initiative, insight and progress.

I’m not imputing the personal guilt of racism to Anglos, nor am I saying each individual is responsible. This, too, would be unjust. I’m speaking corporately.
We, like Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah before us, must acknowledge the devastating impact of generational sin upon our society — systemic injustice throughout our social, economic and political practices. We must lament together and pursue justice. It’s long past time.
I won’t airbrush this. To travel this journey, to become an ally for righteousness for your brothers and sisters of color will cost you. It has cost Natalie and me far more than we ever anticipated.
We planted Mosaic Church in Frederick, Maryland, nearly 15 years ago. In our short history, we have lost over 300 Caucasians simply because of this one feature of our core values. We have learned the painful lesson that if we oppose personal racism, we’re OK. But if we oppose systemic racism, we’re not.
Just a year ago one of my top leaders sat down with me and declared his strong disagreement with our posture of standing against systemic racism. He believed I was leading our church away from the gospel and into heresy. A number of people left the church, but if not for God’s grace, Mosaic would likely not be in existence today. Because God is good, he has supernaturally brought in magnificent people to begin the process of replacing those who left. But it has cost us.

2. Racial reconciliation

We must proceed in the same order as God; justice, then reconciliation. The power of the gospel emerges with striking beauty across the landscape of all other religions and philosophies of humankind. Only in the gospel of Jesus Christ do you find God himself creating redemptive justice through the willing, sacrificial offering of his Son. This kind of justice, as distinct from retributive or punitive justice, miraculously transforms enemies into friends.

“But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:13-18, CSB).

Too many in the white Christian community are eager to move immediately to reconciliation without understanding the devastating, multigenerational impact of racism upon communities of color. That’s like skipping Romans 1-3 and going straight to Romans 4-5.

This is why so many efforts at racial reconciliation fall flat. You can’t just airbrush these things away.
A growing number of Christians of color are giving up on the concept of racial reconciliation out of sheer exhaustion and weariness. They have seen too many white Christians demonstrate a brief interest in their pain and daily experiences with injustice, only to move along to the next interesting issue that comes along. We need to stay the course.
Is it possible to have true reconciliation without a sincere effort to grasp their pain? Sitting around and crying together over a cup of coffee will not wash away 400 years of dehumanization.
And yet, I still believe in racial reconciliation. I believe in it because a failure to move to racial reconciliation leaves everyone separate, in unresolved anger and pain.
The wounds never heal. Retribution feels right to the aggrieved, but it doesn’t even the score. It simply sets up the next countermove, and people and entire cultures lurch from one wound to the next.
Something more is needed, and that something is reconciliation. But not the cheesy, kumbaya moment that yields Likes on Instagram but fails to go deeper. No, true racial reconciliation must be more robust than that, and it is in the Scripture. The problem is that it’s painful.
As theologian, philosopher and writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
When Jesus sent his disciples on the Great Commission in Acts 1:8, he wasn’t sending them to geographical places but to cultural groups. Jerusalem wasn’t the disciples’ hometown. Jesus knew that to these disciples Samaria didn’t mean the next state on the map; it was the other side of the tracks, the place their mothers warned them about, the place of multigenerational hatred and pain. Jesus sent his disciples on an intercultural mission.
In Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came in the metaphor of a tongue. Believers spoke in the tongues of human languages, not to create a Pentecostal denomination, but to illustrate God's new world, the Church. Ancient Babel initiated the silos of ethnic isolation, unraveling unity with disunity and trust with suspicion. The true Church reverses Babel.

When Jesus sent his disciples on the Great Commission in Acts 1:8, he wasn’t sending them to geographical places but to cultural groups. Jesus sent his disciples on an intercultural mission.

The gift of tongues created understanding, communication, empathy, harmony and unity amid diversity. Without diversity, you cannot have unity — only uniformity.

The theological impetus of Galatians and Ephesians features the exclusive majesty and purity of the gospel. Within the gospel lies the purpose of God to create the Church as “one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:15, NIV).
Peter’s lapse into prejudice when the leaders came from Jerusalem didn’t just indicate poor manners; it threatened the purity of the gospel. Paul was left with no option but to rebuke Peter publicly. “…when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” (Gal. 2:14, ESV).
The next time you hear someone say pursuing racial justice and reconciliation is leading us away from the gospel, re-read Galatians. The opposite is the case. A failure to engage deeply in these issues forces us out of step with the gospel and the Spirit of Christ.
A faithful gospel-centered Christ-follower actively pursues justice and reconciliation in all its forms: racial, pre-birth, relational, cultural. Not either/or but both/and.
The Church is designed by Jesus to be one people from many, one intercultural body formed of former enemies, one spiritual entity transcending all earthly entities. Paul wrote, “…there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, ESV).
The intercultural church is not hip or trendy. It’s desperately biblical.
Heaven will be a place of superlatives. It will transcend denomination. No Presbyterian Promenade, Catholic Cul-de-sac, Baptist Boulevard. It will also transcend race and culture.

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (Rev. 5:9, ESV).

H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic The Social Sources of Denominationalism documents the reality that much of the time, the causes of denominations in America were not theological but sociological.

“Despite the occasional theological dispute giving rise to denominations, a careful consideration of the facts proves that in the overwhelming majority of situations, denominations arose out of a natural, self-centered desire to exclude others on the basis of race and social class. The American Baptists became the Northern & Southern Baptists. Presbyterians formed to keep the working class out. Episcopalians formed to show their loyalty to the crown. The interests of economic class bent to their will the ethics of the Christian church, and it was unable to speak a certain word on the issue of slavery. When the irrepressible conflict came, the various denominations, as was to be expected, showed themselves to be the mouthpieces of the economic and racially divided groups they represented.” 

When we arrive in heaven, we will discover there is no Black church. No white church. No Hispanic church. No Korean church. Just the Church. For eternity. We’re in for some serious culture shock unless we start getting ready now.
Is racial reconciliation really possible in the American church? Yes.
In Bangladesh, Hindus and Muslims have hated one another for generations. Each side has discriminated against, attacked, raped, maimed and murdered the other.

The intercultural church is not hip or trendy. It’s desperately biblical.

And yet, I watched as Muslims and Hindus experienced the transformation of their souls through the Spirit of Christ. They worshiped together in the same church, took communion together, sat as couples in our home while my parents taught them principles of Christian marriage.
If it can happen in the developing world, why can’t it happen in America? Because we have allowed ourselves to succumb to cultural Christianity, accommodated ourselves to an idolatry of nationalism, of consumerism, of individualism. Any threat to these idols causes us to pull away from the call of Christ and turn inward to live in comfort among “our own.”

But our times have grown so desperate. Perhaps we are finally willing to listen to the Spirit of God as he calls us to forsake our idols and return to the Shepherd of our souls so that he may heal our land.

3. Intercultural relationships

Jesus is calling us to a life of justice, reconciliation and then joyous intercultural relationships. The goal of redemptive justice is racial reconciliation in Christ. But that’s not really the goal, either.
The goal in a marriage is not to move from a dysfunctional relationship to apologies and forgiveness. The goal isn’t to say we’re sorry and forgive each other. That’s essential to the process. But the goal is peace. Harmony. Love. Relationships. Joy. And so it is in the Church.
How do we go about developing intercultural relationships with one another? Two issues are key.
First, incarnation. To incarnate means to put yourself into the other person’s experience. It’s the next step along the road from apathy to empathy.
Social media accelerates unhelpful echo chambers where each group stands up for its own and cancels the other. Ethnocentrism will get us nothing except more strife and pain.
We must sacrificially step into the other person’s shoes, the shoes of their culture, their experience, their history, their wound. We must listen to one another. Really listen.
If there’s anything Natalie has taught me through more than 30 years of marriage, it’s the value of listening. Our marriage succeeds, not because either of us is perfect (well, she’s practically perfect), nor because we’ve never offended each other, but because we’ve learned to incarnate into each other’s experience.

It’s easier to immerse yourself in Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and confirm the silo of your own experience. It’s more difficult and Jesus-like to walk in the other person’s actual life.

If you’re Anglo, enter into African American experience. African American, learn Hispanic stories. Hispanic, learn Asian stories. Asian, learn Anglo stories. Follow Jesus’ example.
One of our great challenges at Mosaic is to learn, and learn again, how to walk in one another’s shoes. To develop true empathy with one another’s lived experiences.
It’s easier to immerse yourself in Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and confirm the silo of your own experience. It’s more difficult and Jesus-like to walk in the other person’s actual life.
This is one reason that so many have turned away throughout our years of ministry. It isn’t so much that it’s difficult to perceive this principle, but that it’s difficult to live out. It’s a Spirit-empowered thing, and we tend to prefer to be politically empowered or personality-empowered or racially empowered.
But for those who have left Mosaic, the Spirit of Christ has led others to join us — to come and be transformed in this sacred journey. I’m so thankful for them.
Second, cultural intelligence. Once we’ve begun to empathize with one another’s experiences, now comes the lifelong adventure of cultural intelligence, or CQ. This is the enriching part. As emotional intelligence informs emotions, so CQ informs culture.
You are more than the color of your skin. Your race is the house, your culture the furnishings in the house. You can’t do much about your house, but you can do a lot of remodeling inside it.

In a healthy marriage, each spouse does more than apologize and try again. Each spouse devotes her or his life to study and learn the other. What makes this man unique? What makes this woman special? How do they think? Feel? Behave?
The same holds true for culture. Because our history is race-centric, and race is actually a social construct and not a reality, we often bypass the limitless beauty of culture.
You are an infinitely complex human being, created by God and shaped by millions of unique experiences. And so is the other person, the other culture. Black people aren’t white people with black skin. They’re Black people. White people aren’t Black people with white skin. They’re white people. Culture matters.
Our leadership team studies a topic every year. We’ve worked through principles of cultural intelligence. We watch movies like Selma together. We talk about white privilege, about Jim Crow, about how to empathize with each other’s cultural journey.

What can you do?

Enroll in the school of culture. Learn what makes a specific culture of people think, emote, behave the way it does. Read books. See movies. Study culturally intelligent sites. Follow insightful people on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Most important, develop long and deep relationships. Pursue them and persist in them.
Don’t give up easily, even — and especially — when things get uncomfortable. Discomfort is a signal you’re about to move from the superficial to the real. Stay in that relationship and grow as the Spirit transforms you.

These are difficult days. Many are losing hope. Take hope in God.

“Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert…” (Isa. 43:19, CSB).

God is doing something new. I pray you will join me on this sacred journey of pursuing racial justice, racial reconciliation and deep intercultural relationships.


Jim Eaton, Lead pastor, Mosaic Church

Jim Eaton is lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Frederick, Maryland.

Additional articles by Jim Eaton