Good News to Our City: Racial Reconciliation

On Sunday night a group of us gathered to pray for VOX City Church, have some food and hang out together.

We spent some time praying for the city and for us as a community of Christ-followers who wish to love and serve the city with the gospel and as people of the gospel.

It got me thinking about something that Lesslie Newbigin used to say, we do not only have a message about good news but we are the good news.  If the gospel truly is a message of good news then it must be a message that “works”.  And if the gospel is at work in individuals and communities then we ought to see it transforming individuals, families, communities and cities.

The gospel at work in Christian communities ought to look like good news to the city.  So what would it look like if VOX is to become a church that looks like good news to the city.  There are 4 major issues that the gospel at work among God’s people would have to have significant impact on in Cape Town.

1. Racial Reconciliation – we live in a city that still 15 years into democracy is heavily divided along racial and economic lines.  In Cape Town those 2 issues are very closely connected.  Cape Town is gaining a reputation as the worst city in which to be black person in South Africa.  See this story for instance: Where do all the Black People work?

Part of the reason for this is that within South Africa Cape Town has a unique demographic profile.  Cape Town is the only city in South Africa where black people are not the majority ethnic group.  Mixed race (Cape Coloureds – you can read about how race was defined here) account for 48.13% of the population, Black Africans 31%, Whites 18.75% and Asians 1.43% according to the 2001 census.

As a result most of the Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment deals incorporating as they do all previously disadvantaged peoples benefit Coloured people to a much greater degree.  Most of the economic power and resource are, however, still in the hands of white businessmen.  Culturally, coloured and white people are closer together than black and white people.  For one, there is  a commonly shared language – a significant factor in good cross-cultural co-operation.  As a result a white businessman can fulfill Affirmative Action requirements, qualify for BEE deals and not appear racist but only have very few black people working in significant roles within his company.  When we bear in mind that nationally Black Africans constitute, according to 2006 estimates 79,5% of the population, Whites 9.2%, and Coloureds only 8.9%.

If we add to this traditional apartheid divisions, the slow dissolution of the group areas acts, the language and cultural barriers, the differences in methods of church gatherings, you will begin to get the picture of why Cape Town is such a divided city.

If the gospel is at work among his people in the city of Cape Town we ought to see the gospel (in part and yet in signficant ways) overcoming these issues.  We ought to see churches bringing people of different races, cultures and nationalities together in the gospel.  The Bible is clear in books such as Galatians and passages such as Acts 13:1-4; Acts 15; Ephesians 2; Revelation 7:9-10 (etc) that the gospel is a message that brings people together.

When talking about relationships between the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2 Paul writes:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…  His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (v14-16, 19-22 edited)

N.T. Wright writes this about the Antioch incident between Peter and Paul in Galatians (a heavily divided church): “The question at issue in the church in Antioch… is not how people came to a relationship with God but who one is allowed to eat with.”

“Justification in Galatians is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final new creation.”

(I disagree with Wright that this is justification but I do agree that this is the key issue in Galatians – you can read more on my thoughts here:  Rethinking Romans and Galatians for SA Today)

I imagine the rationale of Romans and Galatians to go something like this: If  the message you preach divides rather than unites then you have not understood  the gospel message.  In South Africa today, with all our cultural division and church division (the very fact that we can talk about “black churches” or “white churches) we need to hear again and hear afresh the message of Romans and Galatians.

Some Practical Considerations:

But we must never make the mistake of imagining that bringing people together simply means, hanging out under the same roof or in the same space, interspersed with some pleasantries.  To be a church that truly is good news to Cape Town, that brings people together in a manner that can be described as “one new man”, will involve more than people of different cultures gathering in the same building once or twice a week.  Even the unbelievers do that regularly in restaurants, workplaces, sports events, malls, coffee shops, etc. (Matthew 6:46-47)

It will require something of us – a laying down of our lives, our cultural idols, preferences, ways of doing things, in order to truly understand, love and serve our brothers and sisters.  It will require us to eat together, spend time together, be in each others homes, with each others families, to pray together, study the Word together, engage on mission together.  To learn to celebrate and enjoy the things which the other enjoys or celebrates.  We will have to learn grace, mercy, self-sacrifice and open, honest-talking if this is to happen.  We cannot simply expect it to happen we must be intentional about it.

I am convinced that key to this happening is

a) Our hearts must want it, work for it, pursue it.  In  many ways the external actions are incidental to a changed heart that  desperately wants to see the gospel reality that the divided walls have been destroyed embodied in the community of God’s people.  Discussions of the externals in this forum become irrelevant then, all that counts is that we love your neighbour as ourselves – and follow wherever that takes us.

b) Perseverance: We cannot give up easily – this task is not for the faint-hearted, we will hurt, offend and misunderstand one another, together we must seek grace and forgiveness

c) Time: We must not be fooled into thinking that a couple of meetings in a week and suddenly we are having community, we must be prepared to “waste time” just hanging out with each other, laughing with each other, telling our stories and being together. In order for real community to be fostered, for us to really begin talking to one another we have to be spending time with one another.  Somehow out of the melting pot of hours and days and quick coffees and lazy braais and long walks there begins to emerge a “oneness”, an understanding of one another that is built on relationship.  So that when we hit the hard cultural and racial issues we are dealing with these in the context of relationship.  That is very different to trying to work that out with people who are functional strangers.

d) Space: The context in which this reconciliation must happen must be mutual – we must both enter each others worlds and experience, question and learn, know where we live, grew up, what we eat.  Too much of this kind of community has happened on “white turf” we must move it into the townships, cape flats, rural areas etc as well if we are to truly be “one new humanity”

e) Prayer: Only God can do this – left to our own this will fail.  But we must pray for this with the passion and perseverance of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-5).  Lord we will not stop until you work in and among us and make us these people together!

Parting Thought:

Many black Christians in Cape Town today feel like white Christians are only prepared to let this community/reconciliation happen on their turf and on their terms.  My experience it that even though few white Christians would say it that bluntly this is largely the message that is delivered through our actions.

Part 2: Economic Inequality

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~ by John on November 17, 2009.

11 Responses to “Good News to Our City: Racial Reconciliation”

  1. Thanks John – very important thoughts. I particularly like the points on ‘perseverance’ and ‘space’.

  2. Again, what can I say? ! :)
    (Lesslie Newbigin Society)
    (NT Wright interest Group)

    btw, Wright sees Justification not so much as something you get, like salvation, but an identity.
    The identity is God’s people. You are justified if you are God’s people.
    But who are God’s people who are right before him? Only Christ (the new Israel) and those who have died and are alive again and are included in Him (their new identity).
    How are we included in Him? By faith.
    What does that faith look like? It is a people who recognise in Jesus all that God is about in the world, and trusting in Him, are being shaped by the Spirit to participate with Christ in His mission and be that one new human community in Christ.

  3. A good summary of Wright’s argument but I suspect you may have filled in some gaps of your own interpretation…

    What I am not convinced of his effectively equating justification with ecclesiology (doctrine of the church/people of God). I think that justification is the basis of our ecclesiology, hence the arguement in Roamans and Galatians where the ecclesiology is bad he takes them back to the gospel.

    There is also a faint echo I get but cannot quite put my finger on it that Wright has opened the door for performance as a basis for being put right with God by saying that justification in the present is by faith in the future vindication of God’s people. Wright would not say this but there is something about this that makes me uneasy.

  4. Now Col, how about some thoughts on racial reconciliation…

  5. Umm, OK, if you want a conversation … but I can’t promise I can keep it up :)

    Racial reconciliation:
    I think the talk given at our Synod recently was right in saying that there is only one race, is correct. Biblically we are of the same parents. Ethnicity is another thing.

    In Christ our ethnic, gender and economic status is … well, we are one new person in Christ.

    So, the world of differences should rightly belong in Christ – the only acceptable human before God – if there is to be any true reconciliation pleasing to God.

    What I am saying is that because the Gospel demands that we realise our oneness, we should work hard at intentionally keeping the unity we have in the Spirit. Demonstrating it in real ways where we have opportunity.

    Justification by faith:
    I think we should just be a little careful of the Justified by faith doctrine that leads to an ethical cul-de-sac.

    What the Evangelical Church could inadvertently be preaching is a man-centered Gospel which still smacks of the self-centeredness we were supposed to be saved from. It’s about me and me getting to heaven free of charge. But I suppose I should do some good stuff in the meantime ….

    A God-centered Gospel concerns God and His Kingdom and his mission to renew all things through the Man Jesus. Those who see that they are selfish and careless as people in God’s world, destroying themselves and others and in danger of God’s righteous judgement, repent from their wrong thinking and turn to follow Jesus as disciples of God’s will. In doing so, they eagerly call on him to forgive them and begin that renewal in them, or they remain part of the old creation destined to be destroyed.

    Faith in Christ and being part of the people of God is not a passive thing in the Bible. It is a change of allegiance from my will to God’s will. A seeking to lose one’s life for Jesus and the Gospel … or we can have no part in Him – quite radical!

    NT Wright:
    I don’t think Wright is talking a ‘works’ righteousness, but a righteousness that is only found through faith. Once a person exercises faith in Christ, they are included in Christ, and that is where they are found to be righteous (Eph 1).

    On the ‘performance issue:
    To be included in Christ by faith means we enter the life of the Spirit of Christ which bears the fruit and signs of a real faith, not a dead faith, as in James (although only in taste of the fullness of the future). We become witnesses of the Spirit’s work in us as a people of grace. That is the only performance there is that I can see … and that is a co-operation with the Spirit … who actually does the work.

    Wright would agree that we will fail, but this does not disqualify us, but forces us to look back at the cross and thank God that he will get us there. However, if there is no participation in the Spirit of Jesus we should be concerned (not to say we are not saved).

  6. btw, the ethical cul-de-sac is what Paul was avoiding in Romans 6
    with those who thought the grace of God in Christ could leave them unchanged. He says that we died to sin … baptised into His death … in order that we may live a new life. As with Christ (9-10) the life He lives after the resurrection is a life he lives for God …
    Being alive to God ‘in Christ’ (v11) we offer ourselves and ‘the parts of our body to Him as instruments of righteousness (v13)
    It’s the nature of life in the Spirit. I think this is the ‘Wright’ Gospel.

  7. Racial Reconciliation – I agree with the sentiment behind the race/ethic distinction but I am not sure that I understand the semantic nuance behind the distinction?

    Agreed that we should work hard at intentionally keeping our unity but how does this look in CT? Also I am not sure I agree with you in saying “in ways where we have opportunity” In SA today this is an issue we should be actively, intentionally seeking ways to be practically be united and to express our unity in the gospel… This is what Cape Town will see and experience as good news, i.e. the gospel that works.

  8. NT Wright – I think most of what you say is brilliant but I think this is all brought about by a bad application of the gospel not by a misunderstanding of justification by faith. Most of what you have said I agree with but my feeling is that Justification by faith (the old perspective) is the basis for and should result in all of what is contending for. But the question I am grappling with in Wright and which I cannot quite “see” in his arguments is his main thesis that justifcation = not imputed righteousness but rather inclusion in the people of God. Justification as a status/gift is our justification which makes us acceptable to be a part of the people of God…

    Am I misreading Wright here?

    BTW: I do not believe Wright is putting forward a works based righteousness but I did say that he has perhaps opened the door for performance to creep in as a basis of salvation. I like your point about how the “old perspective” is also in danger of a subtle works based righteousness, which that perspective has opened the door to.

  9. […] Good News to Our City: Economic Inequality This is part two of the series Good News to Our City.  Read Part 1 – Racial Reconciliation here. […]

  10. Good thought – I would love to hear how this plays out in the life of VOX. We have found that dealing with our white privilege is very important in the journey of racial reconciliation. South Africans desperately need communities who are engaged in deep reconciliation. I’m excited to see what God authors through your community.

  11. Hi Tom, I have enjoyed reading some of the journey that your community has been on. Given me some good ideas/challenges/warnings for dealing with these issues, in significant, healing, gospel-honouring ways. Thanks for your thinking and writing.

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