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A Candid Conversation on Race, Grace, and the Church

A Candid Conversation on Race, Grace, and the Church

Isaac Adams and Jonathan Leeman

I woke up last Wednesday to the killing of Alton Sterling.

I woke up last Thursday to the killing of Philando Castile.

I woke up last Friday to the killings of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.

And all along, I hoped that I was still sleeping, that I would simply wake up from this nightmare that is America’s relentless plight. Yet reality refused to stop haunting me. I realized afresh that some citizens of the land of the free are, in fact, not free from the effects of sin on race and justice.

Many talk about the unique history between blacks and whites in our land. In too many churches, however, many brothers and sisters never talk about it, making these subjects gaping holes in our discipleship.

One of the best ways to ensure Christians absorb the world’s teaching on race and justice is to never address these issues in our churches. Avoidance will protect unity, we quietly think. Here’s the reality, though: Ignoring this discussion only entrenches ignorance and sows the ground for disunity. And if our “unity” cannot withstand conversations about these topics, we may have a faux unity. Nevertheless, many—often from the majority culture—forbid this conversation since they have the power to stifle it; some ignore this conversation out of fear since they’re not sure how to handle it; others forgo this conversation since it simply does not cost them much to pass on it, despite what it may cost their black brothers and sisters.  

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Keeping a Promise

So I thank God that after this last week my church didn’t remain quiet. After all, we promised each other we wouldn’t. When Christians join our church, they take a vow. They agree, among other things, to give up their powers, fears, and privileges—to “endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows.” So reads our church covenant, our family promise.

Last week offered ample opportunity to uphold that promise, didn’t it? Yes, horrific things happen each week, but last week many in our congregation hurt in a particularly challenging way. In my own hurt, I talked to Jonathan Leeman.

Jonathan is my friend and fellow pastor; he’s a model of advocating for the marginalized. He’s white, I’m black, and we’re brothers in the deepest sense of the word. We’ve talked about many things, including what it’s like to be white and black and yet in the same family—God’s family. Jonathan has asked me good questions, hard questions. Though many believers often have a zeal for unity but not according to knowledge (Prov. 19:2), Jonathan seeks knowledge like Proverbs 4:7 bids us. And he’s done so in the context of our friendship, on the appeal of love. I’m grateful for him.

Having a Conversation 

After the tragedies of last week, Jonathan and I thought it might serve our church to have a conversation—which we would’ve had anyway—in front of our church. This conversation is one way we thought to bear one another’s burdens. So we tried to clear up assumptions and to hope for all things by graciously asking each other a few questions. Using that line from our church covenant—the one about bearing each other’s burdens and sorrows—as the framework for our discussion, we asked each other some questions during our Sunday evening service:

  1. What was it like to be in your shoes this past week?
  2. Should we be equally sad about all suffering?
  3. What threats did this past week present to our church?
  4. What lessons does Scripture have for our church in light of this past week?
  5. When a week like this occurs, what gives you hope? 

The conversation, for both Jonathan and myself, felt like walking through a minefield. It was enjoyable but tricky. Jonathan said wonderful things about those in the majority giving up power and taking initiative; and he demonstrated it by inviting me to talk about my experience. This was huge, not because blacks know everything—full disclosure: we don’t—but because blacks have so often not had a voice. 

We talked about “Black Lives Matter” vs. “All Lives Matter,” the benefits of friendship, and the perils of social media discussions on race and justice issues. We discussed how Jesus entered our experience and sought justice, and what that means for us. We talked openly and honestly, since our friendship is grounded in the gospel. We know we have no righteousness to prove and no ethnic identity or privilege to protect, because Jesus is our justification. What he’s done for us frees us to speak transparently and meekly in a way that sounds foolish to the world. We prayed the conversation would be helpful for many, and we hope it will be for you, too.

Though the past week was a nightmare, I hope the Lord will use it to further bring about Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. Many pastors have been working hard to love their people well in these days. This conversation was our imperfect attempt to do just that.


Editors’ note: Isaac Adams and Jonathan Leeman will join Russell Moore, Kevin DeYoung, and Curtis Woods for a 9Marks panel on “Race, Political Partisanship, and the Unity of the Church” at TGC’s 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. We hope you will join us.

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