The issues of race and racial reconciliation rose to the top of the news cycle in 2014, largely due to two events—one in Ferguson, Missouri, and another in New York City—both involving black men killed in incidents with white police officers. With this issue returning to the forefront, evangelicals have been challenged once again to consider race in light of God’s Word.
Jarvis Williams, a mixed-race scholar who describes himself as a “bald, black, bi-racial man,” has been writing, preaching, and teaching on this issue in light of the gospel over the past few years. He wrote a book on the issue in 2010 titled One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (B&H). Williams serves as associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is presently working on a book on the gospel and racial reconciliation for Crossway. Williams last month preached a powerful sermon on gospel-centered racial reconciliation in Jackson, Miss.
The Gospel Coalition sat down with him to discuss his academic work in the area of racial reconciliation and to consider how racism relates to the gospel.
In your book One New Man, you consider racism, even the idea of race, in light of God’s Word. What is your main argument in the book and in your teaching?
The race issue fundamentally exists because of Adam’s transgression. One of the unique features of my book is that I argue the reason why we have racial division, the reason why there is racial hostility between all sorts of people, is because Adam and Eve transgressed in the garden. As a result of that transgression, there is a universal, cosmological curse upon the entire creation, and that curse shows itself in how we approach God or how we flee from God, and it also shows itself in how we don’t relate to each other rightly. If you read Genesis 1 and 2, God creates the heavens and the earth, everything is beautiful, everything is lovely, but when sin enters creation in chapter three, shortly thereafter murder takes place. In my view, the first racist act, the first hostile act between human beings, comes after sin entered creation. Another feature of my book is that I don’t define the category of race as a black/white issue or as a skin color issue.
Why is it important to frame the issue as transcending the black-white divide?
One of the confusing things that many evangelicals are saying about race and racial reconciliation today is they limit racial division to the black-white divide. In my view, the category of race biblically is the category of otherness. And that otherness can be categorized as Jew and Gentile. Jews would be those people whom God chose in the Old Testament to be this ethnic group through whom he would send the Messiah, and Gentiles would be everybody not a Jew. So, in terms of the racial division, it is a division between Jews and Gentiles that exists because of sin, and as history progresses, it exists also because of the Law. So, then, racism shows itself not only by means of blacks and whites not getting along, but also by means of blacks and blacks not getting along, whites and whites not getting along, whites and blacks not getting along, Jew and Gentile not getting along. There is alienation between groups of people because of Adam’s transgression.
I further argue that we have racism because of sin, and the solution is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. . . . God begins to work again after Genesis 3:15, and the greatest work he does is reconciling sinners to himself and sinners to one another through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, when you read a text like Ephesians 2, Paul said Jesus died to kill the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, and he reconciled Jews and Gentiles to God and to one another by means of the cross.
How can your book and your teaching on this important issue help evangelicals to wrestle biblically with race and racism?
I want to help evangelicals realize that, number one, racism should never be limited to the black-white divide, because sin is the reason that racism exists, and sin is a universal power that separates all other groups, all ethnic groups, from each other. The second thing evangelicals often misunderstand is that racial reconciliation is actually within the gospel itself. I despise the idea of it being an implication of the gospel, because an implication of the gospel sounds as though maybe it’s important, but it’s not explicitly stated. In my view, it is explicitly stated; God is going to crush the head of the serpent by means of the seed of the woman. God is going to bless the nations through Abraham, and God does that by sending Jesus, a Jewish Messiah, to die on the cross for Jews and Gentiles, and he raised him up from the dead for Jews and Gentiles. . . . In my view, racism is not a mere social issue instead of a gospel issue, it is a gospel issue. It is a social issue insofar as the gospel speaks to people in societies in the real world.
With this issue having risen to the front of the American consciousness again, many evangelicals have addressed race and racism. Where have we gotten it right, and where do we need to seek more biblical light on the issue?
One area that some evangelicals have gotten it right is those who have emphasized that sin is the reason we have all sorts of racial problems. . . . Regardless of why you think things happened from a sociological perspective in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, if sin would have never entered creation, those events would have never happened. Another area in which I think evangelicals have gotten it right is those who say the gospel is the fundamental solution . . . Thank God for laws that bring people together, but those laws cannot change hearts. As powerful and important as the civil rights movement was, it has not changed the hearts of sinners, and I think evangelicals who believe that, preach that, and teach that have helped the cause of gospel-centered racial reconciliation.
An area in which evangelicals have gotten it wrong is when some evangelicals have argued that racial reconciliation is not a gospel issue. . . . The gospel transforms the whole person and rectifies all the wrongs that we have. . . . Some have said this is merely a social issue, and I think that is one thing that will kill the motivation for gospel-centered racial reconciliation—to deny that it is a gospel issue.
It has been said by many people for a long time that 11 a.m., Sunday, is the most segregated hour in America. How do we get gospel-driven racial reconciliation to trickle down to the pulpit to the pew so that our churches begin to reflect the nations as the kingdom of Christ most certainly will?
Gospel-centered racial reconciliation in the Bible as I understand it, particularly in the New Testament, is not the same thing as ethnic diversity. I think gospel-centered racial reconciliation can produce ethnic diversity given that the context is appropriate and we foster that work. But there are churches in certain parts of the United States and certain parts of the world where there is no ethnic diversity—everybody’s homogenous—so I would argue that it is still possible for those churches to be about the business of gospel-centered racial reconciliation even if there is not a chance of that church being multi-ethnic because of where it is located. For example, churches in a context where they are all white or all black with no hope of diversity can still pray for the nations, they can look for ways to partner with churches in the surrounding area or in other parts of the nation or the world. They can think of places to take mission trips to contexts that are not homogenous, that are not a part of one’s own ethnic identity. There are numerous ways the gospel can go forward and racial reconciliation can be promoted to the point where this genuine, Spirit-filled, Spirit-led racial reconciliation happens, as opposed to just getting together once a year during a Dr. King holiday service.
What about churches in mixed-race cities or communities?
For churches that are in places where diversity can happen, they should be intentional about proclaiming the gospel to those in their communities, living out the gospel in front of those communities, having people in their homes who don’t look like them, sound like them, or act like them. They must be intentional about trying to be reconciled to the other in Christ with a Spirit-filled sense of love that flows from a healthy understanding of the gospel. In my view, this is not an artificial, “let’s just get together once in a while” thing; this is a genuine desire to serve each other in the Spirit and the power of Jesus Christ.
I don’t get excited about people who get together with a different congregation once a year. In theory, you can get races together for a little while, and that doesn’t mean that there is racial reconciliation happening. For me, this intentional effort of pursuing the other, of pursing reconciliation through the context of the community and through the context of the church, and then looking for ways to partner with those churches in different parts of the world where you can advance the gospel . . . is the racial reconciliation the New Testament is calling for.