We have witnessed yet another series of public disturbances in recent weeks that began in response to the unnecessary deaths and serious injuries of Black people at the hands of police.
I’ve tried to engage most of my conservative white friends about the church’s need to take the lead in participating in tangible efforts to bring about racial reconciliation.
The most common response they give me is we do not need to keep talking about race or social justice issues because those subjects only bring up old wounds and foster separation.
Instead, they say, we need to talk more about the gospel because the gospel is what changes people.
At the outset of this series of columns focusing on racial justice, I must say I believe in the gospel.
I have wholeheartedly bought into the idea that, in Jesus, God has made it possible for humankind to be restored to their Creator and that there is an afterlife where we will be in a more complete relationship with God.
But I do not believe Jesus’ sacrifice was primarily about all believers one day leaving earth never to return. I understand the words and actions of Jesus while he walked this earth to be saying the opposite.
Although I believe the sincerity of my friends when they say they believe we need more of the gospel, I do not think the problem in our nation is a lack of knowing the gospel.
Throughout the history of our nation, the name of God has regularly been invoked and the name of Jesus has been confessed as Lord.
I think the problem with this line of thinking is the gospel they purport to follow is an abstract idea primarily concerned with going to heaven instead of imitating the tangible actions of Jesus, which was his consistent message about the Kingdom of God.
We focus too much attention on getting ready to leave this place and not enough attention on making it a better place for those who are here.
In framing the gospel as primarily being about leaving, we fail to acknowledge Jesus consistently talked more about his mission to serve people than to prepare people for a far-off place.
Jesus taught more about performing tangible acts of kindness for women, orphans, the poor, the oppressed and the “other” than he did about traveling to heaven.
Jesus did not teach much about leaving and instead taught his disciples how to change the world they occupied for God’s glory and the benefit of others.
Jesus’ gospel message was God’s kingdom was at hand. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God meant the process of God’s desire to be in true relationship with humankind was coming to fruition.
And because it was appearing before their eyes, it should cause them to have better relationships with other people.
I must be truthful and say I’m less concerned about going away when I die and more concerned about how this message should make a difference in the here and now in how people are treated and Jesus’ attitude and acts of love for others can be imitated.
The church’s failure to help make a difference in the ongoing conversations about race and reconciliation – or police, community challenges or any of the other things that usually get brushed aside – is partly due to a failure to understand what the gospel is truly about.
It’s not first about escaping to a faraway place of safety in God’s arms. It’s about God’s act, through Jesus, of facing the uncomfortable sin of human nature to bring reconciliation and healing to others in tangible ways.
Having confidence that one is going to heaven does not stop a person from being racist, sexist, classist or any other “ist” we can think of.
In many ways, primarily focusing on the future seems to encourage Christians to ignore the current needs and plight of certain people groups in favor of personal safety and comfort.
I do not think this is the kind of gospel Jesus was trying to get his followers to live into.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.