By Sean Palmer & John Alan Turner
Today we are listening in to Sean Palmer and John Alan Turner on their podcast Not So Black and White, where they examine contemporary issues in light of the church. Sean is a minister, speaker, and author in Temple, Texas. John is a church leadership consultant, author, and speaker in Atlanta. Today they’re talking about racial issues and the church.
John: Welcome to this episode of Not So Black and White. My name is John Alan Turner and as usual I am joined by my friend Sean Palmer. This is a special episode we’re doing in partnership with The Lookout magazine. They have asked us to talk about race and racial reconciliation and the church. Even though we’re recording this in October, I’m sure that what we talk about now is still going to be relevant in 4 months or 24 months or in 4 years because race and racial issues have always been problematic in America. Right? Maybe it’s my imagination but it does seem that there’s been an uptick or like it’s more pronounced now than it has been before.
Sean: We’ve always had racial strife and racial division in America. What we have going on now is that we are just more aware of things. But the black community, the Hispanic community, the minority community—a lot of things that are just now being revealed, some folks have been saying forever. We live in an era now with social media and camera phones, which has basically deputized everybody to chronicle life and what’s happening around them, and we have a means of getting that information to more people.
John: As Christians, we’re called to do a couple of things. First, make sure our beliefs correspond to the facts as they exist objectively in reality. We want to be careful about jumping to conclusions. None of us is omniscient and from a seat of perfect objectivity. Second, we must stand for justice and speak up on behalf of those people who have been marginalized and oppressed. How can we do that?
Immerse Ourselves in the Full Bible Story
Sean: There are five big ideas for the church dealing with a diverse and divided world. First: Christians need to immerse themselves in the actual story of the Bible. You get this story, and I don’t want to go through the whole thing, but the story starts with Adam and Eve and then quickly moves to Cain and Abel. The funny thing about the Cain and Abel story is that we are introduced to them by their differences.
John: One works with animals and one works with produce. That’s how they’re mentioned, yeah.
Sean: When we have Adam and Eve, they are more similar than different. We’re actually introduced to them by their similarities rather than their differences.
John: Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
Sean: You begin with this oneness and the power of sin actually creates these divisions. The story continues and continues. Then when Jesus comes he starts talking about insiders and outsiders all through his ministry. What you see after Cain and Abel is this incredible separation of people and then Jesus comes and there is a drawing back of people. So the entire arc of the Bible is about getting people back to oneness and who they are, the oneness of the Garden; then the apostle Paul shows up and says these crazy things like in Ephesians 2, the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down. Or 2 Corinthians 5 where he talks about we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation. You see at the end of the story in Revelation that all the nations are gathered around God’s throne praising. . . . If you think the gospel story is only limited to my individual salvation over here by myself and I’m going to have my little one-person relationship vertically with God and as long as I’m forgiven everything’s cool—I would really challenge whether that’s the biblical story or not. I don’t think it is.
John: So first just immerse yourself in the overarching story of the Bible and see the big picture that is being unfolded for us—which is that God is in the process of reconciling people to himself and to one another. He’s creating this community of people who are rightly relating to him and rightly relating to each other—that’s the community God’s trying to create.
Sean: If you miss either one of those, you’re missing a major leg of what the gospel is built on, what God is doing. . . . I grew up in a church and you probably did too—it was basically get yourself right with God and that’s the only thing that really matters.
John: When you do look side to side it’s to make sure the other person is right with God.
Sean: The only significance others have in your life is to make sure they know the gospel story—which isn’t a bad thing to do for other people, but it’s not the only thing.
John: But it’s incomplete especially in light of all the “one another” passages Paul lays out for us in his epistles.
Sean: You can’t strip away just the parts of the story of the Bible that you want and build a theology around it; you have to take the whole story as one story.
Learn to Play for the Other Side
Sean: Now second: learn to play for the other side. One of my favorite stories is Jesus being approached by the rich young ruler. There’s a whole lot of things you can unpack. But one thing is: if you are the rich ruler and you sell all you have and give to the poor, what do you get to be? You get to be poor. Your entire identity changes. I think that’s saying something profound about the nature of our identity. I think what that means is that if you want to follow Jesus, you need to experience life from the other side. You need to have solidarity with the other side to know what the other side experiences, sees, and feels; what it is behind their story? . . . The next time you’re watching the news and something’s going on and you think, There go those people again (whoever “those people” are for you)—if you said, You know what? That’s the story of the rich young ruler. This is an opportunity for me to start to play for the other side—I think I’m going to go and try and do that. I think that changes the way that we operate in the world in an incredibly beautiful and meaningful, significant way.
John: Right. What does that look like practically? Just nuts and bolts reality where people live—how could I do that?
Sean: I encourage people to do this—and no one that I have ever encouraged to do it has ever done it—go worship someplace else.
John: So there’s something visceral that happens when you are accustomed to being in the majority and you intentionally put yourself in a physical location where you are the minority.
Sean: Exactly, yes. This is the incarnation at its best. Jesus comes down to experience life as a human experiences life. So when someone says, “I don’t know what it’s like to be Latino.” True, you don’t. But what could you do to experience as much of that culture as you can?
John: You could come with me to one of my family reunions! They’re always in August in San Diego—we have a salsa-making contest.
Sean: Free salsa and San Diego!
John: And watching my dad, who is so very white from here in Atlanta, watching him go and sit at that family reunion—it’s revealing. They all love my dad; he’s been part of the family for 55 years. But he’s not setting the tone; he’s not the one making the inside jokes. People sometimes have to explain things to him because there’s a lot of Spanish and there’s a ton of Spanglish being spoken there, and he might not understand everything. Those people have embraced him, but he is certainly in the minority. What is interesting to me, Sean, that I hadn’t thought about until just now, but as some of my cousins have married gringos, we have these family reunions where inevitably the white people end up congregating together. At some point in time you will walk up upon a cluster of white people who are just sort of off to their side, catching their breath, you know?
Sean: It’s like we’re just gonna take a moment for ourselves.
John: Exactly—before we dive back into this cultural immersion program known as the Rubio Torres family reunion.
Sean: That’s hilarious, but I bet they don’t complain about the salsa.
John: They do not! One of the things that happens when you engage with a different culture is there are all these different sights and sounds and smells and a different soundtrack playing in the background. At first it’s easy to be a tourist. But real engagement has to go deeper than just, “I’m going to go visit the blacks. I’m going to go visit the Asians.”
Reject the Homogeneous Unit Principle
Sean: This leads to the third thing because it’s so closely associated with the second: we need to reject the homogeneous unit principle. I’m going to boil it down very simply—there’s more to it than this so don’t write me and say I misrepresented everything about it! Basically it’s that the less difference you have in a community, the more comfortable people feel and the quicker that community grows. There’s a lot of wisdom to it—I don’t want to just dismiss it out of hand—but fundamentally it says that we’re not going to deal with difference.
John: I think it’s OK to acknowledge that this is the way it is but not the way it ought to be.
Sean: What churches have done is said, “We’re going to do that too. We’re going to take a marketing template and just place it over this and we’re going to push it so hard that we actually push people out.” We don’t mean to push people out, but we’re going to say, “You know there’s that African-American church around the corner; there’s that Latino church where there is English and Spanish.”
John: And, “You will feel much more comfortable in that kind of church.”
Sean: Which is great for building a church but I think terrible for making disciples.
John: So 1—Look at the big picture of Scripture and see the big story of reconciliation that’s being unfolded. 2—Learn to play for the other side, and by that you mean intentionally put yourself in a position where you are the minority and seek out those kinds of opportunities to experience that. 3—Reject this idea that all your friends have to look, think, and act exactly the way you do.
Realize We Could Be Wrong
Sean: The next step—and this is going to be shocking to a lot of people—you might want to entertain the idea that you could be completely wrong. When you’re thinking through something—an issue, an article you read, a newspaper claim, seeing someone’s post on Facebook, watching cable news—and you go, “This is my reaction—what if I’m wrong? I could be seeing this completely wrongheaded.” I think that’s the best kind of humility to say, “What would a really smart, genuine person on the other side of this they say to me about it?”
John: Rather than just ask myself that hypothetically or theoretically, I think it will be better if I knew a really smart, thoughtful, intelligent person on the other side with whom I could discuss these things.
John: This is another reason why the horizontal is so important. Other people can see things about me that I cannot see, and I need other people in my life who are brave enough to tell me, “You’re being that guy right now. Your implicit bias is showing.” And if I can have the humility to receive that, it can be a true blessing in my life.
Sean: I have a recurring series of text messages that I send to friends—and I think you’ve gotten some of these, John. It either starts with, “Tell me if I’m crazy . . .” Or, “OK, I think I might need you to talk me
down . . .”
John: Haha yeah. You’ve gotten some of those from me too.
Sean: I then go through what I’m thinking. And when I send those to people, I really am open to their perspective.
John: “What am I missing?” A lot of times that’s mine. “What am I missing? Because there’s a piece of information clearly I don’t have that could unlock this puzzle for me. Can you help me understand what it is that I’m missing here?” Or like you said, am I just wrong?
Recalculate Our Allegiances
John: We’ve got one more practical tip that people can apply to help ease these tensions.
Sean: The last one may be the toughest, believe it or not: recalculate our allegiances. A lot of us are allied to some things that we really haven’t thought through all the implications of. Whether it’s political, cultural, racial. Those allegiances shape why we see things the way we see them. . . . I think it’s important for folks to say, “I need to have a periodic check on what I’m allied to that might not be the cross, that might not be God.”
John: C. S. Lewis talks about the danger of Jesus and . . . . Our allegiance is to Jesus—that is what defines what a Christian is. Anytime we start adding to Jesus, we’re really treading on dangerous ground.
Sean: I don’t want to be flippant about that, John. It really is tough. These are hard decisions to make. It’s not as easy as it sounds with two guys talking on a podcast because [these alliances] are so deeply embedded and because so many things mean so much to us and our children and our way of life. All these things are very important, and we don’t necessarily always know where the lines are drawn and where things crossover. So it’s not that easy, but I do think we need to be aware of the fact that when I have a reaction to a racially tinged issue in the news, I’ve got to say I come from a particular story and I have certain beliefs and views. There are some people for whom, for lots of different reasons, through the years I have associated myself with. There’s some solidarity there, and I need to make sure that I am not being more loyal to those connections than I am to Jesus and to the truth and to the things that the gospel speaks of, such as justice and reconciliation.
Keep the Glasses On
John: I have a friend who hates 3-D movies—they are too intense; it gives him a headache. So when he has the opportunity, he will choose the 2-D version of the movie. There’s a metaphor in this. A lot of white people find reality, particularly reality as it is experienced by people of color, to be too intense. It jumps out at them, and they don’t like it; it gives them a headache. They have the option of going through life in the two-dimensional version of it. But people of color don’t have that option. I think the best thing we can do for race and racial issues in our world today is commit to wearing the 3-D glasses, even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it forces us to see things that are startling and intense and might give us a bit of a headache. It’s important for us to not look away from those things and to remember that our black brothers and sisters, our Latino brothers and sisters, our Asian brothers and sisters don’t have the luxury of taking those 3-D glasses off. And so I must keep mine firmly in place as well.
Sean: That to me is a brilliant statement of solidarity—to keep the glasses on.
John: Well obviously we’re not going to be able to solve all of these issues. I have so many other things I want to talk about and so many other stories that have come up, but we are just out of time. I want to thank everybody for listening to the special episode today that we’ve produced in partnership with The Lookout. Hopefully this conversation was able to help you see just how difficult these issues can be and how deeply rooted they are in the fabric of our society. We’re going to continue this conversation, I’m sure. We’re going to come back to this issue a few more times when it’s all said and done, but I just wanted to say thank you, Sean, for engaging in dialogue with me and thank you all for listening.
Sean: Thanks, John, for your time. I do want to remind everybody, we’d love to hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org). You’re our favorite people in the whole world!
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