How We Missed the Real Race Issue and the Biblical Case for Unity

In the present political posturing and race pandering, the real race issue is missed, even though this one race issue matters most to God and is most deeply addressed in our national documents. What is that real race issue? The overriding race issue is the extraordinary battle for the unity of the human race.

Our country and the world need to rediscover the real race issue. Unless we do, the present ungodly, unbiblical and un-American rhetoric and politics will continue to rise, exploiting tragedies that involve people of differing ethnicities or colors. The present, false racial rhetoric generates deceptive expectations, demeans millions of people, degrades our inner cities, damages each of our futures, and could threaten to destroy "one nation under God."

The articulate talk-show host Tavis Smiley boldly pointed out that a moral tragedy is in the making. Despite President Obama announcing in a White House press conference on July 19 that "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," Mr. Smiley noted that the president still did not answer the question, "Where do we go from here?" "This is not Libya, this is America. And on this issue you cannot lead from behind," Mr. Smiley commented. "What's lacking in this moment is moral leadership." Politicians can lead on race, Mr. Smiley added. "Lincoln did, Truman did, Johnson did." Mr. Smiley boldly challenged President Obama to "step into his moment. I don't want him to be like Bill Clinton when he's out of office regretting that he didn't move on Rwanda."

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Mr. Smiley's criticism was timely, although he did not articulate very much about what was mistaken in President Obama's comments, or what was missing in that surprise appearance that made wise observers like Mr. Smiley look for the moral leadership. I am not authorized to speak for Mr. Smiley – although I have learned much by listening to him scores of times – but here I will cast a vision for the moral leadership on race needed now in 2013.

Our president missed an opportunity to rise to moral leadership – and instead said words that further fed destructive and demeaning racial division. He could have said that Trayvon is each of our look-alike. Trayvon was a fellow human being. We grieve for him as well as for all the victims of violent encounters. We grieve also for George Zimmerman whose life has been tragically snatched away in another sense. We grieve with both of their families. We are their family. We are their race.  

One of the stunning wonders of the United States of America is that we are many ethnicities united as one people. "We the People…" our founders boldly wrote. We pledge as "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." One of our greatest presidents affirmed the lesson of the terrible human sacrifices in our bloody Civil War to strengthen our resolve "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." We are one people; we are one nation. Our bold Bible-based experiment of uniting multiple ethnicities has inspired others around the world. Even in our birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, the radical equality of all people under the gifting of our Creator is our defining claim. The fact that the signers of that national birth certificate did not live consistently by what they taught does not take away from its eternal truth, or from its power to continue to unite us.

Even more potently than our American creed, the unity of the human race is a core Biblical teaching. It is easy to uncover how the race-divisive rhetoric of President Obama, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and others is unbiblical, harmful to everyone. Even a cursory reading would show that the elemental unity of the human race is a constant and deep theme throughout the Bible. Breaking down divisive barriers characterizes both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel. The unity of the human race is also a theme of the greatest Biblical ministries throughout the centuries, including the dramatic, transformative Gospel leadership of American giants like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham. Consider the following Biblical sampler:

First, a Godly vision of a whole unified human race begins in the first chapter – with one original human couple, both being precious images of Creator-God, one male and one female, the ancestors of all people, and assigned the care of the whole earth. The Tower of Babel project was interrupted to encourage spreading the human race out into different directions, but still as one human race.

Second, the Jewish nation was raised up with a special calling – not to divide but to serve and bless the entire human race, with the chosen people as a "nation of priests" for all. For this reason, in the greater context of the awesome Leviticus 25 text quoted on our Liberty Bell, liberty was to be the endowment of all people, "all inhabitants," not only the Hebrew nation.

Third, every Biblical issue about intermarriage was about spiritual standards, not ethnic division. God's judgment against Solomon was not for marrying outside the Hebrew nation, but for building temples to all their gods and leading in despicable sacrifices and worship services to evil deities. In contrast, when leaders like Aaron and Miriam judged Moses for marrying a black woman, they were punished by God. Similarly, other Godly non-Hebrew men and women married into the chosen nation. We have especially well-known examples of Rahab and Ruth, who married into what became the especially renowned lineage of King David – as his great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother. Moreover, both Canaanite Rahab and Moabite Ruth are honored human ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's leadership is always for bringing people together, reuniting God's family, restoring the human race.

Fourth, Jesus ministry was always about serving every member of the human race. Of course, during his brief ministry he focused especially on the Hebrew people, for lots of reasons. However, from the visit of the Magi, to the early awareness of his mission as the Lamb of God to "take away the sins of the world," to his teaching that "God so loved the world" that he was sent, to then sending his disciples, after his Resurrection, to begin to share his ministry and teaching with the whole human race. "As you go, disciple every ethnicity," he said. No one in all of history has broken more ethnic barriers and contributed more to uniting the human race than Jesus and the amazing grace of his Gospel.

Fifth, the Biblical vision of the human race's future is also utterly uniting – with women and men from every tribe, language and nation united in profound praise to God and flourishing fellowship with one another. This was repeatedly modeled on earth in the early church, and is the only Biblical standard for membership and unity in the church today. After all, each Jesus-follower received the wonderful name "Christian" ["little Christ"] only because when Africans, Europeans, Asians and Jews united in the vibrant Church of Syrian Antioch – where the Apostle Paul first taught – even their critics could not find another term than "Christian" to describe them all. Christ unifies! The Antioch Church was pro-Jesus, pro-Gospel, and therefore pro-human race.

This unity of our race – our human race – led many of us to be committed for justice in civil rights issues of the 1960s and 1970s. We were moved by Scripture, the Spirit, and the speaker of the Dream of one human race, where everyone would be judged by their character, not their color. Personally, in the 1960s and 1970s I repeatedly put my life on the line for that Bible-inspired Dream, for the human race. The race still matters.

Is the Dream now imploding? Is the Biblical framework of the American experiment being dismantled again? Time to blow the whistle to bring us back to our senses, to bring us back to our race – the splendid human race.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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