The Ideal, The Real, & The Justice Between
Our church was born during a racial reckoning.
In June 2019 we moved into a street-level Brooklyn apartment. A year later thousands of protestors marched past our door in response to the death of George Floyd. Almost a year after that, everyone from professional athletes to The Bachelor continues to address racial issues openly.
In cultural moments like this, the church faces the choice to either speak up or admit it has nothing useful to say.
Christian leaders who do speak usually offer a mix of three things:
Visions of the Ideal—the “ideal” meaning how the world should be according to the witness of the Bible, including a Christ-bought peace between people groups (Eph 2:15) and a society built on “just scales” (Prov 16:11).
Condemnations of the Real—the “real” meaning the sad state of how the world actually is, including the society-warping, generation-affecting realities of racial tribalism in all their individual and systemic expressions (Zech 7:9-10; Titus 3:3)
Here there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
The ideals of this verse are beautiful:
"There is no Greek and Jew,” means there are no ethnic advantages or disadvantages in church. Ethnicity itself is not removed (because it is permanent; Rev 7:9), but ethnic classism is removed because of the transcendent, shared value of Jesus. Ethnocentricity bows to Christocentricity. That’s a beautiful ideal.
"There is no circumcised or uncircumcised” means the tradition of circumcision (which for two millennia between Abraham and Jesus had been the sign of belonging to the religious community) was no longer required. So if a Jewish male had undergone the traditional rites as an eight-day-old baby and spent his entire life around the religious establishment, his tenure in the traditions gave him no spiritual advantage over the adult “Greek” who had become a Christian the day before. That’s a beautiful ideal.
"There is no barbarian or Scythian" means there are no advantages or disadvantages based on cultural or technological development. Athenian Christians had access to more artistic and technological advancements than Scythian Christians. But remarkably, the Christian of “sophisticated” origin and the Christian of “simple” origin are equal. That’s a beautiful ideal.
"There is no slave or free" means Christians could occupy the highest and lowest parts of economic society, yet be on equal spiritual footing. [1; See below for important differences between the indentured servitude system meant by the word "slave" (doulos) in the New Testament versus the institution of slavery in American history.] This means a boss and employee are equals in Jesus. A custodian can preach a sermon to a CEO. That’s a beautiful ideal.
These ideals strengthen me so much, I’m tempted to stop here. But I can’t. Because when I lift my eyes from the pages of the New Testament, I see a social history and present reality that isn’t beautiful, but bitter:
Ignoring the human rights concerns in the Bible, European imperialists several hundred years ago intermingled Christian missiology (e.g., “make disciples of all nations”) with industrial greed, leading to a “divinely authorized” plunder of people and resources around the globe. The great absurdity of this is that much of it was done Bible-in-hand. That’s a bitter reality.
In direct contradiction to “no barbarian or Scythian," Christian missionaries and colonists often referred to native populations as “savages,” “barbarians,” and worse, assuming moral high ground because of the possession of technologically advanced tools and the Christian gospel (in an utter contradiction of its neighborly application). That’s a bitter reality.
To justify the ongoing existence of American slavery, biblical myths like the “curse of Ham” were constructed to subject Africans to ongoing bondage. As North and South polarized toward the Civil War in the antebellum period, some churches and denominations were formed to protect the institution of slavery. Continuing through the Jim Crow era of forced separation and ignored domestic terrorism, Christianity was sometimes warped, redefined, and used as a glove on the hand of the worst of human behavior. That’s a bitter reality.
These are not random anecdotes of a disconnected past. The seeds of racial wrongdoing sown in the past continue to reap a bitter harvest in the present, including (but not limited to) a significant wealth gap, a prison system with proven disparate impacts on people of color, and cities with neighborhoods and schools that still reel from redlining and resource disparities. Within New York City, the public housing system is the size of the city of Miami: over 400,000 occupants. Their racial makeup? 90% Black and Hispanic. That’s a bitter reality.
The best assessment is always an honest assessment. And an honest assessment shows that biblical ideals are beautiful and racial reality is bitter.
Yet Christians are not to choose between the two and drift off into blind hope or confused despair. We are to do justice (Mic 6:8), which means to recognize and close the gap between what should be and what is.
As foundations for doing biblical justice, I asked our church to take these steps:
Focus on the church first. Our history is far from perfect, but we remain a pillar of the truth (1 Tim 3:15) and the ideals of Scripture remain ours to claim and implement. Work on our own house before anyone else's.
Expect imperfection. Sincere mistakes will still accompany our best efforts. Ultimate justice will come from the return of Jesus; all else is an imperfect preview (2 Pet 3:10).
Especially when in doubt, listen. Always listen, but especially when you’re in doubt on the subject matter (Prov 18:13).
Repent humbly. To “repent” is to change the mind (Mt 4:17). To be humble is to refuse to exalt the self (Jas 4:6). Ask God to fill the mind with the recognition of the image of God in all people (Gen 1:27), and the understanding of the interests that shape their lives (Phil 2:4).
Trust God’s grace. Grace is more than a one-time act of forgiveness from God. Grace is a state of being “in which we stand” (Rom 5:2). Modern shame culture can only hope to remove racism by fear from the outside in. God removes racism the same way he does all sin—by grace and peace from the inside out (Rom 2:4). Don't earn cultural credentials. Trust and obey your Creator.
Consider justice a contributor to unity. A contributor, not a prerequisite. Unity is not predicated on our own antiracist work, but on the finished work of Christ (Eph 2:16). However, to ignore the work of justice while seeking relational unity across racial lines is inconsistent. Let justice and unity have a symbiotic relationship, as between word and deed (1 Jn 3:18).
Be distinctly Christian. The Bible is able to do two things regarding justice: 1) motivate good works (Ps 106:3) and 2) discern ideology (Eph 4:14). Too many Christians seem interested in only doing one or the other. On the one hand, it does little long-term good to be the "ideological purist" who critiques secular theories of justice while refusing to personally practice the biblical version. On the other hand, it does little long-term good to be the “justice warrior” who fights for good outcomes while trading biblical justice concepts under the table for secular counterfeits that dilute Christian identity and motivation in the end (which is not a good outcome). So we should receive from the Bible both the mind to think about justice and the hands to do it.
I'm convinced if the church is to possess a meaningful voice as America navigates its most trying issue, it must retain a relentless pursuit of the ideal, a bold acknowledgement of the real, and steady progress on a path to justice. To know if these three are in place for you personally, ask yourself (as I ask myself):
Have I let my love for the ideal blind me to the “real”? (Meaning, have I committed to the Bible but not committed to seeing my neighbor's reality?)
Have I let my knowledge of the “real” damage my commitment to the ideal? (Meaning, has racial reality discouraged me so much that the Bible's concepts seem unreal, undesirable, naïve, or not worth it?)
Will I do justice? If so, whose? (Meaning, am I willing to act as God directs me for the good of anyone who requires it? If so, will I do justice according to God’s methods, or be co-opted by a well-intended, bestselling imitator that lacks the wisdom of God and therefore will backfire in the end?)
My prayer is that decade by decade, our church will be able to say with integrity that we recognize the gap between God’s perfect design and this world's racial brokenness. And my prayer is that decade by decade, our church will be able to say with integrity that we have stood in that gap as secure, justified sinners in order to close it in Jesus’ name for Jesus’ fame.
 The world "slave" in the New Testament refers to indentured servitude in the Roman system, which placed an individual under contract to serve for a determined amount of time before obtaining freedom and backpay. The Bible neither condoned nor condemned this system, but regulated Christian relationships within it because the system was not ethnicity-based, did not make servitude a permanent status for a person’s lifetime, did not affect a person’s descendants, and did not permit human rights abuses. The American slavery system, by contrast, was a systemic regime of oppression that met none of these standards and which the Bible forbids on principle (Phile 16; Eph 6:9). See Preface to the English Standard Version, © 2001.
 Edward E. Andrews, Christian Missions and Colonial Empires Reconsidered: A Black Evangelist in West Africa, 1766-1816. (Oxford Academic: 2010), i.
 Christopher Columbus, “Journal Entry: October 11, 1492” in Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.
 David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press: 2003), 1.
 Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Zondervan: 2019), 78.
 Jeannine Bell, O Say, Can You See: Free Expression by the Light of Fiery Crosses (Indiana University: 2004), 338.
 Robert Crutchfield and Gregory Weeks, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color” in Issues in Science and Technology (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University: 2015).
 Howard Husock, How New York’s Public Housing Fails the City’s New Poor (Manhattan Institute: 2017), 4.
Garrett Raburn (DEdMin, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; MA, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the pastor of Mission City Church in New York City. Over ten years of ministry he has served as a conference director, young adults pastor, youth minister, and church planter. He and his wife Gabi are expecting parents and live in Brooklyn.