What will it take to make progress in peaceful relationships between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds? Political commentators are paying close attention to attitudes and the racial breakdown of voters in this week’s United States presidential election. Clearly, some voted for Donald Trump out of fear and frustration that white uneducated Americans are being mocked and marginalized. In response, some immigrants and minorities fear what the future holds for them. We stand at a moment of opportunity. What is the way forward?
There are a lot of answers I don’t have, but I’ll never forget a breakfast I attended over a decade ago. Dr. Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia spoke on Shamgar, Israel’s judge who followed Ehud and receives scant attention in the biblical record:
“After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel” (Judges 3:31).
Judges 5:6 merely recounts that Shamgar lived at a time when “the highways were abandoned, and travelers kept to the byways.”
Lusk may not have drawn out all of the covenantal implications of this judge’s ministry, but he memorably summarized how Shamgar served the Lord by faith and called us to follow in his footsteps. Shamgar was ordinary, but in Israel’s day of trouble:
- He started where he was.
- He used what he had.
- He did what he could.
And the Lord blessed his efforts and saved Israel.
Most of us probably feel like we can’t do much to erase racial and ethnic tension in our land. We feel like the highways to places of substantial influence are closed to us. But we can do more than we think, especially those of us who are Christians in the racial majority of our land. Shamgar didn’t wait for the highways to open. He just saw the need where he was. We too can do good to all men and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
To start where we are, all we have to do is look around. Our nation is becoming more diverse, increasingly so across the Midwest. Natives have the opportunity to intentionally seek out new and different residents around us. Fear can hold us back, as can apathy, or a feeling of powerlessness. But a warm smile, an extended hand, and a kind word will communicate friendship and thaw the frosty grip of fear. We’re all here together. There’s going to come a day when God’s people from every tribe, language, people, and nation are going to be together in heaven. Presently, he’s bringing some of us together from this multitude of backgrounds. So, we ought to start where we are and look for our new friends as they work, live, shop, and study with us. We start to dispel fear and tension by developing relationships with people who are different all around us.
Shamgar started where he was, and he took initiative to use what he had, minimal though his resources were. An oxgoad. A fancy stick. That was it. That was all he had.
How do we use what we have? Recently, I worked with a brother in the Lord who had problems navigating our cumbersome immigration system. In that experience, God opened my eyes to see that I have more social capital than I thought. My friend was often given the run-around or not treated justly as he worked with officials. Even when other United States citizens of his own ethnicity with high levels of education went with him to appointments, his treatment didn’t change much. Conversely, each time I became involved, things changed. The officials treated him more kindly, they offered unexpected help, and they trusted him. These things happened even when I was essentially a silent observer. Perhaps my identity as a pastor helped. But the biggest difference seemed to be my ethnicity. Add a Hoosier twang to my skin color, and it’s obvious I’ve been around this state for more than a few generations. Though I’ve never felt particularly powerful, in those moments I’ve realized that I’m the most powerful person in the room through no merit of my own. I can get things done that others cannot. The obvious inequality troubled me.
The experience showed me that even if I can’t immediately change what is broken in the system, I can use the advantages God has given me to advocate for those who need help. If I am aware of the advantages I have and have relationships of trust with those who need help, I can serve.
Recently, I sat with a group of like-minded brothers in the Lord from a range of backgrounds talking about progress in race-relations in Indianapolis. Some of the African-Americans related stories of how they are routinely treated by the likes of real-estate agents and police officers. I am not treated the same way under the same circumstances. I have to confess that I could not so patiently endure what they endure if I were on the receiving end. I know and am grateful for many great policemen and real-estate agents, but a little listening reveals that things are not what they ought to be across the board. Clearly, I have social advantages over them in a number of situations.
As we reflected, one friend went on to happily say to me “I don’t want to take any privilege away from you; I just want to participate in it with you.” Of course, I want him to participate with me in righteous privileges that I enjoy. It was refreshing to hear him affirm that he’s not looking for me to “check” my privilege. He does not want me to apologize for the advantages I have, somehow “surrender” them, or necessarily attribute all of their origins to sin. He wants me to rightly use what I have to advance others. We should all wield whatever social capital we have to produce a currency of love and of service for others.
Presently, white American Christians have far more capacity for good than they realize. Admittedly, people plying identity politics have pressured whites to feel guilt for advantages they may enjoy – which has not surprisingly led to further fear. The Lord calls us not to repudiate good gifts, or to shrink back in fear with them, but instead to use them for good. So let’s go out of our way to do it.
What do you have to use? In this epoch of gospel history, the church does not take up an oxgoad as its weapon to overcome oppression. We’ve got even stronger ones, by God’s grace. The gift of hospitality and resources for it, a warm smile, words, time, care, toys, events, experiences, language aids, and, most of all, the gospel itself are at our fingertips. Let’s take stock of our inventory and plan to invest.
Finally, Shamgar did what he could. He killed 600 Philistines. A huge number for one man. A miniscule number compared to what some of the other judges killed. But he did what he could. We must do what we can.
Jesus said “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). What a privilege from God to be able to bless others in need. When we are confident and humble with the gifts God has given us, others will be blessed. We can validate, affirm, and advocate for others around us who have fewer advantages. It takes effort. But it is absolutely worth it.
Are there systemic matters that should be addressed? Probably. Most of my friends who have experienced disadvantages relative to me asserted that the programs to solve inequalities usually seem to backfire. I’m sure some others will disagree. But their stated hope is in the God who changes hearts and in gospel-oriented personal relationships as the best beginning point for wider cultural change.
As Christians get out of their bubbles by faith and exercise love, we’ll see the darkness pushed back, if only ever so slightly. We’ll see God’s righteous judgments in the church and in the land.
So let’s start where we are, use what we have, and do what we can. Who are the people most different from you right around you? The Indian man behind the counter at the gas station? The Hispanic family at school? The African-American neighbor? Are you willing to go out of your way to invest a little emotional currency to embrace them? You may feel broke, but you as a child of God are rich in love. Whether you feel it or not, the minorities in your community perceive that you have power, and they usually feel valued beyond what you can know when you exhibit genuine love in ways small or great. Will you share a meal next week? Will you build a relationship? Will you do this with those you are inclined to ignore or even disdain?
Small efforts will yield a great reward. God was pleased to record the small work of his servant Shamgar in his book in anticipation of the first coming of the Judge of all judges, Jesus Christ. He will use our labor to make his name famous in the earth in anticipation of his second coming. Let’s get busy.