Five decades ago a black man stood before a monument to a white man and gave one of the most famous, and arguably one of the greatest, speeches in American history. In it Martin Luther King Jr. cast a vision, issued a challenge, and shared his dream of a truly United States of America.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
That dream ended for King just four and a half years later when the very thing he sought to end, racism, ended his life. The prophet had been to the mountaintop, had seen the promised land in his dream, and was denied entrance as “a shot rings out in the Memphis sky.”
Now almost fifty years later King’s dream remains unfulfilled. The nightmare of racism keeps myriads awake at night with the sounds of sirens and yet more gunshots. Crowds march. Violence riots. Anger foments. And, cities burn.
How did we come so far during the 1960s and not finish the race? Why must we continually repeat the sins of our fathers? What on earth happened to King’s dream?
The answer to these questions and others like them are both complex and uncomfortable. Now as then the church finds itself on both sides of the line. We have been both the innocent victim and the guilty party in this multicolored melodrama. The time, however, has come for Christians to quit pointing fingers or alternately accepting blame and work together to find a way forward.
The way forward requires looking back, back not to the Civil Rights Movement nor the Civil War but back to the Bible. Our dreams of racial harmony lie not in the failed promises of men or the hollow promises of the government but in the eternal word of God.
The Bible has much to say about race and relations. The topic is worthy of a book of its own. For the sake of space, and the reader’s time, we will limit the scope of our conversation here to just two words of encouragement from Scripture, one from the beginning, one from the end.
Genesis 1 provides the foundation upon which the rest of the Bible stands. It is the superstructure that undergirds the biblical metanarrative. Moses introduced God as the sovereign creator of the universe. The reader sees His benevolence in His thoughtful preparation of the world for the occupants to come.
The highlight of creation, however, is the creation of man. Moses devoted more space, more words (more verses in our English Bibles) to day six and the creation of man than he did any other day. Moses’ motivation, however, was not to paint a glowing picture of man as the center of universe but to reveal a God worthy of our worship. God multiplied and magnified His glory by creating man in His image.
“Let us create man in our image, after our likeness” God proclaimed (Genesis 1:26). Having declared His intent, God kept His word. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
What a glorious truth. Man has been created in the image of God, the imago Dei as theologians refer to it. We are important not because of what we can offer God but because of what God has given us.
For centuries theologians have debated the meaning of this doctrine. In what way do we “look” like God? Is it in the Cultural Mandate, His command to exercise dominion over the creation, that reflects His sovereignty? Is it in our ability to reason and choose that we emulate God’s willing and doing? Perhaps it’s in our call to love God and neighbor?
While theologians seek a biblical definition of the image Dei, we can rejoice in this thought. By virtue of being created in the image of God, all humans have intrinsic value and worth. It is not the color one’s skin or the location of one’s home that gives meaning but God’s image. Thus, any sin against humanity is a sin against God because it diminishes His glory in His creation. Racism is a sin because it denies the value of the image bearer and ultimately He whose image he bears. Sexism is a sin. Age-ism is a sin. Class warfare is a sin.
So, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Bible discovering the importance of man in the creation. We carry the image of God and with it the hope for racial reconciliation when we finally embrace another human not for the color of their skin or what they might add to our lives but for their intrinsic worth. When we love one another in this way we glorify God and, in the process, fulfill the Greatest Commandment.
The Bible begins with a strong declaration of God’s great power and ends with a revelation of his great mercy. Together Genesis and Revelation form the bookends of God’s self-revelation. They do so not because one is the first book and the other the last. They do so because what God began in Genesis He completes in Revelation.
In Genesis we see the wonder of man living in communion with God and the disruption of sin. In Revelation we see God overcome that disruption and bring man back into communion. In Genesis we find an edenic habitat for God and His people. In Revelation we find our eternal home in the presence of God described in much the same way. In Genesis we discover the value of human beings before the rebelled against God. In Revelation we discover the value of human beings as they return to His fold.
Revelation chapter four brings the reader into the throne room of God. Like Isaiah before him, John finds himself standing amazed in the presence of the Lord and eavesdropping on a session of angelic worship. In fact, they sing the same song Isaiah heard 800 years earlier, the same song we still sing today. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!”
Like Isaiah before him, John soon finds himself in turmoil before God. Isaiah knew he didn’t belong there. John could stand there because the Lamb that was slain stood there. John, however, desperately wanted to know what the future held. He wanted to when and how God would make things right again. John found the answer to his need in God’s gift to man.
Jesus can open the scroll, the angels sang, because He had been slain and with His blood He had ransomed a people for God. This people, Christ’s gift to God, gives us hope for eternity and the present. People “from every tribe and language and people and nation” together comprise the kingdom of God, serve as His priests, and shall reign together on earth (Revelation 5:9-10).
Christ’s death purchased for God people of every color and every language. At the cross Christ reversed the divisive curse of Eden and Babel. He died to bring together the dispersed, those in spiritual exile from God and their brothers. Thus, together we are the people of God. Together we will worship Him in eternity. Together we should worship Him today as we presage that blessed day.
You see, God sees not the color of skin but the color of blood, Jesus’ blood. Christ’s death can overcome any sin, including the sin of racism, if only we cry out for forgiveness. It can also overcome racism when we view our neighbors not as different but like ourselves, sinners for whom Christ paid the ultimate price. If He can see the inestimable value of dark hearted sinners, surely the church can see the value of those just like them: sinners in need of the same Savior.
In the end, ours is not a pipe dream but a promise, a hope built on the sure word of God. Christ redeemed for Himself one church, one people. Our dream is founded upon the one way God has already given us. When we live up to God’s word and embrace God’s promises, we will enjoy the Promised Land in part today, in whole in eternity.
In the meantime, however, we must seek to realize a portion of that hope here on earth as we faithfully work to extend God’s kingdom and honor His will. When we do this, whether red and yellow or black and white, we’ll begin to see our dream come true. Then, we can share the dream with Martin Luther King Jr.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.