What Does Religion Have To Do With Racial Justice?

In the 2020 NBA Bubble, reporter Taylor Rooks asked Orlando Magic forward and ordained minister1 Jonathan Isaac why he chose not to participate in the league-wide silent protest of kneeling and donning shirts bearing the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” before the start of games. 

In Isaac’s response, he cited his Christian faith. Rooks inquired: “Can you explain what religion has to do with kneeling for the anthem to protest against racism and police brutality?”2 Rooks later paraphrased her question: “What role does religion play in fighting for racial equality?”3

Questions like this one were the impetus behind my argument elsewhere that the word religion, as most often used in contemporary English, is not helpful. Religion is often considered a private matter, not having much to do with how one operates in public life.4

But within the context of Christianity, this view of religion makes no sense—the Church is inherently communal, not private,5 and civic engagement is vital to its vocation.6 Moreover, the Christian’s reasons for caring about racial justice are quite straightforward: ethnic reconciliation lies near the heart of the Church’s mission. 

The Mission

According to the Christian Scriptures, the risen Jesus commissioned the nascent Church to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth7 and make disciples of all nations.8 The word translated here as nations is the Greek word ἔθνος (ethnos), from which comes the English word ethnicity.9 Just as the Father sent him, Christ now sends his followers, empowered by his Spirit,10 to form communities of Jesus-worshippers made up of people from every ethnos, tribe, people, and tongue.11 

Ancient Roots

Jesus was not inventive by giving this mission to his people, for Israel’s Scriptures had long foretold the day when God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth.12 The inclusion of all ethnos into the people of God is a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham: through one of his offspring, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.13 As Esau McCaulley notes, the driving narrative filling the pages of Genesis gives “…an account of God’s vision of a multiethnic people.”14

And the pages of the New Testament proclaim: through the cross, Christ has torn down dividing walls of hostility between different peoples.15 When his followers labor to establish and cultivate just, Christocentric, multiethnic communities in which “…there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free,”16 they bear witness to the day when God will bring his new creation. And with that new creation, “…a new humanity, freed of distinctions in status by ethnicity, gender, and social status.”17

If the Church of this age wishes to accomplish its mission, it must consider the fight for racial equality and ethnic reconciliation in Christ’s name to be a necessary component of discipleship. For in doing so, the Church will be faithful to its call, and the ancient prayer of the Psalmist will begin to be answered:

“That your way may be known on earth, 

your saving power among all nations. 

Let the peoples praise you, O God;

Let all the peoples praise you!”18

Notes

1. Kevin Moore (Sportscasting) – Not Only Is Jonathan Isaac an NBA Player, He’s Also an Ordained Minister (published July 23, 2020; accessed January 5, 2021)

2. See Rooks’ Tweet and the accompanying video; see also: Sam Quinn (CBS Sports) Magic’s Jonathan Isaac explains why he didn’t take knee or wear Black Lives Matter shirt Friday (published August 1 2020; accessed January 5, 2020)

3. See Zach Lowe (ESPN)’s interview with Rooks on the episode of his podcast, The Lowe Post, Kevin Arnovitz and Taylor Rooks (published November 30, 2020). 

4. See Stephen Hart (Oxford University Press, Sociological Analysis: Volume 7, No. 4) – Privatization in American Religion and Society (published Winter, 1987) 

5. This can be seen in the fact that the Greek word from which the English word church comes can also be translated as assembly, gathering, or congregation. See Bible Hub – Strong’s Greek: 1577. ἐκκλησία (ekklésia)

6. For more on Christian civil engagement, see Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler – Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement

7. Acts 1:8 

8. Matthew 28:18-20

9. Bible Hub – Strong’s Greek: 1484. ἔθνος (ethnos). More precisely, the form of ethnos used here is ἔθνη (ethnē)

10. John 20:21-22

11. cf. Revelation 7:9

12. cf. Isaiah 49:6

13. Genesis 22:18; cf. Galatians 3:16

14. Esau McCaulley – Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (p. 100)

15. cf. Ephesians 2:11-22 

16. Colossians 3:11 NRSV; cf. Galatians 3:28; this is not to say that Christians belonging to different social groups cannot retain their distinct cultural heritage. I find wisdom in Brad R. Braxton’s remarks that Christian unity does not entail “…the absence of social distinctions.” See True To Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (p. 306) 

17. Lloyd A. Lewis’ remarks on Colossians 3:11 in True To Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (p. 386) 

18. Psalm 67:2-3 ESV

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