Growing up during the 1950s, I never questioned racism and the segregation practices that permeated daily life in the city where we lived. In schools, restaurants, public transportation, and neighborhoods, people with different shades of skin color were separated.
My attitude changed in 1968 when I entered US Army Basic Training. Our company included young men from many different cultural groups. We soon learned that we needed to understand and accept each other, work together, and accomplish our mission.
When Paul wrote to the first-century church at Colossae, he was well aware of the diversity of its members. He reminded them, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In a group where surface as well as deeper differences could easily divide people, Paul urged them to “clothe [themselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v. 12). And over all these virtues, he told them to put on love “which binds them all together in perfect unity” (v. 14).
Putting these principles into practice may often be a work in progress, but that is what Jesus calls us to. What we as believers hold in common is our love for Him. On that basis, we pursue understanding, peace, and unity as members of the body of Christ.
Amid all our wonderful diversity, we pursue an even greater unity in Christ.
I saw Mary every Tuesday when I visited “the House”—a home that helps former prisoners reintegrate into society. My life looked different from hers: fresh out of jail, fighting addictions, separated from her son. You might say she lived on the edge of society.
Like Mary, Onesimus knew what it meant to live on the edge of society. As a slave, Onesimus had apparently wronged his Christian master, Philemon, and was now in prison. While there, he met Paul and came to faith in Christ (v. 10). Though now a changed man, Onesimus was still a slave. Paul sent him back to Philemon with a letter urging him to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).
Philemon had a choice to make: He could treat Onesimus as his slave or welcome him as a brother in Christ. I had a choice to make too. Would I see Mary as an ex-convict and a recovering addict—or as a woman whose life is being changed by the power of Christ? Mary was my sister in the Lord, and we were privileged to walk together in our journey of faith.
It’s easy to allow the walls of socio-economic status, class, or cultural differences to separate us. The gospel of Christ removes those barriers, changing our lives and our relationships forever.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached on a Sunday morning in 1957, he fought the temptation to retaliate against a society steeped in racism.
“How do you go about loving your enemies?” he asked the Dexter Avenue Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. “Begin with yourself. . . . When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.”
Quoting from the words of Jesus, King said: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you . . . ; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45 kjv).
As we consider those who harm us, we are wise to remember our former status as enemies of God (see Rom. 5:10). But “[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” wrote Paul (2 Cor. 5:18). Now we have a holy obligation. “He has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (v. 19). We are to take that message to the world.
Racial and political tensions are nothing new. But the business of the church is never to feed divisiveness. We should not attack those unlike us or those who hold different opinions or even those who seek our destruction. Ours is a “ministry of reconciliation” that imitates the selfless servant-heart of Jesus.
Back in the 1930s, my childhood home was loving and happy, but my parents were often away. On those occasions, the center of warmth in our home was the kitchen and our tiny, joyous housekeeper named Annie.
In the Star Wars trilogy there’s a scene that reminds me of some church people I know. At an establishment somewhere in a remote corner of the galaxy, grotesque-looking creatures socialize over food and music. When Luke Skywalker enters with his two droids, C3PO and R2D2 (who are more “normal” than anyone else there), he is surprisingly turned away with a curt rebuff: “We don’t serve their kind here!”
On February 1, 1960, four students from an all-black college sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of them, Franklin McCain, noticed an older white woman seated nearby looking at them. He was sure that her thoughts were unkind toward them and their protest against segregation. A few minutes later she walked over to them, put her hands on their shoulders, and said, “Boys, I am so proud of you.”