When it gets around to Black History Month each year, I sometimes hear my white brothers and sisters say, “Tony, tell me again … why we have to have Black History Month? And shouldn’t we have White History Month, too?” That statement is usually followed up by a chuckle in an attempt to take the edge off of what has the potential of turning into an awkward conversation.
I welcome discussions like these because they provide an opportunity to place a subject front and center that often only lurks in the shadows of Christendom. Yes, black/white relations and racial reconciliation across any racial barrier needs to be a “front and center” subject—I say that in light of the emphasis God Himself places on His body living, acting, moving, communing and serving in oneness and unity in His Word.
What Does Unity Really Mean?
God does His best work in the midst of unity. In fact, so essential is the issue of oneness in the Church that we are told to be on guard against those who try to destroy it (Romans 16:17). God has intentionally reconciled racially divided groups into one new man (Ephesians 2:14-15), uniting them into a new body (Ephesians 2:16), in order that the Church can function as one (Ephesians 2:13). When the Church functions as one, we boldly brag on God to a world in desperate need of experiencing Him.
But how do we as a Church function as one? We don’t. He does—both in us and through us.
When we got saved, we were baptized into the body of Christ. No matter our race, gender, or class, when each of us came to faith in Jesus, we entered into a new family. We didn’t create God’s family. We became a part of it.
Far too often, we try to force unity when authentic unity cannot be mandated or manufactured. Instead, God says we are to “preserve the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3). The Holy Spirit has created our unity. It is our job to preserve it.
The reason we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity we already possess. The result of both of these situations has been, and will continue to be, disastrous for our nation. Let alone disastrous for the witness of Christ to our nation.
So what does this have to do with Black History Month? Everything.
Unity Through Working Together
I read an eye-opening paragraph in a popular book the other day that will help explain my answer. It highlighted the reality that we still don’t get it about race. It said, “I know many of my white friends and colleagues, both past and present, have at times grown irritated by the black community’s incessant blabbering about race and racism and racial reconciliation. They don’t understand what’s left for them to do or say. ‘We have African-Americans and other people of color on our staff. We listen to Tony Evans’s broadcast every day. We even send our youth group into the city to do urban ministry. Can we get on with it already? Haven’t we done enough?’”
To be fair, we have come lightyears away from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other overt displays of racial hatred. But tolerance is still a far cry from reconciliation. The mere fact that we remain relationally separated most of the time, only coming together for an event or cross-cultural seminar, shows how far we need to go. The proof of this is that we do not have a collective restoring effect in our society. We have limited the degree to which God’s presence will flow in us and through us because if what we call unity is not transforming individuals, churches and communities, then it is simply sociology with a little Jesus sprinkled on top.
Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal. Unity is not achieved through seminars, but rather through service—together. Unity is not uniformity either. Just like God is made up of three distinct persons—each unique and diverse—unity does not negate individuality. Unity embraces diversity to create a stronger whole.
My son Jonathan used to play in the NFL as a fullback. Imagine if he had showed up at practice one day and started playing like the quarterback, or the center, or even the wide receiver—he’d be kicked off the team before practice was even over. Jonathan was a fullback, and if he did’t play like a fullback then the team would be worse off because of it.
A football team is 11 unique players working together to reach the same goal. The body of Christ is no different. We are each gifted with certain strengths and skills, but unless we intentionally (and with race in America, we must be intentional) bring these together under the overarching purpose of God, we will continue to run in circles on the field and never cross the goal line together. We’ll have programs, without power.
Know Who Your Teammates Really Are
If Jonathan didn’t know what the quarterback did, or could do, that would also be a problem. A successful football team is made up of players who not only know who they are, but who also know who everyone else is.
Growing up in urban America during the Civil Rights Era in a Christian context of racism, segregation and an incomplete historical education didn’t give me an opportunity to know who I really was. In my all-black classrooms, I learned about white culture and white history. I read about Paul Revere and his midnight ride. But what my teachers failed to mention was that on the night of Paul Revere’s ride, another man—a black man named Wentworth Cheswell—also rode on behalf of our nation’s security. He rode north with the same exact message.
Reading my Scofield Bible each week at church, I was reminded that we as blacks were under a curse of slavery. After all, it wrongly referenced it in the notes in my Bible. What I didn’t learn was the rich heritage of people of color in the Bible, and even that there were black men and women in the lineage of Jesus Christ.
Without an authentic self-awareness, African-Americans often struggle as we seek to play on the same team toward the same goal in the body of Christ. But my white brothers and sisters also need to be aware of who we are, and who God has created and positioned us to be at this critical time in our world.
Black History Month gives us an opportunity to intentionally familiarize ourselves in such a way that will enable us to embrace our diversity to its fullest, putting unity to use for good. When we do that—when we knowledgeably serve side by side—there will be no stopping what we can do in the name of Jesus Christ.
This article is updated from an earlier version that appeared on RELEVANTmagazine.com in February 2011.