Unity and community are created in Christ

Rev. Dr. Bud Reeves

Rev. Dr. Bud Reeves

By William O. “Bud” Reeves
Special Contributor

One variation on Murphy’s Law is “Everything takes longer than it should.”

We should have been over the race issue a long time ago. The major civil rights laws were passed 50 years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 47 years ago, and now he is honored with a national holiday. Men and women of different races occupy positions of authority, from the President on down.

But in the last three years, incidents of racial tension have blazed across our screens from Miami to Ferguson to Baltimore. On June 17 in Charleston, S.C., a white man joined a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then opened fire on the participants, killing nine of them, including the pastor. The aftermath has been a mixture of reactions both for and against symbols perceived as racist—primarily the Confederate battle flag—alongside calls for forgiveness and peace.

Walls of division

We have made progress, but minorities still have barriers to overcome. We still hear racially prejudiced language. There are still statistical disparities in education and economic opportunities between whites and everybody else. I had hoped by now we would be beyond racism, but it’s clear the walls are still up.

There are many dividing walls in our society and our world. Race is only one. Religion is another. Radical Islamic fundamentalists kill people who do not believe as they do. Christians in many places are under intense persecution. Economic and class barriers alienate and ostracize poor people. There are walls of hostility against people of different sexual orientation or identity. Many children of God who are gay or lesbian feel unloved and unwelcome, especially in churches.

Barriers between people are nothing new. When Christianity was beginning to spread from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire, they had to deal with the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. To the Jews, all Gentiles were despicable people, godless, without hope in the world. They were forbidden even to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Archeologists unearthed an inscription that stood at the entrance to the Temple that read, “No foreigner may enter within the fence and enclosure around the temple. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death will follow.” Their slogan was not “Open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul addresses the wall of separation. He explains that the reason Christ came was to break down the barrier of hostility that had been there for generations. Christ came to create community, to make peace, to bring the Jews and Gentiles into the same family of God.

Barrier-breaking love

This is a radical new idea. The sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world destroys the barriers of religion. His grace and love create a new spiritual community that includes everyone, because everyone is a sinner saved by grace. We do not encourage sin, but we accept all sinners, because that’s what we all are. So whoever we are, we can live in unity because of our common relationship with Jesus. Paul writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” [Ephesians 2:19].

In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the community of Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” [Galatians 3:28]. Religion, race, gender, nationality, economic condition—none of these walls exist under the love of Jesus Christ! He gives us the power to overcome all the barriers.

I believe that most walls between people—the hatred and prejudice that divides us—are based in fear and insecurity. But the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. Sometimes the barriers are not the external barriers of religion or society, but the internal walls we put up within our own hearts. We go about our daily lives with an attitude toward the world that determines how we interact with people we meet. If we choose, we can keep the walls of fear and insecurity up. Hostility, resentment, bitterness, alienation, mistrust and anger can build up inside us until there is no way we can touch or be touched by other people. That’s a lonely way to live.

Christ comes to smash the barriers that create loneliness, alienation, resentment and bitterness. Maybe you have been hurt or given raw deals in life. Maybe you deserve to be angry. But you don’t have to stay that way. The love of Christ enables us to overcome the barriers, to see people as children of God, to step forward with trust and hope into a positive future.

Agents of peace

One of the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High in 1957 was Elizabeth Eckford. She was the subject of one of the most dramatic photos of the Central High crisis. News photographer Will Counts took a picture of Elizabeth, 15 years old, walking down the sidewalk surrounded by a shouting mob. The photo caught a white teenager named Hazel Bryan in mid-shout, her face contorted with anger and hatred.

Forty years later, in 1997, as the nation was remembering Central High, Hazel Bryan Massery sought out Elizabeth Eckford and apologized for her hatred. After 40 years of that incident being portrayed around the world, that burden weighing on her heart, Hazel asked Elizabeth to forgive her. After 40 years, with the same dignity that propelled her down that sidewalk, Elizabeth Eckford accepted Hazel’s apology. Walls can finally come down.

We can be a force for unity and community. We can be agents of Christ’s peace in the world. We can work for reconciliation. When we let Christ tear down our walls, we can break the barriers and include all people in the community of love. How? By prayer, by loving other people, by refusing to condone or participate in behavior that excludes people, by openness to folks who are not like us. (The Revs. Ronnie Miller-Yow and Maxine Allen gave other excellent suggestions in last month’s Arkansas United Methodist.)

Maybe we can’t wipe out religious hatred or racial prejudice in the world. But we can create community right where we are by the way we live day by day.

We need to tear down some walls!

The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as senior pastor of First UMC Fort Smith. Email: breeves@arumc.org.