“Neither Jew nor Greek”: A call to unity and solidarity

by Adam Barnett

Text: Galatians 3:28

I am deeply privileged to have a biracial family. My wife, Andrea, and I are both Caucasian, and we have two biological daughters and an adopted son and daughter from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In August 2015, God called our family to serve at Redeemer Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember a close friend’s comment around the time of our move: “Adam, I believe God is sending your family to serve in a deeply segregated city for a purpose.” A deeply segregated city?

I had no clue. My hometown is only 122 miles down the turnpike from Tulsa, yet I never knew of the Tulsa Race Riot of May 31, 1921. I began reading about it and learned of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. Over an eighteen-hour period, countless white Tulsans—some of whom were deputized by city officials—attacked the predominantly Black Greenwood District. Historians estimate that hundreds of Black residents were senselessly murdered, and thousands were left homeless. Businesses and properties throughout the community were torched, including schools, churches, a library, and over one thousand homes. This event was barely documented, and throughout the years, some archives of the racially inspired riots have even disappeared.

As an Oklahoman, I am disappointed that my childhood education neglected to mention this horrific historical event. Since 2000, Oklahoma’s Department of Education and State Senate have made efforts to require the inclusion of the Tulsa Race Riot in Oklahoma and U.S. history courses. It is also worth noting that the 1921 Race Riot Commission has recently been renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission. What happened on that dark and desolate day is now appropriately named for what it was—a massacre.

In the last few years, racial violence has been front page news, with particular emphasis on police brutality. The names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor have tragically been added to a growing roster of African Americans killed by police. As actor Will Smith summarized today’s racial reality, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Ubiquitous smart phones allow videos to continue to circulate and educate the general public on the realities of racism.

Prejudice is not isolated to cases that involve the Black community and law enforcement. I have recently had two eye-opening conversations that further educated me on the deeply ingrained prejudice that exists in society. The first was with an Iranian friend who told me what happened to her and her daughter as they sat down for dinner at a local restaurant. Two white men approached their table and bluntly asked, “Where are you two from?” A bit perplexed by their question, she answered, “We are from Iran.” One of the men aggressively responded, “Do us a favor and go back!”

The second conversation occurred late one evening in a taxi ride home from the Tulsa airport. I knew I had around twenty minutes with the driver before we reached my home, so I started to ask about his story. Originally from the Middle East, he traveled to the United States many years ago to attend college. He was accepted into law school and eventually graduated at the top of his class. He went on to explain how hard he had tried to find employment. After submitting his resume and pursuing interviews at multiple law firms, he finally got a call back. The man on the other end of the call gave him the sickening news: “You’ll never get a job around here with the name Osama.”

My friend’s skin color and the taxi driver’s name made them targets for deeply wounding racist comments. Yet, truly confronting racism is more than condemning overtly hateful speech or violent action. Confronting racism requires overcoming our own beliefs that racial characteristics, abilities, or entitlements make us in any way superior to any other racial or ethnic groups. Racism is not limited to horrific events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. A belief of superiority can subtly hide itself beneath our everyday thoughts, actions, or behaviors toward another race. This belief can be passed from generation to generation, so familiar that it remains hidden from view.

Then again, there is nothing subtle about our nation’s history of systematic enslavement. In Jesus and the Disinherited, theologian Howard Thurman describes the evolution of a pro-slavery society: “Most of the accepted social behavior patterns assumed slavery to be normal—if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious.” We must not avoid confessing that the church is partly to blame for white systemic privilege that exists today. White ministers preached pro-slavery messages, believing themselves to be expounding scripture. Author Melva Costen explains the common message to African-Americans was as follows: “Be saved, and then demonstrate your new Christianity by being a good slave.” Even from the pulpit, a sense of superiority has fallen on white ears for centuries.

In Galatians 3:28, we read of no such superiority: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul could have applied “Greek” to describe anyone who was not a Jew. Therefore, “Jew and Greek” was a way of explaining an all-inclusive view of the human race, just as radical as transcending divisions of male and female. Bigger than notions of race, status, or gender is our oneness in Christ Jesus. There are no exceptions or inequalities in the family of God. Yes, race, nationality, and gender are attributes that cannot be ignored, and are to be acknowledged and appreciated. Nevertheless Paul reminds us to not elevate our own identity above our identity in Christ.

With Christ as the common denominator, Christians are called to unity and solidarity with all who face injustice. To realize this vision, Howard Thurman notes that “Christianity must learn, discuss, and address issues of discrimination and injustice radically and effectively—especially on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.” This begins with a commitment to learning about our own biases. For those who are just beginning this process, a great resource is the Intercultural Development Inventory (easy to find online). Completing this inventory summarizes our personal orientations toward cultural differences and commonalities and reveals ways we each can grow. Other learning opportunities can include intentionally pursuing authentic friendship with someone of another race, reading books written by authors outside your own race, and visiting local organizations that are pursuing racial reconciliation.

In our learning as individuals and together in our congregations, I am hopeful that our churches will engage more authentically in the work of racial reconciliation. Much like our school history books have avoided conversation about the Tulsa Race Massacre, our churches have too often avoided conversations about racism. It is time to confess our ignorance or tolerance for hostility. It is time to genuinely lament for our brothers and sisters who are victims of racial discrimination. It is time to pray for justice. It is time to weep together. It is time to acknowledge the systemic privileges that favor the white population. It is time to stop talking and listen. It is time for white Christians to stand with our non-white neighbors and beg God together for a new wave of unity to flow through our churches.

Consider the possibilities if every church advocated for racial reconciliation and addressed issues of discrimination and injustice radically and effectively. As we commit to listening and learning from one another, may we wholeheartedly seek what the apostle Paul described the church to be: Unified. Neither Jew nor Greek. No exceptions. No inequalities. May it be so.