Guy Hershberger wrote “The Way of the Cross in Human Relations” in 1958. In the book, he explored the cross as a definition of life in the Kingdom of God and applied it to contemporary challenges. Today, we share an excerpt on the subject of racism. His views on this subject reflect a refusal to conform to the prevailing views of society of his day and even of many “Christians”. Instead, he saw in his time not an opportunity but a pressing necessity for the way of the cross to be lived out in transformative ways, something that we are committed to doing in 2022 here at the Kingdom Outpost.
Of course, a lot has changed in the 64 years since, and yet precious little. We ought to ask ourselves whether we as a church are like the ones who build monuments and tombs of the prophets of old, while following in the footsteps and attitudes of those who killed them (Luke 11:47). While the past is informative, there is always a tendency to look to a Christ-honoring stance taken a long time ago and forget issues we have been called to address now. This was something nonviolent Christians in Hershberger’s day tended to do – point to the “historic anti-slavery resolution” from 1688 “to avoid the contemporary issues of racism in the church” (Loganbill, 2019).
Today, we must center the voices of those we need to learn from the most and whose perspectives are the ones we are lacking and to look outside the narrow confines of our cultures and (lack of) lived experience, as Guy Hershberger encouraged his contemporaries to do.
We will continue this theme throughout this year here on the Outpost. In the meantime, do check out some of our previously published resources, including an article about prejudice in missions by Keeshon Washington and podcast interview with Drew Hart (author of “Trouble I Seen” and “Who Will Be a Witness”).
I hope this excerpt will give us a tantalizing and inspiring hint of what it means to pursue the way of the cross in the midst of a violent world, especially when that violence occurs to our neighbors. And, I hope this will encourage us to pursue the way of peace in our day, not just point to historic faithfulness but humbly seek to do the same.
Chapter 22: Race Relations
It was suggested earlier that nowhere, perhaps, is the Christian in greater danger of losing the way of the cross than in his economic relationships. If this is true it also seems correct to say that perhaps in no area is failure to follow the way of the cross causing more social tension in the mid-twentieth century than in the area of race relations. The prejudice which many so-called Christians feel towards persons of a color or national origin other than their own is usually due to feelings of superiority entirely foreign to the spirit of Jesus Christ the Suffering Servant. This feeling manifests itself in discriminatory practices, frequently causing its victims to develop hatred toward their oppressors. Not only does the resulting tension lead to social antagonism and international ill will – in our time it has dimmed the Christian witness and it has created conditions which challenge the very advance of the Gospel itself. How could it be otherwise, for how can the Gospel advance when those who profess to believe the Gospel deny the spirit and the power thereof?
The Christian faith recognizes only two classes of people, saints and sinners. The only kind of segregation which the Bible condones is that which separates those who are members of the Kingdom from those who reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and this has nothing whatever to do with matters of race, nationality or color. Except for this spiritual distinction all men are one. It is really incorrect to speak of races of men, for there is but one human race; and in this, Biblical teaching and scientific observations are agreed. It is Scriptural teaching that God “made of one blood all nations of men”. Science has confirmed that all men are of “one blood”; that the various peoples do not differ from each other in intellectual capacity; that such physical differences as do exist are only superficial in character, such as stature, color of skin, texture of hair; and that cultural differences among peoples are due to their respective social environments. Given time, all peoples upon transferring from one social environment to another are capable of modifying their culture and of raising or lowering the level of their intellectual achievement. Thus it is proper to speak of the unity of man in the order of creation which means that “the Christian must regard every man as his brother in the flesh, whom he must love and seek to win to the kingdom of God even as Christ loved and sought those among whom He walked”.
Not only are all men one in the order of creation; they are also one in the order of grace; all have been marred by sin and they stand alike in their need of God’s redemptive grace. The New Testament presents a beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd whose purpose it is to bring all of His sheep as one flock into the fold. “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16). This one flock is the church, His “one body,” a new society of men recreated in the image of God, a society in which all human differences count for nought, where there is neither Greek not Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, black nor white (Colossians 3:11).
The unity of the Christian fellowship is not a mere matter of theory. It is a reality which must be realized within the brotherhood on the local as well as on the inter-community level. The welcoming hand of the church must reach across all social barriers with the call of the Gospel to include all who repent into the fellowship of the church. This is the way of Christian love and nonresistance where the egoisms of nation or race give way to brotherhood and human solidarity. To refuse participation in warfare demands that the Christian likewise rise above attitudes of condescension and practices of discrimination which are a major cause of social conflict as well as international warfare today; that he extend the hand of Christian brotherhood across the barriers of race and color and thus take away the occasion for war.
Christians sometimes do not understand how far removed from the New Testament standards are modern attitudes and practices with respect to race and color. Jesus said: “Men will come from east and west, and from the north and south, and sit at the table in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29). Dare we think of this grand experience as occurring only in heaven? And if Christians cannot sit at the table now with their brethren in the faith, how can they hope to do so in the golden future? It is true that Jewish Christians sometimes had difficulty in understanding this great truth as it is applied to Gentiles, but the manifestation of God’s grace in the conversion of Cornelius taught them that “God shows no partiality”; that “in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him”; that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles as much as to the Jews; that “He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 10:34; 15:8-9).
Nowhere in the New Testament do we read of distinctions made on the basis of race or color. The baptism of the Ethiopian occurred as easily as did that of any other person who responded to the Gospel, nor was any question raised about it within the brotherhood. It seems clear that from the time of the Jerusalem conference through the time of the reformation people of different cultural, national, and racial backgrounds were received into the fellowship of the church. Nowhere in this long period of a millennium and a half does the literature give any indication of a racial basis for admission to the church, or of discrimination and segregation based on race or color.
From whence, then, has come the denial of privileges and the segregation of peoples of different colors in public transportation, in schools, and even in churches, with its resulting racial tensions as we find it in the United States, in South Africa, and elsewhere in so-called Christian areas of the world? Many advocates of segregation claim to base their case on the Bible itself. A southern governor has even maintained that “God advocates segregation,” and Mr. Malan, the segregationist Prime Minister of South Africa, is an ordained minister of the Gospel. It was in this same South Africa, in an earlier day, that Mahatma Gandhi, then a young man, one a Sunday morning was denied admission to a Christian church because of his color. At that time Gandhi seems to have had an interest in Christianity. This experience of rejection alone may not have been responsible for the fact that Gandhi never became a Christian, but no doubt it made its contribution. How then has this great departure from the teaching and practice of the ancient and the medieval church come about?
To a large extent discriminatory practices with respect to people of color are the product of modern imperialism, beginning about the time of the discovery of America. The imperial powers considered their conquered peoples, whether black or brown or yellow, to be inferior to themselves and used whatever means seemed necessary to keep them “in their place”. In what is now the United States the American Indian was pushed out of his home and hunting ground and was well-nigh exterminated. Beginning in 1619 thousands of Africans were brought to the shores of America as forced laborers, and the institution of slavery was established among us. Two centuries later came the struggle for the abolition of slavery which was achieved only after a civil war followed by an era of reconstruction marked by bitterness and hatred, creating a situation in which the Negro and other people of color in our society have been the unfortunate victims ever since. Since the former slaveholding class could not bear to think of the Negro who had been freed under such humiliating circumstances as its equal, it now resorted to numerous devices to keep him in his place. The result has been the denial of privileges; the closing of doors to the best opportunities for employment; assignment to segregated schools and churches; segregated seats and coaches on buses and railway trains; segregated eating places and waiting rooms in railway stations; and other humiliating forms of discrimination, all on the theory that the Negro is an inferior person, who although qualified to be in the company of white people in the capacity of a servant, is not fit to associate with them as an equal.
Out of this situation has grown a vast mythology which speaks of people of color as having an ancestry different from that of the Caucasian, and which is in every inferior to the latter. Unfortunately, some Christian people have even deepened the confusion by claiming to find Biblical sanction and support for this myth. Thus many Christians find themselves in a position where they deny the basic principles of the Gospel, both in theory and in practice, in a manner never found in the history of the church.
When the Mennonite Church spoke on this issue officially in 1955 it declared its belief that racial prejudice and discrimination, as illustrated in the American pattern of segregation or wherever it may be found, is a sin. Among the reasons given for this belief are the following:
1) It is a denial of our professed faith that all those who are in Christ are one.
2) It is the perpetuation of a myth long proved false both by Christian faith and modern science.
3) It brands and discredits those discriminated against as undesirable and inferior.
4) It is a violation of the human personality as created by God; a denial of the opportunities and privileges which in the providence of God are meant for all peoples to enjoy.
5) It is a violation of the basic moral law which requires a redemptive attitude of love and reconciliation toward all men, which forbids all falsehood, all feelings of hostility, and all attitudes which lead to strife and ill will among men.
The statement goes on to speak of the consequences of this sin. It has a harmful effect not only upon those directly involved, but also upon the church and upon society as a whole:
1) It humiliates and frustrates the victim so that it becomes difficult for him to behave as a normal member of society.
2) It scars the soul of the one who practices the sin.
3) It contributes to social tension, to hatred and strife.
4) It is a major cause of present-day international conflict and war.
5) It strengthens the hand of atheistic communism which claims to do with the very sin which many Christians still defend.
6) It violates the central Christian message of redemption and love and thus discredits before whole world the Christian Church and the Gospel which it proclaims, and weakens it mission program.
The case of Gandhi above is the supreme example of the latter point.
The statement includes a confession of the church’s own sins in not measuring up to the way of the cross in race relations.
We are conscious of the contrast between the message of the Gospel and the conduct of men in their relations with their fellow men. As Christians we therefore humbly confess our sins. We confess that we have been blind when we should have seen the light; that we have failed to see that mere nonparticipation in violence and bloodshed is not an adequate expression of the doctrine of love to all men; that we have professed a belief in the urgency of the Great Commission without bringing into Christian fellowship our neighbours of ‘every kindred, and tongue, and people,’ and that we have failed to see that acceptance of social patterns of segregation and discrimination is a violation of the command to be ‘not conformed to this world’. Often we have been silent when others showed race prejudice and practiced discrimination. Too often our behaviour has been determined by our selfish considerations of public and social approval more than our desire to accept the way of the cross. Some of us have accepted the false propaganda of racism and anti-Semitism which has come into our homes in the guise of Christian literature.
Too often have we equated our own culture with Christianity without sensing which elements were genuinely Christian and which were merely cultural accretions from secular society. Many times we have made it difficult for Christians of national origin different from our own to find fellowship among us because our own cultural pride and attitudes of exclusiveness served as obstacles. For these and our many sins we repent before our fellow men and our God.
This chapter ends by suggesting, among other applications, that those without these experiences should in their “day-by-day social and business practices” should become more aware of and sensitive to “inequalities in practice”. We are challenged to “give our witness against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”
The views reflected here, were, in fact, novel in applying nonresistance to the issue of imperialism and racial injustices – issues hitherto outside the conversation. It is made clear that nonviolence and refusing “participation in warfare” must also include standing against national and racial pride and against the source of modern racial ideologies, imperialism. May we today be similarly humble, repentant, open to learning and committed to overcoming any areas of blindness, ignorance, and complicity. May we learn what the way of the cross and the way of love means that Jesus calls us to in 2022 and beyond.