What the March on Washington couldn’t accomplish: 50 years later, a call for gospel-centered racial reconciliation
The Civil Rights movement in the second half of the 20th century worked ferociously to fight for the equal rights of people of color, especially for the equal rights of African-Americans. Many women and men, both black and white, sacrificed time, money, and the high price of their own lives in order to end racial discrimination by means of boycotts, rallies, freedom rides and impassioned speeches against the sin and evil of racism.
The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, was one of the largest civil liberties rallies in the history of the United States and featured Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a Dream” speech in which the civil rights leader movingly argued for equal rights and racial harmony for all people. Both the march and King’s speech certainly impacted the culture’s attitude toward race and racial harmony.
However, as the following days and months after King’s speech demonstrated and as our nation’s current racial tensions illustrate, the March on Washington was unable to eradicate racism, and it was incapable of universally accomplishing racial equality. The reason is quite simple: the March on Washington, as significant as it was, could not change the human heart inclined toward sin.
To the contrary, when faithfully lived, preached, and taught, the gospel of Jesus Christ can in fact eradicate all forms of racial hostility. As I suggested in my book on racial reconciliation, One New Man, the Bible confirms that sin is the reason why racism exists, Jesus’ death and resurrection are God’s provision for racial reconciliation, Jesus actually accomplished racial reconciliation for believers, and racial reconciliation must be intentionally pursued and can be experienced by those within the Christian community who believe, love, and live for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Reason for Racial Enmity and God’s Provision for Racial Reconciliation
In Genesis 1-2, Moses states that God created a perfect world without sin. In its original pristine form prior to sin entering creation, humanity was reconciled both to God and to one another. But, after Adam and Eve violated God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), sin devastated God’s original creation. The hostility between humanity as a result of sin envisages the universal power of sin over human relationships.
Prior to the fall, humanity was in perfect harmony with its creator, with creation, and with one another (Gen 1-2). Unfortunately, after the fall, Cain murdered his brother, Abel (Gen 4:8), a direct consequence of Adam’s sin in the garden (Gen 3:15). Furthermore, because of the sin of idolatry, God confused humanity’s one speech into different dialects with the result that humanity became more alienated from one another due to dialectical confusion (Gen 11:1-9).
A key New Testament passage by Paul discusses the division between different dialects and different people groups and God’s solution to the division (Eph 2:11-22). When speaking of Jews and Gentiles (i.e. a Gentile is a non-Jewish person), Paul asserts that the Gentiles were separated from all of God’s promises to Israel (Eph 2:11-12). However, he asserts that Jesus’ death incorporates Gentile Christians into God’s family along with Jewish Christians by means of faith (Eph 2:13). Further, Paul declares that Jesus’ death makes believing Jews and believing Gentiles into one new humanity by killing the enmity between them, namely the law (Eph 2:14-16). Finally, Paul asserts that Jesus’ death grants both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians access to the one and true living God, access to the same Holy Spirit, and made them citizens within the same household, whose foundation is the apostles, the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 2:18-22).
Of course, the ethno-racial problems between Jews and Gentiles are not the same as ethno-racial problems that are still prevalent on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. For example, the racial harmony that Paul discusses in Ephesians 2 has nothing to do with skin color.
Nevertheless, Paul’s words in Ephesians precisely speak to us today. For example, he reminds us that the division between humanity is not only a black and white problem, because sin is a universal power that enslaves every ethnicity and that causes divisions between them (see Rom 1:18-32; 6:1-23; Gal 2:11-14). Jews and Gentiles (all ethnic groups) are alienated from one another.
In addition, Paul reminds us that the provision for racial harmony is not Civil Rights rallies and well-attended marches, as helpful as they can be, because he promulgates that Jesus Christ himself actually accomplished racial reconciliation for followers of Jesus.
The Bible emphasizes the universal power of sin over humanity, the universal effects of sin over humanity, the alienation of humanity because of sin, and Paul presents the only solution to this massive problem of racial alienation as the gospel of Jesus Christ. May the churches, therefore, be vigilant to promote and preach a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled, and gospel-centered message of racial harmony, and may they be intentional to achieve this in the church, in the academy, and in the world.
Jarvis Williams is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He has written and spoken widely on the subject of biblical racial reconciliation and is the author of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (Broadman and Holman Academic Press, 2010).