Race and the Gospel

Lament and Hope
by Jeff Haanen

The week after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, I got on the phone to call several of my Black friends to see how they were doing. One of our alumni from the 5280 Fellowship, a Black woman working for the state of Colorado, shared her devastation. “I’m not sure how to describe how I’m doing,” she confessed. “I’ve felt numb for most of the week and today the tears won’t stop flowing. I find myself in a space of deep lament, anger, and hurt yet again.”

A day later, I talked to my friend Darius, formerly an executive pastor and now a leader at a local credit union. We spoke on a day when thousands of protestors gathered in Denver’s civic center. “Jeff, thanks for asking about me. I feel…angry, and I want to join them. But tonight, I’m not going to. I have to be in this for the long haul,” he said to me. “After the news cycle and protests end, and most individuals go back to their norms, my Black family will still be navigating many of these racial tensions.” His voice was laced with weariness and pain.

These two conversations reminded me of sessions in the 5280 Fellowship we do each year on implicit racial bias with senior leaders in Denver. I remember Brandon Washington, the lead pastor of the Embassy Church in Denver, telling us the first time as a teenager his dad gave him “the talk.” And the “talk” was not about girls — it was about how to respond as a large Black teenager in Texas when being pulled over by the police. This was a talk my father never had to give to me.

My mind also flashed back to a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching, conversation we had years earlier with Professor Dayna Matthew, a CU law professor who decided to take a job at the University of Virginia. “I’m just tired,” she said, referring to the experience of being a Black woman in Colorado. “Being Black in Colorado is constantly exhausting. I just don’t want to explain my painting of buffalo soldiers to every person who walks in my front door.”

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” says the Psalmist. “How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2). The heart-wrenching prayer of David mirrors the pain I’ve heard from our Black friends and colleagues in the Denver Institute community.

And considering the history of Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration of Black communities, and the persistent racial divisions, even in the church, this lament and frustration is understandable. (This video from Phil Vischer on Race in America is worth watching twice, and then sharing with others.) In the words of Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn, America is complicated

Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God, that all are loved by the Savior, and that sin has seeped its way both into both our hearts and our systems. Christians also long for the day when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will worship the Lamb who was slain (Revelation 7:9). Yet we also believe that God calls all his people to “learn to do right; seek justice for the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). 

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we are committed to the breadth of the gospel, which means that Jesus’ death and resurrection heals both our distorted hearts and unjust systems, ranging from workplace policies to cultural norms. Now is a time to tell the truth, to seek justice for the oppressed, and to remind ourselves that the gospel of reconciliation must include issues of race, lest we be guilty of believing a truncated gospel. Truth and reconciliation belong together.

Yet, in humility, as an organization that’s been predominantly white and that’s also located in a predominantly white state, we believe that now is the time to learn and do the long, slow work of responding to racial injustice. We have homework to do. 

For me personally, this means reading books like Free at Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience, A Testament of Hope, The New Jim Crow, The Essential Writings of the American Black Church, and the forthcoming Reading the Bible While Black. It means watching films with loved ones like 12 Years a Slave, Just Mercy, Selma, The Forgiven, Green Book, and Harriet. It means pursuing real friendships across racial lines. It means talking to our children about the history of slavery in America.

At work it means taking renewed steps to look at whom we have on stage, whom we have in leadership, and how we, corporately, “hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the gate” (Amos 5:15). It also means acknowledging disparities in power in our workplaces, the vast differences in how we experience our work, and the willingness to rethink vocation from a broader lens. 

And as a Christian — in contrast to the secular narratives filling our news feeds — it also means embracing our gospel, which is a gospel of both redemption and hope. Christ himself is making “one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16). Though divisions rack our society, the deepest truth is that, in Christ, we are one new humanity.

“Your call reminded me to process all of this in light of the gospel,” a Black friend recently told me, “and for that I am grateful.” 

I too am deeply grateful for Christ-centered Black leaders who are teaching me to see, think, lament, labor for justice, and endeavor to look again at work, culture, and race in light of the gospel. 

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver, Colorado.