Breaking Down Walls: Racial Prejudice and The Christian Gospel

Psalm 139:23-24; 2 Corinthians 5:17

March 13, 1994 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

On a sweltering August day in 1963, a quarter-million people gathered in Washington, D.C. for the largest civil rights demonstration in American history. Massing in front of the Lincoln Monument, the multitudes heard the words of a 44-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. That day, he said, the negros of America had come to “issue a subpoena to the American conscience.” They were coming to cash a check at the bank of justice—”a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom.”

His words struck home in the heart of America. Something inside the nation stirred when he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Those four words—”I have a dream”—came to be the rallying cry of an oppressed people who would no longer be denied justice.

Buried in the speech is a reference to my home state, Alabama. It is mostly forgotten now and overlooked when Dr. King’s speech is quoted, but it happens to occur in the very next paragraph following the reference to his four children.

“I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and girls and walk together as brothers and sisters.”

Segregation Forever

The governor, of course, was George Wallace. That part of the speech was not calculated to win friends among the white population of Alabama that had put him into office.

I was not quite 11 years old at the time Dr. King gave his great speech. But I was a member of our school band—all-white at the time as was our school system in general. When George Wallace was inaugurated, our high school band was invited to march in the big parade. So I was in Montgomery as a young boy when Governor Wallace uttered his famous pledge to the people of Alabama—”Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Those were the words of interposition and nullification that were dripping from the governor’s lips.

This week someone asked me if there was a time in my life—a definable moment—when I realized that racial prejudice was wrong. I don’t recall such a moment, but I do remember growing up in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Those experiences color everything I have to say to you this morning. Some sermons take a few hours to prepare; others take a lifetime. I suppose I’ve been thinking about the race issue ever since I was a little child.

In my preaching I rarely allude to the fact that I come from the South, even though not a week goes by that someone doesn’t remind me that I’m not from around here. I don’t often mention my Southern heritage because it usually isn’t relevant.

But today it is.

The Heart of Dixie

As one who was raised in the “Heart of Dixie,” I can speak with some authority on the subject of racial prejudice. This is a subject I know something about. It is not an abstract issue, but one that I have lived with since the day I was first made to understand that I was a member of the white race. That meant certain things in Alabama 30 years ago. It still means something today. I would be foolish to deny it.

But my subject is not just racial prejudice but “racial prejudice and the Christian gospel.” I think I am entitled to address the subject because I come from a part of the country that has struggled mightily with this question. To put it more bluntly, I come from the part of the country where slavery was practiced. Not by everyone. But by some. And supported and defended by ministers of the gospel. Not by all, but by many.

The little town I grew up in was absolutely typical of a thousand other Southern towns. The whites lived in one area, the blacks in another. I grew up in an expensive section called “Woodland Hills.” Just over the hill and across a field was “Reedtown” where nearly all the blacks lived. They had their own school system and we had ours. They had their own churches, their own restaurants and their own stores. I remember that the local clinic where my father worked would not allow blacks as patients during the same hours as whites. In the public courthouse there were separate washrooms and separate water fountains for “whites” and “coloreds.”

The Man From Mississippi

In my memory my father does not strike me as a prejudiced man. He was born on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi. His best friend while growing up was “Rastas Flemmon,” a black man who more or less lived as a sharecropper on the farm and took care of the place for my father’s family. I don’t know how my father felt on the inside about blacks and whites—he wasn’t the kind to talk about such things, at least not with me—but I never heard him use “the N-word,” which strikes me as something important looking back across the years. That kind of language simply wasn’t used in our house.

But my father and mother weren’t political in any sense of the word. I don’t remember them setting us down and saying, “Integration is good” or “We won’t let you go to school with blacks.” They did teach us to respect other people, no matter what color they happened to be.

The Blood Is All the Same

In later years I would go with my father as he made house calls all over Franklin County. I rode with him while he would drive out on some lonely country road to an isolated farmhouse. He would go inside with his old black doctor’s bag, dispensing cough medicine, penicillin and other wonder drugs. I knew my father was a good man. I knew it because he was the most popular man in our small town, beloved by all. He offered medical care to all who came to see him—black and white, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, and treated everyone with dignity and personal respect.

In doing so, my father taught a great lesson, though he never put it in these words: We’re all basically the same. Cut a black man, he bleeds red just like a white man. Give him penicillin and he gets better, just like a white man. That’s why you can take the blood of a black man and transfuse it directly into the body of a white man … the blood is all the same.

That’s a huge truth my father was teaching me. Without a word, he was showing me that the segregationists couldn’t possibly be right. The whole idea of separating the races comes from the notion of white superiority. The only reason to keep the races apart is because you think one is better than the other. I learned differently by watching my father. Every time he treated a black man, he was exposing the nonsense that whites and blacks are so fundamentally different they have nothing in common.

What’s It Like to Kiss a Black Person?

Our schools were integrated when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. It was a tense, uneasy time, but we had no choice because the federal government had made it clear that segregation was no longer acceptable in America. It’s funny but I thought of myself, in those adolescent days, as an “enlightened liberal.” Not for one moment did I really grasp the enormity of the issues, not for one moment could I truly understand the pain of the blacks in our town. Although I lived less than a mile from Reedtown, I never went there, ever, unless I drove along the road that went past the old high school.

When integration finally happened, it actually worked. There were no riots, mostly because we had no choice so there was nothing to riot about. We went to the same classes, had lockers side by side, ate in the same cafeteria… and still pretty much went our separate ways. But the blacks joined the football team and the band. That was a shock to me because I was in the band when it was integrated. Nobody liked it at first, but as with anything else, you got used to it, then it was okay, then you didn’t think about it anymore. That was just the way things were. I do remember a group of guys discussing what it would be like to kiss a black person. That conversation came to mind because I heard someone talking about the same thing this week.

An Uptight Town

Which brings me to Oak Park. It’s a long way from Alabama to Illinois and an even longer way from where I grew up to where I live now. Lots of people look at Oak Park as a national symbol of racial equality. In many ways that is true. Our village has long been noted for its cultural, racial and ethnic diversity. People move here because they like the fact that we aren’t all the same. We’re white and black and brown—Asian, African, Caucasian, and various and sundry mixtures, blends and shades. All kinds of people live here.

It hasn’t always been so. For a long time our village was nearly all white. As recently as 1970 Oak Park was only 2% black. Today that percentage has risen to about 22%. Most of our schools are over 30% black. And the trends are still rising slowly.

Is that bad? No, but it does mean that the Oak Park of yesterday is gone forever. The changing racial and ethnic makeup of our village has changed the fabric of life.

Read the local papers. Every week without fail the Wednesday Journal and the Oak Leaves have articles about the racial issue in Oak Park. It especially surfaces every time there is a problem at the high school. The current controversy over discipline is really a dispute over whether black students are treated differently from white students when they get in trouble.

It surfaces with every discussion of hiring and firing and promotion inside the police department … and the fire department … and every office at the Village Hall … and every time a teaching position opens up at any of our local schools.

A Tempest in a Teapot

I hear it discussed in my neighborhood when we talk about crime or drugs or gangs. Sometimes it’s hidden behind things like “property values” and “safety.”

Make no mistake. Oak Park is an uptight community. The current controversy over gay rights is a tempest in a teapot compared to the racial issues that divide us. There is a lot of fear floating around. You can feel it in the air. You can read it in the newspapers. You can sense it on the faces of people who wonder what the future holds.

And you can tell it by the number of people who’ve finally said, “Enough is enough! I’m moving out of Oak Park.”

It’s not just the racial issue. There are many other factors—high taxes, crowded conditions, a desire to live farther away from Chicago, the presence of a vocal gay community, to name only a few. But racial tension is on the increase. I have felt a palpable rise in the years I have lived here.

What Difference Does Jesus Make?

What does the Christian gospel have to say at this point? How does the message of Jesus Christ apply in Oak Park? What role should we be playing as the largest evangelical church in the village?

We can answer the first question very simply. The Christian gospel is fundamentally incompatible with racial prejudice. The Bible teaches us four crucial facts we must never forget:

  • All people are equally created in God’s image.
  • All are deeply loved by God.
  • All are stained and tainted by sin.
  • All are able to be redeemed.

Those four facts form the basis of the doctrine of Christian equality. All people regardless of their background are significant, loved, fallen, and redeemable! Those four facts are true of all people no matter what color their skin happens to be. No race has any advantage over any other race. No group is therefore better than any other group.

God doesn’t love white people more than he loves black people.

And blacks are no better than Hispanics.

And Asians are just as lost as Europeans.

And Latinos and Native Americans are saved in exactly the same way.

That’s what Acts 10 means when it says that God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t play favorites. Skin color doesn’t matter to him. Race isn’t an issue with God. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”

God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t play favorites.

No Prejudice With God

I don’t think any of us can claim to be completely free from prejudice. We are all prejudiced to some degree. Our training, our background, our heritage, our culture, all makes us prefer our own people, our own group, our own “kind” and our own color. We might as well admit that.

But there is no prejudice with God. And one part of becoming godly is recognizing those hidden areas of prejudice and beginning to deal with them honestly.

It’s something we have to think about here at Calvary. Thirty years ago that wasn’t so much of an issue, but we can’t escape the fact that our community is changing around us. And our church is changing whether we like it or not.

God has given us a platform from which we can speak to the community. People watch us who never darken our doors. Other churches look to us for leadership. We can’t escape the fact that God has placed us at the forefront at a moment when our village is at a crossroads.

Glen and Raleigh

Yesterday Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein came to Oak Park to present a seminar on racial reconciliation based on their book Breaking Down Walls. I highly recommend their work. In fact, I wish everyone at Calvary would buy a copy and read it. These are their words:

We have become convicted and convinced that racial reconciliation is not only possible, it is critical. Reconciliation must first take place among Christians, black and white, Hispanic and Asian. The evangelical church, so dedicated to foreign missions, has neglected the desperate needs of the inner cities of our country for too long. Not only have we neglected the cities, but we have even abandoned our brothers and sisters in Christ to gang violence, poverty, prejudice, racism, hopelessness, and fear. Even when the church wants to respond, it is at a loss to know how to help or what to do. (p. 29)

Tough words. Stinging words. Prophetic words. True words. Hard to hear, painful, yet we must listen because Glen and Raleigh are telling the truth. They are Christian brothers who are leading the way.

A Place to Start

What ought we to do and where ought we to begin?

1. In the first place, I call upon each member of this congregation to search your own heart. I’ve already said that we all have some degree of prejudice, which for most of us stays conveniently hidden under the surface most of the time. But it’s still there, lurking underneath, infecting our attitudes unconsciously. Perhaps we all need to pray, “Lord, show me the prejudice in my own life. If it’s there, bring it to the surface so I can see it.” To pray that is nothing more than what David prayed when he said, “Search me, O God, try me and see if there be any wicked way within.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

2. Second, I encourage you to purchase Breaking Down Walls and read it for yourself.

3. Third, go back and look at Jesus and see how he treated others. Here is a man who accepted people just as they were, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, men and women, children and adults. Take a good look at Jesus. You’ll find no prejudice in him.

4. Fourth, take a step out of your comfort zone. Hear again the words of Glen and Raleigh:

The racial situation in America today cries out for Christians to “pick up our cross,” step out of our comfort zones, and build relationships across cultural barriers—beginning with at least one person, one family, one church—whether it is African-American, Asian, Hispanic, or white. No, we cannot be everything to everybody, but we will be surprised how even one relationship that stretches us beyond our natural tendencies will help give us the groundwork for relating to others in the body of Christ who are different from ourselves. (P. 15)

That’s not easy. It’s hard. And scary. And difficult. And time-consuming. But the work of reconciliation demands it of us. If we are going to be bridge-builders, we’ve got to reach out to people who are not like us.

5. Fifth, make a commitment that you are going to be a “wall-breaker” not a “wall-maker.” Anyone can erect a wall of prejudice, it takes a person of courage to break down the walls that divide us.

Make a commitment that you are going to be a “wall-breaker” not a “wall-maker.”

What kind of person will you be? A wall-maker or a wall-breaker? I remember years ago seeing a bumper sticker that read, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” How true. Those are the only two choices we have. To be part of the solution or part of the problem. Far too many of us have passively chosen to be part of the problem. We’ve done it by doing nothing at all, simply by living in our our cozy, safe, comfortable, non-threatening little world. We are like the proverbial Nero who fiddled while Rome burned.

Oak Park is Burning

Oak Park is burning, my friend. Burning spiritually and sometimes literally. Our streets are not safe because the hearts of men burn with passion at injustice, neglect, hatred and prejudice.

It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to do something about it. It’s time for Calvary Memorial Church to do something about it. It’s time for you and it’s time for me to become part of the solution.

Far too many of us have passively chosen to be part of the problem. We’ve done it by doing nothing at all, simply by living in our our cozy, safe, comfortable, non-threatening little world.

It would be sad and tragic if we were known as a church that stands against abortion and against gay rights but not also against the evil of racial prejudice. Many people think we don’t care about this issue. It’s time for us broaden our concerns to include all God’s children without regard to the color of their skin.

Sin, Not Skin

After all, it’s not a matter of skin but a matter of sin. The real problem is deep within the human heart. Behind the anger, behind the prejudice, behind the bigotry, behind the centuries of oppression, the real problem is greed, pride, unconcern, and basic human selfishness. The things that divide us find their ultimate cause in sin—the same problem that drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden, the same thing that drove Jesus to the bloody Roman cross.

Sin, not skin. That’s fundamentally good news. Because if sin is the problem, then we’ve got the answer. “But God demonstrates his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

The Answer is Jesus

The answer is Jesus—not welfare reform. The answer is Jesus—not buying more locks for our front door. The answer is Jesus—not racial quotas. The answer is Jesus—not another huge crime bill. The answer is Jesus—not gun control. The answer is Jesus—not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. The answer is Jesus—not liberal dreams or conservative reaction.

What does the Christian gospel have to say to racial prejudice? When Jesus comes in the front door, prejudice must eventually leave by the back door. It can’t stay forever when Jesus moves into the human heart. Eventually the love of Jesus must and will win out. Because the love of Christ will expel all forms of hatred and oppression.

The real problem is deep within the human heart. Behind the anger, behind the prejudice, behind the bigotry, behind the centuries of oppression, the real problem is greed, pride, unconcern, and basic human selfishness.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things are passed way. Behold, all things are made new.” (II Corinthians 5:17) That’s why we preach the gospel. It has the power to change the human heart.

Do you know Jesus? Not, do you know about him? Do you know him? That’s the most important thing in the world. May I introduce you to him right now? His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He walked on this earth 2000 years ago. He was the only perfect man who ever lived. He loved and respected everyone he met. But some people hated him so much that through sheer prejudice they murdered him by hanging him on a wooden cross. Three days later he rose from the dead. 40 days after that he ascended into heaven. Someday soon he’s going to return to the earth.

Someone Loves You

Do you know Jesus? Have you ever opened your heart to him? Last week someone sent me a sweet note that said, “Can you ask Pastor Ray to “pray the prayer” next Sunday because I’m bringing a friend and I want him to know Jesus.” I don’t know who wrote the note or who the friend is, but if you’re here as a visitor, let me tell you that someone loves you very much. Someone wants you to know Jesus.

I going to ask that we bow our heads for just a moment. Let’s stop and think about things for a second. Do you know Jesus? Would you like to know him? I’m going to lead us in a simple prayer. If you’re ready to accept Christ, pray along with me.

Dear Lord Jesus, I need you in my life. I freely confess that I have broken your laws. Deep in my heart I know that I am sinner. Thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for loving me when I was far away from you. Here and now I turn away from my sins and I trust you as my Savior. Come into my heart and save me. Make me a brand-new person. Fill me with your love. I turn away from my old life and I pledge to live for you from this day forward. Set me free from hatred, bitterness or prejudice of any kind. Teach me what it means to live as a true Christian. May others see Jesus in me. I ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

If you prayed that prayer, I’m going to ask you to stand up. You don’t have to say anything. But your standing will simply signify that you meant business when you said those words in your heart. (Note to the reader: when I gave this invitation Sunday morning, eleven people stood up and indicated that they trusted Jesus Christ as savior.)

The Son Must Rise Again

This morning I got up about 5:30 A.M. and went outside to get the paper only to discover that thick fog had rolled in during the night. It was so thick and so dark that you could hardly see more than a few feet in front of your face. As I looked up and down the street, I couldn’t see the houses or the people. The fog obscured my vision. So I went back inside and began to work at my computer. A few minutes later I glanced up and saw that the fog was lifting. Why? As the sun began to rise over Oak Park, it burned away the fog.

When Jesus comes in the front door, prejudice must eventually leave by the back door.

Something like that has happened in America. A thick cloud of racial prejudice has obscured our vision. We can’t see each other for the fog of mistrust, hatred, and deep suspicion. So we go through life not even seeing each other, living in fear that we will bump into someone who is very different.

There is only one hope for our nation. The Son must rise again. When the light of Jesus comes in, the fog of prejudice disappears. The fog can’t coexist with the light of Christ. Darkness flees, fog disappears, prejudice can’t blind our eyes when Jesus rises in our hearts.

It is only Jesus who can make the dream come true. Only Jesus can cause the sons of former slaveholders and the sons of former slaves to sit down at the table of brotherhood. Only Jesus can create a nation where little black boys and little black girls can join hands with little white boys and girls to walk together as brothers and sisters.

Only Jesus Can Do It

Only Jesus can do that. But Jesus can do it. He can do it if we’ll let him. He can do it because Jesus is in the life-changing business. He can do it if we’ll cooperate with him. He can do it but he needs our help. He needs some people to be his hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears, his heart. He needs some of the men and women who bear his name to live as he lived.

There is only one hope for our nation. The Son must rise again. When the light of Jesus comes in, the fog of prejudice disappears.

When that happens, when the people of God begin to live up to the Holy Name we bear, then the dream will begin to come true.

It can happen this very week. Nothing is stopping us from taking that first step except our own fear. Let the Son shine in your heart. Jesus, rise within us and banish the fog of fear and the dark night of prejudice.

When we let the Son shine and when Jesus rises within us, in that day our world will begin to say, “The people of God are in this place.” We will indeed speed up the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?