I didn’t think it was about race in the beginning, not when I first heard that O.J. Simpson had been arrested for the murder of his own wife. I was depressed that day, listless, unable to do academic work, gazing at the Oxford skyline and muttering: “How could it be the Juice?” I grew up with O.J. “The Juice” Simpson, you see, and O.J. was mainly about football for me, about rushing yards and touchdowns.
But then it turned out that it was about race after all. It was certainly about race for me, when, after several weeks of hearing about the double murder and the Simpson arrest by radio, I finally received a copy of Sports Illustrated and opened it to see a picture of Nicole Brown-Simpson. What a surprise! There she was, so beautiful, so All-American, so… well… just so white. Because there was prejudice in my heart, you see, as if, somehow, her death was more shocking just because she was white.
It was about race for the L.A.P.D., too, it seems. For some of them, at least, there was one law for the general populace, and another law for African-Americans, only that’s not what Mark Fuhrmann called them.
It was about race for the defense attorneys when it came time for jury selection, and they wanted as many black jurors and as few white jurors as possible, because they felt that black jurors would be more likely to acquit a black man.
It was about race for the prosecuting attorneys, too, when they realized that they had to make sure they had at least one black prosecutor on their team, so they wouldn’t look like racists.
And it was about race for both the prosecution and the defense when it came time to deal with the credibility of Mark Fuhrmann’s testimony, racist that he was.
And it was about race before the verdict, when odds were good, that if you were white you thought he was guilty and that if you were black, you thought O.J. was innocent. And it was about race before the verdict, when odds were good, that if you were white you thought that it was possible for a black man to get a fair trial in this country, and that if you were black, odds were even better that you thought it wasn’t.
And then it was about race on the night before the verdict, when police forces mobilized because they knew that a “Guilty” verdict would lead to an eruption of violence in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
It was about race after the verdict, too, when if you were sitting in a black high school classroom and you heard the words “not guilty” you were going to leap out of your chair and celebrate, and if you were standing with your white colleagues on a streetcorner and you heard the words “not guilty” you were going to walk away in stunned silence, possibly weeping, and certainly angry.
And it was about race today, too, on the front page of The Inquirer, where you could read all about how, in the opinion of a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Johnny Cochran has become a symbol of race in America, a symbol of how upwardly mobile blacks can use the system to their advantage by exploiting issues of race.
From beginning to end, the Simpson matter, whether it should have been or not, was about race.
If you don’t think that racism is still a problem in America, then you haven’t been paying attention in the last few days. One social expert who has lived in both South Africa and Los Angeles said that in his estimation racial relations in Los Angeles were worse at the present moment that at any time he could remember in South Africa.
And not just in Los Angeles. Earlier this fall, principals in some high schools in New England had to ban the wearing of baseball caps because white students were wearing Notre Dame caps and saying that “ND” stood for “Niggers Die” and black students were wearing UNLV caps and saying that “UNLV” stood for “Us Niggers Love Violence.”
I am not speaking this evening about whether or not O.J. did it, or about fair and speedy trials, or about jury selection, or about divine justice at the end of history for every crime, whether open or secret, or even about divine mercy at the end of history for every penitent sinner, no matter how heinous the crime. But I am speaking tonight about the single issue exposed by the Simpson trial for which we, as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, have a special prerogative: racial reconciliation.
Because, you see, there can be no genuine and lasting peace in the human race outside of the body of Jesus Christ.
Remember the great words of Scripture from the third chapter of Colossians, speaking to the believer: “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” [9-11].
And the “here” in the middle of that passage is full of significance. “Here there is no Greek or Jew.” “Here there is no circumcised or uncircumcised.” “Here there is no barbarian or Scythian.” “Here there is no slave or free.” “Here Christ is all in all.” Here, among those who have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, here among those who are being renewed in knowledge in the image of God, here in the church.
Now why would Paul have had to write these things, except that there was racism in the early church? Why would he have to write these things, except that the Jews despised the Greeks and the Greeks scorned the Jews? Why would he have to write these things, except that the barbarians and the Scythians were unable to trust one another? Remember Peter, apostle that he was, yet there was racism in his heart, a hatred and a fear of Gentiles, until he was made new in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
And this is what we are: new in Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we might be one in Jesus Christ, made one in the Holy Spirit by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is what the Lord would have us become, one in Jesus Christ, so that the words of Colossians 3 would be true about us: “Here… here at Tenth Church… here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, white or black, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
On the morning of the Simpson verdict, a number of us from the pastoral staff at Tenth Church were trying to catch a fresh vision of what it might mean for Christ to be all, and in all in the church. We went to a meeting of the Urban Coalition, and we went there to meet with other Christian ministers from the City of Philadelphia, black ministers, and white ministers, and Arab ministers, and Filipino ministers, who know the Lord and trust the Word of the Lord. And we went there to pray about racial reconciliation in Jesus Christ for our city. And not just to pray. We went there to begin to lay plans for a two year project—in Philadelphia and Los Angeles—to train ministers and laypersons to be mediators in the midst of racial conflicts, using a model of training developed in the crucible of South Africa and adapted for North America. And it was right for us to make these plans because genuine and lasting racial reconciliation can only occur within the body of Jesus Christ.
And it is also right for us to host, as we will in March, an Urban Missions Conference on the theme of racial reconciliation, a conference including practical workshops on how we can become reconciled with one another. This is an area where we have and will continue to take responsibility for showing leadership in the church and in the city of Philadelphia. And it is right for us to do these things because the only answer to racial discord is the cross of Jesus Christ, and so the only place for genuine and lasting racial harmony is in the church of Jesus Christ.
What is it right for you to do, in the church, and in the world, to demonstrate the unity of Christ? For a start, Colossians 3 goes on to give these instructions about how we should treat one another within the church, and they are instructions given because of the racial and other divisions that Paul encountered in the church: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” [12-14].
Yes, put on love, because racism is about fear, the fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, but perfect love casts out all fear.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org