Community, Diversity, Grace

It wasn’t me! Or was it?

I grew up in a racially diverse area of South East London.  I could regularly get on a bus and be the only white person on it.  There were many, many different races and nationalities in my class at school.  There was much I enjoyed about, and was enriched by, growing up in this environment.  I had good friends from all sorts of different cultures and backgrounds.  However, it was far from a perfectly tolerant utopia.  I realised more and more as I grew up that with rich racial diversity came difficulties, social strains and racism.  My experience was that racism ran in every direction it could; White to Black, Black to White, White British to White Eastern European and vice versa, Black Caribbean to Black African and vice versa, and every other way you can imagine too.

I really enjoy history and am currently on a bit of a personal reading drive.  I’m trying to make 2019 the year I read the most books so far, although having another baby in a couple of months will probably cause that dream to fly out the window, along with the more traditional kind of dream!  A few weeks ago, I read ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup.  I haven’t seen the film and having read the book, I’m not sure I want to.  For those who have done neither, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ are the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a black man who was born free in New York state in the early 1800s.  As a free, married man and father he was tricked into travelling to Washington DC where he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he remained for the next twelve years.  Solomon holds nothing back in describing his heart-breaking story and the treatment he faced at the hands of his white masters; the crippling, constant fear he lived in and the almost daily back-lacerating whippings for the smallest of misdemeanours or the fickle whims of his masters.  It was uncomfortable reading, not least because this is only one of untold numbers of stories like it.  It was uncomfortable reading it as a white person.  To be honest, whilst reading it I regularly felt a sense of shame as a white person for the unspeakable atrocities committed by other white people during this time.  Growing up, when I would personally experience black and white racial tension, I used to think things like, “I understand the history, but it wasn’t me who did it.  Why am I to blame?  I wasn’t even there.”  However, reading books like this and watching things like ‘13th’ on Netflix (you should watch it) has helped me understand a bit more of why racial tensions still run so deep.

A few years ago, I met a German lady at church who was visiting her son, one of our students, for the weekend.  I asked her what she’d been up to and she said, “Well yesterday I went to visit the Cathedral. I think as a German it’s very important to do that.”  To be honest it took me a few moments to figure out what she meant, although thankfully I managed to avoid any Fawlty Towers moments!

We live in such an individualistic society, the idea of being held responsible for someone else’s sin is difficult for us.  We think things like, “Why am I to blame?  I wasn’t even there.”  However, I’ve read something else recently that has helped me think differently about this.  In the mornings I’m working my way through “Romans for You” by Tim Keller.  I recently read a chapter on Romans 5:12-21 where Keller talks about the idea of federal headship.  Federal headship means the words or actions of one person or representative being counted as the words or actions of all those they represent.  As committed individualists, we don’t like this idea.  We think “You don’t speak for me, I’m my own man (or woman)”.  However, this idea of federal headship is a part of our lives whether we like it or not.  If our Prime Minister says “We are at war with…” they are acting as our federal head and the rest of the British people are then at war with whoever, whether you want to be personally or not.  This is also the way legal representatives operate for their clients in court (Keller, Romans for you).

The (sometimes uncomfortable) truth is, despite our individualism, the gospel operates on this principle of federal headship.  In reference to Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, Romans 5:18 says “One trespass led to condemnation for all men” (ESV).  In the garden Adam was our federal head and because he sinned, we are counted to have sinned with/in him and so we are condemned for it too.  This seems so unfair to us; “Why am I to blame?  I wasn’t even there”.  However, Keller goes on to explain that God choosing to operate by federal headship is a really good thing.  If God chose to let us individualists have our own way, we would have to stand before him on our own merits and then we would be in (real!) trouble.  Instead, because God operates on the basis of federal headship, Romans 5:18 continues “So one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”  Federal headship is a wonderful, glorious thing because it means that while we are condemned for Adam’s sin, on the same basis we are freed, forgiven and justified by Jesus, the new Adam’s obedience.  For anyone who has received Jesus as Saviour and Lord, he becomes our new federal head and so his obedience and righteousness are now counted as ours; his words and actions are now counted as our words and actions.

I’m so glad for the gospel!  I’m so glad I don’t have to stand before God on my own merit.  I’m so glad for my new federal head.  I’m also so glad that in Christ there is certain hope, now and for eternity for every tribe and tongue to dwell in profound unity whilst celebrating glorious diversity.

It has also left me wondering; in a city of peace and reconciliation, what does this mean for how we should feel about the sins of those who have gone before us?  What are the ongoing consequences of these sins and how should we handle them? Hmmm…

Paul Harrison

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