Yesterday morning I was in a hospital with the family of a man who lay dying. We prayed together for a miracle, for peace, for hope.
After leaving, I waited for an elevator and a man introduced himself to me. He had seen me praying with this family. He was also a pastor. We looked to be the same age. We both wore light khaki pants and blue golf shirts with brown belts and slip-on loafers. It was like looking into a mirror except for the fact that he was black and I’m white. His church is run out of a storefront in McGee, MS. He told me God had called him years before to minister to drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. He asked about my ministry. I told him that God had called me years before to the Presbyterian church to minister to educated white people. He said, “Amen. Everybody needs the gospel. Nobody needs to stay the same.”
We wound up spending around fifteen minutes together talking ministry. As we spoke my mind kept thinking about what is happening in Baltimore. Once again a line is being drawn between the urban poor and those in law enforcement. Commentators pick a side. We side with the oppressed! We side with law enforcement! Stop killing people! Stop breaking the law! On and on… gas canisters and bottles fly. Civil unrest.
We have a problem. But that problem goes deeper than systemic injustice and white privilege. That problem goes deeper than crime incubated in under-served urban centers. The problem is what it always has been. Sin. We have a sin problem. It is the problem at the center of every human heart that makes a man want to serve himself and better his own station over and above that of others. It is the fuel of both prejudice and pride. It is the fuel of the power and position that leads to oppression. It is the fuel that rebels and rages against authority. It is the enemy of patience. It is the foe of self-control. It is the thing that wars against human decency. It is the hungry fire that seeks to consume life and beauty. It laughs when one group blames another group for the brokenness around them ignoring the root cause of it all.
As the unrest in Baltimore weighed heavy on my heart God chose to speak a word of peace to me through a man who was nothing like me and just like me. With the weight of death and civil unrest and racial violence overwhelming my heart God spoke to me through a pastor that had never darkened the door of a seminary. “Everybody needs the gospel. Nobody needs to stay the same.” Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes…” That’s true for black people, white people, rich people, poor people, lawyers and pimps, nurses and prostitutes, drug dealers and drug reps, preachers and patients, them and us.
One of the tragedies is that in situations like Baltimore each side demands change in the other. “Stop acting violently!” That’s like me telling that man in the hospital to just start making his heart work better and his lungs to breathe stronger. Rage in the human heart is a symptom of a spiritual problem. Systems can be improved. Policies can change. Cultures can shift. Those things need to happen. But if people don’t change then the root problem remains.
Now, one of the issues is that no one wants to believe they are part of the problem. Sin, if there is such a thing, is the other person’s problem, not mine. Jesus in his ministry stood on behalf of the sinful and marginalized against oppressive systems (John 8:1-11). He also dined with the oppressor and fellowshipped with those who perpetrated systemic injustice (Luke 19:1-10). In both of these stories Jesus desired heart change- individual, internal change. This internal change would be the key to systemic, external change. One thing that would end the woman’s oppression in John 8 was for her to understand that she was loved so that she would stop sinning. In Luke 19, the one thing that would end the financial exploitation of the poor was for Zacchaeus’ heart to be transformed from selfishness to selflessness. The key to both kinds of change was the love of Jesus. His love was big enough to stand with the marginalized against the oppressor and big enough to tell her to stop sinning. His love was big enough to break bread with the oppressor without accusation until the oppressor’s heart broke enough to change the system.
Everybody needs the gospel. Nobody needs to stay the same.