The spring 2006 issue of The American Scholar contains two interesting articles under the feature section labeled “Beyond Race.” In the first article, Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, argues that “treating people differently according to their race is as un-American as a hered-itary aristocracy, and as American as slavery.” In his view, America is a meritocracy, a place where the national ideal is that people are defined by what they achieve rather than by where they have been. He says, “Achievement matters, not origin.” Etzioni proposes that one first step out of our current racial quagmire is to remove racial categories from American public life, like the U.S. Census for example. These categories, he suggests, divide people unhelpfully and artificially; and with the rise of significant numbers of Hispanics, there comes an opportunity to rethink racial categories and forge a new vision of America that lives up to its ideals. In the second article, Nancy Honicker, an English professor at the University of Paris, takes a look at the November 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs. Honicker points out that these suburbs are peopled largely by emigrants from Africa (Senegal, Ivory Coast, etc). France, however, has precisely the policy Professor Etzioni advocates in his article: the French government keeps no official statistics on race, religion, or ethnic origins of its citizens; and in most cases it is against the law for private institutions to collect such data. This policy, Professor Honicker argues, contributes to the racial discrimination that many immigrants face in France.
THE COLOR/ CULTURE LINES
African-American sociologist W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963) predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the “color line.” Unfor-tunately this has become true for the twenty-first century as well; though ours is not just the problem of the “color line“-as if only blacks and whites alone were embroiled in the issue, which was certainly DuBois’ context. Ours is the problem of the “color lines” and the even more nebulous “cultural lines.” Thinking in terms of color is far too simplistic today.
Issues involving ethnicity-and what is commonly called race-have a way of shifting and shading and even blurring in our rapidly international society. DuBois’ color line is sometimes drawn right down the middle of individual people; but what about those who are multiracial? How do we class those individuals and should we? Members of various minority groups are trying to shuffle their way through the personal identity maze that’s created by all of this. Several books illustrate the problem when it comes to personal identity. Mark Smith’s work, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses, argues that whites of all classes, from the colonial period to the mid-twentieth century used not just sight, but all of their senses to construct an artificial binary of “black” and “white” to justify slavery and establish social, political, and economic hierarchies. Deborah Dickerson in her iconoclastic reflection on W. E. B. DuBois calls for an e nd to blackness and the return of the souls of black folks to their rightful owners by redefining blackness and rejecting white ideas about what it means to be black. Meanwhile, Eric Goldstein asks, “What does it mean to be Jewish in a nation preoccupied with the categories of black and white?” In his book, The Price of Whiteness, Goldstein takes a look at the history of Jewish racial identification in America by tracing the hard choices and conflicting emotions faced by Jewish immigrants and their children as they sought social inclusion at the potential price of their ethnic distinctiveness.
You see the quagmire, don’t you? A complex maze of histories, definitions, counter-histories, and redefinitions all aimed at figuring out just who we are-and trying to answer the famous question posed by Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?” While there are lots of book titles out there, there are no real solutions offered. That might be acceptable if we didn’t know that this conflict along the lines of color, ethnicity, culture, and religion was so explosive and volatile. As the May 2007 issue of The New Republic stated:
Never again? What nonsense. Again and again is more like it. In Darfur, we are witnessing a genocide again, and again we are witnessing ourselves witnessing it and doing nothing to stop it. Even people who wish to know about the problem do not wish to know about the solution. They prefer the raising of consciousness to the raising of troops. Just as Rwanda made a bleak mockery of the lessons of Bosni a, Darfur is making a bleak mockery of the lessons of Rwanda. Some lessons, it seems, are gladly and regularly unlearned. Except, of course, by the perpetrators of evil, who learn the only really enduring lessons about genocide in our time: that the Western response to it is late in coming, or is not coming at all.
Nations or ethnic groups war against other nations or ethnic groups, and some nations stand back as they do. It’s as though the earth isn’t big enough for us all and someone has to be homeless or obliterated. People are alienated one from another, hostile and angry. Some are even confused about who they are-puzzled about origins and belonging even as they look in the mirror. It seems that most of us are bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by race and ethnicity. We know that the situation we find ourselves in is unjust and wrong; we feel its unnatural quality in the pits of our stomachs even if we don’t know what to do about it in our heads. We a sk ourselves: What is the way forward? How do we escape this quicksand? Has the American experiment failed with its promise of E pluribus unum, out of many one? Is there no way of affirming our unique differences on the one hand and achieving a permanent peace and unity on the other? Is there no solution for the estrangement and hostility we witness in the world, that we witness in ourselves?
Ephesians 2 reveals to us the three problems reflected in all of this: our alienation; our hostility and strife; and our homelessness. It also reveals the answer to these problems.
THE ANSWER TO OUR ALIENATION IS NEARNESS TO GOD
In Ephesians 2:11-13, Paul summarizes and recapitulates what he has just finished saying in verses 1-10. Like a good teacher, he is repeating himself and pressing his point deeper into the minds of his readers. In verses 1-10, Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians that at one time they were dead spiritually, separated from God because of their sins and transgressions. He reminded them that they were enslaved by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and so were objects of God’s holy wrath; but God (v. 4) in love and grace rescued or saved them from his own wrath by raising them from spiritual death to life through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.
In verses 11-13, Paul repeats that message, but he adds a different dimension. Whereas verses 1-10 had special reference to individual Gentile Christians and how God saved them by grace, verses 11-13 zoom back to take in a panoramic view-coming into focus are not just the individuals but the ethnic groups in Ephesus. Paul addresses this section to “you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision.'” The address itself points to the ethnic alienation that his readers were facing.
Wrong People-Alienation from Society
They were Gentiles by birth or “Gentiles in the flesh.” As the term “Gentile” is a general term used throughout Scripture to refer to non-Jews, in effect Paul is pointing out that they were ethnically “the wrong people” by birth having been born non-Jews, and the alienation they experienced as an accident of birth was compounded by a religious alienation as well. You see that in Paul’s use of the phrase “called ‘uncircumcised’ by those called ‘the circumcision.'” This phrase alludes to the real and centuries-long ethnic hostility between Gentile and Jewish people. To be called “uncircumcised” was to be called pagan or heathen. Since circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with his people, those not circumcised were outsiders and aliens from whom Israel was to separate itself. Think of the emotional intensity that goes with the phrase “uncircumcised Philistine” found in the Old Testament. That’s probably what’s in view here-alienation, disdain, and hostil ity grounded in religious difference. The sign of God’s covenant people, circumcision, had degenerated into a racial or religious slur in the mouths of his people.
Wrong Religion-Alienation from God
Having been born Gentiles, uncircumcised outsiders had certain religious disadvantages (v. 12). Because they were not Jewish by origin, they were to remember that they were: “separate from Christ”; “excluded from citizenship in Israel”; “foreigners to the covenants of promise”; “without hope”; and “without God.” Their situation was desperate. The prepositions and adjectives were terrible enough: separate, excluded, foreigners, without.
As Gentiles, they were: “separate” from the Messiah, the promised Deliverer and Savior of humanity from their sins (vv. 1-10); “excluded” from citizenship in Israel, which is to say shut out from the one people God chose as the objects of his special love; “foreigners” to the covenants of promise, the blood oath of God to make for himself a special people and to be to that people their loving and merciful God; so, naturally, they were “without hope and without God.” They were “Christless, stateless, friendless, hopeless, and Godless.” (1)
This is how people show up to our churches. Can you think of a more desolate and desperate condition? They were estranged from God’s people, God’s promises, and God himself. No wonder they were hopeless.
Their alienation from God wasn’t peculiar to them. Even people of Jewish background were alienated from God. That seems to be what’s hinted at in the parenthetical statement at the end of verse 11: “The circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men).” By including that phrase, Paul is pointing out that the circumcision group bore the sign of a relationship with God outwardly only. Their physical foreskins were cut by the hands of men, but the dead skin encasing their hearts was not circumcised by the hands of God. So they too, though they had known all the advantages of being born in the right nation and being raised in the correct religious family, were separated from God.
Paul wants to remind both Jew and Gentile that they are no longer alienated from God-they have been brought near (Eph. 2:13). Just as they were once dead in sins and then made alive through faith in Christ, so also they were once excluded and separated but now are brought near, brought into a new nation made of Jew and Gentile. The old disadvantages have been reversed. The alienation caused by birth and religion are overcome now that they are near to God. This nearness is said to be “in Christ.” In other words, the nearness we may have with God is found through union with his Son. This becomes the new identity that overcomes the exclusion and separation. They were no longer Jews, Ephesians, Asians, Greeks, and the like, but now they were “Christians.” They are now members of a new spiritual ethnic group.
With new life in Christ we become citizens-not of Israel or any other earthly power-but citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, standing before Pontius Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not of this world… my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36), by which he meant the kingdom of heaven. We are now citizens of that place. We don’t belong to this world but to another. We are now fellow citizens with all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, reconciliation, and peace through faith in his blood. The answer to our alienation is nearness to God through union with Christ-and with one another-becoming one new nation. Yet, as I said earlier, humanity is not only alienated from one another and from God, we are also hostile toward one another and toward God.
THE ANSWER TO OUR HOSTILITY IS RECONCILIATION AND PEACE THROUGH JESUS CHRIST
“He himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). The emphasis here is strongly on Jesus. In other words, peace is a person. Jesus is the only peace available to Jew and Gentile alike. The fact that Jesus is our peace rules out other false sources of peace. Peace is found only in him. Peace is not about census studies or data collection, public policy, military might, education or philosophy, or inner strength quietly self-administered, but about another Person-Jesus. “He himself is our peace.” He is the Lord of peace, the Prince of peace.
First, he made the two one. That is, he took those who were alienated and hostile toward one another, Jew and Gentile, and unified them.
Second, he “destroyed the barrier, the middle wall of hostility.” This barrier or middle wall of hostility was the symbol of all that separated Jew from Gentile, all that separated the people of God from the profane. Some commentators think that this has special reference to the temple of Herod the Great in Jerusalem, which featured just such a dividing wall. According to Josephus and white limestone slabs uncovered over a hundred years ago, there hung on this outer wall for all the Gentiles to see signs that read, “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure round the temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” As Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, he knew firsthand the force of this threat as about three years earlier he had nearly been lynched by an angry Jewish mob who mistakenly thought he had taken a Gentile into the temple. Interestingly, the Gentile in q uestion was an Ephesian named Trophimus. (2) For some, the middle wall of separation had come to symbolize all that excluded the Gentiles and all that established religious pride and arrogance in many Jewish people. But there’s another way of understanding this phrase, if we allow the third aspect of Jesus’ work to clarify it.
Third, Jesus brought peace by “abolishing in his flesh the Law with its commandments and regulations.” The dividing wall of hostility is probably best understood in the context as the Law with its commandments and regulations. That Law separated Israel from all who were outsiders. It marked Israel out as different, as God’s people, but eventually became the source of much pride and resulting hostility. This reference to “abolishing in his flesh the Law” is a reference to Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law through perfect obedience, abolishing the penalty of that Law through his sacrifice. Christ took upon himself the penalty of the Law on the cross in the place of all those who would repent and believe in him. But those laws were merely pointers to a greater reality, when the people of God would be cleansed of their sins, counted righteous and holy unto the Lord. That greater reality was established when Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, “in his flesh” died for the sins of his people.
Fourth, Jesus brought us peace when he “came and preached peace to those who were far away and peace to those who were near” (v. 17). Peace was the proclamation made regarding Jesus at his birth in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” However, when he triumphantly entered Jerusalem riding a donkey-itself a sign of peace-the people didn’t recognize that the peace of God had been visited upon them. Luke 19:41-44: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes.” But to his disciples, those who heard the message and believed, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). Again, he later said to them, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In Acts 10, when salvation through Christ was first being witnessed among the Gentiles, Peter explained: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” The apostles and earliest followers of Jesus came to understand that the very message of Christianity, the message about Jesus, was the gospel of peace.
What was Jesus’ purpose in creating peace?
Jesus’ purpose was to create one new man (Eph. 2:15b-18) out of Jew and Gentile, and this new man is characterized by reconciliation with fellow Christians. The peace we seek requires union with Jesus Christ. Apart from union with Christ there can be no lasting union with one another. Horizontal mergers are made possible only through vertical integration; but where vertical integration truly exists, horizontal mergers are inevitable. Both Jew and non-Jew also have reconciliation with God through the cross. Neither the privileges of Israel nor the disadvantages of the Gentiles changed the fundamental problem of our heart’s hostility toward God demonstrated by our sins. As we look at disunity and hostility in Iraq, Iran, Darfur, and other regions, we are not fundamentally watching the tragedy of humanity not able to get along; what we’re watching is the blooming of a sour fruit whose root is hostility toward God.
But Christ Jesus reconciles the faithful to God through the cross. Here we see that the cross achieved peace and reconciliation among humanity, and between humanity and God; and more than that, the work of Jesus on the cross restored “access to the Father by one Spirit” (v. 18). The breach that occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God is finally bridged by the cross. Therefore, Jew and Gentile, all peoples of the earth as one man through faith in Jesus may now have access, a relationship, with God the Father by the Spirit of God.
Notice the past tense verbs in this section: reconciliation is something that Christ has already done! We are living beneath our inheritance on this issue. Let’s not act as if reconciliation across natural lines like ethnicity and class comes through human effort or moral education when Christ has already accomplished it. The imperative to do must rest upon the indicative that Christ has already done. This is why I’m not a big fan of racial reconciliation programs; the answer lies in the cross and the power of Christ’s peace. When we fail to live in peace as one new man, we deny that the gospel is the way of peace and, having a form of godliness, we deny the corporate power of it!
THE ANSWER TO OUR HOMELESSNESS IS A NEW DWELLING WITH GOD
Not only do we face the problem of alienation and hostility, but we are also a people who are not at home with each other because of our hostility and sin. In the last few verses of Ephesians 2 (vv. 19-22), Paul sums up this section of his letter with “consequently,” announcing that what follows is the conclusion of the whole matter. The logic of the chapter has gone like this: “As for you… you were dead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1); “but God who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us…made us alive together with Christ” (v. 4); “therefore, remember…that at that time you were separate from Christ… without hope and without God” (v. 11); “but now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (v. 13); “consequently….” What is consequent to new life in Christ individually, and new reconciliation and unity with others and God through faith in Christ? Three things: citizenship; members hip; and dwelling.
Our citizenship has been changed, which is what we’ve been reflecting on all along really. But Paul concludes with another reminder of that fact here in verse 19: “No longer foreigners and aliens (sojourners), but fellow citizens.”
“No longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow… members of the household of God.” The imagery grows more intimate. It’s not just that we’ve made it inside the borders of a new kingdom or territory, but by God’s grace we have been brought into the King’s household-and not as mere servants, but as members of that household. We have been adopted into the family as heirs together of this kingdom with Christ (Rom. 8:15-17). All who are in Christ are made a part of one family-God’s family, God’s household. Far from being at war, hostile and threatening, we sleep securely under the roof of God our King as his children. This is the future of all who love and follow Jesus as their Savior.
This household is “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Notice how the imagery grows yet more intimate still. It’s not just that we’re now citizens, and it’s not just that we’re members of God’s household; we are the house or dwelling of God (vv. 19-20). We are a “household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Not on the men themselves, but on their message; on the message of the sent ones, or apostles, and the New Testament prophets who made known the rich truths about Jesus Christ. Their teachings are foundational to the New Testament church. Without them, the foundation is eroded. That’s why every form of “Christianity” that attacks the teachings of the apostles crumbles and fails. Liberal Christianity, the attacks on Paul, etc., all collapse in a heap because they neglect this foundation.
Notice too that this dwelling, this household, is founded “with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Christ is the Chief Apostle, sent by God the Father to die for the sins of his people and to preach the good news of peace. Christ is the Chief Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18. He is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and the One who brings the Gentiles near to God. He, then, is the cornerstone. He anchors the entire building, and he keeps it level and sturdy. As the cornerstone, he is the foundational element that joins together the two walls of Gentile and Jew. It is upon Jesus that the entire edifice is raised (vv. 21-22).
Here is the glorious end of it all! All of history is about God building for himself a holy temple, a dwelling place. That dwelling is not made by hands, does not suffer construction delays or need weather treatment, or require bricks and mortar. The temple of God is built on the cornerstone of his Son, Jesus. It is laid on the foundation of his sent messengers, apostles and prophets; but it is raised with the “living stones” of the once dead now living, once alien now citizen, once hostile now reconciled followers of Jesus Christ! The one people of God-Jew and Gentile; black and white; male and female; young and old-all of God’s people of all time through faith in Jesus Christ have become the temple of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God.
This is the destiny of all who repent of their sins and turn toward God through faith in Jesus Christ. We are destined to be his dwelling place, until we hear that final proclamation from the throne of heaven (Rev. 21:3)-“Behold, now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES THIS MAKE IN OUR UNDERSTANDING OF CHRISTIANITY AND THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH?
Ephesians 2 lets us know that Christianity is far more corporate than we’re accustomed to thinking. It’s not all about a “personal relationship with Christ.” To be sure, individuals must repent of their sins and place their trust on Christ for the salvation of their souls; but Christ saves people to make of them one new man. He makes them one body in himself. This passage promises far greater unity than we might imagine; it speaks directly to unity across racial and ethnic lines. This should make us zealous in our pursuit of multiethnic unity in the church. It tells us plainly that racism is incompatible with following Jesus-the two are oil and water, mutually exclusive.
We should then be an aggressively inclusive people. Our aim should be to find the strangers and aliens among us, and see that they are reconciled to us and most importantly to God. We should continue in the work of evangelism and missions so that others might know peace. We have known the hopelessness of being without Christ, without God, and without the promises of God in life. Ephesians 2 teaches us that we need a new theological anthropology that helps us to live out the reality of Christ’s accomplishments on the cross.
First, this anthropology might begin with identifying that the image of God unites every one of us far more than any difference divides us. We are all made in God’s image, and God has made every ethnic group from the same blood (Acts 17:26). Second, our anthropology needs to be Christocentric. We need an anthropology that stresses our new identity in Christ and our abiding union with him. Third, we need an anthropology that stresses we are actually one man, one body, one church. In other words we need an anthropology that is theological, christological, and ecclesiological. Where is the new creation to be seen in this age? It’s in the church. The church is the setting for the diamond of Christ’s redemption and recreation, where the one new man lives out the reconciliation of God and humanity. Fourth, we need an anthropology that is eschatological. Not only are we a new humanity, but one day we will be transformed into a glory not easily imagined or described ; one day we will finally and thoroughly be like Christ (1 John 3). We need desperately to have that eternal view of humanity bleed back into our temporal understanding and practice as we reach eagerly forward to it, living in preparation for it.
As long as humanity lives there will be wars and rumors of wars; strife and hostility will dog and plague our existence; people everywhere will long for peace and will feel like strangers and aliens in this world because we are not made for this world. Our cries for reconciliation are testimonies to the fact that this world is not as it was originally made. Things have gone terribly wrong. Our sin has utterly corrupted everything-it has corrupted our hearts and corrupted our society. Loneliness, alienation, and hostility are abominations. We were made for perfect and intimate union with one another and supremely with God. We were made to reflect the glory of God through a unity that affirms God made no mistake when he made us both Jew and Gentile-African, Asian, European, Haitian, Native American, Hispanic, and so on; a unity that affirms all of that and yet transcends those categories through an abiding oneness with Jesus Christ.
That vision, that reality, that reconciliation is possible only through becoming one new nation, indeed one new man, and taking up one new dwelling together with God; and that is only possible through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ who gives us peace with one another and with God the Father through faith in him. Come near to God through faith in Jesus.