January 20, 2002

FROM EVERY NATION AND TRIBE

There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  Revelation 7:9

Something funny happened to a man I know when he first moved from North America to Africa. David was a white guy whose grandparents came from northern Europe. He grew up in an American community of mostly white people, with blacks as a minority. But then David went to Africa and settled down in a country with very few white people. Suddenly he was part of a small minority in a society of mostly black people. One day David was playing soccer with some new African friends. As he was racing along with the ball, one of his teammates yelled, “Kick it to the black guy!”

“What do you mean?” David replied. “Everybody on the field is black. I’m the only white guy out here. How can you tell me to kick it to the black guy? They’re all black!”

“No, no” he was told. “This guy is red, that guy is yellow, and the one over there is black.” Well, they all looked like black Africans to David, but he got a quick education in tribal and color differences among Africans. He wasn’t the sort of person who thinks everybody of another race looks alike; he knew each of these persons as individuals. But he soon learned they paid close attention to shades of color that he had hardly noticed, and he learned that tribal differences were sharp and sometimes painful in that part of Africa.

The United States has a history of thinking of race in black-and-white terms. Long years of slavery and prejudice toward people with African roots have made it seem that the need for racial reconciliation is largely an issue between whites and blacks. Bridging the white-black divide is important, no doubt about it, but it’s far from the only problem in race relations.

Africa has seen some tensions between blacks and whites, especially in South Africa and Zimbabwe, but there have been other problems as well. Sometimes the conflict is between Arabic-speaking North Africans and black Africans from sub-Saharan Africa. There are also serious problems of black-on-black violence and prejudice. People from different tribes too often distrust and despise each other. There have been some fierce, even bloody, rivalries between people who all have native African roots but who come from different tribes. In fact, defusing tribal tensions and respecting people from tribes different than one’s own is one of Africa’s great challenges today.

Meanwhile, as black-against-black tribalism is a challenge in Africa, white-against-white tribalism remains a challenge in Canada. Some of Canada’s sharpest divisions have little to do with black or white. Some issues relate to Canada’s native peoples, sometimes called “first nations.” But probably the biggest challenge in Canada is the gap between two different tribes of whites: those with English-speaking roots and those with French-speaking roots.

Many French-speaking people in Quebec see a great gap between themselves and the rest of Canada, which speaks mostly English. Many of Quebec’s French-speaking citizens feel deprived and marginalized. This is amazing, considered the fact that when all the countries of the world were rated according to living conditions, Canada was rated number one. It’s even more amazing in light of the fact that over the last thirty years, the Prime Minister of Canada has almost always come from Quebec.  If people feel downtrodden in a country that ranks #1 in the world for peace and prosperity, if they feel marginalized when their own province always seems to provide the nation’s leader, then preserving their distinct culture must matter more to them than almost any other factor.

I won’t try to say who’s right and who’s wrong in the Quebec debate, any more than I would choose one side over the other in an African tribal dispute. It’s to the credit of Canada and the people of Quebec that, although the debate is fierce and feelings run deep, the struggle has been democratic, and the violence has been kept to a minimum. Still, the Quebec situation highlights the power of ethnic feeling and cultural identity. Deep love of close relatives and strong appreciation for our cultural roots can be a beautiful thing, but it can turn ugly if we mistrust and hate those from a different clan.

A Dream

Defusing racism is an important challenge for people in every part of the world. This weekend Americans mark a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was an American, but his opposition to prejudice and his call for racial harmony are relevant not only for Americans but for people in every nation. Dr. King gave his most famous speech to hundreds of thousands of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963. In that speech he said,

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

“I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.  I have a dream today!

“I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today!”

That was a great speech and a great dream. It is a great dream. And it’s not something Dr. King dreamed up on his own. He got it from the Bible. Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  That’s taken right out of Isaiah 40. Barriers removed, crooked things straightened out, and “all flesh,” people of every kind, brought together in a vision of God’s glory–it’s all going to happen, says the Bible, because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5).

In Revelation, chapter 7, the apostle John describes a dream gave him.  He says, “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice:  ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Revelation 7:9-10).

The Bible’s vision of heaven includes people from every land and race and tribe praising God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., emphasized the many-colored, many-cultured aspect of that great biblical dream. Dr. King wasn’t perfect, of course, but he forced people to take seriously a part of the biblical gospel that many people (and even many Bible-believing Christians) ignored for too long. Still today there are too many of us who ignore it. We need to believe and obey the glorious gospel bridges tribal and racial divides.

How can we defeat our prejudices and defuse our differences? The best way to start is by discovering the truth of God and dreaming the dream of the Bible. A dream has to be rooted in reality, or else it won’t come true at all. It’s just wishful thinking. It’s not enough to have a few politically correct yearnings for racial harmony.  We need solid truth.

Let’s look at biblical truths that the dream of unity is based on. First, people of all cultures have the same origin: they are created by the same God, in his image.  Second, all must answer to the same standard: God’s law. Third, people of every tribe, nation, people, and language are headed for the same destiny: eternal life through one Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Same Origin

Let’s begin at the beginning: with creation. We all have the same Creator, and we all have the same original ancestry. The Bible says, “From one man [God] made every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). In a sense, there aren’t many races. There’s just one race, the human race. In another sense, though, there are many races and nationalities– and that’s the Creator’s work as well. Instead of making a bunch of clones who are all alike, God chose to make a splendid variety of people. “From one man he made every nation of men,” with all the different cultures and colors. The unity of the human race is God’s doing, and so is the diversity.

The Bible says that God made Adam and Eve in his own image and likeness and that every person is imprinted with the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This truth about humanity is very different from the notion that we all evolved randomly. An atheistic evolutionist can agree with the Bible on the point that all humans have the same ancestry, but is that a solid foundation for mutual respect? Not at all. For one thing, in the atheistic view, we also have ancestors in common with bacteria and mosquitoes and warthogs, if we just go back a bit further on the family tree.  Only the Bible makes it clear why a man deserves more respect than a mosquito, or why a woman deserves more respect than a warthog. The Creator formed humanity, both male and female, in his own image, and that’s not true of any other creature.

Every so often, an evolutionist comes along and says that one race of people has evolved in a way that is superior to the others. This generates an outcry. People are outraged and offended. But why? If you’re not offended by the notion that you’re a randomly evolved blob of tissue, then why take offense at the idea that one brand of blobs has randomly evolved more successfully than a different colored brand of blobs?

Only with the knowledge that all are equally created in God’s image can the dream of dignity and unity be grounded in reality. Those who believe in random evolution and not creation in God’s image have no solid grounding for mutual respect. In an evolutionistic view, cooperation and solidarity might be one survival mechanism, but destroying competitors is another survival mechanism. Ethnic cleansing and genocide may help one’s own group to survive and replace another group. So, in the evolutionistic view, attacking and destroying others isn’t good, and it isn’t bad. It just is. It has no moral meaning.

Some of may be atheists and still have moral convictions about being kind to others, and I’m glad about that. But if you have these moral convictions, it’s not because of what you believe about human origins, but in spite of what you believe.  Your sense of human dignity is a leftover from an older religious heritage. It has no foundation in your current belief system.

On the other hand, there are some Bible-believing folks who have deep prejudices. Some have done terrible things to people of other races. Why? Not because of what the Bible teaches about human origins, but in spite of it. When Christians fall into prejudice, they are utterly at odds with the Word of God.  Scripture attacks every form of racism with the truth that from one man God made every nation of men in his image.

No church or culture that keeps looking to the Bible can ever settle down into lasting discrimination. The truth will keep springing up again and again. That’s one reason Martin Luther King was able to be effective: he was speaking to a culture where many people still looked to the Bible. He was able to appeal to what people should already have realized: that our creation in God’s image unites us and makes us equal.

All people are created equal. Does that mean we’re all the same in everything? No, we’re differently gifted. But we’re still equal in the thing that matters most: we’re all created in God’s image. This means that if we despise any fellow human for racial reasons, we are despising God himself. When Martin Luther King dreamed of people from different races treating each other as brothers and sisters, it wasn’t a far-fetched dream. It was a dream rooted in reality. We are brothers and sisters; we are part of the same family. And need to act like it.

The Same Standard

The fact that the same Creator made us all in his image brings us to a second important truth. We are all accountable to the same standard: God’s law. God made us all. He doesn’t have one standard for one culture or color, and another standard for others. All have the same Creator, and all are called to the same obedience. God isn’t biased in favor of any person because of color or culture, and he’s not biased against any. As the apostle Peter once put it, “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” (Acts 10:34-36). We’re all accountable to the same divine standard. This is the foundation for Martin Luther King’s dream of his children being judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That’s God’s standard, and it should be our standard as well.

Character matters more than color or culture. This is a truth of God, and like all God’s truth, it is a two-edged sword. It cuts down prejudice, and it also cuts down excuses. If we judge not by color but by character, then nothing that’s merely cultural can prejudice us against people whose character we don’t even know, people whose character may well be better than our own. By the same token, if a person’s character is corrupt, then color and culture are no excuse.

These days, some folks want themselves to be judged on color rather than character. They want special preferences based on their color and culture. Some excuse their corrupt character and evil actions by appealing to cultural factors. Music that degrades women, songs that promote foul language and rape and murder, are excused as being part of a certain cultural group.  Drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, broken families–people can’t be held responsible for such things if they’ve had disadvantages because of their race, right? Even some governments get into the culture-as-excuse mentality. They say that government oppression and brutality aren’t wrong; they just have a different culture from those who emphasize freedom and human rights.

In Martin Luther King’s day, the most immediate problem he faced was prejudice based on race, and that’s still a big problem today.  However, now we’ve got the additional problem of people refusing to be accountable to God’s universal standard of right and wrong. They use race or nationality or culture or family background as an excuse. The truth remains, however, that God himself holds us accountable. His standard remains the same.

Martin Luther King dreamed of people being judged by character, not by color or culture. He didn’t want to be treated with prejudice, but he didn’t ask people to make excuses for him either. He just wanted everyone to be judged fairly, by the same standard. This part of his dream was in line with the Bible’s teaching: “God does not show favoritism.”

So no more prejudice, and no more excuses! No matter what our color or culture, we are all accountable to the same divine standard of right and wrong.

The Same Destiny

This brings us to the third and best part of the biblical dream. People of every tribe, nation, people, and language are destined for the same eternal glory through the same Savior. The Lord Jesus came into this world and poured out his blood because he loves people of every background and because he intends to have people from every nation and tribe in heaven with him.

The apostle Peter discovered this firsthand, when he met a household of folks from another race, people whom God was in the process of saving. Peter made the great statement that God does not show favoritism, and then he spoke of Jesus, saying, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).

If God judged us only by the content of our character, we’d be in trouble. God holds us accountable, but he doesn’t just judge us by the content of our character.  He judges us by the content of his character, his love and mercy in Jesus. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what race or nation you’re from. You need forgiveness for your sins, and the only way to receive God’s forgiveness is by trusting in Jesus and turning control of your life over to him.

Peter was in the process of explaining this to a family of foreigners when the Holy Spirit of God came upon those people and filled them with faith and praise and ecstasy. Peter exclaimed, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47). What a great God!  He’s not prejudiced. Whatever language you speak, it makes no difference. Whether your skin is light or dark or any shade in between, it doesn’t matter. Don’t let anything keep you from the Lord. And don’t let anybody make you feel inferior because of your race or your language or because you’re an immigrant. Jesus was willing to die for you, and his Spirit is willing to live in you. So trust him.

Then, once you put your faith in Jesus, never, ever look down on others who are different from you. How can you mistreat someone whom Jesus loves enough to wash in his blood and clothe in royal robes? How can you segregate yourself from someone when the Spirit of God himself is willing to make his home in that person?  In Jesus, we’re called not just to respect people’s rights and treat them fairly, but to actually love them and treat them as brothers and sisters.

If you dislike immigrants, people with different skin color and customs, people who don’t talk your language, then I’ve got bad news for you.  You’re not going to like heaven–that is, if you get to heaven at all. People of every tribe and language and people and nation are going to be in heaven. They’ll stand together before the throne of God and Jesus the Lamb, praising the Lord and rejoicing in his goodness. This multiracial multitude isn’t just the dream of a preacher or civil rights leader. It’s God’s grand accomplishment.

Does this mean we can’t feel any special affection for people of our own color and culture and country? No, it’s okay to treasure our own heritage in a special way. And it’s good to take special responsibility for those who are most like us and most closely related to us.  The Bible itself says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). It’s okay to take care of your own kind.

But in Christ we can take care of our own kind without hating or separating ourselves from those of different color and culture. The vision of heaven’s multiracial multitude reminds us that if we want to be ready to live forever in God’s new creation, we’d better start right now to show our solidarity with people of every kind and build friendships with people of every race.

The dream of complete harmony will surely come true. God himself says so. But the dream won’t reach its full reality until Jesus returns and heaven comes to earth. In the meantime, here’s what you must do right now: Put your faith in Jesus. Dream the vision of God’s kingdom that is the ultimate reality. And start living right now as a citizen of heaven ought to live: loving God and loving people from every nation and tribe.

PRAYER

We praise you, Father, for creating us in your image and for holding us accountable to your perfect law.  We praise you even more for sending Jesus to be one of us, to cancel our sins and to send us your Spirit, who lives in us and prepares us for heaven. We praise you with people of every color and culture and country around the world, and with all the saints of heaven, for the great salvation that reconciles us to each other and to you, our God and Savior.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.