The class: AP U.S. History.
The assignment: An oral report on an influential 20th-century American.
Simple enough, right? But surrendering to the pressure which swelled within a generation of church kids, I wanted to make the moment count. For my grade—and for Christ.
Drawing almost entirely on reputation—and a few fuzzy memories of the Anaheim crusade I attended in grade school—I chose Billy Graham. With gaps in my record, I judged Graham the Mr. Rogers of American Christianity. Later I learned Mr. Rogers was the Mr. Rogers of American Christianity.
Harmless—and commanding—in all the right ways, Graham’s voice could reach down into hell and separate sinners from their sin. I let my words be few, trusting his would linger.
Combing video footage, I chose a clip to accompany my presentation. In those two or three minutes—captured years before, but near enough to know better—Graham confidently declared his lack of worry about “the race problem.” He offered a kinder, gentler version of the rejoinder a certain breed of evangelical still invokes at mentions of racism. Just preach the gospel.
As Graham’s North Carolina timbre boomed old-time religion into the microphone and through our classroom TV, I turned toward Jason, one of the few black students in the class. My mind’s eye envisioned a smile of recognition crossing his face; instead, I found his arms folded across his chest, his features fixed.
Fast forward 15 years to another simple assignment: disciple a handful of my church’s small-group leaders. Guiding them through Ephesians, I purchased John Stott’s commentary on St. Paul’s letter, an unnecessary effort for a casual Bible study. But my chronic overthinking paid off for once. The British theologian led me by the scruff, tilting my head to greet sunbursts of truth. The British theologian led me by the scruff, tilting my head to greet sunbursts of truth.
Stott’s exposition of Ephesians 3 rocked me off my axis and sent me rolling toward revelations on race and unity. Divining and demystifying the language of verse 10—where Paul asserts that God reconciles Jews and Gentiles “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”—Stott broke down the word “manifold” to its core meaning.
“Manifold,” he noted, refers to the multicolored, multicultural wisdom of God. Paul claims God’s wisdom expresses itself most fully when the church both celebrates its differences and testifies to its common parentage in Christ. We will not see God—not fully—until we welcome one another.
God’s plan to glorify himself before all contenders and rivals rests upon a design no human would invent. No shows of might. No culture-war victories. His Damascus Road brilliance breaks free as he completes the good work he began on the cross, reconciling all men to himself and one another.
Stott’s spotlight on that verse interrupted my thinking. The author also supplied the glasses needed to look back on Billy Graham, and stare into Jason’s eyes, and see my mistake.
Working backwards from God’s wisdom, I considered my own. Proverbs warns about leaning too hard on our own understanding; when I amplified Graham’s message on racism, I bypassed manifold wisdom, settling for the monochrome version of my own. Most American Christians get by on monochrome wisdom, doing what seems best to those in positions of cultural power and privilege—that is, white people. I spent too many years tripping over my own two feet, hurling myself into that very trap. But God’s plan isn’t to make monochromatic wisdom known to the rulers and authorities. He wants so much more.
Living in the center of God’s will requires white Christians to divest of monochrome wisdom. His plan calls us to see beyond ourselves and gaze upon the fullness of his image in our brothers and sisters.
We are overdue for a great reckoning. We may no longer lean on our own understanding of what is or isn’t racist, of which systems stay and which systems go. Becoming co-belligerents and co-laborers requires the continual work of unlearning. It requires not only hearing the words of their spiritual family—but applying them.
White Christians interested in the mystery of Ephesians 3 repent when called to account. They try on spiritual practices that feel unnatural or uncomfortable. They admit their short-sightedness and ask fellow heirs in Christ to help them identify sins and biases. They reject the assumption that monochrome wisdom equals conventional wisdom.
Rejecting monochrome wisdom and embracing manifold wisdom would not cause ripples in the American church—the movement would send needles skipping and stretch the Richter scale to its limits. Notice the difference in monochrome and manifold wisdom, in just a few matters:
- Monochrome wisdom waits for reconciliation in the next life. Manifold wisdom groans, restless for glory to break through right here, right now.
- Monochrome wisdom wants to pay bargain prices for unity. Manifold wisdom embraces the cost, no matter how much it hurts.
- Monochrome wisdom flattens the motivations of white Christian voters, always excusing them when they opt out. Manifold wisdom remembers, like scholar-pastor Mika Edmondson did in a recent tweet, that black Christians have sifted the lesser of two evils for decades.
- Monochrome wisdom applies terms like “fumbling” and “politically incorrect” to racist rhetoric; it terms current events as “racially-tinged” while claiming we can’t discern the motives of a man’s heart. Manifold wisdom declares that any dehumanizing word defames the word made flesh. This wisdom listens to, then echoes, the cry of Abel’s blood coming up from the ground.
- Monochrome wisdom frets over the question “Who is my neighbor?” Manifold wisdom answers the question in active voice.
A few crucial questions face Christians who look like me: Will we settle for our own understanding? Or will we chase after wisdom with more facets, colors and angles than we can ever tire of examining?
As for me and my house, we want to see in holy Technicolor.