Calling Out Against Racial Sin
Series: Oh City of Man!
This past week in Philadelphia has been what Mayor Kenney called one of the greatest crises in the city’s history. But it all springs out of peaceful protests of the ongoing racial injustice in America. How does tell us to interact with such an issue? He tells us to speak out against the city of man.
We’re taking a break from preaching through Acts today to consider what God says to what Mayor Kenney called one of the greatest crises in the city’s history. From helicopters overhead to ATM explosions to tear gas and much more, it’s been an extraordinary week. But it all started with peaceful protests of an event that ought to be extraordinary, but has become tragically ordinary in our nation: The murder of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin. So what does God have to say about all this? We won’t get to all of it today, so we plan to continue the conversation in Theology Tuesdays and applying the book of Acts to our moment as we get back into it, but today we’re looking at Jonah, a Jewish prophet, one of God’s people, who God sent to the city of Nineveh, called a “great city” throughout the book of Jonah. It’s part of a theme throughout the Bible that the ancient Christian theologian Augustine called the “city of man,” the city built by man where sin is normalized. And what God commands Jonah to do in the passage, and through him, also commands us to do, is Call out against the city of man. Why should you do that? God is still sending you, and the city might repent.
God is still sending you
Our passage begins by telling us that the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time. The first time it came to Jonah was in Jonah 1, and here’s what God said there: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). The reason God sent Jonah in the first place was because the evil of Nineveh had come up before him, and as long as that evil still existed, God still sent Jonah, even though Jonah failed to go the first time. Now in Jonah 1:2 God doesn’t say specifically what their evil was, but in Jonah 3:8, when calling for repentance, the king of Nineveh tells the people to turn from their evil ways, so that’s still general, but then he mentions this specific: “the violence that is in his hands.”
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria was known to be a brutal, oppressive regime. Specifically, they oppressed Jonah’s people, the Israelites. They didn’t just have a few violent people; violence was normalized and even celebrated in their society. When the king published his decree, he didn’t say, “And the few of you who are violent need to turn from that,” he published it to the whole city, just assuming that the whole city had violence in their hands. And that evil came up before God, so much so that he kept sending Jonah to call out His message against that city until Jonah finally went. Jonah called out against the city of man with the message of God’s judgment, because God still sent him. And God sent him because the evil of Nineveh had come up before Him, an evil especially displayed in their violence.
So much application here to our present moment. First, God sees. I imagine many of you by now have at least seen the photograph if not watched the video of officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. But this thing where we all get to see it now through the internet, because someone recorded the video on their cell phone, is a relatively recent phenomenon. How many times has that same sort of thing happened and nobody but the people present saw it? How many times did the people who saw it have no power to do anything about it because the ones perpetrating it were agents of the state? And how many times have we, even after seeing it, done nothing about it, but instead responded with, “Well he must have been doing something wrong; there must be more to the story”? God is not like that. He sees evil and violence, and He cares. His message to the violent culture and the individuals who perpetrate violence is, “I am going to overthrow you. You will not get away with this.”
Second, sin is not merely individual. Sin is always committed by individuals, but when that sin is normalized, accepted, and even celebrated by a culture, it becomes the sin of that people group. It was their evil, chapter 1:2, that came up before God. God calls Jonah to call out against it, the whole city, not just the bad apples. In 3:8 the king calls the city to put away the violence in their hands, not just the bad apples. Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and kept it there until he died; he’s guilty of murder; he can’t blame anyone else. But three other cops stood by and watched. Prior to this offense, Derek Chauvin had 18 other complaints on his record; why was he even allowed to be on duty that day he murdered George Floyd? Why did Amy Cooper in Central Park know she could threaten a black bird-watcher by telling him she was going to call the cops and say an African-American man was attacking her? Why’d she repeat African-American again and again on that call? Because she knew that among white majority culture and police forces throughout the country, racism was normalized.
Am I saying every cop is individually racist? No, but it’s probably safe to assume not every individual Ninevite was violent. I’m saying it’s a culture. In Philadelphia last year 72 officers were disciplined when a project called the Plain View Project, which tracked the social media accounts of police officers, revealed their posting openly racist material. Now here’s the catch: Those posts were made years before Plain View Project found them, and you know they’re Facebook friends with plenty of other people. Think about how many people saw those posts and said nothing, and maybe even liked them. We don’t just have a bad apple problem in white America and in police departments; we have an orchard problem.
Third, God sends His people to call out against the city of man the message God gives us. What is the message God has given us? It’s this book. So whenever something becomes normal in our culture that doesn’t conform to God’s law as it is set out in this book, God has sent us His people to call out against whatever culture is guilty, even if it’s our native culture. Now Citylight Center City is a multi-ethnic congregation, but we come out of a majority white evangelical tradition, our membership is still majority white, and as you can tell, I, the primary preaching pastor here, am white. And that tradition has tended to emphasize the need to call out the sins of the culture, but they’ve been selective in which ones they’ve called out. So like, I bet most of you already know that the Bible forbids the destruction of another’s property or assaulting a police officer; so yes, the looting that’s been going on in Philly is sinful. I bet you also know if you’ve been around these kinds of churches that God calls homosexual behavior and abortion sin. Majority white evangelical churches have called out against those culturally normal sins for some time now.
But we have failed miserably to call out the sin of racism and the way it’s culturally normalized in police violence. Did you know James 2:1 says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”? Not only have we failed to call it out, we’ve been perpetrators of it. It’s like God sends us to Nineveh to call out the sins of violence and not only are we silent, but we pick up a weapon and join in. It was majority white churches supporting slavery when it was happening, and it’s majority white churches now often seeing a video like George Floyd’s and saying, “There must be another explanation” and “it was just one bad apple.”
The problem for many white Christians in America, myself included, is that we’ve so closely identified with white majority culture that we can’t call out against it. If you’re a Christian, you’ve been called out of darkness into light, and you need to call the darkness darkness, even when that means calling yourself out in the process. You know another reason white Americans and evangelicals, myself included, have been slow on this? It doesn’t hurt us. Think about COVID-19 and the response to that. When COVID-19 broke out, I realized, “Dang I could get this; it could kill me or someone I love,” and I was on it. I was researching, calling an infectious disease expert, watching the news, and especially studying my Bible to see, “What does God say to this?” At night my wife and I decided not to watch a TV show so we could listen to a sermon or pray. I know not every black individual processes a video like George Floyd’s murder the same way, but for a lot of them, that response I just described in my life to COVID-19 is what the days that follow look like for them. I talked to one member who told me he spent all day Saturday on the phone with friends and family processing what happened. Suffice it to say I did not.
So what is that? On the one hand, it’s a lack of love for my brothers and sisters. If it doesn’t affect me, I just don’t care the way I do when it does. Don’t you see the depth of Jesus’ command now to love your neighbor as yourself? I’m not talking about having to get worked up over every issue everywhere at every time, I’m talking about an issue that right now is a present reality for your brothers and sisters in this city and in this very church. To a man the black guys in this church have told me stories about the first time they got pulled over for driving while black. They’ve told me about the time they “fit the description.” I talked to one this week who upon going to the grocery story to pick up a gallon of milk changed into business casual dress and put on his work tag. That fear I felt when I heard about a disease I had almost no chance of being killed by, that fear many of us felt this week when we heard there were people in the city destroying property, that’s a fear your black brothers and sisters live with regularly toward agents of the state, agents whose duty is to serve and protect. Do you love them the way you love yourself?
More pertinent to our passage however, is do you love God? Do you believe His Word should be heard when a culture normalizes evil and violence, especially against a subset of its population like Black Americans? God says, “Their evil has come up before me, you go proclaim my message,” and we say no; why? Because we’re comfortable with their evil, so comfortable that it makes us shy away from saying what God says about it. Well, there’s good news. God is still sending you. Jonah failed to go; we have often failed to go, but God calls a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, etc. You can’t obey yesterday; you can obey today. Maybe for you it starts with learning. Maybe you don’t believe me that violence against black lives is normal in our culture; read up on that. Don’t make your black friends educate you on it either; that can be retraumatizing for them. You’ve got the internet; if you can research the best restaurant in Philly, you can research black history and racism; heck you can find good resources on Netflix. Follow some black voices on social media; listen to what they’re saying, what their concerns are, what solutions they see. Keep listening and praying until it leads to lamenting, until it affects you like how you’re affected when you feel threatened, when you feel wronged. Then speak God’s message against the city of man, the sinful culture of which you’ve been a part, but out of which God has called you.
And for the black folks listening today, God is still sending you, hard as that is to imagine. Assyria was not only a violent and oppressive empire, they were violent and oppressive to Israel, to Jonah’s people, but God sent Jonah to them. You can see why he didn’t want to go right? But God still sent him, and He is still sending you to proclaim His Word against sins that have been normalized in a culture that has oppressed you. Now I’m not saying that lightly; sometimes the trauma is too much and you just need to take a break and get with God on these things before you have strength to go out. I know you’re tired, but don’t give up, because here’s the crazy part: The city might repent.
The city might repent
In verse 5 we read that the people of Nineveh believed God. They didn’t believe Jonah; they believed God. Protests can be powerful as we’ve seen over the past week, and you should certainly feel free to participate in them insofar as they are calling out against the city something God also does. But you just have to remember that we also have more to say, not less to say, but more to say, and at some points different things to say, than the world around us, and the thing that will bring lasting change to a city is when people don’t just believe a person or a mob, but they believe God. You want to bring them into an encounter with Him, and you do that when you proclaim His message, laid down for us in this book.
Like look at the king in verse 6. He’s the most powerful guy in the land. The violence serves him the most of anyone. But not only does he repent, he gets off his throne, removes his robe, and trades it for sackcloth and ashes. What could make a king do such a thing? Meeting the king of kings, and hearing Him say, “I will overthrow you.” The king abased himself of the grandeur that the violence of Nineveh enabled, and then he uses his position to call for repentance, fasting, and prayer through the whole city, in hope that God might turn and relent from his fierce anger.
So notice here what repenters do. They don’t just say, “I’m sorry, but can’t we all just move on?” They mourn their sin. They assume a position of shame. The ritual is not the important part, but the heart posture is, and that heart posture will result in doing things. It will result in saying about your sin what God says about it. It will result in confessing your sins to others and asking their forgiveness, though again just be aware that the people you’ve hurt may still be processing their trauma and not ready for that conversation; apologize to the degree it’s genuinely reparative. Not only do repenters mourn their sin, they call others to repent. The king doesn’t just repent; he calls the whole city to repentance. Now most of you aren’t heads of state, but you do have a sphere of influence in which you can call others to repent with you. Again, protests can be a way of doing that, and there are more ways interpersonally, in how you do your job, raise your kids, interact with neighbors and family, etc. Sometimes people may not even believe God; there’s reason to think not every Ninevite was genuinely converted, but a new norm was attempted. “Turn from the violence in your hands” made violence no longer culturally normal; that’s what can happen when Christians believe God and start calling others to repent too. God doesn’t promise it, but sometimes, the city does repent.
And when it does, God relents. Isn’t that amazing? The same God who sent Jonah to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction because their evil deeds had come up against Him, sees what they do, how they turned from their evil way, and He relents, and does not destroy them. So what gives? I thought God was just. I thought He saw the evil and violence of Nineveh and had “fierce anger” toward them, as the king put it in verse 9. Yes, but in chapter 4:11 God also says He pities Nineveh, that great city, in which there are 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left. The Assyrians may not have treated the Israelites like humans, but God still say the Assyrians as humans, lost and confused humans, and He pitied them. Of course, there was a hint of this from the beginning, because God sent Jonah, when He could have just destroyed them with no warning.
But ultimately God demonstrates His pity on the city of man not in sending Jonah, but in sending His own Son, Jesus Christ. He called out against the sins of the city of man, and then died for the sins of the city of man. He became a victim of violence to suffer God’s judgment on our violence, then He rose from the dead and came to the very people who killed them, calling out against them, but also calling out to them, to repent and be baptized every one of them, for the forgiveness of their sins. And now He calls all people everywhere, white, black, Asian, latino, and so forth, to repent and turn to Him for the forgiveness of sins. Then he sends them out into the world to call out against the world’s sins, AND to call the world to Him. We have more to say now than Jonah did, not less. We still call out against the sins of the city and pronounce that God’s judgment is coming on all who do not repent, but we also call them to repent and turn to a God who stands ready to forgive any who come to Him through Jesus Christ, whose death was sufficient to cover the sins of all who believe.
I heard Pastor Nyron Burke at Epiphany Fellowship up the street talk about how this passage was difficult for him, because he admitted the way things are going he’s not feeling much like extending mercy to white majority American culture, especially when that mercy has been extended so many times only to be let down. There’s been a lot of fake apologies and fake repentance from whites in America’s racial history, and black Americans have ample good reasons not to believe another one. But God doesn’t have mercy on fake repenters; He has mercy on real repentance. In verse 10 it says, “God saw what they did”; they did something; God didn’t just take their word for it, and you don’t have to either. In fact, eventually Nineveh returned to its violent ways, and God did end up destroying them years later. He will not fail to take care of justice, but let His mercy to you also affect the way you extend mercy to others. I saw this done really well this past week in an open letter written by Kyle Howard, a black man who works as a racial trauma therapist, to white evangelicals. I’m just going to read you a sample of what he wrote, as a positive example for black Christians of how to speak all of God’s message to the city of man, and as a word to the rest of us who are still tempted to identify with it:
“I so desperately want ethnic conciliation/reconciliation in this world, and especially in the church. Still, we can’t get there if we don’t discuss how truly deep and raw the betrayal is in this all. Years, decades, and even for centuries, the racial violence black people have endured by those with power have been met with apathy. For many of you, your silence has betrayed family members, friends, church members, and your entire community. True conciliation and healing will not happen without comprehensive repentance that includes owning the depths of sin along intentional action turning away from sinful patterns confessed. Faithfulness is not a switch that can just be turned on; it has to be accompanied by the hard and sometimes agonizing process of repentance.
There is good news! There is awesome news! There is forgiveness & grace for you all! No white person who turns to God in repentance for their apathy, despite its depth, will be cast away. God loves black people, he is grieved at the betrayal they’ve endured, but he is merciful! There is reconciliation and restoration beyond the hard work of coming to terms with the gravity of your sin.”