By Chris Williamson
The Bible is full of great passages and stories that offer principles for racial reconciliation. One such story is found in Acts 16:16–40. This account takes place during Paul’s second missionary journey in the Roman colony of Philippi where he is joined by Silas, Luke, and Timothy.
After casting a spirit of divination out of a slave girl, Paul and Silas were seized, dragged, unfairly tried, lied on, outnumbered, stripped, beaten with rods, wrongfully imprisoned, chained, and placed in a dark, inner cell where their feet were locked in stocks by the jailer.
Racism played a significant role in how Paul and Silas were mistreated that day. They were called out for “being Jews” (16:20) by the dominant group who classified themselves as “Romans” (16:21).
Racism is much more than harboring prejudice toward another people group; it is when prejudice is enforced with power. The Lord suddenly made his power known by immediately opening up the prison doors along with the hearts of men. In one night, God turned a negative episode for Paul and Silas into a life-changing experience for a Roman jailer and his family.
Men of different ethnicities who were once at odds with each other were now reconciled as brothers in the Lord. I am a witness that the Lord can do the same wonderful things for us if we truly want it.
There are certain things that racial reconciliation always requires, and I know firsthand that these truths work when applied.
1. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Mercy.
As the text mentions in Acts 16:20–21, race played a part in Paul and Silas’s mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Romans. Any substantive talk about race in America must involve discussing the crippling reality of the prison industrial complex and its effects on black men.
Although the Thirteenth Amendment put an official end to slavery, it opened the door to another kind of injustice called mass incarceration. After the Civil War, southern states created Black Codes that made it virtually impossible for free blacks to survive in society.
Like many black men in today’s culture, Paul and Silas were victimized by an unjust legal system. When the jailer awakened from sleep and saw that the prison doors were opened, he was about to commit suicide because he knew he would be executed by his superiors.
At that moment, Paul’s voice echoed from the darkness of the dungeon, saying, “Don’t harm yourself, because we’re all here!” (Acts 16:28). Don’t miss this: Paul told the man who locked him up in the inner prison and fastened his feet in stocks to not kill himself.
Paul was able to extend the kind of mercy to the jailer that God extended to him when he dragged men, women, and children off to jail because of their faith in Christ (Acts 8:3). The New Testament word for mercy can be defined as “the outward manifestation of pity.”
One of the greatest contemporary examples of mercy in action was in 2015 when family members forgave the man who murdered their loved ones at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study.
Nadine Collier, the daughter of seventy-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the slain “Emanuel 9,” said to the killer, “I forgive you.” And “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. . . . But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
With the nation watching, other family members stepped up to the microphone, lamented, forgave the murderer, and offered God’s mercy to him. The power of the gospel was on great display that day. With this in mind, I have something to say to my black brothers and sisters who may have a problem with white people in general. We must extend the kind of mercy to them that God extends to us every day.
We should all ask ourselves, “Who can I show God’s mercy to in the way that he shows it to me every day?” If blacks and whites do not start with extending mercy to one another, we will never move forward together in the continuum of racial reconciliation.
2. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Humility.
It was an extreme act of humility for the jailer to fall down in front of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:29). He could have been ridiculed by his peers or severely punished by his overseer, but after receiving God’s mercy, it does not matter what other people think.
This humble action demonstrated a submissive heart and a teachable spirit. A Gentile jailer chose to place himself under a Hebrew man’s leadership. In a real sense, Paul became this man’s pastor. Here is a question for my white brothers and sisters: Where in your life do you voluntarily and regularly place yourself under black or minority leadership?
You have probably never considered that question, but to engage successfully in racial reconciliation, you must. The best place to have healthy interactions with black people is in the local church, and the local church is the best place to model to your children that you can willfully submit to black or minority leadership.
Latasha Morrison, founder of Be the Bridge, once said, “Part of the racial reconciliation process is supporting efforts led by people of color. I find it interesting when churches with no expertise will try to be the experts. This work requires relinquishing power. The posture of listener is spiritual work.”
To take the posture of listener, humility must come first.
3. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Jesus.
In Acts 16:30–32, the jailer was so moved by the Spirit of God that he did not wait for Paul and Silas to ask him about salvation that led to his conversion. Instead, he asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). He was simply told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and he would be saved, along with his household.
That is the power of the good news! In the case of racial reconciliation in the church, Jesus should undoubtedly be at the center of it all. This begs the question, which Jesus are we talking about?
Are we talking about a liberal Jesus or a conservative Jesus? Are we looking to a Republican Jesus or a Democrat Jesus?
All of us, if we are honest, have a tendency of making Jesus after our own image, rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to conform us to his image (Romans 8:29). If people do not see and hear the love of Jesus in our public witness, something is wrong.
Do people see Jesus in you? Do they see Christ in your church? What would you hear if you asked people of other ethnicities to answer these questions?
4. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Washing Wounds.
In Acts 16:33, the jailer washed Paul’s and Silas’s wounds. What a wonderful act of kindness and tenderness. The jailer may or may not have inflicted the actual wounds on Paul and Silas, but he was a member of the ethnic group and system that did. As a result, he bore some level of culpability and responsibility to see healing occur.
His newly regenerated heart compelled him to demonstrate Jesus’s love in a way that was tangible and undeniable. This is an example to follow, graciously washing one another’s wounds. John Perkins, a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, said, “Racial reconciliation occurs when we wash one another’s wounds.”
Before wounds can be washed, however, believers must first admit the wounds exist. This is a call for us to listen and believe people who share traumatic experiences about race. Making ourselves proximate to them is essential to hear their whispers and wipe their tears.
A church serious about reconciliation will value the need for all of its people to lament from their wounds. It is not wise, beneficial, or Christlike to argue against someone’s feelings. All of us can better apply the skill of listening to learn instead of listening to win a debate.
Christ was anointed to bind up the brokenhearted, and that same Spirit resides in his followers to do the same. The Good Samaritan did not pour salt into his bludgeoned, Jewish neighbor’s wounds. He showed love by pouring oil and wine on his lesions (Luke 10:34).
5. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Fellowship.
In Acts 16:33–34, the jailer brought Paul and Silas into his home and placed food before them. A spirit of hospitality spilled out of this man’s heart. This was a huge risk, because if it was discovered that he took prisoners out of jail and brought them into his home for a meal, he could have been executed.
In first-century culture, sharing a meal together was a sign of acceptance. In preaching about God’s diverse kingdom, Jesus said that Gentiles would one day sit down with the Hebrew patriarchs as a sign of mutual acceptance (Matthew 8:11).
Sharing a home-cooked meal in any culture has a way of causing people’s defenses to drop. One practical way to see racial reconciliation occur is to regularly open our homes to share meals with people of other ethnicities. We may experience racial integration in some of our churches on Sunday, but real reconciliation is experienced in our homes on Monday.
The temptation to debate about race and politics is not as strong with biscuits being passed and when children are present. We must keep in mind that one family cannot do all of the hosting. Fellowship has to reside on a two-way street. Every family must play the role of host because everyone needs to be on both ends of serving and being served. Incarnating into each other’s neighborhoods and homes is always beneficial.
6. Racial Reconciliation Always Requires Justice.
An injustice occurred in this story when the Romans beat and imprisoned Paul unjustifiably (Acts 16:35–40). Based on a rush to judgment, Paul’s rights as a Roman citizen were grossly violated. Had he pushed the matter legally, the magistrates could have been tried, jailed, tortured, and even executed for mistreating a Roman citizen.
However, since Paul was being set free and had work to do elsewhere, he chose to show mercy to his persecutors once more. Be that as it may, we must realize that there is a time for the racially oppressed to fight for justice in the courts of law. Changing unjust laws and not simply waiting for unrepentant hearts to change has been the key factor in seeing societal change take place in America on behalf of ethnic minorities.
God is a God of justice, and racial reconciliation efforts that do not include a call to justice are weak and unbiblical (Isaiah 1:17; Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23; Luke 18:3). It is ironic how the Bible says so much about justice, yet our pulpits say so little. Citywide reconciliation events that produce great worship, good sermons, and heartfelt hugs are insufficient if those same churches refuse to do justice together.
What good is a pulpit swap if it doesn’t lead to affordable housing initiatives for the homeless, better access to health care for seniors, and job programs for the unemployed? What good is “reconciling” if it doesn’t lead to “rebuilding” ruined communities (Isaiah 61:4)? What good is reconciliation in the church if it doesn’t lead to justice outside of the church?
The gospel is found in John 3:16 and Luke 4:18; it has spiritual and social ramifications. The gospel connects people to God and to one another. If a believer’s spiritual life is not united with social action, our spiritual activity becomes questionable and social action becomes unprofitable.
At the cross of Jesus Christ, the spiritual and the social converge along with justice and righteousness. When Jesus died, justice was meted out to God, and righteousness was imputed to any sinner who believes, regardless of race, class, or gender (Galatians 3:28).
It’s Not Easy, but It’s Worth It!
At its core, racism is a spiritual problem. It can only be called out and defeated by spiritual forces of light, love, and truth. Shepherding toward racial reconciliation requires pastors to bravely model and teach these and other biblical principles without apology.
As you begin or continue on in this journey, keep in mind that some will join you and some will not. Some will walk with you and some will walk away. Whatever you do, do not let unsupportive people discourage you or get you off of God’s redemptive mission.
CHRIS WILLIAMSON (@gdk_chris) is the senior pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church in Franklin, Tennessee. This article is excerpted and adapted from “For God So Loved the World: A Blueprint for Kingdom Diversity.”