By Brian Jennings
You can’t love me and hate my children. If you hate them, you hate me, no matter what you say. So when a acquaintance complaining to me about a co-employee said, “Blacks are lazy,” he offended me. I guess it hadn’t even crossed his mind that my daughter is African American (or that I’ve immersed myself in the work of reconciliation).
I asked him, “Are you saying my girl is lazy?” He tried to backtrack and say how she might not be like that. I didn’t want to pick a fight, but I also wanted him to know that he’d been reckless and hurtful. He’d insulted everyone who looked like my daughter and his words would cause others to share his prejudice.
It hurts me when someone I know makes a statement like this, but it also hurts me when my friends don’t rebuke or correct those kind of statements. I want you to know that if you are complicit with these kinds of comments, you’re insulting me. Has it ever occurred to you that people might say these things to you because they think you agree with them? You can’t love me and quietly agree with those who trash talk my girl.
What are we supposed to do when these types of things happen?
In light of the horrific prejudice that has terrorized so many people, my experience seems almost inconsequential. But here I am still talking about it—seven years later. Perhaps it’s my naiveté, but I also think we replay these things because we feel so unsure about the best way to respond.
Some people ignore prejudice, which emboldens the perpetrator, spreads the venom, and further wounds the victims. In the name of “not causing a problem,” this approach has allowed mistreatment, oppression, and sin to run rampant.
Others return hate with hate, which pushes people deeper into their prejudice. In the name of “telling it like it is,” people who retaliate are sabotaging the work of reconciliation.
Sadly, these two easy approaches are what we most often see. But there is a path less traveled and Paul took it, rebuking Peter’s prejudice, restoring his ministry, and reconciling the church in Galatia.
Peter was the man. He was a pillar of the early church, one of the three people closest to Jesus, a leader, an authority, and a powerful preacher. Peter carried a great amount of clout, but he had blown it before. Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, warned Peter, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:34, NIV). Peter refused to believe this, but a few hours later, when accused of being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter cursed and denied he even knew Jesus. When he heard the rooster crow, Jesus’ prediction came crashing into his memory. Devastated with guilt, he ran weeping into the night. Jesus restored Peter, but Galatians 2 tells us how he blew it again. This time, there were no roosters to remind him of his sin.
Following a series of miraculous, eye-opening events, Peter, Paul, James, and others crafted the church’s position on Gentile inclusion. Acts 15 details how they concluded that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be Christians. Peter accepted this truth which God had clearly communicated to him. In fact, he was enjoying the lightened dietary restrictions. The church was thriving. Jews and Gentiles alike came to Christ. Generations of hate and mistreatment were replaced with culture-shaking love.
That’s when the Jewish hardliners showed up. Mired in prejudice, they kept their distance from the Gentiles, treating them as outsiders. In Peter’s mind, these hardliners were the cool kids. Peter followed their lead, abandoned God’s commands, and withdrew from the Gentile Christians.
Don’t underestimate the hurt caused by Peter’s sin. Imagine if you were a Gentile Christian in those days. You would’ve been overjoyed that the Gospel had come to you. You would’ve been celebrating your hope in Jesus and savoring the sweetness of deep fellowship with Jews and Gentiles alike. And then Peter, the most highly respected church leader you knew, turned his back on you. The message he communicated was that when push came to shove, you were still in opposing bunkers.
Have you ever felt like an outsider? Have you ever believed that the promises of Christ are not really for you after all?
Peter’s actions threatened to destroy the church. The implications were eternal.
No rooster was around to bring Peter to his senses—but Paul was. We remain ignorant of many of the details about their encounter, but Paul’s confrontation of Peter was vocal enough to be heard by Peter’s fellow offenders. Paul gave Peter a verbal spanking, but his motive was reconciliation. His confrontation took courage, but his motive was clothed in humility.
Paul went where we are called to go: into the fray, disarming those who would destroy one another. Galatians 2:20 has always been one of my favorite verses, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized its connection to this story. Paul admonishes Peter:
If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. . . . I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:18-20)
Peter had begun rebuilding the walls of prejudice that were stiff-arming people away from the Gospel. He was rebuilding what the church had toiled to destroy.
Paul then reminds Peter of how he can bring peace to a fractured world: not through his own wits, hard work, or perfect plan. Christ makes possible human impossibilities: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Christ replaces our prejudice with peace, our hurtful barbs with healing words, and our revenge with restoration.
No Man’s Land
Over five years ago, three things happened all in the span of one week and my life has never been the same.
First, I was reading about World War I and the beginning of widespread trench/bunker warfare. Neither side dared exit their bunkers. To do so would mean likely death. The land between the bunkers was called no man’s land.
Second, heated arguments erupted about the Affordable Care Act. Some clambered to a bunker that accused, “If you support this bill, you hate our country.” Others shot back from an opposing bunker, “If you do not support this bill, you hate the poor.” The message was clear: “You are either with me or against me.” I didn’t want to hate anyone. I felt lost with no place to belong. I began wondering if I was supposed to live in no man’s land.
Third, God taught me something from the book of Daniel. Daniel served a wicked king faithfully, but was unfairly sentenced to death. Most of us would’ve plotted some form of revenge, defense, or attack. But Daniel 2:14 leapt off the page to me: “Daniel responded with wisdom and tact.” Throughout his life, Daniel never sacrificed a commitment to God’s truth or a desire to be at peace with people—even his oppressors. He displayed uncommon courage along with sincere humility. He lived in no man’s land.
The more I studied Scripture, the more clearly I saw how Jesus also lived in no man’s land. I wanted to learn how to do the same, and I wanted to help the Church learn how to pursue truth without assaulting those who disagree. I wanted to know how to respond to prejudice and hostility in all their ugly forms: ethnically, generationally, socioeconomically, etc. I wrote a whole book about it, but I continue to try to learn. It’s hard to stay out of our world’s bunkers.
Courage AND Humility
To live in no man’s land requires us to be formed with seemingly incompatible characteristics—like courage and humility. But God miraculously shapes us to be full of both.
If you view yourself as more important than others, or if your fears are bigger than your convictions, you’ll stay stuck in your bunker. Courage without humility is just arrogance. Humility without courage is just passivity. But when the two come together, not only can we climb out of our bunkers, we can take others with us.
I’ve never met a person who better demonstrated how to confront people with courage and humility than John Perkins. Because of his leadership in boycotting an economic system of oppression, he was wrongfully arrested and beaten in a small Mississippi town in 1970. In an interview a few years ago, Perkins told me the lesson God taught him that awful night.
I thought I was going to die in that jail. My friends thought I was already dead. I guess I looked like it. When I came back to consciousness, [the police officers] beat me some more. In the midst of the beatings, hate filled my heart. If I could’ve pushed a button to make a bomb explode in that room, I would’ve done it. If I could’ve grabbed a grenade, I would’ve pulled the pin and dropped it. I would’ve killed those men.
In the darkness of that moment, I realized my evil matched theirs. They wanted to kill me, and I wanted to kill them. The only difference was that they had the means to do it. I deserved hell, just like them. I was the worst of sinners. Because I hated those racist cops, they were victims too. We were both victims, because we hated and were hated. There are two victims in every failed relationship. My heart was broken in that Mississippi jail. I knew the only way I could help people was if God changed my heart.
Perkins believes that Galatians 2:20 is at the heart of any productive reconciliation effort: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Without putting to death the sin and hate in our own hearts, and without letting Christ take the reins of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, reconciliation doesn’t have a chance. Reconciliation begins with your heart and with mine. Imagine the humility to ask for forgiveness while bleeding on a jail floor. Perkins continued,
Hate is ingrained in us. We have to let God ingrain love in us, and that only happens through finding our core identification with Christ. Hitler was Arian-centric. Idi Amin was Afro-centric. “Centric” has to go. We can only be Christ-centric.76.7
Forty-eight years later, Perkins is still modeling a Christ-centric approach. It’s why I’ve heard him referred to as the godfather of reconciliation. His suffering did not end in that Mississippi jail, but his courage propelled him forward. His granddaughter recently told me, “I thought he might slow down in his eighties but I was wrong. I can’t keep up with him.” His commitment to courage and humility has produced unfathomable results. Hearts and minds have been changed through his actions, ministry, and books.
I was recently asked by a podcast host if I really believed our world could change. The host liked my book (I think he had skimmed it) but he remained skeptical. I understand his discouragement. I told him that I wasn’t counting on the world changing after my book release, but I do believe God still changes hearts. I know this because I know what God has done in me. And we know what Paul did in Peter.
I picture a big whiteboard in which God outlined his plan to change Peter’s heart away from prejudice and towards inclusion:
- Peter sees Jesus showing grace to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
- Peter hears Jesus rebuke James and John for their vitriol against Samaritans (Luke 9).
- (Peter sees Jesus do and say about a hundred other things to get this across.)
- Peter hears of the Gentiles following Christ (Acts 8).
- I send Peter a vision and then Cornelius to teach him (Acts 10).
- Other Apostles confirm what I’ve taught Peter (Acts 15).
- Paul rebukes Peter (Galatians 2).
That’s a lot of effort to get one person to understand. I’m so thankful God never gave up on Peter so that he could truly believe his own words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).
I’m also thankful that God never gave up on me. He continues to teach me, patiently and plainly. If God showed that kind of persistence with Peter and folks like me, we must also not give up hope in others. With courage and humility, we won’t give up on their souls, their hardened hearts, or their ignorant viewpoints.
I’m not sure what we’ll see or hear today, but some of us, after prayer and consideration, will feel compelled to confront someone. I’m not writing this article to give you a step-by-step game plan. I’m just begging you to become a person of both courage and humility. You can’t control how the person will respond, but I have great news—that’s not your job! You are only called to be obedient.
We desperately need people to confront wrongdoing. We need people with the courage to quit defending their crooked politician, company, or kid. We need people of integrity and sincerity. We need people of good standing. We need people willing to sweat and toil for the sake of reconciliation. We need people to risk jobs, comfort, and popularity. But we need them to do so with humility, obeying the clear commands of Scripture to be “clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3). We need you to take courage, step into no man’s land, and compel others to do the same.
Brian Jenning lives in Tulsa with his wife, Beth, and their four children. Brian preaches at Highland Park Christian Church and serves on the boards of Blackbox International (help for trafficked boys) and Ozark Christian College. You can learn about his books, Lead Your Family and Dancing in No Man’s Land: Moving With Peace And Truth In A Hostile World (May 2018) at brianjenningsblog.com.