An Incarnational Approach to Racial Sympathy

It’s a scandalous concept: Hebrews 2 tells us, “[Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest…” (v. 17). God the Father is even said to have made the Son “perfect through suffering” (v. 10).

The very thought is baffling. What was it about the perfect son of God that needed perfecting? Nineteenth century theologian Albert Barnes provides some helpful commentary:

[Christ’s] subjection to his humble condition…made him such a Saviour as man needed, and qualified him fully for his work. There was a propriety that he who should redeem the suffering and the lost should partake of their nature; identify himself with them; and share their woes.

It was necessary, Scripture tells us, for God the Son to experience human life and suffering, which somehow perfected His ability to sufficiently sympathize with us (see also Heb. 4:15). Jesus didn’t relate to us from afar; He drew near, suffering with humans, as a human—and ultimately for humans.

WHAT WOULD JESUS (HAVE ME) DO?

Even though Christ was God, dwelling across the tracks (so to speak) from humanity, He chose to step into our world to show us mercy. And we are now called to do likewise: “Have this mind among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (see Phil. 2:1-8). Those of us who are recipients of His salvific, high priestly work are commanded to imitate Jesus in our behavior toward others.

Additionally, if our Lord and Master entered into human skin to sufficiently sympathize with us, we must remember no servant is greater than his master. If He in His omniscience chose this path, how much more should we—who know relatively little—imitate Him?

Christ’s incarnational sympathy can inform how we interact with people of differing skin colors. We may not be able to literally take on the physical characteristics of other ethnicities, but we can still learn by listening to others. Works of fiction and non-fiction, both historical and modern, can open our eyes to realities beyond our periphery. Wherever possible, we can listen to our friends, family members, and acquaintances whose struggles differ from our own. Drawing them out, with a genuine desire to learn vicariously what we have not learned experientially, can enlarge our heart’s ability to sympathize with them.

In the words of John Piper, “The best way to be discerning in regards to the complexities of racial matters is to be in regular conversations across ethnic lines so that we see through other eyes.”

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

Odds are, if we listen to people across those ethnic lines, we will encounter uncomfortable topics, such as subtle prejudice and open racism. To some listeners, this may be surprising. They might find it hard to comprehend—or even believe—stories of modern-day discrimination. After all, as a society, we’ve moved beyond slavery and segregation. We have made genuine progress.

Nevertheless, just because race issues have improved does not mean race issues are resolved. Just because racism is no longer legally sanctioned, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still practiced. And minorities are far more likely to be aware of this reality than others are.

That’s what conservative Christian author Randy Alcorn learned in preparation for writing his racially-themed murder mystery Dominion. Alcorn read 80 books1 by and about African Americans, met with dozens of black Christians, and conducted phone interviews with still more people. As a result of his research, Alcorn concludes many of us are “out of touch with the great majority of black people in America, both believers and unbelievers, who would disagree profoundly that the problem of racism has mostly dissipated.” Alcorn adds a plea for incarnational sympathy: “If racism hasn’t touched your family, please listen to the voices of your brothers and sisters who have seen its devastating effects.”

As a jumping off point, you may want to listen to some who have already publicly shared from their own lives. You can learn from black brothers in Christ who have experienced fear and false accusations. You can learn from bi-racial couples who have endured hateful speech and racial profiling. You can learn from adoptive parents of minority children who have had to face external threats and internal anxiety. And as far as works of fiction go, this excerpt from Alcorn’s novel Dominion is an enlightening and challenging read.

LOVE ISN’T BLIND

After spending a lengthy time expounding on the high priestly work of Christ, the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers accordingly: “Continue to remember…those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3, NIV). This depth of sympathy should be a natural overflow of the sympathetic advocacy we have received from our great high priest.

But we cannot be mindful of those who are mistreated unless we are aware of them. And we remain unaware until we hear their stories. As one example, read the following experience of a recent victim of racial profiling, expressed from his wife’s point of view:

He said he wanted to scream. He wanted to fight. He wanted yell at the top of his lungs that he was a man and he mattered. If he had, he would be deemed aggressive. He would be resisting so he said he kept telling himself he had to make it home to me and the boys. He knew these men could kill him and justify it.

Does that testimony resonate with the typical experience of white people like myself? No, it doesn’t. Not even close.

And that is precisely why we need to listen.

Hearing the pain and sorrow of others, and weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), will better prepare us to help apply, with specificity and efficacy, the healing salve of gospel reconciliation and restoration to a world marred by ignorance, prejudice, and outright racism.


Photo by J'Waye Covington on Unsplash (cropped)



That is not a typo. Reading 30 books would have exemplified due diligence; 50 would have been impressive. Reading 80 books about race in preparation for a writing project about racism is nothing short of extraordinary.

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