What Racial Discrimination Reminds Us about Overseas Missions

Reading Time: 6 minutes

racial discrimination

Perhaps, like me, your gut sinks like a stone over the events of the last few weeks–precipitated by issues centuries old, accentuated by the deaths of people named Ahmaud. Breonna. George. In lieu of online services, my husband and I have led “home church” with our kids about racial discrimination. I’ve talked with beleagured police families, with brown friends.

As a person looking overseas, how have you personally responded to a nation exploding in anger and riots? (Here’s a helpful perspective from The Gospel Coalition: “Oh, God, Make Us Angry.”)

Perhaps you’ve felt frustrated at your lack of ability to create change.

Maybe you’re feeling outraged or disconnected with your own nation, or with a people group.

Perhaps you’re befuddled by the complexity, the need for mercy and compassion on all sides.

Or even, when you’re honest, apathetic, because your heart’s rooting itself elsewhere.

Maybe you wonder how you can leave when there’s so much to be done here.

(It’s good to get real about what we do feel–interacting with God not from where we should be, but where we are. He loves “truth in the inward being” [Psalm 51:6].)

Either way–here are some realities about racial discrimination and injustice to keep in mind.

Injustice–and usually racial discrimination–exist wherever you go.

During my time in Uganda, I found that tribalism trumped nationalism. Many Ugandans didn’t like Indians, or considered some tribes backward.

Or in Thailand, I’ve witnessed a bias against Burmese. Some Japanese, too, have historically had a superior view of their race and culture. Many Greeks don’t like Turks. Others in European countries have expressed irritation against refugees.

Every nation in the world will boast its own form of racial discrimination, its own injustices. Because racism is one of the artfully-crafted excuses for superiority–for pride–in the human heart.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in The Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple!

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

For God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the existing reigning forces will not be deposed lightly–not unlike the Israelites entering the Promised Land.

(Obviously in no way does that imply violence as a necessary force; Jesus replies to Pilate in John 18:35,

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.

See also 1 Peter 3:8-17, Romans 12:14-21, and others.)

This does mean

a) the battle against racial discrimination starts in our own hearts, our own living rooms.

b) upturning generationally-saturated biases takes time. Like this recent post from Christian Veterinary Mission, you’ll likely encounter thinly veiled (or not-veiled-at-all) biases wherever you work. (They’re more easily uncovered when they’re not our own biases, no?)

It’s been helpful for me to assert a version of Solzhenitsyn’s quote when someone speaks in racial biases in another country. Usually something to this effect gets me a head-nod, and even starts a conversation:

I find it’s not about a person’s tribe, but instead, their heart. There are people who do good and evil in every people group. But more than that, I see that I do good and evil. That my heart can be both good and evil. It reminds me how much all of us need Jesus. 

You must start working against injustice wherever you’re at.

It’s easy to fantasize about how great it will be to live in a place where you can finally make a difference.

Yet when you arrive overseas, obviously no magic wand will transform you into an agent of change. Tish Harrison Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary,

I have a friend who was a missionary in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. He told me that what struck him was how mundane life was even in such a foreign and challenging place. His decision to go overseas felt daring and bold, but he was surprised to find that wherever he was on earth, much of his day was spent sitting with people, taking care of business and chores, taking care of his own body, knowing his neighbors, seeking to love people–sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

(We write about this on Go. Serve. Love in My Story: The 90% You’d Rather Not Hear About.)

That is to say: the lofty “Making a Difference” starts here. In the mundane. In the community where God has intentionally placed you until he relocates you.

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, maybe that’s giving your kids an unshakable foundation of love to be able to have healthy, well-attached relationships. And yes, talking to your kids about loving people as more important than us, no matter what they look like.

If you’re a business associate, maybe that means integrity and equality in your business. Shoot, you could be doing Business as Mission overseas someday–which means loving people right where you’re at, through your business. Practice makes permanent.

The Kingdom of God emerges through ordinary people, no matter their zipcode.

But one more thing. I actually know missionaries who don’t greatly respect those they serve. And that lack of regard…leaks out.

Because they don’t esteem those people from the heart: “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)–from within.

It happens more easily than you think. Living cross-culturally grates on your nerves. Working with the spiritually “sick” rather than the “healthy” usually means you’ll be interacting with the sin (and simply annoyance) of people who visibly need Jesus.

It’s easy for a subtle residue of resentment or relational distance to accumulate–and result in the failure of genuine love (see Romans 12:9).

To that end–

A posture of humility is a key element in overcoming Racial discrimination and any other injustice.

In her argument “Jesus wouldn’t say ‘All Lives Matter”, this blogger writes, “I felt like Jesus said to my heart, ‘when you say Black Lives Matter, you’re washing feet.'”

Reconciliation involves acknowledging that a wrong has been committed, shifting our attention away from the demand to make our own rights the center.

She adds,

Check your heart and ask why [Black Lives Matter] bothers you so much. Is it because it implies white lives don’t matter to people? Or that police lives don’t matter? Or that your life doesn’t matter?

…As Christians (white Christians, that is), it’s easy to say things like, “Jesus died for us all!” And while I agree that’s true, we can’t stop there at such a deep-seated issue. After all, Jesus died to conquer sin, something that sadly still abounds and must be confronted.

In reconciliation, rather than protecting our own image and reputation, what matters to us is not what others think, but God knows. (See more thoughts like this in an excellent article on pride vs. humility.)

The more you immerse in the lives of a people group, the more their injustice becomes yours.

A friend of mine flew for two weeks to Uganda to adopt a child–but because of the corruption of a number of systems, ended up needing to stay for a year. She willingly entered into this world, at every moment fearing the loss of the child they’d come to cherish, because she understood the more we rub shoulders with victims of injustice, the more their injustice affects us.

As you attempt to upend injustice, expect that world to affect you. For its pain to become your own.

And this, friends, is one way justice work displays the Gospel, displays loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus is quintessential in this: making his dwelling among us (John 1:14). He submitted himself to humanity not only in all of its body odor, morning breath, sleepiness–but also inevitable injustice, and eventually the irony of a criminal’s death after a kangaroo trial (Philippians 2:5-8).

Not unlike the unabashed promises of Jesus’ future exaltation (Philippians 2:9-11), the promises are great to a Church hefting the boulders of oppression.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Isaiah 58:6,8-9

It is why, though social justice is not the Gospel–it will always accompany the Gospel. Tim Keller writes regarding Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11 and James 2,

when the world sees the church doing justice then the world will get interested in justification. They’ll want to know what changed Christians. The answer will be justification….

…How do you know you’re really saved by faith? You care about the poor. When you see people without resources, your heart goes out to them. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re saved, but you’re lacking the evidence of salvation. Justification leads to justice. Justice is the sign of justification. It’s all through the Bible.

Friends, wherever you are, let us be this kind of Church.



One thought on “What Racial Discrimination Reminds Us about Overseas Missions

  1. Joseph Anthony Escarsiga says:

    Hello and God Bless.
    I did my best to read through this all the way without jumping the gun to write a reply. I couldnt resist. Brother and anyone else reading this.. There is only one mandate from Jesus… and it has nothing to do with getting involved in temporal matters so much that we lose sight of the Tree for the forest.
    We all need to return to the Gospels and see what Our Blessed Lord did while on earth and then we are really only supposed to do what we see, without new filters that divert our attention to things totally beyond our control and totally not in the battle plan.
    What is the battle plan?
    To win souls for Christ … souls. Souls have nothing to do with the color we are or the color we are not. Im not sure if this is helpful but I felt it was definitely necessary. GOD LOVE YOU

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.