Matthew 5.21-26: A Missional, Confessional, Pragmatic Approach toward Racial Reconciliation
Matthew 5.21-26: A Missional, Confessional, Pragmatic Approach toward Racial Reconciliation
Russ D. Kirby 0
0 Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Th eology
A Missional, Confessional, Pragmatic
Approach toward Racial Reconciliation
2n003 Glen Stassen proposed a triadic structure to the Sermon on the Mount proper (Matt 5.21-7.12).1
IWhile his work is open to criticism, it nonetheless provided new energy to existing biblical critical efforts
and prodded scholars and students alike to take Jesus' actual words seriously. In this article I propose that
Matthew 5.21-26 indeed conforms to Stassen's proposed triadic divisions and offers a three-fold, grace-filled
strategy that, when viewed through the lens of contemporary congregational segregation, refigures efforts
at racial reconciliation. This missional, confessional, pragmatic approach does not permit a comfortable,
kumbaya, once-a-year pulpit switch program. It does, however, in pointing to actual practices and realistic
responses, empower a way of being in the church and world that offers enormous hope for the color of our future.
TRYING OUT THE TRIAD HYPOTHESIS
Stassen's basic position is that the prevailing difficulties in making sense and use of Jesus' teachings in
the Sermon on the Mount stem from interpreters not paying enough attention to the internal structure of
individual pericopes. Focusing on overall groupings and accepting the longstanding language of "antitheses,"
the exegetical emphasis has landed on hard teachings, and prohibitions impossible to master. By noting
the presence of remarkably consistent structural patterns and privileging grammatical forms present in the
texts, Stassen uncovers fourteen triads. The third member of each triad always includes imperatives, not
merely illustrations and never impossible ideals. We can with God's gracious help, he argues, take concrete
initiative(s) to break free from habits that lead to sin and traps that capture our loyalty. Every time we make
the decision to follow Jesus this way we participate in the inbreaking reign of God on earth.
A Note on Assumptions and Audience
Despite differences, commentators have (rarely!) applied Jesus' remarks on reconciliation in Matthew
5.21-26 to racial reconciliation. I will be using Stassen's divisions because I believe he is basically correct
and because this structure allows us to see (in the climactic section-Matt 5.24-26) a three-fold response to
the racial divisions that exist within Christian churches, especially in the United States. As a white participant
in non-instrumental Churches of Christ I will be telescoping the application(s) of this material for white
Christians attending so-called "white" churches of Christ, and will be specifically attentive to black-white
relations. Other scholars-perhaps in this edition of Leaven-can fill in the admitted, intended gaps.
Jesus Points to Traditional Commandments
Stassen shows that each triad uniformly begins with Jesus' recollection of an existing paraenetic tradition.
These "traditional teachings/righteousness" and later "traditional practices" are mostly rooted in the Hebrew
Bible and serve as springboards for the material unique to Jesus. The traditional commandment in Matthew
5.21--"Do not kill"-remembers the prohibition of Deuteronomy 5.17. Jesus states this simply enough,
though historically perhaps no teaching has complicated discipleship more.
Acknowledging the emotion of debates, it is curious that discussions of racial division in the United
States so infrequently mention this verse. Christians professing a commitment to racial unity in the church
do well to remember that just over a hundred years ago in this country it was not illegal to kill most blacks.?
Even after formal emancipation white Christians found themselves complicit in a history of hangings and
a legacy of lynchings. These historical blights would be easier to dismiss were it not for the persistence
of violent racial discrimination: disparities in access to quality health care;' the convergence of white
flight, geographic steering, and the toxic targeting of non-white neighborhoods," and the disproportionate
percentage of legal black executions.' Though "do not kill" is not the point of this passage, it is a
commandment that nonetheless deserves our attention.
Jesus Points Out Trapping Cycles
That this passage is rightly identified as a triad can be more clearly seen in the second section. Against
the term "antithesis" Stassen notes that Jesus' words are consistently non-oppositional. This should not be
surprising given Jesus' preface to this section; rather than abolish or oppose the law his desire is to "fill
it full." Also striking is the absence of any imperatival material in Matthew 5.22. Jesus' clear directives
uniformly occur in the last member (vv. 23-26) of the triad.
Yet Jesus' words in this section are not unimportant, and they certainly have application to racial
reconciliation. Stassen argues that here Jesus diagnoses "vicious cycles," patterned practices that prevent
us from living into the spirit of the law. Anger is not prohibited in the passage, nor are we forbidden to
call someone a fool. Jesus had occasion for both. The active verb in verse 22 (orgizomenos) should not be
translated "anger," but "being angry," and this grammatical feature, Stassen argues, is significant. Rather
than advocate an unreachable moral standard, Jesus simply identifies unbridled anger and unchecked insults
as behavioral traps with undesirable consequences.
Racism uses anger and insults as fuel, and over time this trapping cycle creates possibilities for deadly
violence. The connection between name-calling and violent anger might seem hyperbolic, yet they are
perversely and profoundly inseparable. In fact, the development of the concept of "race" in the United States
is at its core an adamic process ofre-calling and re-naming. To be re-named "white" in the late seventeenth
century meant a measure of protection, and introduction into a nascent system of privilege. "Negro" and
its nastier variants, however, became a synonym for "slave," "animal," and "disfavored by God." Use and
acceptance of these names simultaneously functioned as (unconscious?) justification for the kidnap, capture,
dismemberment and murder of "other" human beings. When language dehumanizes it desensitizes, and so
the words and the ways that we speak matter deeply.
First Quarter 2010
Though it is fashionable to lament "political correctness," and to trumpet a Lochnessian "reverse
racism.t" white Christians should instead be honest about the persistence of color injustice, and concerned
about language and names that trap us. It was not until I heard a "black joke" from the pulpit of a white
church this decade that I realized how broadly and easily the genre moved an audience. It was the only joke
that landed that morning. "I'm not a racist" is much easier to say than it is to prove, especially when we
are betrayed by our words. When white churches ask, "How do we get them to come to our services?" they
reveal controlling assumptions and effectively confirm the truth of Jesus' diagnosis. The trapping cycle of
insults and anger tempts us to forget that in Christ we are brothers and sisters.
JESUS MAKES HIS POINT: TRANSFORMING CHOICES
In Stassen's hypothesis the third member of each triad is differentiated by its increased length and by its
inclusion of positive imperatives. So, for instance, this material (vv. 23-26) is twice as long as the first two
sections combined and is full of distinctive, climactic commandments. This pattern occurs repeatedly in the
Sermon on the Mount. Jesus rarely stops at diagnosis; he reveals realistic, concrete ways to break free from
the cycles that preclude Christian faithfulness. Jesus' point then in Matthew 5.21-26 is that we can choose
to "be reconciled," though it requires that we "leave," "go," "remember" and "make friends with." Taking
these "initiatives" disempowers anger and insults, and reshapes relationships once bound for murder, death
and judgment. In practice, this missional, confessional, pragmatic approach is a stark contrast to dominant
Christian efforts at racial reconciliation. The third member of this triad is a clear compass, reorienting our
individual and corporate actions, and moving us past superficial, short-lived racial "unity."
A MISSIONAL PURSUIT
The problem with the question, "How do we get them to come to our services?" is not simply that it assumes
and maintains "us-them" relational categories. It also reduces our Christian identity to the production of
corporate worship, and confuses racial reconciliation with getting other people "to come." In Matthew 5.23,
Jesus says that before offering a gift at the altar you must "be reconciled," and in order to be reconciled
you must "leave the altar" and "go" [to your brother]. So then, Christian racial reconciliation is necessarily
missional, and the locus for reconciliation is not (corporate worship inside) the church building. The so-called
"attractional" ecclesiology is not entirely bankrupt. Even so, we must move from "invitation" to incarnation;
it is axiomatically impossible to practice (racial) reconciliation absent the pursuit of (racial) reconciliation.
For white Christians, then, there ought to be a positive con-elation between taking Jesus seriously, and feeling
increasingly uncomfortable in all-white Christian assemblies.
Frankly, however, the average, stable white church is not even proactively attempting to "attract"
nonwhite members. While white congregations are increasingly confronted with "people of color" due to
discontinuous, demographic change, many remain unaware that so-called black Churches of Christ exist at
all. Years ago, I brought our church to an event hosted by a primarily black congregation. I still remember
the sincerity in the eyes of a church youth group member who said with confusion, "There are black
churches of Christ!?" That brief encounter underscores the real-life distance between Jesus' expectations, and
the common experiences of contemporary white congregations. Not only is missional, multicultural engagement
rare there; it is equally rare for majority white congregations to plan their services with people of color in mind,
or to simply include non-white congregations on direct and electronic mailing lists. The most literal answer to
the "Why don't they come?" question is that "they" were often not invited in the first place.
Of course, achieving true racial reconciliation requires (more than) invitations and thoughtful,
attractional worship planning. The transforming choice envisaged by Jesus involves missional displacement.
That he expects us to "leave" our comfort zones, and "go" on a pursuit of reconciliation should not be
surprising; Jesus' commands here grow out of, and are shaped by, the larger narrative of God's salvation
story. Here Stassen importantly notes God's grace. We are privileged to participate in the activity of the
divine reconciler. While the missional mandate is not without effort and challenges, in our "leaving" and
"going" we acknowledge the partnership and precedent of God. Our actions must be in conformity with
what God has graciously been doing all along.
First Quarter 2010
A Pragmatic Appeal
As the text concludes, Jesus paints a final (parabolic ?) picture. For Stassen, this is not a separate illustration;
rather, verses 25-26 are part of the same climactic appeal to break free from trapping cycles that lead to
judgment. Jesus describes a scenario involving two enemies with pending ligation; and in this context we
find the imperative "come to terms" (ellnoon, v. 25). This transforming choice is rendered with interesting
variety into English: "come to terms," "make friends," "agree with," "make peace," "settle matters." While
these English options send preachers on exciting tangents, whether translated with legal or relational shading,
the word is basically synonymous with "be reconciled" (diallagethi) in verse 24.
The text does not tell us what the plaintiff "has against" the defendant. As white Christians attempt to
contextualize the passage, many may feel like they do not know what their black brothers and sisters "have
against" them. It would surely be ironically inappropriate of me to speak for black Christians in Churches
of Christ; though in speaking with and listening to black church leaders, key historical and contemporary
themes emerge. These include: the "closing" of the Nashville Christian Institute; patterned exclusion from
enrollment in Church of Christ schools, forcing attendance at denominational and state schools; the complex
admixture of congregational segregation, white benefaction and lingering paternalism; underrepresentation
on the faculty, staff and lectureships of academic institutions associated with Churches of Christ; feigned
interest in unity efforts or cooperative events; specific, reproduced instances of individual and corporate
racism; white reticence to admit and reject power and privilege(s), and to stand in solidarity against
oppressive systems and structures; and the marked invisibility of black congregations to white congregations,
even as current geographies often farcically overlap. Jesus' command to white Christians today is the same
as it was to that unnamed defendant: "come to terms" and "be reconciled."
Although these verses (vv. 25-26) do not really introduce a new transforming choice, they tell us two
interesting things regarding reconciliation. First, it is never too late to seek reconciliation. In this text, the
trapping cycle of anger and insults has spiraled all the way to litigation. As hopeless as things may appear
(then and now), Jesus is unwaveringly optimistic, and so we should be as well. This does not mean we
should put off the practice of reconciliation for another day. Quite the contrary, Jesus implores us to reconcile
"quickly" (tachu). Second, Jesus tells us why we should practice reconciliation. For those expecting a
theological rationale, Jesus chooses a different, perhaps disappointing logic. I actually find Jesus' pragmatic
appeal refreshing. To paraphrase, we should engage in the practice of reconciliation, Jesus forewarns,
because if we do not things will go from bad to worse. This fits with Stassen's view that what Jesus is doing
in these triads is principally diagnostic. We make the transforming choice to pursue reconciliation because
unless we disempower the trapping cycles of anger and insults, murder and incarceration gain viability. In
other passages, a broader theology of reconciliation is developed. Yet even if this text were all that we had,
(racial) reconciliation should be practiced because our Jives will be better as a result.
FOR CHRISTIAN LEADERS WHO WANT CONCLUDING LISTS
Glen Stassen's work on the Sermon on the Mount has focused on the concrete words of Jesus, and on
identifiable patterns (e.g., triadic divisions) that help us understand him better. In Matthew 5.21-26 (the
first triad), a traditional commandment (do not murder), and related trapping cycles (being angry, uttering
insults) are introduced. Jesus' climax, Stassen argues, uncovers choices we can take (be reconciled, etc.) that,
as God's grace allows, will transform relationships and situations, preventing imminent "judgment." When
applied to racial reconciliation (and directed specifically to white Christians), a three-fold approach can be
discerned: Jesus commands a missional pursuit, and a confessional posture, and offers an urgent, optimistic,
pragmatic appeal. For white Christians wanting to know something of the shape that missional, confessional,
reconciling engagement might take, this concluding list offers representative possibilities.
Do your church's e-mail and direct mail lists include predominantly black Churches of Christ?
When is the last time you, or your congregation, attended an event at a predominantly black Church
Do you know the story of how your congregation and the nearest predominantly black congregation
The last time there was an outside search to fill a ministry role, how many black candidates were
When is the last time you or your minister preached a sermon series on the sin of racism?
When your area ministers meet for prayer and fellowship, are the area black ministers in attendance?
When is the last time you were in the home of a member of a predominantly black Church of
Christ? When have you last had that member in your home?
8. How would you respond if your daughter or son decided to seriously date/marry a black Christian?
9. How many deep friendships do you have with black Christians? Is your relationship deep and safe
enough for them to point out your prejudices and blind spots?
10. When is the last time that you told or laughed at a "black joke?" When is the last time you used a
racial epithet or stereotype?
May the grace of God enliven us with courage and perseverance (racial) reconciliation. as we enter the lifelong journey of
Russ D. KIRBY IS DIRECTOR OF STUDENT SERVICES AT ABILENE CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY'S GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THEOLOGY IN ABILENE, TEXAS.
1. Glen H. Stassen , " The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 : 21 - 7 : 12), " Journal of Biblical Literature. 122/2 ( 2003 ): 267 - 308 .
2. For example, note the prevalence of black female slaves executed for nonviolent "crimes," or without any stated cause . See Keith Harries. "Gender , Execution, and Geography in the United States," Geografiska Annaler: Series 8 , Human Geography 74, no. I ( 1992 ): 25 . Many slave codes considered things like theft, slave gatherings and "bruising" a master to be capital offenses .
3. Stephen H. Woolf , Robert E. Johnson, George E. Fryer, George Rust and David Satcher , "The Health Impact of Resolving Racial Disparities: An Analysis of US Mortality Data," American Journal of Public Health 94 , no. 12 ( December 2004 ): 2078 - 2081 .
4. See Robert D. Bullard , Paul Mohai, Robin Saha and Beverly Wright , "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Matters After All Thest: Yt:ars:' Environmental Law 38 ( 2008 ): 371 - 411 .
5. "United States of America: Death By discrimination-the continuing role of race in capital cases," Amnesty international , April 2003 , http://www.amnesty.org/enllibrary/info/ AMR51/046/2003 (accessed December 10 , 2009 ).
6. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva , Amanda Lewis and David G. Ernbrick , ,.. I did not get that job because ofa Black man ... ': The Storylines and Personal Stories of Color Blind Racism," Sociological Forum 19 , no. 4 ( December 2004 ): 555 - 581 .
7. Gail Griffin , "Speaking of Whiteness: Disrupting White Innocence," The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 31 , no. 3 (Spring 1998 ): 3 - 14 .
8. Wolfgang Benz , A Concise History of the Third Reich (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of Cali fomi a Press, 2006 ), 42 .
9. So notice the clear and credible critique in Dietrich Boenhoffer, The COSlof Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995 ), 31 .