Racial Injustice, Violence, and the Transformation of the Human Heart
Racial tensions are high in the U.S. With the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, many Americans are seriously considering how to restore relationships between minority communities and those with legal and civic authority. So many are rightly asking the question, “What are the first steps that Americans need to take to bring healing to the current racial tensions in the U.S?”
I have heard many leaders (both white and minority) say the police and minority communities need to come together and talk. I’ve heard others say white Americans need to listen to their minority neighbors. And I’ve heard numerous folks say that all Americans need to change.
I agree with all of these suggestions. But there’s a basic biblical and theological point that current solutions miss: Because of the universal power of sin and humanity’s participation in it, God in Christ by his Spirit must transform the human heart, so that humans will be able to respond in faith to that transformation to effect the holistic transformation that Americans want to see in our communities. And Christians who are rightly working to create social change in their communities must be driven by this biblical and theological reality.
The New Covenant Promise of the Transformation of the Heart
Jeremiah chapters 30-31 are perhaps the signature chapters in Jeremiah wherein the author communicates both God’s role and humanity’s role in the transformation of the heart. The Lord proclaims to the exiles that “behold days are coming when I will restore the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, and I will cause them to be restored to the land that I gave to their fathers so that they will inherit it” (Jer. 30:3).
Israel’s inheritance of the land (a divine blessing) is the result of the Lord’s work of deliverance for them. In Jer. 30:8, when the Lord exclaims that he would remove the yoke of exilic bondage from Israel’s neck placed upon it by foreign nations, Jeremiah highlights again that the Lord himself must work on behalf of his people to liberate them from the suffering of other nations.
As a result of the Lord’s work of deliverance, the Lord proclaims that Israel and Judah would then serve their God and David their king “whom I will establish for them” when the Lord delivered them (Jer. 30:9). The rest of the oracle in Jer. 30:10-31:40 develops both the ideas that the Lord will save and restore his people and that his people (Israel and Judah) would consequently serve the Lord in response to the Lord’s work for them.
The Lord states that he would save Israel and Judah (Jer. 30:10), that he would be with them (Jer. 30:11), that he would destroy other nations and spare them (Jer. 30:11), that he would chasten them (Jer. 30:11), that he has used other nations to destroy them (Jer. 30:15), that those who plundered them would be plundered by him (Jer. 30:16), and he states again that he would restore his people (Jer. 30:17-23).
In Jeremiah 31, the Lord’s promises of future restoration and salvation for his people continue. The Lord says he would be God to all of the families of Israel and they would be a people to him (Jer. 31:1, 23). He expresses that he has loved Israel with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3). He promises to rebuild Israel and Judah (Jer. 31:4-6) and to bring them from exile (Jer. 31:8-9). He declares that he will ransom Israel from captivity (Jer. 31:11).
As a result of the Lord’s work for Israel, Israel will shout with joy and she will be radiant over the goodness of the Lord (Jer. 31:12-14). She will repent of her sins against the Lord (Jer. 31:19, 21). Then, in Jer. 31:31-34, the Lord promises more than mere physical restoration. He promises to make a new covenant with his people, a covenant unlike the Mosaic covenant that Israel and Judah broke by their disobedience to the external commands, and a covenant that thereby forced them into exile (Jer. 31:31-32). This new covenant would be one in which the Lord would put his Torah within them and write his commands on the hearts of his people and enable them to obey (Jer. 31:33). The result would be that each one within this new covenant community would know the Lord, and their sins would be forgiven (Jer. 31:34).
Similar to Jeremiah, Ezekiel offers promises of judgment because of the nation’s sin and future restoration because of the Lord’s faithfulness. In Ezekiel 11, YHWH gives Ezekiel a word for Israel. He has sent Israel into exile (Ezek. 11:16) and he would restore the nation by putting a new Spirit within it by transforming the nation’s heart of stone (=the heart of disobedience) and by converting it into a heart of flesh (=a heart of obedience) (Ezek. 11:17-19).
The result of the Lord’s transformation of Israel’s heart would be “that they would walk in my statutes and my judgments they would keep and do them” with the result that “they would be to me a people and I would be to them God” (Ezek. 11:20). But the Lord also promises to destroy those whose hearts go after false gods instead of worshipping him and him alone (Ezek. 11:21).
The theme of the Lord’s transformation of the human heart and Israel’s restoration appear again in Ezekiel 36-37. Speaking in the context of national exile, the Lord promises Israel that he would once again turn to his people in the face of the nations to restore them and their land. He also promises that the land would no longer devour his people but would be fruitful for them (Ezek. 36:1-15). The Lord declares that he would act on behalf of Israel for the sake of his name, which Israel profaned, so that the nations would know that he is the Lord (Ezek. 36:22-23).
The Lord, then, explains that he would gather Israel from all of the nations (Ezek. 36:24), that he would sprinkle Israel with clean water in order to cleanse her spiritual filthiness (Ezek. 36:25), and that he would create within Israel a new and clean heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 36:26-27). In Ezek. 36:27, the Lord specifically states that he would put his Spirit within Israel and cause them to obey his statutes. The result of the Lord’s work within Israel and their inward transformation would be their obedience to the Lord and their living in the land that the Lord promised to their forefathers. The Lord would be their God, and they would be his people (Ezek. 36:28). The Lord’s transformation of Israel’s heart would also result in their salvation both from their sin and from the Lord’s judgment of cursing them in the land (Ezek. 36:29-38).
In Ezekiel 37, the Lord gives to Ezekiel another vision whereby he explains to him how he would accomplish his promises in Ezekiel 36. To state the point simply, the Lord promises to create spiritual life within Israel so that she would obey his word. And he promises to reunite Israel and Judah into one kingdom, to bring them into their land (instead of scattering them in foreign nations via exile), and to place her under the rule of the Messiah (David’s son) instead of under the rule of foreign nations (Ezek. 37:1-28; see also 2 Sam. 7:12-14; Psalms 2, 110). Thus, just as in Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 11 and 36-37 suggest that the only way humans and the human plight can experience holistic transformation will be if the Lord transforms humanity’s heart and gives humans spiritual life. That is, the people of Israel would experience holistic transformation when and after the Lord would place his Spirit within them, transform them, and enable them to obey his commands.
The Christian gospel says God transforms human hearts through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Echoing Ezekiel 36-37, Paul says that God fulfills the promises of Ezekiel 36-37 in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Ephesians 2. And the author of Hebrews asserts that Jeremiah’s new covenant promise has been fulfilled through God’s son, Jesus Christ, who died to accomplish the spiritual transformation promised in Jeremiah (Hebrews 8-9). All of humanity and the entire cosmos are dead in transgressions and sins until God spiritually resurrects sinners from the dead by transforming their hearts by the power or the gospel through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:1-22).
As citizens of the kingdom of God, as citizens of America, and as those who have been transformed by the power of the gospel, the Christian scriptures demand that every Christian should be concerned about the welfare of our neighbors and our cities. We ought not to live monastic or apathetic lives toward human suffering, racial injustice, or violence in our communities. Christians in fact should be the most concerned about social justice because Jesus, our Lord, died to reconcile and to unify all things and all people to himself through his cross, through the gospel, and through faith in him. However, Christians must never forget during these troubling times that the kind of holistic transformation that we want in our communities and in our cities can only happen if our great and sovereign God transforms human hearts inside and out through the gospel of Jesus Christ so that we would live in reconciled community with each other. Let’s pray that He does just that.
For a discussion of agency in Ezekiel, see P. Boyce, Divine Initiative and Human Response in Ezekiel (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).