A Biblical Perspective on Racism
A lot is being written and stated these days regarding the church’s responsibility where the issue of racism is concerned. The torrent of views coming from within and without conservative evangelical circles is mind-boggling and at a minimum, disjointed and confusing. Somehow, the church has been saddled with the responsibility to end racism and worse, she has been indicted and convicted for being a contributor to the problem. The objective of this article is to provide a biblical perspective on the issue of racism without regard for the modern attitudes that seem to be influencing most of what is said about the subject.
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. (Gen. 11:6-8)
By the time we get to the historical event at Babel, the human race had fallen from divine fellowship with God through Adam. That fall sent the race spiraling downward into extreme moral confusion until finally, God looked down and saw that the hearts of men were given over to wickedness continually. God called Noah and his family out from the human race and then eradicated every evil doer from the planet by way of the flood. However, it wasn’t long before the human race was again rapidly declining toward a level of depravity that God would not abide. And here, in Gen. 11, we see the culmination of depravity and, yet another curse issued by God upon the human race. As a result, the human race was divided into various people groups and scattered across the earth, resulting in mass confusion. So then, from this account we come to understand that the existence of the various races that make up the humanity, is directly attributable to another divine curse as a result of sin on the part of humanity. The existences of the various races are the resulting tension and confusion among them is the direct result of the curse of Babel.
Paul said in Romans 5, in Adam, we all die. We all experience the curse of Adam’s covenant failure. The curse was universal. The flood was also universal. God destroyed all but eight souls. After Babel, we are all sentenced to the curse of racial confusion. The issue with racism is seen in the way human beings classify themselves and then elevate their race and themselves above others. The issue isn’t skin color. The issue is self-promotion. The issue is the idolatry of the race of which we happen to be a part. The issue is the age-old problem of the idolatry of self. We are prone to worship ourselves and we are prone to worship our race. In so doing, we necessarily relegate other races to a lower place than our own. This practice of partiality is the heartbeat sin of racism. It isn’t about being black, white, brown, or red. It is the idolatrous exaltation of one race or type of human over another. It extends far beyond skin color, cultural differences, or language. It extends into social status as well. To be sure, Scripture has a lot to say about the matter.
To begin with, Gal. 3:28 explicitly informs us that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ Jesus, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. The benefits of the New Covenant are extended to all. While it is true that Paul did not have racial equality in mind as he penned this text, it is just as true that the text carries irresistible inferences regarding the issue of race. God shows no partiality for men based on anything in man, including his race, gender, or social status. Just as Babel shows us the curse of God with the resulting confusion, Pentecost is a picture of the reversal of that curse. Peter made this point abundantly clear in Acts 2 when he pointed to Joel and thundered that God was now pouring his Spirit out on all flesh without distinction. Man, or better, humanity is created in the image of God. No one race was created in the image of God. All of humanity, being descended from one couple, is the image of God. As a result of this truth, all humans are people cut from the same divine cloth: God’s image. Yet, we make off boundaries for each other based on all sorts of criteria, race just being one of them. The Christian must understand that it isn’t the criteria for discrimination that is the problem, but the discrimination itself. Discrimination is the showing of partiality and as the New Testament clearly teaches, such partiality is worldly and ungodly on every level.
James, when dealing with the issue taking place with his audience says this, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:4) The Greek word διακρίνω (diakrino) means to differentiate by separating, to make a distinction, to evaluate by paying careful attention, to render a judgment, to be at variance with someone, to be uncertain. This word appears 19x in the NT. It was this word that Peter used in Acts 15:9 when he rehearsed the Gentile conversion that took place back in Acts 10: and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9) Peter’s point was that God made no distinction between the Jew and the non-Jew when he poured out his grace upon both groups in the New Covenant. James, who is writing not long after this event in Acts 15 commands his audience, My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (James 2:1) James’ audience lives in a culture where the rich are distinguished from the poor in that they receive special or different treatment. The attitudes toward the rich are different from what they are regarding the poor. This worldly way of thinking and behaving has entered the churches and threatens to contaminate the godly communities. James is taking action to ensure that this leaven is purged from the churches.
The Greek word employed by James is προσωπολημψία (prosopolempsia). It appears 6x in the NT when we take all its forms into consideration. Paul uses it in Eph. 6:9 to inform slave owners that there is no partiality with God. He uses it in Col. 2:25 to say that there is no partiality in the divine judgment. Finally, Paul also uses it to say that there is no partiality with God. The entire idea of partiality is attached to unjust thinking. James informs his audience in 2:9 emphatically that partiality is sinful behavior. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. While James is dealing with the partiality displayed between the rich and the poor, it seems equally true that any kind of partiality of this stripe would be sinful and meet the same rebuke. All partiality is sin. There is no partiality with God. Therefore, there should be no partiality in us.
The practice of racism comes under the category of showing partiality, which as I have pointed out, is a sin. We would say it like this, racism is the symptom of a problem but not the problem itself. Racism is rooted in the showing of partiality, which is itself rooted in an idolatrous heart. You begin with idolatry, move to showing partiality, which then manifests itself in a number of ways, racism being one of them. The truth is that most people who condemn racism are guilty of showing partiality in other ways. And if that is true, then we have to talk about hypocrisy. I will leave that aside for the time being.
I was told by one pastor over at SBC Voices that I could not call a black man to repentance over his issue of unforgiveness regarding racial discrimination because I am white. Such a view is clearly showing partiality. And the Scriptures are clear that God does not show partiality, that there is no partiality in God, and that for Christians to display such partiality is sin. So, this man, despite his political ideology and intense rhetoric, finds himself in the position of displaying the very attitude he is supposedly condemning: partiality. We must be better thinkers than this.
There is partiality in the church and that is far more obvious to all of us than the narrower sin of racism. We do treat people differently. Large contributors are given more say than small ones. Celebrity pastors and preachers are given far more weight than their lesser known counterparts. We, as Christians, are enthralled with the guys who are “up there” in the lime light. We gather “in clique” with certain people and not with others and we set boundaries, even if those boundaries are subconscious. We break down our Sunday Schools by age, marital status, and gender. While that may not be egregiously wrong, we should ask if it is at all helpful or productive. I don’t think it is. I think it contributes to a subcultural divide between us and them. See, there it is. The “us and them.” My older group, but not that old, and the younger groups. If we believe that diversity enriches understanding and strengthens our bond as a community, it seems to me that we should structure our most fundamental programs to reflect that philosophy. For some reason, we don’t. I am not saying there should never be a men’s class or a women’s class on particular subjects or as an opportunity to gather as men and as women. But I think such opportunities should be secondary rather than part of the fiber of our training programs.
There is no room for partiality within the community of Christ. James writes concerning such partiality, So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17) Partiality is worldliness. Partiality is sin. Genuine faith purges worldliness and sin from our behavior, from our mindset. Faith, if it does not purge the mindset of partiality from you, is dead. Racism is partiality! Can you see where I am going with this?
For some people, the issue of racism is an opportunity to take what does not belong to them in the name of reparations. For some, it is an opportunity to ascend to positions not rightfully earned. For others, it is an opportunity to manipulate others, from the civil authorities to politicians, to the boss, small businesses, and even the church. For some, the issue of racism is an opportunity to look righteous in front of others through political posturing and extreme rhetoric. Still, for others, it is an opportunity to appeal to black Christian communities to join their organization and to increase numbers and dollars within that organization. We are all sinners and we all have a tendency to use the pet sins of our respective cultures in unhealthy and ungodly ways. We use them to manipulate others. We use them to make ourselves feel good. We use them to make ourselves look good. Make no mistake about it, many pastors who are riding the current racism train at the moment are some of the very same pastors who do very little to correct the plethora of partialities going on in their respective denominations and many of their own churches. This is not much different than watching thousands of pastors refuse to discipline unbiblical divorce over the last several decades, all of the sudden get worked up over gay marriage. They use God’s design for marriage as an argument against gay marriage but never brought it up to enforce biblical principles of marriage and divorce. Sorry pastor, but if you permit unbiblical divorce in your church for years without discipline, then you have lost your right to talk about God’s design for marriage to anyone, including the gay movement. And for you pastors who are beating the soap box of racism, I suggest you also start working on the sin of partiality that very likely permeates your own congregations, and perhaps, possibly, your own heart. Do you treat people differently based on your own personal set of criteria? Search your heart. Do some merit time from you while others do not? Do the opinions of one person weigh heavier than the opinions of another based on some sort of shallow criteria, like giving? Do you unwittingly promote partiality in your church through programs, structure, or other more subtle ways? Don’t point the finger at the racist until you can at least be honest with yourself about ALL issues of partiality.
The guilt by association message in this discussion is not the sort of approach I see in Jesus or any of his apostles. It is unjust judgment to indict someone for the sin of another on the basis that they belong to the same people group. All Germans cannot be indicted for the sins of the Nazi party, or of Adolf Hitler. To say that all white people should feel guilty for the sin of slavery is like saying that all black people are guilty of whatever any other black person does within the black community. Just as it is a sin to indict all rich people for greed on the ground that many or even most rich people are greedy, it is also a sin to indict all humans within a people group for racism on the ground that many or even most in that people group are racist. Christians are to render judgment, but that judgment must be just. God does not judge me based on the sins of America or the sins of Germany or the sins of Ireland or England (my ancestors got around apparently). God judges me based on my behavior, not the behavior of those in my family, in my community, in my church, or in my broad people group. If I am guilty, I am guilty before God. If God has declared me innocent, I am innocent.
We are all sinners battling sin, first and foremost in our own hearts, and in our own families, our own small groups, and our own churches. It is far too easy to focus on issues like racism all the while ignoring the obvious sins right in front of us. Are we more concerned with what God sees in our hearts or with what others hear from our platforms and pulpits? Is it our appearance before God that drives our actions or our appearance before men?
[Contributed by Ed Dingess]