A Christian Examination of Racism
By Paul V. Harrison
On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof attended the Wednesday Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. About 9 o’clock, he pulled out his Glock and reportedly said: “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” He began firing, killing nine, including the pastor, and wounding three others.
Roof was arrested the next morning. His cell-block neighbor, Michael Slager, a white former North Charleston policeman, had been incarcerated for shooting black 50-year-old Walter Scott three times in the back when Scott ran away after being stopped for a broken brake light. One of those back-shots pierced his heart and killed him.
In January 2017, four young Chicago blacks were arrested for kidnapping and torturing an 18-year-old, mentally-disabled white man. They live-streamed 28 minutes of their wickedness on Facebook, including the four shouting profane statements about whites.
Like a powerful boa constrictor, prejudice has wrapped itself around the hearts of Americans, and it is squeezing the life out of us. While racism is relevant to all ethnicities, this article especially focuses on relationships between blacks and whites.
Today’s Racial Strife: How We Got Here
In the United States, slavery has especially contributed to racial attitudes. Our founders embraced an inherent contradiction: all men are created equal and one man could own another. John Piper writes, “Race relations in America were plunged into ruin and destruction the day the first slave arrived in America, kidnapped for white gain against God’s law.”
The magnitude of our sin is hard to overestimate. By the mid-19th century, approximately ten million Africans had been brought to the New World, most of them kidnapped and shipped under horrendous conditions. Mortality rates in the voyages to America were around 16%. Some committed suicide. Some went insane.
After their arrival, the degradation continued. Many masters raped their female slaves. Beauty was a liability. Frederick Douglas lamented: The “slave-woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons, or brothers of her master.” Male slaves usually attempted to marry women from another property, as slave John Anderson explained: “I did not want to marry a girl belonging to my own place, because I knew I could not bear to see her ill-treated.” Yale’s John Blassingame studied nearly 3,000 slave marriage certificates in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and found masters dissolved 32% of the marriages.
The master’s rule extended to slaves’ names. Freed slave Lorenzo Ezell said: “In dem days cullud people just like mules and hosses. Dey didn’t have no last name.” Another slave recalled: “Slaves never have any name. I’m called David, now; I used to be called Tom, sometimes; but I’m not, I’m Jack.”
Intimately interwoven into southern life, slavery seemed to charm the Church out of her ethical senses. While some ministers spoke against slavery, the 1800s saw the number of slaveholding preachers in the South increase. Sometimes, churches themselves bought slaves. In 1836, the Hopewell Presbytery stated: “Slavery is a political institution, with which the Church has nothing to do, except to inculcate the duties of Master and Slave, and to use lawful, spiritual means to have all, both bond and free, to become one in Christ by faith.”
William Brownlow, Methodist minister and eventually governor of Tennessee, was even bolder: “We esteem it the duty of Christian masters to feed and clothe well, and in the case of disobedience, to whip well.”
It cost a civil war and 600,000 lives, but we finally outlawed slavery. However, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville had written portentously in 1835: “The moderns, then, after they have abolished slavery, have three prejudices to contend against, which are less easy to attack and far less easy to conquer than the mere fact of servitude: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of color.”
Our national history helps explain our racial discord. But if you object that slavery is long past and blacks should just get over it, then reflect on how well your memory works as it relates to past personal insults to you and yours. Now, imagine the mistreatment of your family included multiple kidnappings, rapes, beatings, and other systematic degradation. This is to say nothing of Jim Crow laws that persisted until recently.
What Christianity Says about Racism
Although many Christians have been racists, the Bible opposes such thinking. In fact, Scripture reveals humanity—all humanity—to be essentially the same.
We are the same as to creation.Moses didn’t explain the origin of the various races, but he did for the human race: God created mankind in his own image (Genesis 1:27). Professor J. Daniel Hays writes of the profound implications of this: “All people of all races are created in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” Paul echoed this to the Athenians: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men…” (Acts 17:26).
We are the same as to sin.“For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). “As in Adam all die . . .” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
We are the same as objects of God’s love: “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). God is “not willing that any should perish” but desires “that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
We are the same in Christ.Galatians 3:26–28: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The Bible also presents multiple examples of reaching beyond racial barriers. God endorsed interracial marriage. In Numbers 12, where Moses marries a woman from Cush, a country of blacks in Africa, God himself defends the marriage. After Miriam and Aaron object to the union, verses 9–10 record: “The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow.” It sounds as thought God said to Miriam: “So, you like white? I’ll show you white.”
The closest biblical parallel to our black/white divide is that of Jews and Samaritans. Some Samaritans around A.D. 6 sneaked into the Jerusalem temple and spread human bones around, defiling that holy place. By Jesus’ day, a deep animosity had settled between the two groups, but in John 4, Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman and her people with grace. Furthermore, He made a Samaritan the hero in one of His stories (Luke 10).
The Early Church perpetuated this multiracial outlook. Pentecost included Cretans, Arabs, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and parts of Libya near Cyrene. God sent Philip to an Ethiopian in Acts 8, of which incident Hays wrote: “A Greek-speaking Semitic Jew led a Black African eunuch to Christ in one of the first evangelistic encounters recorded in Christian history.”
God led Peter to overcome his prejudice against Gentiles: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35).
John saw the final aim of God in his global outreach: “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. . . . And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (Revelation 5:8–9).
In its opening pages, Scripture presents God focusing on one particular people, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear His intention was to use one nation to bless all nations.
How Should We Respond to Racism?
We should work to eliminate prejudice from our hearts and behavior.This is true for both sides. Though our country has a tragic history of racism, those wrongs do not give anyone an excuse for prejudice. Just as a woman who has been abused has no right to hate either her abuser or men in general, so blacks have no right to hate whites. Jesus’ statement “Father, forgive them” instructs every person to love others, even enemies. Though slavery explains much of our current trouble, it does not excuse reciprocal mistreatment. We should all repent of racist attitudes.God will honor our repentance.
We should pray for moral strength.Frederick Douglass challenges us: “It’s not light that is needed but fire.”
We should be courageous.Paul Turner, a white pastor of First Baptist Church in Clinton, Tennessee, was beaten by members of the White Citizen’s Council after he escorted 12 black students to school in 1956. Despite his injuries, he preached the next Sunday, proclaiming “there is no color line at the cross of Jesus.”
We should preach against racism.Ministers are commanded to declare the whole counsel of God, and that includes God’s love for all races. The gospel leaves no room for racism.
We should make our churches and leadership positions equally open to all ethnicities.John Piper grew up in a home where Lucy, a black lady, came on Saturdays to help his mother clean. In 1962, their church voted not to allow blacks to attend services. In December that year, John’s sister was to be married, and Mrs. Piper invited Lucy and her family to the wedding. When this black family arrived, ushers struggled about what to do, but Mrs. Piper had no such difficulty. She welcomed them and seated them on the main floor.
We should prepare for opposition.At an 1897 Alabama State Camp Meeting near Hartselle, both whites and blacks met together. To obey the law requiring the groups to be segregated, they draped a rope down the middle, with the whites on one side and the blacks on the other. The sermon from Ephesians 2 spoke of tearing down the middle wall of partition, and during the service someone did just that: they removed the rope. Later that night, the campground was dynamited.
We should be full of mercy toward our opponents.Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 28, 1962. On the sixth row sat Roy James, a six-two storm trooper and member of the American Nazi Party. During the service, he mounted the stage and hit the five-seven King squarely in the jaw and then continued punching him. When others finally restrained James, King, dripping with blood, stood in front of the man and forgave him. King refused to press charges.
Preachers are amazingly blessed to be God’s ambassadors, and, as such, we speak for the One who is no respecter of persons. We have the privilege to say to all people, to all ethnicities, to all colors, that God has worked through the life, death, and resurrection of His son Jesus and has made salvation available to all—red and yellow, black and white. They are all precious in His sight.
About the Writer: Dr. Paul V. Harrison pastors Madison FWB Church in Madison, Alabama.