Admittedly, Christians have not done a good job at speaking out against racism.
Martin Luther King famously repeated, “the most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” More than half a century later, these words still ring true, with 90% of churches made up of at least 90% of one ethnic group.
Because of this, to speak out against the racism we see in others and ignore the racism others see in us comes across as, well, hypocrisy.
So, in deference to the log in our own eye, Christians avoid the race conversation altogether. Or in a subtle move of self-interest, we speak about racism in terms general enough to denounce it but not specific enough to indict ourselves; where racism is bad for the country in general, but not the homogeneity of my racialized church in particular.
Given all of this tragic avoidance, you may have never heard some of the remarkable things the Jesus and Bible actually say about this topic of racism. This article will discuss a few of them.
Is race a misnomer?
It’s helpful to first clarify the terms and definitions we’ll use.
When people speak of race, they’re typically referring to “a pattern of features derived from common ancestry” from a given geographic region.
But advances in modern science have begun to debate the reality of race altogether.
Following the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement that “all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth.” Modern genetics supports UNESCO’s statement, finding a scant .01% of our genes contributing towards our external appearance.
In a more nuanced view, skeletal biologist expert George W. Gill points out,
“[whereas] serologists who work largely with blood factors will tend to see… races as not a valid construct, while skeletal biologists, particularly forensic anthropologists, will see races as biologically real.”
But whether or not it’s a biological reality, race is a social reality, and profoundly affects our worldviews and life experiences.
Since the intent of this article is to discuss the Christian viewpoint on racism, we’ll borrow the verbiage of the U.S. Census Bureau and concede racial categories “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country”, and our efforts here are “not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” We will limit our use of the word race as it pertains to the racism within a racialized society, and opt for ethnicity to refer to “common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”
When we refer to racism then, we refer to racial prejudice of any kind—formal or informal, historic or current, explicit or implicit, systemic or endemic, institutional or individual. As anti-racist activist Tim Wise notes, racism as an ideology is
“the belief that population groups, defined as distinct races, generally possess traits, characteristics or abilities, which distinguish them as either superior or inferior to other groups in certain ways.”
and as a system, racism is
“an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures—both formal and informal—in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others…”
Does the Bible condone racism?
The foundation for the Christian perspective on racism begins with a verse in the beginning of the Bible that says “God created man in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). It’s a short phrase, but it’s pressure-packed with meaning.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the phrase “God created man in his own image” unites all people with the mutual trait of God’s “image,” because all people are descendants of the first-created humans. In spite of any differing visible genetic traits between them, humanity equally shares in God’s likeness. This means hatred or oppression of any kind towards any person not only shows contempt for the person, but also “shows contempt for their Maker” (Proverbs 14:31), whose image they bear.
Jesus echoes this idea in his teaching to his followers—that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). On the flip side, whatever we neglect to do to others “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
Being racist is an offense against God because it despises people who are made in his image.
What’s more, the phrase “God created man in his own image” connects man (or mankind/humankind) to a particular man and a particular woman, Adam and Eve. As people who accept the Bible’s account of creation as history, we believe Eve “would become the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20) so that “from one man [God] made all the nations” (Acts 17:26).
Whether you agree with creation Biblically, this likely aligns with what you believe biologically—that all humans are derived from a singular family tree. Jesus alluded to this when he referred to the marginalized as his brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:40), or again when he commanded his followers to go to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19) and baptize them into the family (Gal. 3:26-27) of God. Jesus commanded this because, as one first-century Church leader admitted, “God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation” (Acts 10:34).
For Jesus, our acceptance into the Heavenly Father’s family meant more than salvation.
In what was essentially his inauguration speech, Jesus declared God sent him “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18), even if the oppressed were outside of Israel (Luke 4:24-27). He befriended people of taboo nations (John 4:1-42). He told stories where the heroes were people of taboo ethnicities (Luke 10:25-37).
Over and over again, Jesus backed up his teaching that God’s acceptance of all ethnicities also transforms our relationships with all ethnicities. No longer do we merely coexist with all people, but we live in a family that welcomes all people. For Jesus, this meant favoritism or inequality was more than just hatred, it was murder of a sibling in your heart (Matt. 5:21-22, 1 John 3:15).
Racism or hatred against any person is rebellion against God.
Third, “God created man in his own image” places all people with a common value of created. As Jesus would later quote, “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female” (Mark 10:6).
The Christian believes a perfect Creator perfectly created every creature in creation. People included. This creative process included a genetic code with the potential for changes in hair color, eye color, and skin pigmentation. What’s more, for the Christian, diversity is not only something that God created, but he declared it as perfect when he said “it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31).
Racism treats God’s artistry with contempt.
Often you’ll hear well-meaning people offer “color-blindness” as a solution to racism—the sentiment being, if we would stop seeing color or racial differences, racism would end. (“I love you so much, I don’t even notice that you’re Hispanic.”) The irony is color-blindness is actually another iteration of racism that treats a person’s ethnicity as something to disregard. At best, this form of thinking treats God’s good design as something displeasing to overlook instead of something pleasing to celebrate. At worst, it exchanges “the truth of God for a lie” (Ro. 1:25) more palatable to our prejudices.
Why are Christians still racist?
Christians believe the root issue of racism is that humanity is primarily self-centered—or sinful. The self-centered actions that lead us to demean and dehumanize other individuals, we term as sin. We believe that because of events surrounding Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation (Gen. 3), all of humanity is susceptible to the continued impact of sin—including Christians.
Racism isn’t just a mistake. Or a wrong. Or a problem. According to the Bible, racism is a sin. A sin against God and a sin against others that needs to be called out, confessed, repented from and forgiven.
Many Christians recognize and own their racism. Instead of covering it up, we endeavor to engage in reconciliation. After all, the center of the Christian narrative is that God, through Jesus, reconciled with humanity. God’s call is that we follow that example in our relationships with each other.
- We need to reboot our attitude to eliminate prejudice, and our behavior to eliminate discrimination.
- We need to recognize and celebrate the diversity of humanity.
- We must open our eyes to see the image of God in every person, not just the folks we like.
- We must change the boundaries of how we judge each other and realign them with how Jesus saw the people around him.
- And the only way to do this is by building real, authentic relationships with each other.