Racism, in my mind, is one of the most grotesque distortions of the Gospel that we can find in the modern church.
Ok, so that was a pretty strong statement to start a post for a Saturday afternoon, but this one’s been brewing for some time. Racism in the church is something that must be denounced in the strongest terms because it not only contradicts the content of the Gospel, but also undermines the impact of the gospel in the areas where racism and the Gospel coexist.
Firstly, racism is a form of self-centredness.
Racism speaks more about the racist person and their needs and desires rather than about the person or group being marginalised by the racist. The concept of racism relies upon a basic principle that can be observed everyday in a school playground, which for our purposes we will call the I’m Normal Your Not principle
It goes like this: Johnny calls Timmy fat and Timmy cries. The issue here is that Johnny has constructed a norm that of course he himself fits into and which Timmy does not (no pun intended).
Normality is the issue. What is normal and who fits that definition? And who decides what is normal and who fits into it?
The problem lies within the view that to be normal is to be normal, which is just not the case. In other words, as soon as any given individual slips from the realm of normal-ness they become not normal, which is code for being deficient or sub-human in some measure. The dynamic between Johnny and Timmy is clear. Once Timmy slips from the realm of normal because of his weight problem Johnny continues to exist in his normal state. Due to Timmy’s slip, Johnny by default becomes superior.
Johnny is normal and therefore superior.
The point however is not the normal vs not normal dynamic per se, but the deliberate orchestration of this dynamic in order to gain the superior (normal) status. How can this be orchestrated? Easy. Observe those characteristics in another person that are different from you due to their race (or whatever!) and then isolate and articulate these as not normal. The result is that you will be normal and superior to the person that is different to you.
Well, that’s how they think anyway.
We can stoop lower still. It is not uncommon to hear professing Christians isolate a particular race with the social circumstances that the marginalised often find themselves in. So, smelling badly, not being able to think as one educated (whatever that means) and dressing poorly is synonymous with – those that are not normal. Not only are they a lower class of being because of their racial identity, but they feel the brunt of some Christians’ ire because they smell, speak poorly and/or dress shabbily.
This deliberate use of race and associated social characteristics are highlighted by racists out of self-interest, which flies in the face of the most basic Christian teaching.
I was told the other day by a fellow Christian friend that he was not obligated to love gypsies. Hmmm… well, that news to me! Was Jesus just joking around when he said, ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’? Was Jesus just engaging in the optional extra duties when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well? And what do we make of his eating with the tax collectors and other rabble? What? That was Jesus, but that is not our responsibility?
Of course not!
That Christians would treat other Christians of a different race in such a belittling manner because they look, smell, sound different is disgusting. Such egoism and self-centredness is far removed from the kind of interaction that Jesus teaches his followers to engage in.
Secondly, racism demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Gospel.
Of late, me and my friend Vlado have been working our way through Ephesians 2 and 3. One of the distinct themes that you cannot miss (well, clearly you can!) is that Jesus has broken down the race barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles. Reconciliation (among other things) with God is made available to all through Jesus Christ. It’s pretty clear when we read this snazzy passage:
6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. 7 I (Paul) became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things (Ephesians 3:6-9).
Racism is the turning back of the clock. Racism strips the Gospel of its sheer beauty. Racism grabs what Jesus has done away with and shoves it back into the spotlight and proclaims, ‘This is important!’ Racism builds a dividing wall of hostility (see 2:14), and implements the law with its commands and regulations (see 2:15). There is not one in Christ but many: me, the racially superior creation, and you, the sub-par version.
The spiritual poverty of this view of the Gospel is far worse than any material poverty that some Gypsy will ever live through!
Thirdly, racism misunderstands church and eschatology.
The final eschatological (end times) scene is one of corporate worship. Have a look at Revelations 7:9-10 at the picture that the writer creates for us. He makes specific reference to those praising the Lamb as consisting of all sorts. And they are together:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice...
The picture is one of corporate worship of God; a gathering of many for one purpose, which is not a phenomenon that we see only in the eschaton. The church partially realises this future reality in the present, which the New Testament is constantly talking about. The variables that we read about are predictable: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentiles. This is the composition of the church in the eschaton and in the present.
For goodness sake, the heart of Paul’s letters were often addressing the discontent and doctrinal error that was found between the Jews and Gentiles. And how quickly do we forget Paul’s courageous rebuke of Peter for separating himself from Gentiles when eating. Multiculturalism is not a social engineering fad of the 90’s, but a Gospel reality in the future and present!
It is not enough to merely placate this idea, to agree, to nod. After Paul’s rebuke, Peter needed to rearrange his theology, his life, and his actions. He needed a new understanding of race in light of the Gospel. In our churches today many pastors agree that racism is bad, yet their churches do not reflect this commitment. I’ve been told that some pastors chase away those of different races because the other church members feel uncomfortable and have threatened to leave.
My response to these pastors is simple: let them leave!
Please God spare us the day that our pastors (myself included) care more about keeping people in pews rather than being faithful to the Gospel and the implications of it. The church is not a place that should engage with or perpetuate racism in any shape or form because it undermines the very foundation of the church – the Gospel.
Racism is a blight on God’s church because, if understood rightly as self-centred elitism, it is the antithesis of Jesus’ message and cross-work. We would do well to remember Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’ humility before God his father in Philippians 2:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.