Racism and Christianity

A Southern, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male in his mid-thirties writes about racism – a lot could go wrong here.

Racism was never a topic I was interested in while growing up.  I didn’t hate anyone, so – WASP that I am – why would it have been?

But a funny thing happens when one is a committed Christian who takes his religion very seriously over a period of thirty-plus years: eventually, God-willing, the words of Jesus and scripture actually do penetrate your heart and skull.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, quoting the prophet Isaiah, while announcing the equivalent of his personal mission statement.

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he concludes to erase any doubt he was referring to himself.

Any serious student of scripture has to conclude that God’s heart is directed toward the oppressed, the downtrodden, the poor, the outcast, because scripture is littered with statements exclaiming exactly that.

Any person who likewise claims to be a disciple of Jesus necessarily has to direct one’s heart toward the things that God cares about, because to be a disciple is to be molded in the image of the exemplar.

So it is that the issue of racism found me despite myself.

It’s ridiculously easy for a person like me in America to believe that racism either is no longer a problem or is over-exaggerated.

That’s because the nation was built explicitly for people like me and for over two hundred years in large part done so at the expense of those not like me.

Explaining why that makes it difficult for me and those like me to see racism is a separate topic, but I strongly recommend reading the classic essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Dr. Peggy McIntosh for a better understanding.

It will suffice to use a single quote from Dr. McIntosh: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

I want to expand on this a bit to get a better picture of what racism really is, because I think most of us think it is only that – being mean to people because of their race.

Thus, people recoil in horror when someone suggests something they said or did was “racist,” because they only have that one definition of racism in mind.

I know that’s what I thought.

And I was very, very wrong.

I suggest racism is – for the individual – thinking of or treating anyone from a particular race with prejudice (prejudice is prejudging a person or group of people without actually knowing them).

Racism doesn’t have to be, and may most often not be, mean or malicious.

It can be very subtle.

It’s in thinking of your own culture as better than someone else’s; in valuing your own way of life more than that of those different than you.

Which isn’t to say that every single aspect of all the cultures in the world is worth celebrating – far from it, because just like every individual person, every culture has its problems that need correcting.

But Christianity is and always has been scandalously cross-cultural and multi-racial, to the point that scripture blatantly states that, in Christ, race has no more meaning: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes in his letter to the churches in Galatia, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We lose site of how radical it was for a First Century Jew to state that the racial differences between Jews and non-Jews are null and void in Christ: the entire Jewish identity had been to that point built on the notion that they were racially special.

How much more so is it true for white, Protestant Americans – gentiles that most of us are – that we should be among the last people in the world to hold any sort of distinction between people based on race?  We are beggars at the foot of God’s door who are included in the Body of Christ, along with everyone else who isn’t Jewish, purely by grace alone.

Scripture bluntly states that this attitude should extend to aliens (those who are not naturalized citizens of our country):

Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34)

You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born (Leviticus 24:22).

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.  And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (Psalm 146:7-9).

You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel.  You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children.  You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.  In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:34-36, 40).

Scripture offers the clarion call to all Christians to be radically loving and inclusive.  It commands us to think more highly of others than ourselves, to lay down what we perceive to be our rights, to be servants to everyone.

Christianity is quite literally death to self, the crucifixion of all of our wants and desires on the cross of Christ as we devote ourselves to God.  Christianity is intended to impact the world through love, service, selflessness and sacrifice, through reaching out to and saving everyone who is in need regardless of race or culture.

We can’t be actual disciples of Jesus of Nazareth – Middle Eastern member of a refugee family that he was – any other way.

2 thoughts on “Racism and Christianity

  1. I largely agree, but the thought crossed my mind as I read this that perhaps racism also could be defined as showing favoritism. This doesn’t always mean that another culture or group of people are cut down, but perhaps exalted, such as if the African-American culture is placed on a pedestal above, say, Korean culture or even the “whites”. Far too often I also see those of European decent letting there own culture be ridiculed while uplifting another. This has long puzzled me, how one group of people could preach equality while placing their own people far below another.

    1. I’m alright with prioritizing cultures that have been marginalized; that doesn’t necessarily lead to diminishing of other cultures. I don’t think any should be ridiculed. It fits within the scriptural purview of thinking of others as greater than yourself to lift up other people and their heritage, but that shouldn’t result in the denigration of your own, unless it’s regarding an aspect(s) of your own culture that is broken and in need of correction.

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