Christians, Racism, and Racial Justice
Oct 6, 2020 · Christopher Hunt
A house in my neighborhood has a sign in the yard with the words “Jesus is King, Therefore, Black Lives Matter.” The apostle Paul might have called this “a trustworthy saying” because the whole weight of the gospel bears it out. Jesus Christ is sovereign over all creation, and his death and resurrection have made a way for all people, whom he created in his own image, to have eternal life with God. He shows no favoritism, and he does not discriminate by skin color, ethnicity, nationality, wealth, or earthly merit. God calls us as his people to love one another and be united so that the world may know that the Father sent him and that salvation comes through him (John 17:20-23).
As a graduate student, I studied and wrote about race and slavery in the Early Republic period of United States history. Since then, I’ve often thought about what the Bible says about race and how Jesus’ work addresses slavery, race, and racial justice. The gospel calls us to love, and love is action in our attitudes toward and interactions with people who might look different than us.
When it comes to race, racism, and racial justice, how can Christians, as God’s people, ensure that the Bible, more than society or culture, is the lens through which we understand and discuss race and racism so that we live out these truths of scripture in our day-to-day lives?
Let’s explore these gospel truths and what they look like in practice.
Created in God’s own image
Every human being reflects the one who created them. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). There is no person that God didn’t make. “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth,” (Acts 17:26). Therefore, every human being has inherent worth, because God is God and created us to be like him. When his creation betrayed him, God did not abandon us; he made a way for us to be reconciled with himself through a redeemer, his Son. That’s the central story of scripture.
Jesus affirmed God’s attitude toward his image bearers when he answered questions from the religious leaders meant to entrap him. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:25-27). These leaders liked to classify and divide people, and one of them asked a cheeky question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). In reply, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, ending with a question of his own: which of these “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The leader had to answer, the Samaritan, one of a people the religious rulers despised and discriminated against. Jesus’ next words apply to us now as much as they did to the man in front of him that day, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:29-37). Whomever we meet, whatever color, ethnicity, or social status is our neighbor, an image-bearer of our God.
Every tribe and language and people and nation
Pro-slavery apologists of the Colonial and Early Republic periods of US history sometimes tried to rationalize racism and race-based slavery using the Bible. These arguments often gained traction among those with vested interest in slavery and the segregation of people. They also reveal a willful ignorance of biblical history, a history of a diverse people of God.
In the Old Testament, Moses married a woman from Cush, a powerful nation south of Egypt, in the area of modern Ethiopia. Although her skin color was not mentioned, the Cushite woman was most certainly black. In fact, Moses’ sister Miriam and his brother Aaron criticized Moses for the union, but God confronted and judged them for their contempt (Numbers 12), indicating his approval of Moses’ marriage. When God led the Israelites into the promised land, he prohibited intermarriage among the peoples they would encounter there, not because of their ethnicity or color, which are never mentioned, but because they worshipped other gods and would tempt the Israelites to do the same (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). Even so, Rahab, a Canaanite woman who out of fear of the Lord hid Joshua’s spies in Jericho, would marry an Israelite and give birth to Boaz, who would marry Ruth, a Moabite widow who trusted God. Both of these outsiders are among only five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17).
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the people of God are a diverse people whose skin color is never specified or even mentioned. That distinction has been entirely human and entirely divisive. The good news calls Christ’s church to unity. Jesus told us that it is by our love for each other that the world will know that we are his disciples (John 13:34-35). As Paul encouraged Christians to put their old ways behind them, he emphasized that their shared identity as new creations in Christ removed earthly barriers between fellow Christians. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). In his prophetic vision, the apostle John saw the heavenly realm praising Jesus Christ: “...with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Racism divides. Christ unites.
In the United States, racism has been a thorn in the flesh since before the birth of the republic. It contradicts the nation’s founding principles of liberty and equality and has divided us throughout our history. But racism isn’t just a U.S. problem; as we noted earlier, it’s a perpetual human problem. Many countries have histories that include scars of oppression against a group of people defined by their skin color, ethnicity, or nationality.
Racism has also divided the church. Christ called us to unity: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23, italics added). Racism in the church has made it hard for the world to see Christ in us. So, how do we repent of these entirely human and divisive distinctions?
Love our neighbor. When the Holy Spirit instructed Philip, a Hebrew, to share the good news with an Ethiopian official, he didn’t hesitate, demonstrating for us how we should behave with those around us (Acts 8:26-40). God taught the apostle Peter, a devout Hebrew, that he would have to throw away a lifetime of institutionalized discrimination to enter the home of Cornelius, a Gentile:
"Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: 'You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. . .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 10:27-29, 34-35).
To love our neighbor, in our everyday lives—at our jobs, on the street, at the grocery store, in school, in the post office, and at church—we have to be like Philip and Peter, and make the conscious decision to set aside worldly prejudices and biases and regard people of every color and ethnic background as God’s creation, made in his image, having incalculable worth. We have to act in love—doing good for our neighbor. This means listening to someone, and empathizing with them, rather than arguing with them, when they say they’ve experienced racism, discrimination, and abuse because of the color of their skin. Much like the gospel enabled Peter to enter Cornelius’ house, the gospel empowers us to set aside the charged, politicized rhetoric going on in our culture, and pursue racial justice focused on the person, the people, God created in his own image.
The Holy Spirit does not leave us alone to do this in our own strength, but renews and reframes our minds in the light of the gospel of Christ:
"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Colossians 3:12-14).
That sign in my neighbor's yard rings with gospel truth, black lives matter to God; they always have and they forever will. Let us, as his people, love one another and our neighbors so that the world may know by our love that we belong to Jesus Christ and salvation comes through him.