A lot is being written and stated these days regarding the church’s responsibility where the issue of racism is concerned. The torrent of views coming from within and without conservative evangelical circles is mind-boggling and at a minimum, disjointed and confusing. Somehow, the church has been saddled with the responsibility to end racism, and worse, she has been indicted and convicted for being a contributor to the problem. The objective of this article is to provide a biblical perspective on the issue of racism without regard for the modern attitudes that seem to be influencing most of what is said about the subject.
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. –Gen. 11:6-8
By the time we get to the historical event at Babel, the human race had fallen from divine fellowship with God through Adam. That fall sent the race spiraling downward into extreme moral confusion until finally, God looked down and saw that the hearts of men were given over to wickedness continually. God called Noah and his family out from the human race and then eradicated every evildoer from the planet by way of the flood. However, it wasn’t long before the human race was again rapidly declining toward a level of depravity that God would not abide. And here, in Gen. 11, we see the culmination of depravity and, yet another curse issued by God upon the human race.
As a result, the human race was divided into various people groups and scattered across the earth, resulting in mass confusion. So then, from this account, we come to understand that the existence of the various races that make up humanity, is directly attributable to another divine curse as a result of sin on the part of humanity. The existences of the various races are the resulting tension and confusion among them is the direct result of the curse of Babel.
Paul said in Romans 5, in Adam, we all die. We all experience the curse of Adam’s covenant failure. The curse was universal. The flood was also universal. God destroyed all but eight souls. After Babel, we are all sentenced to the curse of racial confusion. The issue with racism is seen in the way human beings classify themselves and then elevate their race and themselves above others. The issue isn’t skin color. The issue is self-promotion. The issue is the idolatry of the race of which we happen to be a part. The issue is the age-old problem of the idolatry of self. We are prone to worship ourselves and we are prone to worship our race. In so doing, we necessarily relegate other races to a lower place than our own. This practice of partiality is the heartbeat sin of racism. It isn’t about being black, white, brown, or red. It is the idolatrous exaltation of one race or type of human over another. It extends far beyond skin color, cultural differences, or language. It extends into social status as well. To be sure, Scripture has a lot to say about the matter.
To begin with, Gal. 3:28 explicitly informs us that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ Jesus, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. The benefits of the New Covenant are extended to all. While it is true that Paul did not have racial equality in mind as he penned this text, it is just as true that the text carries irresistible inferences regarding the issue of race. God shows no partiality for men based on anything in man, including his race, gender, or social status. Just as Babel shows us the curse of God with the resulting confusion, Pentecost is a picture of the reversal of that curse.
Peter made this point abundantly clear in Acts 2 when he pointed to Joel and thundered that God was now pouring his Spirit out on all flesh without distinction. Man, or better, humanity is created in the image of God. No one race was created in the image of God. All of humanity, being descended from one couple, is the image of God. As a result of this truth, all humans are people cut from the same divine cloth: God’s image. Yet, we make off boundaries for each other based on all sorts of criteria, race just being one of them. The Christian must understand that it isn’t the criteria for discrimination that is the problem, but the discrimination itself. Discrimination is the showing of partiality and as the New Testament clearly teaches, such partiality is worldly and ungodly on every level.
James, when dealing with the issue taking place with his audience says this, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:4) The Greek word διακρίνω (diakrino) means to differentiate by separating, to make a distinction, to evaluate by paying careful attention, to render a judgment, to be at variance with someone, to be uncertain. This word appears 19 times in the New Testament. It was this word that Peter used in Acts 15:9 when he rehearsed the Gentile conversion that took place back in Acts 10: and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9) Peter’s point was that God made no distinction between the Jew and the non-Jew when he poured out his grace upon both groups in the New Covenant.
James, who is writing not long after this event in Acts 15, commands his audience, My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (James 2:1) James’ audience lives in a culture where the rich are distinguished from the poor in that they receive special or different treatment. The attitudes toward the rich are different from what they are regarding the poor. This worldly way of thinking and behaving has entered the churches and threatens to contaminate the godly communities. James is taking action to ensure that this leaven is purged from the churches.
The Greek word employed by James is προσωπολημψία (prosopolempsia). It appears six times in the New Testament when we take all of its forms into consideration. Paul uses it in Eph. 6:9 to inform slave owners that there is no partiality with God. He uses it in Col. 2:25 to say that there is no partiality in the divine judgment. Finally, Paul also uses it to say that there is no partiality with God. The entire idea of partiality is attached to unjust thinking. James informs his audience in 2:9 emphatically that partiality is sinful behavior: But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
The practice of racism comes under the category of showing partiality, which as I have pointed out, is a sin. We would say it like this, racism is the symptom of a problem but not the problem itself. Racism is rooted in the showing of partiality, which is itself rooted in an idolatrous heart. You begin with idolatry, move to show partiality, which then manifests itself in a number of ways, racism being one of them. The truth is that most people who condemn racism are guilty of showing partiality in other ways. And if that is true, then we have to talk about hypocrisy. I will leave that aside for the time being.