Understanding and responding to racism – a Christian perspective

By Philip Powell 01 Jul 2020

'No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.' - Nelson Mandela

The horrendous death of George Floyd in Minneapolis a little over a month ago has turned from a local incident of police murder into a global protest for racial justice and equality. Every aspect of American culture, from law and politics to entertainment and sports, has been impacted by the protest led by the Black Lives Matter movement. What began in America has now gone global. There have been about two thousand protest marches and gatherings worldwide. There is a sense that we are at a defining moment with regards to race relations in the Western world.

Writing about race and racism is not easy for me and to do this as a committed Christian makes it much harder. As an Indian man living in the UK and having travelled around the world, I have experienced my own share of prejudice and racial abuse, especially at airports. This is nothing compared to what so many others have suffered but it has left its scars on my soul. It is easy for me to become discouraged when I read about yet another incident of racist abuse or attack, and I have to constantly fight to prevent hatred and bitterness growing in my heart. And yet at the same time I feel that I must share my personal reflections on what is happening in our world and possible ways for going forward.

What is racism?

Trying to define racism is not straightforward because it is a contested concept. Generally speaking, racism is the belief that humanity is divided into different racial groups with distinct physical features, behavioural traits and social norms that make certain racial groups morally superior to others. The difference is understood to be inherent and essential as opposed to being fluid and arbitrary. This then leads to social practices and political systems that seek to keep inferior groups subjugated under the power and will of the superior group.

Racism in the modern world originated with the rise of European expansionism and is identified especially with the Atlantic slave trade. But the roots of racism go back further in history to the old world of Christendom with the hard distinction between Christians, who were considered civilized and superior, and pagans, Muslims and Jews who were seen as inferior.

In one sense racism seems basic and fundamental to the human condition. In ancient India, the idea that a Brahmin, at the top of the caste system, was born with a divine right to rule over the untouchables at the bottom was a culturally given fact. There was no intellectual basis to question the unjust hierarchy of human beings. And yet it is primarily through the teachings of the Bible, particularly the core tenet that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28), that racism is now considered a moral evil that ought to be condemned.

This does not mean the Bible has not been used to justify and defend unjust systems of racial hierarchy in European culture. Both in Germany during the period surrounding the Holocaust and in South Africa during the period of Apartheid, many White Christians, including church leaders, managed somehow to marry together the message of the Bible and racial prejudice, even hatred. With hindsight it is easy to judge these people as foolish and blind to the truth. But every Christian faces the temptation to domesticate the message of the Bible within one’s own cultural context.

The Bible & racism

Several things need to be said with regards to the Bible and racism. Firstly, no person, regardless of ethnicity, social class or gender, reads the Bible from a culturally neutral standpoint. What this means is that we should be willing to accept that our reading of the Bible may have cultural blind-spots. So the challenge is to grow in racial self-awareness when it comes to reading the Bible and for this to happen we need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are different from us in terms of cultural background and life experience. This requires humility and openness to learning from others on matters regarding race and racial injustice.

Secondly, while Bible verses may have been used to justify racism, the overall message of the Bible has nothing but unequivocal condemnation of racism. Racism is one expression of sin and there can be no justification for sin in the Bible.

Thirdly, the Bible provides us with a robust and realistic framework for thinking through and responding to the challenge of racism. The creation-fall-redemption framework is unique in that it holds together both the condemnation of wrongdoing and the possible redemption of the wrong-doer. The doctrine of creation affirms the inherent goodness of all that God has created and that every human being is a unique image-bearer of God. The doctrine of the fall lays bare the dark propensity in every human heart to do evil toward our neighbour. It explains why so much of the human drama is the tale of domination and exploitation. The doctrine of redemption in Christ offers us fresh hope and a new future in the midst of all the terrible darkness and brokenness in our world. And redemption is understood not simply as souls being transported to heaven after we die but also as the outworking and realisation of God working to transform this world to become more like the promised New Creation. This is no utopianism, which denies the reality of human sin as an inescapable fact until the return of Christ, but rather it involves working to bring about the increase of God’s reign in human history. As Christians we have an unyielding and defiant hope that the world can be made a better place in accordance with God’s will.

This biblical framework ought to provide the basis for Christian action against racism.

Structural racism

Alongside individual expressions of racism there is structural racism. This is a social system built over time based on policies, practices and unwritten rules that perpetuate racial hierarchy and inequality. Certain groups of people are excluded based on birth and skin colour and subjected to the will and power of a dominant group. In this kind of system 'whiteness' gives you all kinds of privilege and advantage, and people of 'colour' experience a disadvantage. Structural racism is not a few racist people doing bad things here and there but a system that has been set up for organising human life in the collective for the advantage of some, in this case White people. And herein lies the challenge for Christians.

A significant blind-spot amongst White Christians, especially evangelical ones, is the lack of a proper understanding of sin being not just personal but also structural. This has significant ramifications for how we think about the problem of racism and what we believe must be done to deal with it. Western individualism has blinded us from seeing what the Bible has to say about corporate evil and structural injustice. The ideology of individualism makes us believe that I am the product of my individual choices, and I must have the freedom to make my own choices and live with the consequences. So if I am not a racist (or at least that is what I believe about myself), then racism is not my problem. If Black and other people of colour are suffering, then it is their fault. But this way of seeing things completely ignores the biblical view of the structural outworking of sin and how inevitability we are either beneficiaries of racial injustice or victims of it. Like original sin, we cannot escape this ugly reality.

So if the sin of racism is understood as both personal and structural, what can we do in response?

Gospel paradox

At the heart of the Christian gospel two truths are held together that may seem paradoxical. All human beings, no matter what their skin colour White, Black, Brown, Yellow and everything else in-between stand on the same level at the foot of the cross before Christ. The human blame game is laid bare at Calvary. Every one of us is a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness. But the cross is not simply about God’s forgiveness for individual human sin, it is also the place of God’s victory over injustice and evil, including structural racism, and an open affirmation of God’s solidarity with those who are oppressed. The Son of God died as a victim of structural injustice to bring liberation and freedom for all its victims. Embracing this paradox has implications for what we are willing to include in terms of action steps because there is a need to affirm both a repentance ethic that addresses personal attitudes and actions, and a liberation ethic that addresses structural injustice and evil.

Possible ways forward

I want to propose the following suggestions as a guide for responding to the problem of racism. Each of these ideas need to be elaborated but due to the need for brevity I am limiting them to bullet points.

•  The problem of racism cannot be easily overturned. There are no quick-fix solutions. Give up on the idea that this problem can resolved soon so you can move on to the next thing. Instead make a commitment to stay engaged for the long haul.

•  If you are a White person wanting to get involved in the fight against racial injustice, don’t expect to be praised for it but instead get used to feeling judged for being White and made to feel guilty for the sins of your ancestors. This is a small price to pay compared to the injustice many people have had to suffer.

•  If you want to challenge the problem of racism in society, you must be willing to make the inner journey from self-justification toward self-examination and repentance. This is a long, arduous journey, much harder than you can imagine and it is not for the faint-hearted.

•  Publicly challenge historical amnesia and nostalgia, and anyone wishing to go back to some notion of the good old days. Such times were not good for everybody, especially if you were non-White.

•  Wise up to how you use language. The words we use will define how we think and the way we see reality. For example, stop using the word slaves for the Africans who were captured, transported and sold into slavery. Use the words enslaved people.

•  Be willing to listen to stories of hardship and suffering. Don’t give in to the temptation to run away from anything that would make you uncomfortable. Hang in there and become better informed about what some groups of people have endured. Let their pain and suffering affect you personally.

•  Educate yourself about the histories of people who are racially different from you. This means studying the history of European colonialism and slavery as it is narrated by the people who were colonised or enslaved. Re-educate yourself about the history of your own race from the perspective of the foreigner, those outside your own group.

•  Small actions you take to challenge racism and serve the cause of justice do matter. It’s better to take a few small steps than do nothing because you feel overwhelmed by how big the problem of racism is.

•  Beware of tokenism and cheap reconciliation. Attempts to use diversity of food and music without addressing real racial justice issues can do more harm than good. Token multicultural fig-leaves may just be a cover for a deeply racist system. 

•  Working to bring about structural changes in terms of laws and policies is important but sustaining the changes that have been achieved is equally important. This means going beyond what you are against (racism) to institutionalising the good you are for (human flourishing).

•  Multi-racial celebrations are important for marking what has been achieved over recent decades. This coming together of people across past divisions is important because it feeds a sense of hope that change and progress is possible.

The points I have mentioned here are neither exhaustive nor are they authoritative for dealing with the problem of racism. I offer them as suggestions for considering possible ways for going forward in terms of building more just and peaceful societies. As the old Chinese proverb goes, ‘A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step’. Taking that first step can make all the difference.

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