The problem of racism is pandemic. Fundamentally, racism is the denial of God-given dignity to those who are different from us. It takes many forms: discrimination based on pigmentation, pedigree or prosperity. Such judgement is ugly—because it is sinful. Racism, therefore, matters.
The Bible Tells Me So
The church must speak to this issue, fundamentally, because the Bible does!
We dare not bury our head; we dare not divorce it from the gospel; we dare not secularise this issue by pretending that this issue is outside of the sphere of the church. It is a matter that matters to God, and therefore it must matter to the Christian church. And so we must speak up and we must listen up!
Again, the Bible does address this issue. And because it does, we should be driven by a desire to be biblically correct, not politically correct. This is not a “hot-button issue” but one that has everything to do with the gospel and with the Great Commandment and with the Great Commission.
We must beware of trying to score points in the culture wars. Beware of the temptation to tout tolerance and liberal-mindedness. In other words, the pride that feeds racism is the same ugly sinful motive that drives “acceptability” in an otherwise hostile world. All too often, what drives attempts at “racial reconciliation” is a self-absorbed fear of the alternative. The Christian, however, is (in the words of John Piper) “one who moves towards need, not to comfort.”
We don’t have the luxury of burying our head in the proverbial sand of denial, nor the sand of “other things are more important.” Neither can we in South Africa simply fob it off with the excuse, “We are twenty years down the road; let’s forget the past and move on.” From an American perspective, the Civil War ended in 1865 and yet racism is still alive and, sadly, very well. The Civil Rights Movement occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and yet read the news today!
Racism is a biblical Issue! Paul argued in Acts 17:23–30 that all peoples have come from one blood. Genetically speaking, Adam and Eve were certainly dark-skinned. All people share a common ancestry and a common depravity. In the New Testament, at Pentecost, God reversed what He had done at Babel in an overt demonstration of his multi-ethnic gospel intentions. Israel’s purpose under the old covenant was intended to be multi-ethnic, though they lost sight of that. The cross has a multi-ethnic purpose, for God intends to draw all people to Himself (John 12:32). The gospel implications of races united in Christ are spelled out in Ephesians 2:10ff. In the consummation of human history and the eternal state, people from every race and tongue and tribe and people will join together in praising God.
Since it is a biblical issue, and since we take the Bible seriously, we must take the challenges of racism seriously. It matters—immensely!
When I preached on this issue at a recent conference in Lusaka, Zambia, I invited feedback, somewhat tentative of what I would receive. One man came to me afterwards and said, “This has reminded me of old wounds, but it has also begun a process towards healing.”
We must face this problem honestly, biblically and therefore boldly. And we who are white must acknowledge the history of white oppression of black people (people of colour). I understand that this is not all one-sided. But I am aware, as a white person, of my own racism. I am aware of the guilt of the past. A visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg recently brought this reality home to me in a tangible way.
I am aware of my own guilt. And since the gospel is good news for those who know they are guilty, we need to face this matter of our guilt. John Piper helpfully writes,
Guilt is a huge player in the way blacks and whites relate to each other. It’s huge and deadly when it is denied. It’s huge and deadly when it is wallowed in. It’s huge and deadly when it is exploited. There is no deliverance and no relief and no healing in any of those ways of dealing with guilt. Denial drives it below the surface where it creates endless illusions and self-justifications. Wallowing in it produces phony humility and obsequiousness and moral cowardice. Exploiting it gives a false sense of power that turns out to be only the weapon of weakness. If guilt is not dealt with more deeply, there will be no way forward.
So, stop with pointing the finger. Let us listen to the Holy Spirit as He speaks to our own guilt. There is plenty of guilt to go around. Let’s deal with our own before judging another. The, and only then, will we be in a position to see clearly to help pull the racism out of another’s eye (see Matthew 7:1–5).
The Early Church and Racism
The early church wrestled with issues of racism, with particular reference to ethnocentrism (see, for example, Acts 10). Acts 6:1–7 is a great example. In fact, it is a good template for how the church should handle this issue—particularly as it arises in the local church.
We began a consideration of the issue of racism previously. It will be helpful here to review what we saw in that study before we move on.
The Context, the Conflict and the Complaint
In v. 1, we see the context, the conflict and the complaint.
In the early days of expansion (Acts 2:41ff; 4:4, 31; 5:14, 26, 42) ethnic discord arose, which threatened the prayerful proclamation of the gospel and therefore the advancement of the church. The church at Jerusalem was racially diverse, but not ethnically reconciled. This was understandable, but hardly acceptable. It was unintentional, but thoughtlessly offensive nonetheless.
The problem is that one group was privileged, while another felt slighted and marginalised. It was a clear case of the majority versus the minority. There was an appearance of Hebrew privilege, and so a protest arose: #GreekWidowsMatter.
Sadly, the issue of privilege and neglect were at the root of the conflict—as it always is. This is the root of white privilege. It is a problem that is hardly unique to South Africa. It can be seen all over the world. There is always the temptation for those with wealth and educational advantages to fail to share those advantages beyond their own social group.
Concerned Communication and Compassionate Action
Verses 2–6 highlight the concerned communication and the compassionate action. They moved from thoughtlessness to thoughtfulness. The sense of favouritism and partiality threatened the testimony of the church. It mattered!
The apostles led the church in a compassionately countercultural choice. They selected seven Greek men to address the issue of racism in the church. They were convinced that the Greek widows mattered, that they had dignity, and therefore they took the necessary steps to resolve the problem. They lovingly listened.
Do we share this concern for the dignity of others? Do we lovingly listen to the complaints of others? As I type these words, protests at South African universities have made news in recent weeks. Protests have sparked violence, and a great many opinions have been bandied around. In the midst of it, are we listening?
The Jerusalem apostles, and consequently the Jerusalem church, were committed to use their privilege for others.
I recently read The Christian in the Voting Booth by Skye Jethani, which is a parable of sorts about a Christian who must cast his vote in government elections. The story tells about the decisions that the voter must walk through in determining who he will vote for. At the end, when he eventually leaves the voting booth, having cast his vote, someone asks him who he voted for. He turns and points at the people, then says, “Them.” His vote, in other words, took the people into consideration. He cast his vote for the benefit of the people. This is precisely what this church did in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. They were committed that all members matter.
The love of Christ, their love for the church, the power of the gospel, and the task of the Great Commission fuelled their selflessly sensitive selection. The church is different, and ought to behave accordingly. We must be driven with the gospel conviction that all people matter. This congregation knew what was at stake and they acted accordingly.
We should learn from them to love counter-culturally. If we are among the more privileged, let us use our privilege for the good of the whole to the glory of God.
Verse 7 records the wonderful consequence: “the word of God spread.” We read of similar spread of God’s Word elsewhere in Acts (12:24; 19:20). In the context of conflict and spiritual warfare—ideological idols—those who experienced Hebrew privilege took practical and principled steps to express their conviction of equality. Their intentionality to practice equality was followed by expansion of the gospel.
Indeed, Greek widows mattered. The result was the further powerful and productive spread of the gospel to the glory of God. Yes, racism matters! The church grew in the midst of a culture obsessed with ethnocentricity and class warfare. No doubt, this was the result of what we might call an “apologetic of love” (cf. John 13:34–35; Ephesians 3:10).
Some observations are perhaps helpful here.
First, it is significant that the text in Acts 6 places more emphasis on Stephen than on the others selected. It is not that he was somehow more qualified, but we know that Stephen was the one who was ultimately martyred, at which point the persecution of the church really kicked off. There is an important principle implied: Persecution requires unity. If the church was not unified, it may well have fallen apart when the persecution arose. It would not have been able to confront other issues if it was divided.
If we are at war with one another, there is little hope that we will be victorious as we face the world, the flesh and the devil.
Second, where there are sinners, there will be temptation to sinful division because of sinful, selfish judgements. So, racism matters—a lot. We must be committed to confronting it, confessing it, and crushing it.
Reasons Why Racism Matters
Having reviewed our previous study briefly, we can now turn our attention to the specific reasons that racism matters. There are at least six. We began to look at one previously, but I want to take the time in this study to consider at least three. We will conclude in an upcoming study.
God’s Purpose Matters
First, racism matters because God’s purpose matters. God’s creative purpose, clearly revealed in Genesis 1:26–28, was to create humans—all humans—in His own image. As Paul said on Mars Hill: “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17:26).
Diversity is important to God, and it is to be celebrated. South Africa is often referred to as “The Rainbow Nation.” Such diversity is good in God’s eyes. We sometimes speak of the need for “colour blindness,” but Anthony Bradley shows the folly of that. He argues that we need to move “beyond the failed concept of ‘colour blindness’ and recognize the importance of racial, ethnic, and ideological differences as a catalyst for loving our neighbours well.”
When it comes to how we view others, we are to judge them (as Piper says) by their glory, not by their grouping.
God’s Commandment Matters
The Great Commandment clearly speaks to the issue of racism. God commands us to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. In a very real and deep sense, racism is a sanctify of life issue. The Jerusalem church exemplified what it means to love God and one’s neighbour.
I was speaking some time ago to a young black man in our church. He was telling me of his experience when he used to walk alone to our midweek Grace Groups. The Grace Group that he attended was in a fairly wealthy part of the city, and when he would walk to the host’s house, he would often have security vehicles following him to ensure that he was not up to no good. Assumptions were made because he was a young black man—assumptions that have never been made about me as a white man. As he told me his story, I was struck afresh by the need to be sensitive and to listen to others. We must indeed be quick to hear but slow to speak.
If we believe that racism really matters, we will stop being patronising. Donald Trump, who clearly would not win any elections in Mexico, was recently recorded at a Taco Bell saying, “I feel your pain!” It was patronising, pure and simple—and that is never helpful.
Let us not pontificate about the pain of those who are ethically different from us. The fact is, we probably don’t know what they are going through, or have gone through, and it does not help to pretend that we do.
While we must be slow to speak (see James 1:19; Proverbs 17:28), we must nevertheless speak. We must rebuke racist talk and treatment when we are exposed to it. We must practically and wisely do what we can to remove barriers and needless causes of offence. We must confess our sin in this area—as one woman in our church did in tears after I preached on racism recently.
And let us also quit being so defensive. I hear whites all the time complaining that they are currently being discriminated against because of affirmative action. Welcome to the real world! Instead of defensively using your discrimination as an excuse to discriminate against others, think and speak biblically as you seek racial reconciliation in the gospel.
God’s Church Matters
Finally, for this study, racism matters because God’s church matters. In Acts 6, the church addressed the issue of racism within own camp.
South Africa has a long and terrible history of racism in the church. A Zambian brother was telling me that he was in South Africa in the late 1990s, showing a white brother from another country around. He decided to take him to the Voortrekker Monument, but when they arrived the black pastor was prevented from entering, while the white brother was welcomed. And yet white Christians would gather together at that very place later in the year to worship God en masse!
In the early 1990s, I attended a conference here in Johannesburg. At the conference venue, we encountered a group of young black men, whom I learned were the young leadership of the South African Communist Party. I engaged them in conversation, only to find one young man in particular very unfriendly. He told me that, in his experience, Christianity is anti-black, merely the religion of those (whites) in power.
The hope for the world is the gospel-saturated, gospel-driven church. The church is about reconciliation not separation. Sin separates; the gospel reconciles. If we are reconciled to God, then we are to be reconciled to one another. The world needs to see, as it were, the church as a third race (Ephesians 2:15), for God’s redemptive purpose matters and this involves the creation of one new man in Christ (Ephesians 3:10–11).
Jarvis Williams, a black American pastor, has written a wonderful and helpful book on racism titled One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology. When I first came across the book, I imagine that it would be full of anecdotes from the perspective of a young black pastor, but in fact it is little more than a thorough exposition of Scripture, with particular emphasis on Ephesians 2—the go to passage for racism as addressed by Paul.
The church is a display of reconciliation—first between God and men, and then between men and men. Are we truly remarkable in this regard? If we will be, we must be committed to her healthy welfare—even confrontationally so. We must be careful of the language and the terminology we use when we speak of and two people of other ethnicities. We must teach our children to speak respectfully to all adults. In fact, we may need to begin by teaching them to acknowledge the presence of those of other ethnicities! Paul criticised his own people as well as Gentiles. Speak up. The truth hurts, but speaking truth is necessary for healing. Paul openly rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11–14), and it was a rebuke that Peter desperately needed.
Since racism is a sin issue, it of necessity is a church discipline issue. I recently read a book titled The Shooting Salvationist, about a pastor in the United States who once shot and killed a young black man in his office when the black man reached into his pocket and the pastor assumed he was reaching for a firearm. As it turned out, the man was reaching only for his handkerchief, but the pastor was quick on the trigger. Sadly—shamefully—the book reveals that a good number of church members were also members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In recounting something of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, John Piper writes about Birmingham, Alabama, which was front and centre of racial injustice. Listen closely and note the painful comparison with South Africa
As in most southern cities in those days … bus seating was segregated; schools, parks, lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains—they were almost all segregated. Some called Birmingham the most segregated city in the country. Its bombings and torchings of black churches and homes had given it the name “Bombingham”—and “the Johannesburg of the South.”
I actually teared up when I read that. To paraphrase, Martin Luther King, Jr. “We must overcome!”
The Bride of Christ must not be an accomplice in hatred. Was it not hateful, ethnocentric pride that led to the murder of Jesus? Jesus put His finger on the pulse of their problem and they refused to deal with it. God responded to the Jews in a most decisive manner when He destroyed Jerusalem and its temple (cf. Matthew 24–25; Revelation).
It was the same thing that led to Paul’s persecution (Acts 22:19–22).
There is an elderly couple in our church who came for the first time because our church sign advertises, “All welcome.” But we must ask, are all welcome? Do we make all feel welcome? Are we labouring to make this a reality. We must intentionally reach out if we will do so. After all, we will give an account to the Lord of the church for this.