#RacismMatters (Part 3) (Acts 6:1–7)

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We live in exciting days. For Christians living in South Africa, this is doubtlessly true. We are living in the midst of some serious social upheaval, which is producing a wonderful opportunity for the church and therefore for the gospel. One of my major motivations for addressing the issue of racism, which is very front and centre, is to equip us to make the most of the opportunity to show that the only true hope for racial reconciliation is in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the church is a key player in this. It would not be too much to say that it is the key player.

As the pillar and ground of the truth, the church plays a vital role in addressing all social ills. For this, and other, reasons we dare not bury our heads and selflessly ignore what is happening around us. We must address the issue even though we will stir emotions, including anger. However, the New Testament clearly indicates that the call of the Christian is to need, not to comfort. We are in good company.

When Jesus pointed to the Old Testament and showed God’s care for Gentiles (a widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Aramean), the Jews sought to kill Him (Luke 4:14–30).

It was the same thing that led to Paul’s persecution. It was when he began to speak of the Lord sending him to the Gentiles that the Jewish religious leaders sought to kill him (Acts 22:19–22).

The church—the local church as well as associations of local churches—must not remain silent. And certainly the church must not be an accomplice to racialistic attitudes and actions.

When I use the term “racialistic” I mean “the social processes of devaluing another ethnicity and culture; of subordinating the latter to the dominant ethnic [in many cases, the white] regime, and, in some cases, even seeking to eliminate such from the contemporary cultural landscape.” In a phrase, we are being racialistic when we make superficial judgements about people based on their pigmentation, pedigree and/or material prosperity.

We, as Christians, are called to love our neighbour and to hate that which undermines our neighbour (Psalm 97:10; Psalm 119:104). Racism is an evil and a false way.

If we do not biblically address this issue—primarily within the church—we will find ourselves to be merely a candle without a flame. More to the point, our entire lampstand could be removed (Revelation 2–3). God responded decisively to the ethnocentric Jewish nation when He destroyed Jerusalem and its temple (Matthew 24; Revelation).

All Welcome?

There is an elderly couple who came to our church years ago because our sign advertises, “All Welcome.” I sometimes wonder if that this true. Are all made to feel welcome? Are we labouring to make this a reality?

This series is not for the purpose of making a political statement. It is certainly not intended to be a politically correct mantra. Rather, I trust that it will be a biblically correct approach to addressing of the problem of racism in our own hearts and, where it exists, in our own churches—and, perhaps, through various means, beyond ours to other churches.

In line with this purpose, I have several related goals.

We must be convinced that racism matters and that it matters how we address it. We must repent of our racism. We must put it off and be renewed in the attitude of our minds, and put on a true godlike righteousness and holiness in our relationship with one another. Just imagine if we treated one another in the same way that God does!

But we have a long way to go. Anthony Bradley has written (from an American context),

Many white evangelicals are resistant to the fact that racism remains in contexts driven by “the gospel.” However, because sin still exists, there is no reason to believe that racism will simply magically disappear or that we simply need to “get over it” and “move on.” In evangelicalism, there is a strange tendency to confess that we struggle with other sins, like materialism, anger, gossip, adultery, individualism, and the like, and to rebuke American society because of abortion, homosexuality, alcohol abuse, and so on, yet to ignore the racial issues in our own midst.

We need to do better.

Practically, we need to live like Christians, which means that we will move towards need rather than towards comfort. We need to intentionally reach out to those whose pigmentation and pedigree and prosperity is different than ours. A church member recently told me that they thought that they were free of racial discrimination—until someone asked them how often they have people over to their house who are of a different ethnicity. Let’s be honest.

We need to biblically respond in the workplace, schools, communities to the sinful attitudes and actions of racism.

In short, the purpose of these studies is that we will make a difference by shining our light and giving glory to God. We will give an account to the Lord of the church. Let us take this seriously.

We have thus far looked at three reasons why racism matters: (1) because God’s purpose (creation) matters; (2) because God’s commandment matters; and (3) because God’s church matters. In this study, we will address one more reason that racism matters: because God’s gospel matters. (In future studies, I hope to address issues such as what has contributed to the reality of white privilege, the matter of ethnically mixed marriages, and cross-cultural adoptions.)

God’s Gospel Matters

In the early twentieth century, civil rights marchers in the United States began singing, “We shall overcome.” Martin Luther King, Jr. accurately and famously adopted this phrase in his “I Have a Dream” speech. That was fifty years ago. In the very city in which he delivered that speech, a memorial has been erected in his honour.

Sadly, America has not overcome the white/black racialistic divided. The dream that King spoke about has not been realised by the majority of black people.

Two weeks ago, at the time of writing, the Smithsonian Institute opened a new museum in Washington, D.C, The African-American Museum. Reports that I have read indicate that President Barak Obama (who made history himself when he was elected as America’s first black president) gave perhaps his finest speech ever. And yet the timing is sadly ironic. Even though the has been the erection of memorials and museums, and the making of eloquent and memorable speeches, America has not overcome its racism. And neither have we.

Granted, it has been less than thirty years since the notorious apartheid laws were dismantled, yet for anyone paying attention, our nation is woefully divided. There is textbook racism, ethnocentric/tribalistic angst, and class warfare. At times, it seems as if we are sitting on a social powder keg that could explode at almost any moment. The tension is palpable and the problems seem insurmountable.

So, what will it take? What will it take for an end of the ugliness of online rants that populate our land? What will it take for an end of the hateful rhetoric of some very public leaders? What will it take to bring to an end the underlying class warfare that is at the root of much (but not all) of the #FeesMustFall violence? Only something powerful enough to change the human heart.

Don’t get me wrong: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that many of us remember in the early 1990s was an attempt to redress the wrongs of the past. But let’s be frank: So much of that failed because the emphasis was often on reconciliation without perhaps enough emphasis on truth. Certainly there was no emphasis upon biblical truth.

The Apartheid Museum is important—as are places like Constitution Hill. These are helpful to us as we are reminded and instructed about the horrific history of our country. I have been emotionally moved as I have walked their halls and watched the videos and read the history. But those images are not sufficient to effect change. The only thing that will bring lasting change is something powerful enough to change the human heart. And the gospel of God can do this.

Late last year, the Mail and Guardian carried an article about Adriaan Vlok titled, “Apartheid minister Vlok seeks redemption in township work.” It tells a fascinating story:

Few would guess that Adriaan Vlok was once a much-feared figure in South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The former law and order minister oversaw brutal police policies that suppressed public anger against racist white-minority rule, which was eventually overthrown with Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994.

Now a 77-year-old widower, Vlok seeks redemption from his past by opening his house as a refuge for the vulnerable and distributing food to poor black families.

In the late 1980s, he was responsible for covert bombing operations that targeted church buildings and trade union headquarters, and he even tried to kill an anti-apartheid priest by poisoning his underwear.

“It was our job to make people fear us, because … they were fighting and coming for us,” Vlok said as he prepared his next food delivery.

“We had the emergency regulations to lock up people without taking them to court, so people were afraid of the police. I believed that apartheid was right.”

Today, Vlok lives in the suburbs of Pretoria in a modest house that he shares with a black man who repairs furniture in the garage, a former convict who killed his own wife, and a white family which was homeless.

Hungry families

Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with trays of food donated by local supermarkets and bakeries.

There, the man who once sent in the riot police distributes pies, sandwiches and cakes to hungry families, a children’s daycare centre and a disabled charity.

Vlok never served time in prison for his self-confessed crimes and many black South Africans believe that apartheid leaders evaded real justice while the country’s poor were left to live in tin shacks.

For Vlok, a born-again Christian, it will be a lifetime’s work to try to atone for his sins—and he knows that many of those who suffered do not forgive him.

“I feel ashamed of many things I have done. I was hard, I was heartless towards people, I locked people up,” he said.

“I supported apartheid, I maintained apartheid, therefore I believe I have to say I am sorry.”

In a symbolic act of contrition, in 2006 Vlok washed the feet of Frank Chikane, the priest whom he tried to kill when police operatives rubbed poison into clothes in Chikane’s luggage at Johannesburg airport.

Chikane nearly died in the bizarre assassination attempt, for which Vlok eventually received a 10-year suspended sentence.

His critics dismissed the feet-washing as a stunt that avoided disclosing the scale of police abuse, but Vlok’s sincerity is beyond question for those whom he has helped directly.

Chance to make amends

“In my youth days, we used to watch the news and everything you heard about this man was negative,” said Rudi Hudson, a former convict who now lives in Vlok’s house.

“There were very few South Africans who didn’t know him because he was so prominent.”

Hudson, a reformed drug addict who was jailed for killing his wife in a botched suicide attempt, first met Vlok during a prison visit.

“We talked a lot about our pasts and how I was in prison and he was free outside,” he said.

“He told me he had done a lot of things that could have put him in prison.

“When I was released, he was one of the first people to come and visit me. I came [to live] here, and he helped me to get back on my feet.”

Vlok, who has two sons living in Australia and a daughter in South Africa, does not charge his lodgers rent, but they chip in money to help pay for bills.

Moses Nemakonde (32) runs a small upholstery business renovating old sofas and armchairs in a workshop in the garage.

“I told my clients this place is Adriaan Vlok’s. And then that’s when I realised he was the minister of police. But before, I didn’t know anything,” he said with a smile.

Vlok also passes unrecognised through the dirt alleys of Olievenhoutbosch as he unloads his regular deliveries.

For those who rely on the food, the help he provides now is more important than how he once loomed over their lives.

“I was a domestic [cleaner] under apartheid, and I was always afraid of the police,” said Angelina Mamaleki (74) who now runs a daycare centre for 20 children.

“What happened at that time is all gone.”

The point of all of this is that racism can be overcome. But it will not be overcome by mere rhetoric. We need a more radical solution. The sin of racism is conquerable by the gospel. Those saved by the gospel are in fact identified in Scripture as “overcomers” (see 1 John 5:4–5; Revelation 2–3). So Christians—church—by the gospel, we shall overcome!

The gospel is the antidote, and this needs to be both declared and demonstrated. When Paul wrote of the gospel as the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), he was not speaking of the gospel’s power for unbelievers alone. The gospel remains the power of God to save those who believe even after the point of justification.

Racism subtly proclaims the lie that salvation is by race rather than by grace. It focuses on superficial differences rather than on fundamental sameness: that we are all created, corrupted, and condemned, but that we can all be converted and one day consummated. Because we are all sinners, there is no difference (Romans 3:22–23). As Piper notes: “The doctrine of total depravity has a huge role to play in humbling all ethnic groups and giving us a desperate camaradie of condemnation leading to the one and only Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

Don’t Domesticate the Dynamite

The gospel is not an ideology that can be politicised, and we dare not try and domesticate it for social purposes. Rather, the gospel is supernatural. It has supernatural power. “The answer,” continues Piper, “is not to domesticate the gospel into another ideological mule to help pull the wagon of social progress…. The gospel is not an ideology; it is supernatural power.”

The gospel truth must be front and centre. We can’t help the world on worldly terms. The world needs the gospel. The need is for transformed hearts and minds.

Fundamentally, racism is a hostility issue. This is why the gospel is the only lasting cure—the only cure. Anything else is merely plaster on cancer (see Ephesians 2:1–18; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21).

I can say it no better than Piper, so I will let him speak: “The gospel Jesus does not enter [this racial] controversy as another ideology or the philosophy or methodology for social improvement. It enters like dynamite. It enters as the power of the Creator to reconcile people to Himself and supernaturally make them new.”

Piper goes on to identify nine destructive forces that the gospel overpowers. I will only mention the first one: Satan. But this is foundational for all else that he says.

Satan is called the god of this world. He is a real supernatural being who hates humans and is in diametric opposition to God. He comes to steal and to destroy. There is little doubt that where maddeningly hopeless, sinful, self-destructive behaviours and structures hold sway over large groups of people—white or black, left or right—the Devil is deeply at work. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4). “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Having addressed the importance of both personal responsibility and the societal structures that seem to entrench racism, Piper comments,

What hope does a message of personal responsibility or structural intervention have against this supernatural power? None. None. They are like feathers in a hurricane. How shall any human stand against the deceitful, murderous power of Satan? There is only one answer: in the name of Jesus. Why is that? “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). How did He do that? By bearing our sin in His body so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). When Jesus died, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Him” (Col 2:15).

There is no other power in the world that can do this. The Devil is stronger than all humans, all armies, all politics, and all human morality put together. We have no chance against him except by one means, the power of Jesus Christ operating through us because He dwells within us. “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4)….

The devil gives way to no other power than the power of Christ. And the power of Christ moves in the world through those who have believed the gospel and are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him” (Rom 8:9).

If Satan is to give way in his horrific influence on racist pride and paralyzing fears and feelings of hopeless inferiority, it will be through the gospel of Jesus or not at all. Who can imagine what a great awakening of faith in the gospel might look like as thousands of people resisted the Devil in Jesus’ name and watched him flee from their white and black lives and families (James 4:7)?

And so racism matters because the gospel matters. The gospel is the solution to racial tension because it is through the gospel that sinners are reconciled to God and therefore to one another. Let us be bold with the gospel of Christ as we seek to preach and live His message of reconciliation.