The Biblical Root of Racism
Racist! Few labels are hurled in today’s rhetoric that packs such a combative punch. The knee-jerk reaction to the charge of racism is immediate denial. No one wants to admit to racism. It has become viewed as one of society’s most evil sins. And for this reason I have found it counterproductive to ever use the word as a label, even if it might be true. In fact, I’m going to make the radical suggestion that as Christ followers we opt for a biblical term that strikes more at the root of the problem. I hope to show how this root of racism can affect us in two ways: (1) The attitude in which we confront biblically those who practice racism and (2) The knowledge of how the root of racism affects us all.
Racism is real
The existence of racism is real and ugly, whether it’s expressed in a personal encounter or as a structural societal reality. In whatever form it is manifested it is evil because it devalues, demeans and strikes at the core of a person’s personal worth and identity. An identity created in the image of God.
Though the Bible doesn’t use the term “racism” as we use it in America, the effects are everywhere. We see the intentional and systematic degradation and oppression of one people group over another group beginning in the first book of Genesis. And by the time Jesus appears in the flesh the Jews were subjugated under Roman rule and were deemed “less than” by their oppressors. The Samaritans of Jesus day had become their own people group expressly because of the Assyrian domination foisted on them 700 years earlier when they had to intermarry and adopt the Assyrian culture. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans. But Jesus never addressed racism in the same way we speak of it today. Neither did the disciples or any of the biblical writers. They certainly had plenty of examples to point to and had personally experienced a degree of racism themselves. But the charge of racism never appears.
As a white male who is part of the dominant culture in America, I have the privilege of taking advantage of my whiteness without even being aware of it. I may never have become aware of my white privilege had I not married an African American woman, raised three beautiful daughters who identified with the black community and was an associate minister at a predominantly black church, living in the inner city of both Detroit and Minneapolis.
I know what it is like to enter a restaurant and wait to be seated only to have to leave because of the color of the one standing next to me. I know what it’s like on numerous occasions to have my wife attempt to write a check and be turned down, only to approach the same clerk a few minutes later (not knowing that we were married) and to accept my check which also had her name on it. I have seen my wife followed in stores merely because of the color of her skin. On separate occasions my wife and children while driving have been randomly stopped by police hoping to find an illegal substance for an arrest. My daughter, while parked with her African American male friend outside our house had a policeman knock on her passenger window telling her she needed to leave and go home (not because it was a bad part of town, but because he thought it was too good for her). When she told him that this was her home the officer said she was lying. With great pleasure she got out of the car, took the keys from her purse and waving bye to her friend and the officer, she entered our home. This is just the tip of the iceberg of personal experiences. So racism is not an abstract construct. It is not an excuse for those with a victim-mentality. And yet, if we settle for racism as the culprit we will miss the real enemy.
What is racism?
What creates tension and makes racism charges so volatile and confusing is that racism is often defined differently. The majority of racism definitions agree that racism is prejudice and discrimination fueled by perceived biological differences that rank groups of people as either superior or inferior. However, there are several variations. Some definitions only include intentional forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity or nationality.1 Others include any behavior or belief based on cultural stereotypes.2 One view defines racism as prejudice plus power while another view says if the culprit is in a perceived subordinated power position, racism cannot be leveled. Another says if discrimination occurs without malicious intent one is not committing racism. And so goes the semantic tug-of-war: “Yes you are.” “Oh no I’m not.”
The biblical writers do not play that game. In fact, we do not see them leveling any charges that sound like our isms and phobia’s of the day: chauvinism, sexism, ageism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, you name it the Bible will not minimize the root issue with surface labels.
The deficiency in using the label “racism” and all the isms is that they are too shallow and too simplistic. Each label is symptomatic of a much deeper root problem. Our definitions of racism can be selectively chosen to point out the offenses of others and yet protect ourselves from personal guilt. I find an eerily similar attempt by the lawyer who approached Jesus in Luke 10:25 when he asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus counters, “What is written in the Law? How does it read?” The Lawyer correctly answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . soul . . . strength . . . mind and your neighbor as yourself.” But the lawyer’s next words reveal his true heart.
The gospel writer, Luke, discloses his motive, “Desiring to justify himself,” the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus chooses not to give a definition that can be easily slid around. He describes in parable form the behavior of what love looks like to a neighbor. And rather than the Jewish priest or Levite, it is the Samaritan that shows extraordinary kindness and even the lawyer admits that the Samaritan is the real neighbor. Jesus point was that our neighbors are whoever we come in contact with whether we think they deserve it or not—in other words, everybody!
The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself reveals more than a misunderstanding of “loving your neighbor.” It exposes a heart that chooses to judge who is worthy of love and who is not. But God has not given us that prerogative. God has tied our love for Him to how we love our neighbor. And just as we cannot choose to love “some” of God, we cannot choose to love “some” of our neighbors. This is why Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27)—which may include those we deem racist. But if I am honest, I am the lawyer and you likely are too! Everything within me cries out to justify myself. I want to redefine what love should be to those who are my enemies. I want to redefine who my neighbor is. I want to redefine what is and is not racism. But racism and all the isms are merely symptoms and not the root. They are fruits of sin but not the root of my sin. In my heart of hearts is a natural draw to self-righteousness. And this self-righteous attitude, though often undetected by the natural eye is at times undetected because of my own hard-heartedness.
The selective judging practiced by the lawyer is what is referred to in the book of James as breaking the royal law. The word James uses to describe this root sin is partiality. It is to pre-judge (prejudice) and to show favor based on external distinctions. Some translations call it being a respecter of persons. It is discriminating or positioning one person or a group of people in a more favorable status than another group. And such a transgression is no light offense. Read what James says:
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. . . So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8-13 ESV)
I like how the Expositor’s Bible Commentary puts it. “The commandment to love one’s neighbor is called the “royal law” because it is the supreme law to which all other laws governing human relationships are subordinate. It is the summation of all such laws. The one who keeps this supreme law is doing right. The right course of action is contrasted to v.9 where partiality is identified as committing sin. Therefore, the right course of action is to show favor to everyone.”5
We as Christ followers are to show favor to everyone because we have received God’s grace (God’s unmerited favor). So we who receive such favor are expected to speak and act by dispensing to others the same favor we have so freely received. This is what James calls operating under the Law of Liberty. This is also described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:13:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
To show partiality is to be a respecter of persons by putting one type of person or group over another and it violates the Law of Liberty. It is a form of playing God by making ourselves a judge. The danger is if we function as judges of others, then God will use the same measurement of judgment on us. James says judgment is without mercy. I don’t know about you, but its mercy that I need and mercy is what others need, even those who are committing racism (partiality).
Attitude to confront
Whether I have committed racism or not, could be argued by what definition one uses. But what cannot be argued is if I have shown partiality. Whether it is thinking of myself as “better-than” or behaving in such a way that reflects I am a respecter of persons regarding social status, political associations, station in life, religion, denominational affiliation, personality differences or affinity associations, then I have committed partiality and most likely you have too. Knowing this, we confront our brothers and sisters when they transgress the royal law—humbly—with full awareness of our own self-righteous, partial nature.
The Apostle Paul says we are to restore in a spirit of gentleness. (Gal. 6:1) That gentle spirit begins when we first recognize and admit that we have committed partiality ourselves. We do not stand in judgment over the transgressor. We stand with them as a fellow brother or sister to bear with them (Gal. 6:2). I cannot correct with gentleness unless I have recognized that I am in as great of need of God’s grace and mercy as the one I hope to correct.
Yes, God wants us to speak up and address ethnic/racial inequities and injustices. And there are times and places where public protests and demonstrations are warranted. It’s worth noting that the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s was not only tied to their non-violent approach but also to their intentionality to expose the “partiality” of rights and privileges granted to the dominant culture at the expense of African Americans who were denied the same privileges.
So when we speak up, let us speak with gentleness, recognizing our own self-righteous tendencies. And rather than level the racist charge, sensitively and compassionately help others see where “partiality” is being practiced. God’s judgment will be more effective than any labels we can throw at people. So let’s do all we can to compassionately correct. For mercy triumphs over judgment! And oh, how I so need God’s mercy and I bet you do too.
Dirke Johnson has a doctorate in Church Leadership and is a professor for the Ministry Degree program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also teaches at Cru’s Institute of Biblical Studies and specializes in Leader Development, creating high performing teams. He has years of experience at ministering in urban cross-cultural and international contexts.
2 “Racism” in R. Schaefer. 2008 Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. SAGE. p. 1113
3 Operario, Don and Susan T. Fiske (1998). Racism equals power plus prejudice: A social psychological equation for racial oppression. Pp. 33-53 in Jennifer Lynn Eberhardt and Susan T Fiske (eds), Confronting racism: The problem and the response. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.
4http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/mcs/article/view/1075/160Only White People can be Racist”: What does Power have to with Prejudice? Pooja Sawrikar and Ilan Katz
5 The Expositors Bible Commentary (vol. 12), “James.” Pp. 179-180 commentary by Donald W. Burdick. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981).