Christians and Racial Issues
Modern Controversies #9
Apart from any moral or spiritual deficiencies on the part of Martin Luther
King, Jr., was he right from the standpoint of Scripture to dream the dream he
vocalized on August 29, 1963 in Washington, D.C.?
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice . . . and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
"With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day . . . ."
Was Mr. King right in his dream for a multiracial America, and should this be our dream as the people of God? From the slavery of blacks in Britain and America, to the anti-Semitism of the Germans, to apartheid in South Africa, to ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, to the growing presence and pressures of minorities in America, even to the recent Million Man March, issues involving race are real and relevant. What are Christians to think about these hotly debated issues? Is there any Biblical basis for racial justice (no discrimination) and racial harmony (no conflict)? Is there any place in a Christian's mind for racial pride and prejudice? Is there something Christians should do about racial tensions in the world today?
PRINCIPLES OF SCRIPTURE ABOUT RACIAL ISSUES
In his book Involvement: Social and Sexual Relationships in the Modern World (Revell, 1984, pp. 73-95), John R.W. Stott provides a searching analysis of Paul's sermon in ancient Athens, the ethnic, cultural, and religious center of the first century world (Acts 17:22-31). While Paul's primary focus was the idolatry in Athens that provoked his spirit, he also displayed an instructive attitude toward this multiracial, multicultural, multireligious situation. Paul made four affirmations:
Paul affirmed the unity of the human race, or the God of creation. He explains God as Creator, Sustainer, and Father of humanity (24-28), and from this he shows the folly and evil of idolatry. By what he said, Paul could equally well have shown the folly and evil of racism. God "made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth" (26). In Him we all "live and move and exist;" we are all "His offspring" (28). God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Father of all human beings, and this should affect our attitude toward each other.
Paul traces our human origin to the same source the "one," Adam from whom God
made us all. All people are equally created by God and in His image. Before God,
we are equal in worth and dignity, so we have an equal right to respect and
justice. Paul draws on this principle when he stated clearly regarding Jews and
Greeks, "There is no partiality with God" (Rom. 2:10-11). That there is no
partiality with God makes the strongest possible case that there should be no
partiality with us as well.
Paul affirmed the diversity of ethnic cultures, or the God of history. God not only "made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth," He also "determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation" (26). Paul is likely alluding to God's creation command to multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). In time this "filling" the earth entailed the population's dispersing, reflected in Gen. 10:32, "These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood." This separating eventually resulted in cultural diversity.
Culture is a composite of beliefs, values, customs, and institutions developed
by each society and transmitted to the next generation. What is natural is
God-given and inherited; what is cultural is man-made and learned. Culture is
recognized and respected in Scripture. John's visions in Revelation included
every nation, tribes, peoples, and tongues (5:9, 7:9, 14:6). The apostle Paul
himself was culturally diverse: a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Roman citizen, and he
adopted Greek language and
It is important to note we can affirm the unity of the human race and the diversity of ethnic cultures at the same time. We must do so simply because God does. We must respect the equality of the human race from the standpoint of creation and the diversity of it from the standpoint of culture.
Paul affirmed the finality of Jesus Christ, or the God of revelation. While Paul was respectful of a multiracial and multicultural world, he refused to acquiesce when it came to being multireligious. Everyone should repent because everyone will be judged. Paul reinforced the universality and certainty of this call with a reference to the day in which God "will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (30-31). This last fact teaches us that while we must respect diversity of cultures this does not imply accepting the diversity of religions.
Jesus has no rivals: Not Mohammed, Buddha, or any other. God has spoken fully
and finally through His Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is the only Savior. He is the
One who died for our sins, whom God raised from the dead, and will one day be
Judge of the world. The New Testament is vested with Jesus' authority (Mat.
28:18-20, Col. 3:17). Peter earlier proclaimed the gospel to Gentiles at the
house of Cornelius. He began by stating, "I most certainly understand now that
God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and
does what is right, is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34-35). Following this opening
statement, Peter declared that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death and God raised
Him up and He is appointed as Judge of the living and the dead. So it is only
"through His name" that everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins
(10:38-43). Later Paul declared that it is "in the name of the Lord Jesus" we
must act (Col. 3:17).
All people, though not the same, are equal. But all are sinners and are saved only in Jesus Christ. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (Jn. 3:16). To fear God and do what is right is to obediently follow Jesus as the only Savior and respect Him as the only Lord.
Paul affirmed the glory of the church, or the God of redemption. This is hinted at in Acts 17:34. Some sneered at Paul's message, "But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them." Here was the nucleus of a new community of saved people, in which men and women of all ages, and of all racial, cultural, and social origins, find oneness in Christ. Jesus died to save all people from sin and the practical effect of this is "that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity" (Eph. 2:15-16). The glory of the church, in part, is in the capacity for people to be reconciled to each other in it as they are mutually reconciled to God.
Through Jesus' church the flow of history is reversed by redemption, a reversal
that is, or should be, manifest in His church. The Old Testament is the story of
human scattering, of nations spreading abroad, falling apart, fighting all due
ultimately to human sin. The New Testament is the story of people being forgiven
of sins in Jesus Christ and being brought together as and in His body, the
church. As Paul put is in Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is
neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all
one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). While our being in Christ does not obliter ate our
racial, national, social, or sexual distinctions, they no longer divide us.
These are each transcended by the unity of the family of God.
APPLICATIONS OF THESE PRINCIPLES TO RACIAL ISSUES
Similar to the way slavery is dealt with in the New Testament, in racial matters Scripture does not so much force us to conform outwardly as it does compel us to change inwardly. In short, our minds and hearts toward people of different races and cultures are to be transformed by the will of God. We must understand the principles set forth in Scripture and decide to apply them and live by them in spite of the thinking and norms of our society. These principles, not laws, policies, quotas, forced integration, minority representation, affirmative action, and the like; will deliver us from racial pride and prejudice. Given our circum stances in place and time, some of these efforts may be needed and effective, but these alone will not solve the racial issues that face us.
Instead, because God is God of creation, we must affirm the unity of the human race. Because He is the God of history, we must affirm the diversity of ethnic cultures. Because He is the God of revelation, we must affirm the finality of Jesus Christ. And because He is the God of redemption, we must affirm the glory of His church. There are some lessons from these affirmations Christians must learn and practice:
We must demand equal rights, equal respect, and equal justice for every human being, regardless of color, culture, language, or any other factor. James said it most concisely and clearly: "But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors" (2:9).
We must make a conscious effort in our thinking, talking, and teaching to respect and try to appreciate all races and all cultures which are compatible with principles of Christianity taught in Scripture. We must give full weight to the fact that "they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God" (Lk. 13:29).
We must rid ourselves of any thoughts or words that are prejudicial, intolerant, or derogatory. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (Jn. 4:9), but Jesus purposely passed through their region (4:4) and made a Samaritan the hero of one of His parables (Lk. 10:30-37). We must show such respect and kindness toward people of minorities in our country or toward different races throughout the world.
We must make a determined effort to take the gospel to all: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Mat. 28:19-20).
We must strive to make the body of Christ a model of harmony between all people based on salvation and oneness in Jesus Christ. John's vision of heaven was one of those "from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'" (Rev. 7:9). We should seek to approximate this on earth as much as we can.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream coincides with Scripture in at least one important area: God will judge us not on the color of our skin, but on the content of our character. Every child of God must do the same with every human being of the world who is equally made in the image of God as we are.
By David Holder
From Expository Files 3.9; September 1996