Killing Racism & Ethnic Prejudice
The Lord’s word speaks pointedly to so many issues we face. Some months ago, our church studied Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-34. It took two Sundays, but we drew several inferences such as…
- Draw courage from the gospel saving people from idols and false worldviews;
- Repent from all our own idolatry and false gods;
- Align ourselves with God’s mission to reach all peoples with the gospel;
- Imitate Paul’s God-centered analysis, unbiased engagement, and worldview evangelism;
- Preach resurrection truth, showing how the body is good, history is linear, we’re accountable, and physical death isn’t the end;
- Be mindful of our missionary opportunity in light of God’s sovereign movement of peoples (refugees, immigrants, etc.).
But one further inference spoke directly to an issue that many, for varying reasons, have been thinking about afresh: racism. Acts 17 gives us at least four truths about all people that, when embraced rightly and applied comprehensively, kill racism.
What do I mean by racism?
Not all who use the term racism mean the same thing.[i] Therefore, I want to be careful when addressing it. In his book, Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson offers a helpful starting place. Racism refers to “all patterns of exclusion of others grounded in race or ethnicity.”[ii] Yet perhaps we can clarify and improve Carson’s explanation.
For starters, combining “race and ethnicity” without further qualification risks conflating categories. Historically, race refers to classifying humanity by biological features such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features.[iii] As John Piper has pointed out, race hasn’t served us well. “Dividing lines between races are not discernable,” “all races are mixed races,” “the historical traits used in classifying races are arbitrary,” and “the science [of anthropology] was bent from the beginning to serve the ‘superior.’”[iv]
Nevertheless, the term race remains so embedded in our society that we must utilize it to communicate. That’s not to say Christians should embrace a worldview categorizing people by race. Not only do all humans share a common heritage in Adam (see below), but the Bible also describes humanity largely along lines of ethnicity (i.e., tribes, tongues, peoples, nations) rather than race (i.e., biology).[v] I’m only saying that since our society employs the term so often, our use of it can help expose what evil to condemn.
The specific evil stands out more clearly when we contrast race with ethnicity. Ethnicity stresses “the cultural rather than physical aspects of group identity. Ethnic groups share language, dress, food, customs, values, and sometimes religion.”[vi] But here’s where matters become more complex. Ethnicity includes some factors that are morally neutral (e.g., language, dress, food, territory) and other factors that we’re obligated to evaluate as morally right or wrong (e.g., customs, values, religious beliefs).
If moral evaluation is pertinent for some factors shaping one’s ethnic identity, you can see how combining ethnicity with race in a definition of racism could lead to misunderstanding. For instance, one could very well be charged with racism when he’s only trying to evaluate the biblical truthfulness of a set of ideas/values shaping one’s ethnic identity. More helpful, then, is to explain racism in terms of the social exclusion based on racial differences in particular.
But we must press further still and add to Carson’s explanation the element of prejudice. Prejudice refers to the hostile attitudes, opinions, and feelings one may have based on their perceived superiority or pride. By adding prejudice, we broaden what is meant by racism to include sinful attitudes, even in the absence of noticeable patterns of exclusion.
So when I refer to racism, I mean all attitudes and actions (including patterns of exclusion) toward others that are grounded in racial prejudice.[vii] Given that definition, racism isn’t limited to the historical black-white divide in America. Racism has a much longer history and numerous, horrible expressions world-wide; and it rightly deserves moral outrage and our swift action to expose its evil.
Why I include ethnic prejudice?
At the same time, sometimes our narrow definitions become safeguards from what others rightly critique in our lives, even if they use categories that differ from our own.[viii] That is to say, if we limit ourselves to this narrower definition of racism, we may neglect other sinful attitudes the Bible also condemns in relation to ethnicity as well.[ix]
As mentioned above, ethnicity includes some factors that are morally neutral such as language, dress, food, territory, etc. We might even add certain feasts and holidays that one ethnicity enjoys more than another. If not careful, we’re quite prone to despise, ridicule, stereotype, and even pass judgments on others based on such morally neutral factors. Stated biblically, we end up criticizing and condemning others based on factors the Bible itself never criticizes or condemns. We set ourselves in God’s place and determine who’s acceptable or not based on personal preferences versus truth. To do so is to participate in ethnic prejudice, another form of favoritism or partiality, which Scripture forbids just as much as racism (Acts 10:34; 1 Tim 5:21; Jas 2:1, 8-9).
That doesn’t mean we neglect evaluating the other factors such as the ideas and values espoused by various ethnicities. But we must avoid attitudes that begin from the assumption that our own ethnicity is above critique when it comes to ideas and values (Prov 16:18; 1 Cor 10:12). We must also avoid attitudes that make exclusionary judgments of different ethnicities based on morally neutral factors. We deceive ourselves if we feel good about not prejudging others by their skin-color while simultaneously prejudging them, excluding them, even neglecting them in word and deed, for the way they talk, dress, eat, smell, and celebrate.[x]
Four Truths that Kill Racism & Ethnic Prejudice
Having defined our terms, we’re ready to move forward. Acts 17 equips us with a worldview that, when rightly embraced and comprehensively applied, ought to kill both racism and ethnic prejudice wherever it exists. If racism or ethnic prejudice thrives at any historical moment, between any peoples, within any community, you can be sure the following four truths have gone unknown or neglected. To begin…
1. All people from every ethnicity share the same heritage in Adam.
Acts 17:26, “[God] made from one man [i.e., Adam] every nation [ethnos] of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…” That’s a sweeping statement. No ethnicity exists as the result of the fall, or as the result of a curse, or as the result of random, genetic mutations. God made every ethnicity; and he doesn’t make mistakes. He also made them from one man, Adam. That means every person of every ethnicity bears the image of God.[xi]
No matter the skin color, hair texture, facial features, geography, language, food likes and dislikes—we’re all cousins in Adam. Adam’s blood runs in our veins. We’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all created to image God. To demean or dismiss another person because of their skin-color, facial features, language, or territory not only ignores our common ancestry; it’s an assault on God’s image and creative work. No person is more valuable than another. No group of people can claim to be more “in the image of God” than another. We’re all equal and beautifully created.
2. All people from every ethnicity were created to seek and know God.
Verse 27 underscores this purpose: “…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” As Paul explains further in Romans 1:19-20, God made known his divine nature and invisible attributes in the things that have been made. No matter their descent or ethnic background, every person can observe the created order and truly seek to know the God who is powerful (Rom 1:20), righteous (Rom 1:32), benevolent (Acts 14:17), and knowable (Acts 17:26-27).
Sadly, though, all people from every ethnicity abandon this purpose (Rom 1:18-32). Our shared heritage in Adam also means all persons are born with Adam’s sin nature (Rom 5:12). That sin nature hinders the pursuit of God and skews our ability to perceive God rightly (Rom 1:28; 8:7-8). That reality should humble us. Nobody is better than the other before God (Rom 3:23). Rather…
3. All people from every ethnicity share the same idolatry problem.
Acts 17:30 says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Which people from which ethnicities need to repent from their idolatry, including the idolatry of self or the idolatry of one’s ethnicity? All people everywhere. Every person from every ethnicity exchanges God’s glory for idols (Rom 1:23). Nobody gets a free pass on repentance. All people everywhere must repent.
Repent means renouncing your sin and reorienting the whole self around Jesus, finding our ultimate identity in Jesus. It’s not just European-Americans that need to repent, though God knows we do. It’s also African-Americans and Jews and Chinese and Latinos and Koreans and Canadians and Hispanics and Egyptians and Russians and Jamaicans—we must all renounce sin and return to the Lord. He’s not far from us (Acts 17:27-28). In fact…
4. All people from every ethnicity are being pursued by the same God.
In Acts 17:30, Paul indicates that God himself “commands all people everywhere to repent.” God sends his messengers to all peoples without distinction and says, “Come to me!” In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his church to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. In Acts 10-11, the Holy Spirit teaches Peter, and then shows Peter, that he saves Gentiles as well as Jews. In Acts 13:47, Jesus brings his salvation to the ends of the earth in and through those servants who belong to him.
Why? Because God gave up his Son to be glorified in a people saved and gathered from all ethnicities. Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all peoples to myself” (John 12:32). Jesus is the Lamb who was slain and redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5:9-10). Jesus Christ “became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles [i.e., people from all ethnicities] might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15:8-9). That’s why God pursues all ethnicities.
Any attitude or action (including patterns of exclusion) toward others grounded in racial pride and prejudice denies these truths of Acts 17; and God will hold us accountable for them at the judgment (Acts 17:31). At the same time, people who truly embrace and apply the truths of Acts 17 can make great strides in the pursuit of unity. True unity. Familial unity in Christ. The world doesn’t have the answers to the sin of racism and ethnic prejudice. They don’t even have the proper worldview to diagnose the problem.
However, by his grace, God hasn’t left the church in ignorance. We know the truth. The truth is evident from Acts 17. We can walk into any room, into any store, into any school, into any neighborhood, and say about any person, “Descended from Adam just like me. Image bearer, created to know God just like me. A guilty idolater in need of redemption just like me. A candidate for God’s grace in Jesus Christ just like me.”[xii]
When that’s the attitude of our heart, racism will die. God’s truth will sever the roots of racial pride and ethnic prejudice, and he will purify the church to reflect the community we’ll eventually be in the final kingdom. Revelation 7:9-10 depicts that community beautifully: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
[i]Some reduce race to such broad categories that they sometimes miss the racism between people groups within their reduced categories. For instance, tensions could well exist between Chinese and Japanese peoples, but if they’re both lumped into the “Asian race,” then it’s hard to label the problem racism. Others pack so much into the term “racism” that they automatically assume racism is the underlying problem with any observable difference or disparity, quite apart from pursuing the facts. In many cases, “racism” has even been hijacked by various ideologies to promote racist, political agendas. See the discussions in D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 87-108; John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 234. Adding to the confusion, proponents of Critical Race Theory view race not merely as biology but as a social construct, and racism not merely as personal prejudice but as structural and systemic. Ian F. Haney López observed that “Race may be America’s single most confounding problem, but the confounding problem of race is that few people seem to know what race is.” Quote taken from Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 49. In sum, the confusion about “racism” is evident and careful definitions are necessary.
[ii]Carson, Love in Hard Places, 88.
[iii]See Piper, Bloodlines, 234, who cites the World Christian Encyclopedia. Also, see Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, 182. To be clear, I don’t embrace the assumptions or tenets of critical race theory, but only cite the source to demonstrate a common understanding among people from differing perspectives. However, cf. also Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1994), xiii, who avoids a scientific definition of race since he believes it has little use for society with untold centuries of racial intermixtures. Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2, also avoids precise definitions of race and racism at the outset of his work: “…race has sometimes been conceived over the last four centuries in terms of outright physical appearance, at others in terms of the assumed common descent of a group. Of course, these categories often overlapped significantly, but they neither were, nor are, ever entirely congruent.”
[iv]Piper, Bloodlines, 235-38.
[v]That, in and of itself—not to mention the four truths I develop below—exposes that thinking of people by their race or skin-color is wrongheaded from the start.
[vi]Definition taken from Eloise Hiebert Meneses, “Science and the Myth of Biological Race,” in This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity, and Christian, ed. Robert J. Priest and Alvaro Nieves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 34, as cited in Piper, Bloodlines, 235. Piper also clarifies that “Others…include physical traits as part of ethnicity, provided they are only part of the culturally relevant spectrum of a person’s identity.” I have found that to be accurate in other sources as well. E.g., Mikael Tellbe, “Response to Hans Leander: The Complexity of Ethnicity,” Svensk exegetisk årsbok 79 (2014), 85, says that ethnicity has to do “with both ancestry and common behavior, with both shared genealogy and certain customs and practices.” Alongside territory, religion, language, and common descent, J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, NSBT 14 (Downers Grove, IVP: 2003), 29, also includes physical appearances in ethnicity to serve his thesis of highlighting how Blacks in particular were part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption. But Hays also recognizes how hazardous it may be to include physical appearances within his breakdown of various ethnicities in the biblical world.
[vii]Explaining racism this way comes close to the definition offered in 2004 by the Presbyterian Church in America: “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races. Racism includes the social exclusion or judgment, or the segregating, of an individual or group of individuals based on racial differences, which always include physical appearance and its underlying genetic structure that are hereditary and unalterable.” Definition accessed on page 8 at the following address: http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/racism.pdf.
[viii]For instance, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), choose to use the term “racialized society” throughout their study instead of terms like prejudice and racism. I may differ with them on terminology, assumptions, and potential solutions. But their observations have been rather eye-opening to how evangelicals in America have used certain doctrinal commitments to justify their neglect of pursuing various matters of justice in society at large.
[ix]The issue of ethnic prejudice may be what Carson means to highlight by including “ethnicity” in his explanation of racism, even though I think it’s more helpful to distinguish race from ethnicity.
[x]I know that visuals do not help everyone. However, if you’re interested in a visual attempting to compare the right response to race and ethnicity with the evil self-centered responses in racism and ethnic prejudice, click here.
[xi]Cf. Acts 17:26 with Gen 1:27-28; 3:20; 5:1-3 (esp. “in his own likeness, after his image”).
[xii]The repetition of “…just like me” stemmed from a conference message on racism that I heard delivered by Thabiti Anyabwile at T4G 2008. That message is accessible at the following address: http://t4g.org/media/2010/04/bearing-the-image-identity-the-work-of-christ-and-the-church-session-ii/.
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