Just because doctrine is right, good, and true does not mean it is healthy. The Bible teaches that healthy doctrine connects belief with action (1 Tim. 1:9-11, 4:6-16; 6:3; James 2:14-26). As much as possible I try to examine myself to see if I am connecting Biblical truth to all areas of life and thought. Lately, when it comes to the issue of racism, I have been grappling with the question of whether or not my theology impacts my life the way it should.
I'm not a racist. I don't view any ethnicity as lesser, unequal, or sub-human. We (i.e. persons of every ethnicity) are all part of the human race, created in God's image with equal dignity, worth, and value. I know this, but through listening to and learning from other brothers and sisters in Christ, I discovered a level of disconnect between doctrine and practice in my life. It hasn’t been easy to see this, and at times it has been difficult to accept. This article is an attempt to explain how my thoughts and responses to racism in America have been challenged and changed. I share this in hopes that it will encourage and help other Christians who are also processing and developing their thoughts on these matters. I also hope to begin thinking about ways we can develop healthy doctrine in response to the evil of racism. In other words, I want to think about ways we as individual Christians and the Church as a whole can address and respond to racism.
The Way I Thought
I thought of racism as something in a person’s head. It has to do with attitudes, thoughts, and feelings. Those thoughts can lead to evil actions, but ultimately racism’s origin is in the mind and heart. This means if I don’t have racist thoughts or feelings, then I am not a racist, and as long as I treat all people equally, I am not supporting racism. I don’t think any of this is wrong, but I see now that it is only part of the picture.
If we want to grasp the scope of racism, we must understand that it encompasses far more than thoughts and individual actions. Yes, racism is a heart issue as all sins are, but it doesn’t stop there. Justice is overturned as Satan works through racist men and women to cement racism in laws, cultures, and systems. He did that in America. It is true that many injustices have been stopped or reversed; however, we still live with their effects today.
How I Think Now
I saw the problem of racism from a very individualistic lense. How do we stop racism? Racists need to stop being racists. Hearts must be changed; conversion is the key. Again, none of this is false, but it falls short of addressing the whole problem. I needed to think more broadly about racism and how to address it as a Christian.
I have come to see that racism is something embedded systemically in our culture. Though slave traders and owners may be long dead, the laws, systems and culture they codified send dark tendrils of injustice through history into the present. There has been incredible progress towards equality and justice, but the remnants of past injustice impact us today. This is because Satan creates ecosystems of evil. They are not quickly or easily eradicated. The sex trade, consumerism, and racism are all examples. Any holistic approach to confronting racism must deal with individuals as well as the systems they have created. My compartmentalized way of looking at racism allowed for a disconnect between my theology and my action. This realization has led me to contemplate the question: How do I, as a Christian, develop healthy doctrine that addresses and fights against the sin of racism in a holistic manner? I want to offer a few thoughts in response to this question.
Love Your Neighbor
How can we connect doctrine with everyday life when it comes to racism? The answer starts with the gospel. Christianity’s answer to racism is the person and work of Christ. In Christ the love of God is displayed and lavished upon undeserving sinners. In Christ’s sacrifice we see true love. Love is outward facing, not inward gazing. It is selfless instead of selfish. It seeks to serve rather than to be served. It affirms the intrinsic value and dignity of every human because we are made in God’s image; it does not degrade others. It is patient, not quick to anger. It seeks to create peace and break down barriers, not to stir up turmoil and violence. This type of love cannot coexist with racism. If we are in Christ, racist thoughts, feelings, and actions have no place; they must be put to death.
Our response to God’s love and grace doesn’t stop there. We are called to love as we have been loved. Healthy doctrine leads to application in real life relationships, situations, and circumstances. How do we practically love our neighbor when it comes to racism?
First, we need to pray. Pray that racists would be changed. Pray that those impacted by racism would find justice both on an individual and a systemic level. Pray for unity and reconciliation where there is discord, especially within the church. The church above all other places should condemn racism and shine forth as an example of unity within racial diversity. In Christ all dividing walls of race, economic status, and sex are broken down (Galatians 3:28).
Second, we need to listen to understand, not to respond. Love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor. 13:5). We must be willing to try to see things from someone else’s perspective rather than expect them to mold themselves to ours: willing to attempt to understand why others think and feel the way they do, to hear their experience and imagine what it might be like to have been born in their shoes, to realize that they may be right and we may be wrong, to have an openness to change, both our beliefs and our actions. If we do this, we may find there is another way than “our way.”
Third, we must act. John exhorts us, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). We must ask what we can do to meet the needs of others, particularly those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we see their freedoms or opportunities limited by injustices, systemic or otherwise, standing with them and working for change is a way to meet their needs. It is a way to love in deed and in truth.
A Spiritual Battle
Despite the Bible’s clear teaching against racism, the church has and continues to struggle with it. This is to be expected because the church is made up of people who are simultaneously saints and sinners. Until Christ comes again to make all things new, the church will live in tension. Christ has already defeated sin once and for all through his death and resurrection, but he has not yet returned and eradicated all evil.
The Christian life is lived between these two realities.
It may feel like our efforts are futile. It may seem like there is no hope. After all, there is no guarantee of success and victory in the fight against racism this side of glory. Yet, because we look forward to a resurrection and a new heavens and new earth, we know that the things we do now matter for eternity. Christ will be victorious! Until that day we persevere in faith, holding fast to the hope set before us and walking in love.
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