The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have often thought of broaching the subject of racism and Christianity, but I have always ultimately shied away. This was not because of a lack of interest, or because I thought the subject unimportant, but I never really felt like I had an adequate entry point to fully express my thoughts. That changed recently, and so I want to express some thoughts that I know will offend just about everyone – and I know that because these thoughts first offended me.

First, I need to acknowledge that this opening thought is not my original thinking. It was brought to my attention by an old colleague, one whose insights I trust greatly. I will personalize it, however.

It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how the German people (as a whole, I’m generalizing) can either deny or minimize the horror of the holocaust. This is not true of every German citizen, to be sure, but even today the account of what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other “undesirables” is largely muted in German culture. Like I said, I have always wondered about this, as it seems to me that (a) the Nazi regime was such a deviation from the norms of German society, and that (b) the present German culture is so different from that time period, that it would be cathartic for Germans to acknowledge the atrocities of that one decade and vow that it would never happen again. I can totally understand the fear that making such acknowledgment would foster copy-cats who want to defend Hitler (and this is exactly what happens!), but I have felt that once the enormity of the evil is squarely admitted, it would simply be unthinkable that any subsequent culture would want to replicate Hitler and his minions. As a whole, I think most Americans would agree. Admit the horror, recognize that Nazism was an abhorrent aberration to German culture, create the appropriate safeguards that would prevent such atrocities from occurring again, and move on.

Now that we are all on the same page, substitute “Jew” with “Black” or “African” or “Native Indian” and see how your expression changes. You see, in America the white majority has no problem admitting to the sin of Germany. But, when confronted with the reprehensible treatment of our ancestors toward ethnic minorities, all such confessionalism flies out the window. We become defensive, belligerent, dismissive, and even delusional in denying the racism that was, and in some quarters remains, systemic in our culture.

This parallel between Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 and our own American “holocaust” (the term is not perfectly identical, but comes close) is what is particularly troubling to me. If the white majority in America cannot admit to the sins of our fathers, we will never be able to admit to our own sins in regard to racism, and therefore the scourge will never be adequately removed. It is not so much that whites deny the reality of slavery, it is that the concept that whites are superior to blacks (and other ethnic minorities) is so enshrined in our legal system and in our public theology. It is, as I said, systemic, not anecdotal. The beast is not a symptom, but it is the root cause, of so much of what afflicts America today.

Consider this: there is a pining today for America to return to the glory days of the  1950s (or there-about) when God was welcome in the schools and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited with passion. Well, God may have been welcome in most white schools, but blacks were forcefully kept out of the classrooms, sometimes at the point of a rifle! We were not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” We were divided legally by race, and justice was only for whites. But it did not stop there. Blacks were not welcome in most white churches, either. It was not just lunch counters and bathrooms that were segregated, but God’s covenant people were clearly divided along lines of color.

I cannot stress this fact enough: this was not just a matter of public opinion. This segregation had the force of law – it was enshrined in the very fabric of our legal system. Blacks could be, and were, lynched for the “crime” of following too closely or inappropriately staring at a white woman. Blacks who were arrested were tried by all white juries. It is not just that the laws were written to protect white privilege, but the implementation of those laws was so skewed to white privilege that a black person (or Indian, for that matter) had no effective recourse. It was this pervasive, systemic inequality that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to so passionately.

And, just as with so many Germans who choose to look past their Nazi past, it is this pervasive, systemic racism that so many white Americans choose to blithely ignore or actively seek to repress.

A common sentiment expressed today is, “Well, that may have been true 100 years ago, but I do not own any slaves, so I cannot be held responsible for my ancestors.” On one level this may be true, but who among us can honestly deny the the effects of this skewed legal system do not continue to affect American culture? Consider the inequality of inner-city schools with the same level of school in the affluent (largely white) suburbs. We excuse our behavior with the suburbs have a higher tax base, so therefore the schools have a deeper revenue source. So, who created the inequality of the tax base? Our tax tables are just another way in which white privilege is enshrined in our legal system. Scoff if you will, but the idea that “all men are created equal” in this culture is just a myth. We may be “created” equal, but the location of one’s birth – even by just a few city blocks – can have enormous consequences for how two babies are housed, educated, and treated in regard to health care and even the legal system.

I was genuinely repulsed as I sat and listened to a dear friend of mine recount how he was pulled over by a white police officer for the crime of “driving while black.” He was in the wrong neighborhood, driving a nice car, so he had to be up to no good. Why is it that black men have to tell their sons (and daughters) how to respond to police officers in ways that I will never have to explain to my daughter? That reality sickens me.

Until this reality is squarely admitted, and permanently and forcefully changed, America will never be a Christian nation. It never has been. And to argue otherwise is plain heresy.

That having been said, we in America have a foundation that will allow us to overcome our past, and to safeguard our future. It is the same safeguard that provided Germany with the strength to overcome the Nazi propaganda, had they chosen to implement it. It is the power of the gospel – the power to fully and totally submit to the grace of our Creator God. It is the power of the crucified and risen Christ. And as far as humans are concerned, it begins with an honest confession that our forefathers have sinned, and we share in that sin to the extent that we perpetuate the systemic sin that they created. The question is, will we have the courage to allow that power to change us?

In part 2, I will examine a corollary issue related to this post. But, I think I have said enough for today.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. I look forward to Part 2. Thank you for the comments about the power of the gospel to enable submission to the grace of God in our recognizing and ending the racism that exists within us and those around us. In response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s government acted in a number of ways with school busing, hiring and education quotas, and minority programs which helped provide opportunities that hadn’t existed previously. Those programs have mostly faded away, and it seems that the sense of most is that enough is enough, and it is time for individuals of all races and economic levels to take responsibility for their own individual success or failure because sufficient opportunity exists for all. Most seem to believe that racism has ended in our culture, and we bear no responsibility for the sins of either our own or others’ fathers. Whether that is true or not, each of us has a responsibility to God and to each other as we love neighbors to act in ways that reject anything that shapes behavior stemming from prejudice against those of other races, religions or economic strata. Thank you for emphasizing that power to both recognize systemic racism within ourselves, and to remove any such evil from our lives, rests in faith in and submission to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The sins of the church past and present in participating and encouraging systemic racism end when we preach the relevance to daily life of the principle that we are all one in Jesus. The specific context of Ephesians 2:14-18 is the racist divide between Jew and Gentile existing in the 1st century, but the principle taught is universal to all racism in every age – “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

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