The Gospel and Race: Definitions and Problems

[The PCA's 2004 Pastoral Letter, "The Gospel and Race," after the introduction and the biblical and theological foundations (see the previous posts), continues by discussing what is meant by "racism," and why it is that racism is sin.]

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RACISM IN GENERAL TERMS

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.

To further develop the manifestations of racism, it may be helpful to distinguish among at least three forms of racism. Although they are not exhaustive or completely distinguishable, the following categories are helpful: racial dogma, racial prejudice, and racial dominance.

1. Racism in the sense of racial dogma: “… doctrine or teaching … that asserts the superiority of one race over another or others, and that seeks to maintain the supposed purity of a race or the races” (Webster’s New World Dictionary).

2. Racism in the sense of racial prejudice: “Prejudice implies a preconceived and unreasonable judgment or opinion … marked by suspicion, fear, or hatred” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Racial prejudice is judging people by the color of their skin, rather than by their character.

3. Racism in the sense of racial dominance: “Any activity by individuals or institutions that treats human beings in an inequitable manner because of color” (Gordon DeBlaey and Peter DeJong, “Resource Manual for Race Relations in the Christian School,” 1976, p. 8).

Note that racism in the form of racial prejudice and racial dominance can exist independently of racism in the form of racial dogma. In all three forms of racism, racial identity becomes a value having priority over other assessments of social judgment, and racial solidarity is practiced as an ethical principle.

RACE AND RACISM IN THIS PASTORAL LETTER

Race and Racism are loaded words. They are mostly used in the spheres of sociology and popular media. Since there are tomes written on the subject with a wide range of definitions, it is important that we define them for our purposes. The word “race,” as used in this pastoral letter, is not a scientific classification; rather, in the language of one author, the term “race” is used to denote “a social phenomenon with a biological component” (Sowell, Race and Culture). That is, the term “race” not only pertains to the color of skin and other biological factors, but also may include the cultural factors, associations, and assumptions that we attach to certain races as well. We derive this view of race from the Scriptures that reveal cultural distinctions and attitudes about those distinctions.

Let us consider the Jerusalem Council as an example. As the OPC paper that was previously mentioned indicates, the Bible provides categories for the biological factors (Gentiles), cultural associations (what the OPC paper calls a “cultural pattern”), as well as attitudes about both (the Council rose out of how to wisely apply the Kingdom principles to our attitudes about biological factors and cultural associations). In summary, the word “race” in this paper refers to the nuances of our being created distinctly, in distinct times, places, and communities, along with our individual and corporate views of those distinctions.

With that definition in hand, we can work on defining racism for this paper. Racism is any want of conformity to or transgression of the Bible’s approach to race; it is any belief or act that is contrary to God’s bringing His redeeming shalom to the races. More specifically, racism is the sinful action or attitude of elevating (idolizing) the superiority of one’s race over another in such a way as to cause a lack of love for one another as Christ loved, to hate others in our hearts and actions, and/or to act toward a race in an oppressive, unjust or indifferent manner. Racism, like any other sin, is expressed in thoughts and actions by an individual. But as individuals act together, racism can be expressed by a group or institution.

Because we are bombarded by views of race and racism from places other than the Bible, it is often difficult to ascertain what is God’s view of racism and why it is sin. The following section addresses how and why racism is sin. The purpose of this section is to free us from unnecessary guilt, expose us to our past and present sin, and guide us in new obedience.

RACISM IS SIN.

As stated above, racism is sinful. It involves a failure to love as Christ has loved. The additional biblical and theological principles that follow may be cited to further highlight the sinfulness of racism.

Racism Denies the Gospel.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes his rebuke to Peter for acting on the basis of cultural custom, which the Gospel had transcended. By responding on the basis of cultural custom, Peter’s conduct communicated that he found his justification in the law, rather than in the Gospel:

Gal 2:11-16 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Racism is Idolatry.

The first commandment—You shall have no other gods before me. Racism grounds the identity and security of human life not in the God who alone is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, but in self – a creature – and therefore an idol.

Racism is Murder.

The sixth commandment—You shall not kill. Hating your brother is a violation of the commandment, as is vile mockery of another and unexpressed hateful heart attitudes. The sixth commandment requires “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil;” the sixth commandment forbids “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge . . . provoking words, oppression . . . striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.” WLC (Q. 135 & 136). The sixth commandment is not only violated in the extremes of anger, hatred, or desire for revenge, but also violated in the omission of charitable thoughts, love, compassion, the unwillingness to be reconciled and the failure to forgive injuries—to any or all of which we may easily succumb to based on how we view persons of another race.

“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” (I John 3:14-15).

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Racism is Lying.

The ninth commandment—You shall not bear false witness. The ninth commandment requires the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbor’s good name, especially in witness bearing. The ninth commandment forbids whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name. (WSC Q. 77 & 78)

Lev 19:16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.

Zec 8:16 These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts;

THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS OF RACISM

Racism reflects a corrupt view of the doctrines of Creation and Providence. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen. 1:27ff). God “made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Since all human beings are descendants of Adam and Noah, there is only one human race; thus when one race is considered superior to another, it denies the doctrine of creation, in which all races have a common origin. Further, God’s providential care does not distinguish among people based on race.

Racism minimizes the doctrine of the Fall. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:22-3).

Racism is a rejection of the doctrine of Redemption. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-16). Since all races originated from the first Adam, but despite that common origin became alienated from one another because of sin, the redeemed of all races are reunited in the Second Adam.

Racism corrupts the doctrine of Consummation. “And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth’” (Revelation 5:9-10). Every race is present at the consummation of human history.

RACISM DISTINGUISHED FROM LEGITIMATE ASSOCIATION BASED ON NATURAL AFFINITIES

There are natural associations of people, along homogeneous lines, which are not necessarily wrong. The test of such an association’s biblical propriety comes as Christians honestly and rigorously question its purpose, its consequences, and the attitude with which it is pursued. Is my association in any way out of conformity to God’s desire? For instance, is there overt, or even subtle, enforcement of racial segregation; i.e., is there a choice in whether one is associated with a group or segregated from it? Associating with your own ethnicity is not wrong. As John Franklin remarks, “There is nothing inherently wrong with being aware of color as long as it is seen as making distinctions in a pleasant, superficial, and unimportant manner. It is only when character is attached to color, when ability is measured by color, when privilege is tied to color, and a whole galaxy of factors that spell the difference between success and failure in our society are tied to color—it is only when such considerations are attached to color that it becomes a deadly, dreadful, denigrating factor among us all” (John Hope Franklin, The Color Line, 72-73).

Natural affinities of background, culture, and language are often powerful vehicles for the transfer of the Gospel and for unity in worship. These affinities are not inherently evil and may legitimately create much congregational homogeneity in locales where there is little racial or social diversity. However, such affinities become barriers to the Gospel mission and testimony of the church when the desire to associate only with like persons becomes justification for the active or passive exclusion or segregation of persons from different backgrounds or for the devaluing of their contribution to the body of Christ. Formally or informally segregating persons from position or membership in any gathered body of Christ on the basis of race, national origin, color, or social status is contrary to the Gospel (Eph. 2:13-16; James 2:1-9). In contrast, when the gathered people of God reflect the power of the Gospel to transform all cultures and unite all peoples in the worship of their Creator and Savior, then the Gospel is powerfully represented and the Lord is greatly glorified. Those who find themselves placed in contexts of little racial or social diversity are called to discern ways to respond to this cross-cultural Gospel calling as are those who find themselves in contexts of diversity.

While establishing groups based on natural affinities is not always wrong, it should be undertaken with great care. This approach is the basis of the homogeneous principle of church growth, which has been a significant principle in the church growth literature of recent decades. But could it be that planning for the growth of the church along natural affinity lines has become an obstacle to the supernatural work of the Spirit that would show a watching world the power of the Gospel? Francis Schaeffer argued that the final and conclusive argument for the truthfulness of the Christian faith is “observable oneness among true Christians” (The Great Evangelical Disaster, 170-171). Surely there is no greater or more conclusive argument for the truthfulness and power of the Christian faith than observable oneness among true Christians across the lines of race. This is a oneness that is not natural and it is for this very reason a powerful demonstration of the truth of the Gospel. Such an approach might not seem efficient but it would be effective in attaining the goal of demonstrating a Gospel that unites people across the dividing lines of race.

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6 Comments

  1. Andrew said,

    October 31, 2009 at 2:19 am

    I wonder if the definition of racism is too broad:

    “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races”

    Would this include someone who suspects that Africans (or whatever the correct term is) tend to make better athletes than other races, or that some Asian groups seem to excell in mathmathics?

    It seems to me that it would,since this view suggests that somes races may be qualatatively better at some things than others. Such views may be false (there may be no statisical difference; there may be other cultural/geographical explanations) but I fail to see how it is sinful, unless accompanied by animosity.

  2. Paige Britton said,

    October 31, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Andrew,

    Maybe this quote included in the text above (1st paragraph, last section) qualifies things in the way you mean:

    ‘As John Franklin remarks, “There is nothing inherently wrong with being aware of color as long as it is seen as making distinctions in a pleasant, superficial, and unimportant manner. It is only when character is attached to color, when ability is measured by color, when privilege is tied to color, and a whole galaxy of factors that spell the difference between success and failure in our society are tied to color—it is only when such considerations are attached to color that it becomes a deadly, dreadful, denigrating factor among us all” (John Hope Franklin, The Color Line, 72-73).’

    …But it’s probably a safe generalization to say that generalizing about the qualities of the different races can quickly devolve into error about individual members of the groups. We should be careful to speak only what we know to be true in this regard (e.g., “all have sinned,” “created in God’s image,” etc.).

  3. Tom Albrecht said,

    November 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    “In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes his rebuke to Peter for acting on the basis of cultural custom, which the Gospel had transcended. By responding on the basis of cultural custom, Peter’s conduct communicated that he found his justification in the law, rather than in the Gospel:”

    Is modern Messianic Judaism a form of racism? What about Christian Zionism?

  4. Richard said,

    November 3, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Good point, Tom. This is what happens when we attempt to become culturally relevant in our sins.

  5. Andrew said,

    November 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Paige, thanks for highlighting that.

    Still, I would say that if racism is a sin, it must include some sinful attitude or motive. Judgements about ability, superficial or otherwise seem to me to be empirical judgements, and not imdeiately ethical, if reached in good faith.

  6. March 6, 2010 at 12:02 am

    [...] blacks (as in the United States) and fewer girls (as in India and China).” By “racism” (using the definition developed by the PCA) he means “an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values [...]


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