Racism in America: A Thing of the Past?

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From the days of slavery, to the Civil War, through Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement, the United States has contended with racism. What is the state of race relations in the U.S. today—and what does your Bible say about racism?


History was made last November when voters chose Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Considered a longshot at best when he began his campaign in 2007, few observers at first expected Senator Obama to mount a serious challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton and other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Yet the junior Senator from Illinois defied expectations throughout the campaign, and energized millions of voters with his call for hope and change.

Now that the U.S. has chosen a President with a black father and a white mother, some are suggesting that barriers have been broken and racism in the U.S. has largely come to an end. Obama's victory, some say, proves that long-standing American social prejudices against blacks are mostly a thing of the past, and that the visible increase in minorities' political and economic power is tangible evidence that old concerns about racism can for the most part be put to rest.

But are political and economic measures the true standard by which we should judge? After all, in the early years of America's civil rights movement, many activists considered racism primarily a moral and spiritual problem, from which political and economic consequences followed, rather than the other way around.

At its core, is racism a moral and spiritual problem? What does the Bible say?

God's standard of right and wrong—His word and His divine law—has been largely rejected by modern society. It has been replaced by a secular value system that may shift from year to year, depending on the moral fashion of the day. Many people reason that they must choose their values to fit their changing circumstances. But the Bible presents timeless laws and principles that God reveals as both right and good. As a result, we should desire to understand how the Bible explains the human condition.

Over the millennia, some have tried to use the Bible to justify racial oppression. In doing so, they could not be more wrong. Far from justifying racial hatred, the righteous principles of Scripture are the foundation upon which many modern notions about equality have been built. However, because many have misunderstood what the Bible actually teaches about racial hatred and equality, it is well worth taking a closer look.

During the times when the Old and New Testaments were written, nations did not generally have anything like the modern Western concept of equality. Essentially, each culture thought of itself as superior to the others around it. Even the ancient Greeks, known for having pioneered the concept of democratic governance, considered mankind to be divided into two general classes—Greeks and barbarians. Nations did not consider morality when they set out to conquer one another, and ownership could be gained by "right of conquest." When one nation conquered another and spoils were taken, slaves were often among those spoils. This made slavery an everyday fact of life in most ancient cultures—yet it was not the race-based chattel slavery familiar to those who have studied U.S. history. In the Roman Empire, it was common to find slaves of various races, from Britannia as well as from Africa.

The notion that every individual has a fundamental equality with every other individual would have been unimaginable to most cultures in the ancient world. To most, but not all. One group was very different.

Origin of an Idea

God gave ancient Israel a set of instructions that set it apart from the surrounding nations. But how did God instruct the new nation of Israel to behave toward non-Israelites? "The same law applies to the native and to the alien living among you" (Exodus 12:49, NIV). He also said, "For the Lord your God is God of gods…. who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore, love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:17–19).

In a time of fierce conflicts among warring tribes and nations, this instruction would seem not just socially advanced—it would seem revolutionary. But why did God give that instruction to the Israelites and not to the surrounding peoples? He certainly did not make His covenant with the Israelites because He thought they were a racially superior people. He did so because of a promise He had made long before. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, "God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob…. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage" (Exodus 2:24; 6:8).

Far from considering the Israelites an inherently superior people, God often found them to be especially difficult. "Therefore understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people" (Deuteronomy 9:6). God blessed ancient Israel with a tremendous opportunity, but it was not because He had created them better than anyone else. Rather, He was being faithful to an ancient promise.

A Radical Approach?

By the time of the Apostles, Jews were living side-by-side with non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire. In this environment, did Christ and the Apostles counsel any one group to feel superior to another? No! In fact, the Apostle Paul taught plainly that all races and peoples share an equality before Christ. "There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11). "For there is no respect of persons with God" (Romans 2:11, KJV). Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed, "the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6). The Apostle Peter taught, "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34–35).

God does not change, so when He inspired the Apostles to write those words, they were not inventing something new. Yet these teachings on human equality had a profound impact on the thinking of the first-century Church. The equality Christ taught was truly a radical idea in the ancient world. Certainly, Christians understand that there are physical differences between people, and that we all have different strengths, given by God to help us prepare for our future as eternal members of His family. But we must never try to use those differences to oppress others, or as a lame excuse to deny the worth and human dignity of any human being. God's plan involves every human being, and no matter what our physical circumstances may be in life, our Creator is ready to come to our aid. As the Apostle Paul wrote: "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For 'whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved'" (Romans 10:12–13).

Although Scripture clearly reveals God's view that all human beings share a spiritual equality that transcends any of mankind's artificial barriers, this idea lay largely dormant for centuries in European society. Throughout the "Dark Ages," only a few people had access to the Bible, and unless you were one of the educated few who could read Latin, you would only hear what priests and rulers wanted you to hear from the Bible. Brave individuals who translated the Bible into other languages were burned at the stake, or suffered other tortures to the death. Corrupt religious and political structures worked to suppress biblical truths that would threaten their power, so the Bible's message of equality largely remained hidden.

Eventually, however, after the printing press and the Reformation had made Bible translations widely available, biblical teachings on equality provided the foundation—an absolute—on which the deeply religious founders of the Western democracies would build. When political equality began to flower in Western civilization, it grew from ancient biblical roots. Yet that growth was often difficult and violent, leading to massive political and social upheaval. In 17th century England, the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell raised an army, defeated King Charles I, and cut off his head—a feat that earned Cromwell the title, "the Father of English Democracy."

What happens when nations seek political equality apart from God? The leaders of the French Revolution married their "democratic" reforms to a violent rejection of religion. Tens of thousands of French citizens were cruelly slaughtered in the last decade of the 18th century. This relatively brief period of political experimentation alienated France's people so severely that the nation soon returned again to monarchy.

America's Religious Heritage

By contrast, the Founding Fathers of the U.S. looked to their religious heritage as the foundation and justification of their political philosophy. They wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…" Their idea was that since God gives certain rights, no man could justly deny those rights. Yet they approved a Constitution that gave the states political representation based on the fiction that a black American counted for only 3/5 of a white American, and they endorsed a cruel and brutal race-based system of chattel slavery—unsupportable by any biblical statute or precedent—which would eventually require a Civil War to bring to an end.

Abraham Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Does that sound familiar? The ethic from which Lincoln derived his statement comes from the Bible: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them" (Matthew 7:12). Lincoln's political views were shaped and guided by his understanding of an ancient Judeo-Christian ethic.

The Civil War put an end to the system of slavery in America, but oppression, unequal treatment and lack of opportunity persisted through the enforcement of segregation and "Jim Crow" laws. What was the force behind the civil rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s, which called for the end, once and for all, of injustice and inequality in the United States? First and foremost, it was the force of moral outrage born from the nation's African-American churches, where leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decried racism as morally wrong—using the Bible as the source of their moral judgments!

How ironic and sad it is that, in today's world, the ancient biblical moral authority that spurred the civil rights movement is now being challenged at every turn. Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools and public buildings is now illegal. As Western civilization cuts itself loose from its moral anchor, where will it drift? We have seen massive erosion of family life and sexual morals, resulting in great damage to the social fabric of our nations. Societal permissiveness in the U.S. has affected people of all races through the widespread drug abuse and crime it has engendered, and single parenthood is one of the greatest causes of poverty.

After someone rejects the religious principles on which a moral culture rests, on what can they base decisions about right and wrong? More and more, secular intellectuals have decided that power—who has it and who gets it—is the only valid basis for moral decisions. Power is the principle, to this way of thinking. As this idea gains popular acceptance, can changes in Western perceptions of political equality be far behind? If society shifts its moral underpinnings from the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian ethic to the shifting sands of human reason, will not a different foundation create a different structure?

Racism Poisons the Racist

In the last few decades in secular society, a morality has developed in which God's definition of right and wrong has been rejected. People reason that as long as an action does not hurt others, then "if it feels good, do it." Or as long as one's sin is not illegal, why not do it? But God said that when we sin, we hurt ourselves as well as others. Just because we do not see or feel that hurt at the time, does not mean that the damage is not done. As the Apostle Paul told the Church in Corinth, "Flee sexual immorality…. he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18). The Apostle John wrote, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer" (1 John 3:15). This means that if you hate someone, you have broken the commandment, "Thou shall not kill." Racial hatred is sin.

Racism poisons the racist, because sin poisons the sinner. This holds true for all races, because God is no respecter of persons. Hate is murder committed in one's heart, and racism is a form of hatred that injures not only the victim but the perpetrator as well. Among the damage is the isolation it brings—from God and from other people. If you are uncomfortable dealing with people of another race, or if you feel superior to people of another race, you will not be able to interact positively or productively, and you will retreat more and more into your own limited associations. As you do so, you will also be isolating yourself from God's way of life, which commands loving, outflowing concern for all those around you. The Bible explains that mankind has brought misery and calamity upon itself by rejecting God's way of life and the commandments He gave "for your good" (Deuteronomy 10:13). As we defy Him, we harm ourselves both physically and spiritually.

What Constitutes Racism?

Should there be different standards in measuring white racism and non-white racism? In classrooms around the U.S., students are often taught that racism is "prejudice plus power"—that unless one has the power to enforce one's prejudice, one cannot be said to practice racism. Ironically, this common idea can perpetuate a racist double standard, in which by labeling an entire race of people powerless, their moral and spiritual agency is devalued.

Definitions of racism that are crafted to exempt particular groups can actually be misused to excuse or even promote racism. This problem affects all races. Perhaps the most socially accepted form of racism among white people today is the racial chauvinism that they are more responsible than "people of color." This can be found in some whites' low expectations of non-whites' morality, or in a moral relativism that excuses behavior in non-whites that would be condemned in someone of a European heritage. Strangely, both the perpetrators and targets of racial chauvinism often embrace such views.

But when we look at racism solely through the eyes of power and politics, we exclude God from our analysis. The secular world has its view of racism, but the Bible has another. When we look at racism through the eyes of faith, including God in our knowledge, what we see is different. God states that He is no respecter of persons. This means that what is sin for the rich is sin for the poor, and what is sin for one race is sin for people of all races. By God's standard, the sin of racism is an equal opportunity exploiter, and its harm is not measured solely by what happens to its target. It is toxic to the perpetrator as well.

How Are We Judged?

"For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). What does God see when He looks into our hearts? The Apostle Paul said, "For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged" (1 Corinthians 11:31). It is God who judges us, but by what standard? Thankfully, we have some input in the matter. In part, His judgment of us depends on how we judge others.

Jesus stated the principle: "For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:2–3).

Different races, peoples and individuals have not all suffered equally over time. We should always be sensitive to how others feel—especially since various racial and ethnic groups have suffered profoundly as a result of racism and its consequences. We should not hesitate to speak out against the sin of racism. But God cautions us that we must be careful. God has set a principle—that we are judged by the standard by which we judge. Paul writes again, "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?" (Romans 2:1–3).

Is racism in America a thing of the past? Whatever your answer—and no matter what progress may have been made nationally—we need to remember that God also looks at each heart. Can any of us honestly say that we truly treat all other people the way God wants us to treat them? Keeping His standards in mind, we have a long way to go, nationally and individually. But with His help, obeying His word, we can—and must—keep growing toward perfection (Hebrews 6:1).

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