An honest look at the history of Christianity in the United States will quickly reveal the appalling truth that racism has too often gone hand in hand with the gospel. While there is no biblical warrant to expect the church to be a guild of moral perfection, the sine qua non of the church is to be a repentant people. The defining characteristic of the church is not how little it can sin, but how it rightly deals with sin within its midst.
Unfortunately, when confronted about their racism, many within the church have defended their way of life by arguing that the Bible is silent on racism. The purported silence of the Bible on this topic and its related issues – racial supremacy, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia – is used to claim that Christians should have liberty to hold or not hold these sorts of views. Racism in all of its forms is considered a “social issue” or a “political issue” rather than a “gospel issue” or a “spiritual issue.” This distortion of an understanding of Christian liberty is played as a trump card to protect racists within the flock of God and place them outside of biblical accountability and discipleship.
“In fact, you may be surprised to find out that the Bible goes further than secular attempts to confront and take down racism because it addresses the underlying principles, worldviews, and values that hold it up. The Word of God cuts the diseased tree at its root rather than a branch at a time.”
However, students of the Bible will be quick to recognize that the scriptures do speak clearly and adamantly on the issues related to racism, if we have ears to hear. In fact, you may be surprised to find out that the Bible goes further than secular attempts to confront and take down racism because it addresses the underlying principles, worldviews, and values that hold it up. The Word of God cuts the diseased tree at its root rather than a branch at a time.
Though by no means an exhaustive list, here are several passages that clearly show that racism in all its forms is condemned by the Bible and therefore must be addressed within the church as well as in the world around us.
1. The Image of God
In the opening verses of the Bible, we learn that the Creator of all things uniquely created humanity in His own image (Genesis 1:27). Inherent to humanity is image-bearing. It is actually inaccurate to say that people have the image of God, as though it’s something we have rather than who we are. It is more accurate, according to the Bible, to say that we are the image of God. What that means is that nothing can strip a person of that inherent dignity. Further, any attempt to ignore, hide, or demean that image-bearing is like smashing a portrait of God Himself. Racism is “a system of advantage based on race,” as Beverly Daniel Tatum states. Such a system directly attempts to contradict the inherent dignity that is due equally to every person. It is replying, “No, He didn’t,” to the Bible’s statement that God created humanity in His image and likeness.
2. Moses’ Cushite Wife
What many readers of the Bible fail to realize is that when God liberated the Hebrews from their oppression in Egypt, many non-Hebrews joined them in their sojourning (Exodus 12:38-39). This multitude was ethnically distinct from the Hebrew people, and among them was a Cushite woman whom Moses took as his wife (Numbers 12:1). “Cush,” in that time, regularly referred to a large mass of land south of Egypt, meaning that Moses’ wife was likely a Black African woman. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of this interracial marriage, but in response, God curses Miriam with leprosy, making her “as white as snow” (Numbers 12:10). The play on words is intentional and striking. It’s as if God is saying, If you have a problem with the Cushite woman’s dark skin, I’ll make you as white as snow, Miriam. This account in the Bible is where the rubber really hits the road. Often, a test of racism is how integrated you are willing to have your life with those different from you. God’s curse on Miriam is a clear sign that interracial marriage is not only approved in His eyes but that any attempts to argue against it and an integrated life are fundamentally cursed by God.
3. Ruth the Moabite
The story of Ruth is often told like a Hallmark movie, but we miss out if we neglect God’s love story underlying the love story between Ruth and Boaz. It was the duty of Israelite men to act as kinsman-redeemers when their relatives were found in dire straits. Because of the death of Naomi’s husband and both of her sons-in-law, both Naomi and Ruth were in a highly vulnerable state. When the closest of kin is asked to act as kinsman-redeemer, he at first agrees, but then changes his mind when he realizes that this would involve marrying Ruth, a Moabite woman. This man replaced the command of God to be a kinsman-redeemer for his own ethnic comfort.
Boaz stands in his place as someone who loved God more than personal and social discomfort. The ending of the book tells us as well that in three generations in the line of Ruth comes King David (Ruth 4:18-22). This is profound because of a previous law that stated that no Moabite or any of their descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the LORD (Deuteronomy 23:3). This tells us two things. First, the prohibition of Moabites entering into the assembly of God’s people was temporary, likely to ensure that God’s people would not commit heinous idolatry. Second, and most importantly, God intentionally bent His own law in order to prove the point that ethnic superiority is contrary to His will. Ruth – in all of who she is – is listed not only within the genealogy of the great King David but also the Greater King Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
4. Jonah’s Racism
“Jonah believed he knew better than God, but in this way, he demonstrated that he was deficient in knowing how much he himself needed grace. His ethnic protectionism blinded him from the scandal of grace.”
Another story that is well-known is that of Jonah. Though many may emphasize Jonah and the big fish, what is often missing is the fact that Jonah’s disobedience to God was at least in part racially motivated. Jonah knew that God would be gracious and compassionate and stop His hand from destroying the land of Nineveh if they repented (Jonah 4:1-3). Nineveh was the capital of oppression to the Israelite people. They were known for their immorality, tyranny, and heinous actions against God’s people. In Jonah’s eyes, they were beyond forgiveness. They were not only non-Israelites, but they were anti-Israelites. If he followed God’s command to preach in Nineveh, there was a chance that God would forgive them and they would be brought to equal footing with His own people. To prevent what he thought was the greatest nightmare imaginable, he disobeyed and ran. Jonah believed he knew better than God, but in this way, he demonstrated that he was deficient in knowing how much he himself needed grace. His ethnic protectionism blinded him from the scandal of grace.
5. The Work of Christ
In Ephesians 2:11-22, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the work of Jesus on the cross not only obliterated the vertical wall between God and humanity but also tore down the horizontal walls between people. The cross was the great equalizer – in it, we see that everyone is equally in need of grace and nobody has first dibs on salvation. Racism, in contrast, is an attempt to reverse the work of Jesus. It is a demonic attempt to rebuild the walls that Jesus has already torn down. To Jesus’ “It is finished,” racism says, “Not if I can help it.” At its core, racism is an anti-gospel.
6. Partiality and Complicity
The Book of James spends a great deal of time condemning the practice of partiality within the church. Partiality is simply showing favoritism to one group of people over another. It is to overvalue certain people or undervalue others. James implies that partiality is directly opposed to the ethic of love: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).
In fact, in Galatians 2, the Apostle Paul tells us that he had to publicly rebuke a fellow Apostle, Peter, for his complicity in partiality. Peter, a Jewish man himself, who had formerly been fellowshipping with Gentiles, drew back out of fear of a Jewish Christian faction that believed that Gentiles needed to become Jewish before they could be fully included in the church of Jesus. While these Jewish Christians had shown partiality by making ethnic and racial identification an additional condition for Gentiles to become children of God, Peter had been complicit in their actions by disassociating with the Gentiles. Paul, therefore, quickly recognized that both the direct partiality of this faction and the indirect complicity of Peter were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). He made it a point to address this publicly in the presence of the church because of how serious of a matter it was to the gospel.
7. The Great Commission
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commissions the church to make disciples of all nations. We have to remember that the original hearers of Jesus’ Great Commission were Jewish men, who by tradition and custom had long-considered non-Jewish people as unclean and cut off from God’s promises to Israel. Jesus’ commission pushed these Jewish men outside of their own ethnic boundaries and comforts to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth and to fellowship with non-Jews. The Great Commission is a mission with a centrifugal direction that flows outward to those who are different from yourself. In direct contrast, racism – especially in the form of ethnocentricity and racial superiority – are essentially centripetal, always flowing inward into one people group at the expense of others. Racism attempts to reverse the direction that Jesus’ Great Commission calls us toward.
8. A New Heavens and New Earth
“As surely as God promises a new creation, he also promises a beautiful tapestry of people from all different backgrounds and cultures worshipping Jesus on equal footing with one another.”
Just as the Bible opens with God creating everything from nothing, it ends with the great hope that God will make a new creation from what is now broken. In Revelation 5:9-10, God promises a new heavens and a new earth, where tears no longer will be shed and His righteousness will shine forth forever. At the center of this new kingdom are people “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” worshipping a risen, dark-skinned, Middle-Eastern God-man. As surely as God promises a new creation, he also promises a beautiful tapestry of people from different backgrounds and cultures worshipping Jesus on equal footing with one another. Racism, therefore, is a direct rejection of God’s new heavens and new earth.
Again, while this is not an exhaustive list of every passage in the Bible that speaks on racism, it should be more than clear that the Bible is anything but silent on the topic. The entire warp and woof of the Bible’s story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation speaks loud and clear against racism. Racism in all of its forms is a counter-narrative to the gospel and is in every way incompatible with God’s vision of the good life. The next time someone brings up the argument that the Bible is silent on racism, perhaps these verses would be a good start for a fruitful conversation.