Included in this post:
- My own reflections on race, as a white American (first appearing in the newsletter, 10 June 2020).
- Sources for further reflection—if you'd like to invest in relevant articles, books, interviews, video, audio, etc. Take a peek at the list—I'm sure there's something useful for you.
- Various responses to these reflections.
Most of these thoughts about race have arisen in private conversations, traveling to different regions of the country (and the world), or in email exchanges. We've put these into a Q&A format, to keep it punchy.
Do you think the U.S. is racist?
Yes—I’d say so. The roots go deep. Indigenous peoples were labelled “savages,” and deprived of their land and rights. Slavery came to the New World soon after Europeans re-discovered it. An African slave, according to the Constitution, counted as 3/5 of a person. [Yes, I realize that this datum can be used to reach the opposite conclusion. Thanks to those who have pointed this out. I was merely pointing out that we have been conflicted for more than two centuries.] Centuries of slavery have left a deep scar across our land. We’re still feeling the aftershocks of our civil war.
Racism isn’t just prejudice, disrespect, or avoidance. It’s a rigged system. Two equally gifted players step up to the plate. One gets three swings. The other begins with two strikes against him. It’s unfair.
Add to this all the prejudice against Asians, Latinos, Muslims, and other groups. Xenophobia is on the rise. Whatever happened to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…")?
Lest you think I’m anti-American, let me say that I’ve observed humans oppressing humans everywhere. The rich distance themselves from the poor. (Jesus didn’t!) Wherever there’s a border, there are wisecracks and tensions and even wars. Oppression is rife in the religious realm, too. Hindus attack Christians (in India). Buddhists persecute Muslims (in Burma). Muslims persecute Christians (this is widespread). Jews suppress Palestinians (in Israel). These things happen because we are sinners. It's a sin problem.
Nor am I claiming that the country hasn’t made headway. It’s not the same world as when I was a boy. The Jim Crow laws were still in effect back then. But we still have a long way to go. Much of the country was built on the backs of slaves. There are so many good things about America, but racial equality isn’t one of them. Maybe it will be one day.
With all the protests—don't you think people are overreacting?
No. Sure, some lapse into violence, but I take this more as a symptom than as a fundamental problem. I suspect that Whites in this country are under-reacting, while many Blacks have been conditioned to hold back. I hope the dialogue and marches don't die down. What a waste if we just revert to the status quo.
How about you—are you racist?
I grew up here. From my first eight years in the South, I remember well the all-black chain gangs slaving behind our property—overseen by Caucasian officers, shotguns at the ready. That sends kids a message. We also lived 10 years in the North. The prejudice was less obvious, but still palpable. I’ll never forget our mayor’s son. Comments and jokes about Jews and Blacks poured from his mouth like a malodorous effluent. (We were in the same Boy Scout troop.) It was offensive. I knew it was wrong.
I became a Christian when I was 18. Since I now had the Holy Spirit, I was pretty sure any residual racism got washed away with all my other sins. I was “colorblind,” and thought that was a good thing. It’s a nice thought—racial equality. Galatians 3:28 speaks of our unity in Christ. But color does matter. “Colorblind” means we are insensitive to all the reasons it does matter.
The more I interact with people globally, the more I am reminded that only a minority of humans are white. The more I study history, read (books like Just Mercy, Black Like Me, The Souls of Black Folk, Between the World and Me, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and White Fragility), and talk with all kinds of people, the more I realize the privilege to which I was born. I realize it’s not enough just to be kind to others. The Lord said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Paul reminds us that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20).
Although I wouldn't say “I am racist,” I can easily say, “I have benefited from racial inequality.”
Is my church fellowship racist?
Is there structural racism in my own church group? Of course. Even though we’re one of the most diverse Christian movements in the world, that doesn’t mean we understand each other or see objectively. Interracial marriage is common. We try to integrate elements of all cultures into our worship. Yet diversity isn't the opposite of racism. The opposite of racism is justice and respect for all—a very tall order, but what the Bible calls us to (Micah 6:8).
On this point I don’t always agree with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Some are hurt when I suggest that they, like me, don’t really “get it.” But the dominant culture isn't in a position to detect systemic inequality, or their own bias. Don’t ask a fish if he’s wet—it’s all he’s ever known. And don’t ask the dictator of North Korea if he thinks he's a tyrant. Ask the citizens. They know.
What should Christians do, biblically speaking?
Maybe we should remember that God's people used to be slaves (Exodus). They were persecuted (Acts and Revelation). Immersing ourselves in the biblical story, we should be more sensitive to racial issues than others. The Bible has a lot to say about injustice, so we should spend time in Amos, Micah, Isaiah—all the prophets.
People need to talk. Can we listen without interrupting, judging, or insisting on airing our own opinions (Proverbs 18:2, 13, 17)? And when change is taking place, can we be supportive—instead of saboteurs?
We know (from our common Christian experience) that the Lord can transform our thinking from worldly to spiritual (Romans 12:2). This will take humility, teamwork, love, energy, and many other qualities (Romans 12:3, 4-8, 9-10, 11, 12-21).
Everyone's talking—on a planetary level (I'm amazed)—but I don't know. I asked an African American that very question earlier today. His frank words: "I hope so. If we don't, we suck as humans." I agree. It's a matter of humanity.
For further consideration:
- What Color is Jesus?
- Racism: Twisted Reasoning
- Slavery & the Bible
- Black Panther
- White Fragility
- CNN interview with author of White Fragility
- The Dangers of Critical Theory (William Lane Craig comments on article by Neil Shenvi) ***
- The Cultural Moment: The Bible, Race, and Critical Theory (Carol Swain, Alisa Childers, Bobby Harrington) ***
- Dictionary definition needs updating (BBC)
- I Know You're Not Racist (Andrew Bernard)
- Just Mercy (Bryan Stephenson)
- Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin)
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs / Linda Brent)
- The Souls of Black Folk (W. E. B. DuBois)
- Is there a Message in the Mayhem? (Malcolm Cox & Andy Boakye) ***
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
- White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White (Daniel Hill) ***
- Transformational Conversations about Race (Christian Ray Flores)
- A Biblical Response to Chattel Slavery (Richard Rodriguez)
- What Does the Bible Say About Racism? (Jim Denison)
- We Can All Be Dangerously Tribal (Obi Abuchi) ***
- Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom (Michael Burns—authored 3 books racism)
- Is Christianity the White Man's Religion? (Antipas Harris) ***
- A Lament & Call to Repent (Shawn Patterson, at Renew.org)
- If you're not an American, this brief video on the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement will bring you up to speed.
*** Added since original article
REPRESENTATIVE RESPONSES [edited for grammar and length]
- Great article. Thanks for your honesty and bluntness.
- This is the most palatable response to the racial issues I've seen so far.
- You should have spoken out more and condemned the violence that's accompanying many of the protests.
- Thank you for encouraging scales to fall of the eyes of the Christian community. While our faith must move us to believe that our creator will take care of us, God is a God of justice and he uses you and me to influence justice… This moment in time is pregnant with potential change... We must keep our heads in the game—dialogue amongst men and women everywhere societal ills exist (with neighbors, police, in executive suites and in boardrooms).
- Thank you for identifying the broad range of prejudice—not only white against black.
- An eloquent article on the state of racism... I felt known, encouraged and hopeful because of your words. I’m a black woman who grew up attending a predominantly white private school and an all-black church. I’ve had identity insecurity my whole life.
- There are real issues around race that the church needs to address, but I object to the term "racism." We of all people should use biblical terminology. Is it hatred? violence? injustice? favoritism? fear? ignorance? They aren't all the same thing. Lumping them together inhibits real discussion leading to solutions.
- Thank you for sharing this. I'm saddened by the blindness of many white Christians when it comes to racial issues. I'm praying that Jesus will open their eyes.
- The murder of George Floyd was able to put a crack in my white man's worldview that I couldn't reconcile with in my heart and mind. It allowed me to see that, perhaps, I'm missing something.
- Your generalizations were a bit too sweeping for me.
- Racism is a two-way street. Blacks are just as racist towards whites. In the 15 resources you recommended, you gave a voice to only 6 non-whites—that's your prejudice. [Actually, you missed a few. There are now 24 sources—15 non-white voices.]
- It’s always been human nature to divide and vilify. This isn’t the result of God’s nature within us, but of living in a broken world with Satan at the helm.
- Excellent treatment of the racism issues.
- As followers of Jesus, we now have a great opportunity to impact others who are coming to realize that humanistic solutions (laws, politics, etc.) simply won’t eradicate injustice. Only true surrender to Jesus can do that—one heart at a time.
- Great thoughts, very timely, and encouraging. I'm praying that we can now not only have frank, understanding and respectful conversations on this issue, but also play a part in ushering in sustained practical change. Sometimes it's easy to feel like this issue falls into the category of "civilian affairs" (2 Tim 2:4), but I am also reminded that John the Baptist publicly shared his conviction on a controversial socio-political issue that ultimately cost him his life (Mark 6:17-19).
- I appreciated your example of humility in seeing that it’s difficult to “get it” as a member of the dominant culture... as well as your encouragement to maintain a godly perspective and response to all of this.
- ... I feel anger, determination and hope—yet processing all the things happening in our country has been exhausting. Seeing your post was a pick-me-up.
- The analogy of the fish being wet is helpful. My stance is this: White Christians need to demolish arguments and be the change. Every one of us (whites / white Christians) puts up some argument against the radical change that needs to happen. It's time we demolished those arguments with scripture.
- Thank you as always for upholding the biblical standards. Your personal reflection on the systemic racism is truly refreshing and healing to the souls of many black people. Thank you again for using your platform to educate, point people to God and call us all to be like Christ.
- As I interact with some "Christians" about the current issues, it's appalling and even hurtful to hear their responses. I am convinced these people don't know their Bible, or don't care... Countless black men have been killed, and George Floyd, made in the image of God, was murdered in an agonizing way—terrorizing the whole black community. But the response isn't sympathy for lost lives, but only a feeling of disgust about the financial loss and the lawlessness of the rioters / looters. Some are bothered by "disturbing sights of the protesters." I don't think there is anything more disturbing than murdering unarmed black people.
- As a foreigner in America, I would like to answer your last question. Unless God moves the hearts of people, the status quo will continue, with a slight improvement. The USA is an inventive and powerful country that can accomplish anything, but it has shown itself to be weak in getting to the bottom of racial issues.
- Good job, despite one mistake. You stated that the 3/5 clause of the constitution counted slaves as 3/5 of a person, and that this was evidence of racism in the US. Actually, the intent and effect of this was to diminish the representation of slave states compared to other states, to decrease the power of those states relative to the others. It punished the slave states, not the slaves.
- There are many white Christians who are compassionate and caring, and hate the injustice they see. However, many are devoted more to their political party than to the teaching of the Bible. Some are more passionate about their gun rights, building a wall (even if it means having Mexican children split from their parents), but care little for the plight of the poor. Their hearts are callous...
- I found your remarks vulnerable, thoughtful, and helpful. I hope we can see lasting change in our lifetimes….
- Our church is not structurally racist, and I know of several examples that prove we aren't.
- I appreciate your candor and willingness to take a stand. I sincerely hope your newsletter will serve as leaven for the fellowship to take a hard look inwardly on this issue. As someone who has traveled extensively, you've seen the extent of prejudice across the world. Your comments on where America is were very balanced, in my opinion. However, that last paragraph—"Do you think things will really change?"—did not give me much hope. As a Christian, I am always hopeful that God will bring about social justice, even in this lifetime. Maybe you are discouraged that it has taken this long, but I have to leave the outcome to our sovereign God, and trust Him to bring about change...
- We are praying from afar that the protests will make a difference, just as we pray we'll do our part re: systemic racism here in Asia.
- Thank you. Your perspective carries weight, and your willingness to speak up sets an example for others in your position.
- I'm incredibly moved by your reflections on race. You articulated certain things that were very hard for me to formulate in my mind clearly. Thank you for not shying away from the issue of race and oppression. It gave me much hope for how God's people may take ownership of complicity with an oppressive world/system.