a Biblical Perspective
I am willing to preach on any Biblical topic, no matter how fraught with controversy it may be. However, I must admit that even my spirit quails a little bit at the thought of preaching one of the sermons that has been requested—a sermon on racism. It’s both a very simple and a very complicated topic, and the complications come from our personal and national history with race.
To illustrate this, let me talk about the complications of my own history. Don’t let the lack of accent fool you. The roots of my family tree are firmly in the South! The man in the picture on the screen is my great-great grandfather. His name was Thomas Jefferson Tynes. Though the picture is of him as an old man, in his youth, he fought for the Confederacy. In 1862, at age 16, he lied about his age to enlist in the 6th Virginia Cavalry. For the next three years, he fought with Robert E. Lee and rode with Jeb Stuart. During the Gettysburg campaign, he was wounded. I believe that he fought bravely, as did countless thousands of others who fought for the South.
However, it is also true that my great-great grandfather came from a family of slave-owners. He benefited from and probably participated in cruelty and injustice wreaked upon the innocent. Closer to home, I don’t have any trouble thinking of older relatives of mine who loved me and were good to me, but also were as racist as they could possibly be. They thought and did wrong, but these are my flesh and blood. These are my people, and that makes it complicated.
I say all this for several reasons. First, if you’ve got complications in your backstory too, I totally get where you’re coming from. Second, when we encounter those who speak passionately from their own history and experience, let’s remember to respond with understanding and grace. If somebody looks at my family and says, “What a bunch of evil oppressors!”, I get where they’re coming from too.
Third, though, as present as the past is when it comes to racism, we can’t allow the past to define us. Rather than being conformed to history, we must be transformed by Christ. With this in mind, then, let’s consider racism from a Biblical perspective.
From this perspective, I see three problems with looking down on someone else because of their race. The first of these is that GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY. Look at Acts 10:34-35. The context here, of course, is Peter preaching the first gospel sermon to the Gentiles. Why is he doing this?
Fundamentally, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
The usual racist argument, by anybody against anybody, is that Race X is better than Race Y because members of Race Y aren’t as smart, aren’t as moral, etc. I have two issues with that. First, I don’t think it can be proven. For instance, lots of racists like to point to standardized test scores as evidence, but I suspect that test scores do a much better job of measuring wealth and educational opportunity than they do of measuring intellectual ability.
Second, it’s ungodly to measure anybody’s inherent worth by their ability. Jesus didn’t just die for smart people. He didn’t just die for people who are good at math. He certainly didn’t just die for white people! He died for everybody, regardless of ability, regardless of race, and if Jesus looked at somebody and said, “He’s worth dying for,” who am I to argue?
We have no right to assign to anybody a value different than the one that Jesus assigned, and to Him, everyone is precious. When we consider how to treat others, we’re not supposed to take our cue from our families. We’re not supposed to take our cue from the world around us. We’re supposed to take our cue from the Lord, and His love allows no room for racism.
Second, racism is problematic because IT BELONGS TO THE OLD SELF. Look at Colossians 3:9-11. In this context in Colossians, Paul is talking about the spiritual transformation that Christians are to undergo. There are attributes that Christ calls us to put off, and there are attributes that He calls us to put on. We aren’t to be our old selves anymore. We are to become new creations in Him.
As this text reveals, one of the characteristics of unregenerate humankind is that it assigns different values to people in different categories. We think of racism as a uniquely modern and American problem, but in reality, it’s as old as the tower of Babel. 2000 years ago, there were all sorts of labels that the people of the ancient world liked to assign to each other. You were a Greek, you were a Jew, you were a barbarian, you were a Scythian, you were a slave, and so on. Typically, you sought out the company of people who shared your label, and you sneered at the ones who didn’t. Many of the ancient Roman plays were filled with racial stereotyping. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Paul says, though, that such a labeling mindset is part of the old way of thinking. Just as Christians are to put aside anger, lying, and dirty jokes, they are to put aside the labeling of racism. Racial labeling is evidence of a mind that has not been renewed in knowledge after the image of God. We’re not supposed to look at people and see skin tone and ethnic background. We’re supposed to look at people and see souls, because that’s what God wants us to see.
The third issue with racism is that WE ARE ONE IN CHRIST. Consider with me Galatians 3:27-29. As Christians, it is wrong for us to evaluate anybody according to characteristics that have no spiritual significance. It’s doubly wrong for us to evaluate one another that way.
I know you’ve heard me tell stories about O.J., a black brother who was part of the Joliet congregation and a dear friend of mine. Sadly, during my last few years in Illinois, O.J. developed brain cancer and died. The man who preached his funeral was John Meyer, one of the former elders there, a man who is as white as I am.
O.J. was an important man in the black community in Joliet. The funeral home was packed, and the only white people there were members of the Joliet church. John began his eulogy by saying, “O.J. was my brother. I’m sure you can all see the resemblance.” He brought the house down!
The thing is, though, I can see the resemblance between John and O.J. They didn’t look a thing alike, of course, but they both loved God, loved His word, and earnestly desired to be more like Jesus. In the things that matter, they were and are brothers, and they loved one another as brothers.
This is how we must be. As I said at the beginning, blood is important. Family ties matter. However, the most important blood in our lives must be the blood of Jesus, and the most important ties, the ties that bind in Christ. Perhaps overcoming racial division is impossible in the world, but it is mandatory in the church. Only when we find unity with one another can we find unity with God.
By Matthew W. Bassford
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