Race, Racism, and Reality
by Dr A.J. Higgins (USA)
In 2012, the British weekly, The Observer, released a video showing semi-naked Jarawa tribal women in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands being forced to dance in front of tourists in return for food. Apparently, a local policeman was bribed to take tourists into the reserve, where the natives were persuaded to dance for food and other gifts. The outcry from the public was justifiably one of anger. Human beings were being treated like specimens in a zoo. Righteous indignation over the demeaning of other human beings erupted over the incident. We all sense that there is an inherent dignity in every human being.
Yet, racial prejudice is virtually universal. It is not only a matter of the colour of one’s skin; racial prejudice exists in many countries based on differences in ethnicity with another ethnic group being deemed racially inferior. Jews deemed Gentiles an inferior race. The Samaritans were viewed as so inferior that the Jews had no dealings with them (John 4). The Philistines hated the Jews, and the Romans hated them as well. It must be confessed, however, that racism in the western world exists primarily on the basis of a person’s skin pigmentation. In Europe, the prejudice and bigotry is linked more with the ethnic background of different people groups. In other lands, native groups and aboriginals are viewed as less “advanced” and inferior by the dominant culture. It may be a broad generalisation, but it is likely every culture has another culture which it views as inferior or less desirable. If we think we are free of racial bias, we are probably deceiving ourselves.
Those familiar with the history of slavery and the Civil War in the USA are painfully aware of how Scripture was employed by both sides in the conflict to justify the moral positions they held. Reproach was brought upon the Word of God and, doubtless, the heart of God was grieved.
For some born and raised in the inner cities of the USA where racial violence was an ever-present reality, racism and prejudice is still a constant struggle to overcome. Those who have been the victims of prejudice and injustice by another race justifiably suspect and tend to keep at arm’s length, those who have been the oppressor. In this manner, suspicion and distrust build between the races, and a very sad, and almost helpless spiral of alienation, is created. Our legacy has bought us a very tragic situation.
Its Erroneous Basis
Prejudices die hard. People do not like facts to get in the way of their opinions. How different, then, are the races? The assumption of genetic superiority of one race over another has fuelled the arguments of those who speak of white supremacy or the superiority of any group over another. There is, in truth, very little difference genetically between the races. “A recent study of human genetic material of different races concluded that the DNA of any two people in the world would differ by just 2/10ths of one percent. Of this variation, only six percent can be linked to racial categories. The remaining 94 percent is ‘within race’ variation.”
Humanity is comprised of one race, both scientifically and scripturally. Despite the different ethnicities, geographies, and cultures in our world, all human beings are nearly identical genetically. “The genetic differences that reflect variation in physical appearance across all mankind involve 0.01% of our genes.” All humans are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). At creation, God made one “race” of humanity. This was part of Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill. He said, “He hath made of one blood all nations …” (Acts 17:26).
The Erroneous Belief
One of the “scriptural” arguments for racial distinction and the inferiority of Africans has historically been the so-called “curse on Ham”. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons (along with Shem and Japheth). Due to his sin, Ham brought a curse upon Canaan his son. The curse was not on Ham. Pro-slavery advocates in past generations taught, and tenaciously held to this concept to justify racial discrimination and slavery.
There is nothing in Scripture to support such a concept. The curse on Canaan was not the origin of the black race. In fact, Ham had four sons – Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan – and only one was cursed. So any seeking refuge in the curse of Ham has no grounds for this argument.
The descendants of Canaan were, indeed, among the wicked inhabitants of the land of Canaan. The judgment of God fell upon them when Israel entered the land and destroyed the nations which practised all the abominations which God detested (Josh 9:23; 1Kings 9:20-21).
Rather than supporting discrimination, Scripture teaches that prejudice based upon race, socio-economic class, or ethnic origin is sinful and inconsistent with the character of God (Jas 2:9-13). We are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and have value and dignity. God does not show partiality or favouritism (Deut 10:17; Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9), and neither should we.
Racism gained an unexpected ally in the 19th century in the person of Charles Darwin. His work, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, gave a pseudo-scientific basis for discrimination. His theory of “survival of the fittest” implied that a dominant animal among animals was the fittest. Extrapolated to society, this meant that the dominant culture must be superior. Darwin very likely did not mean to apply the concept of favoured races in this particular book to human beings. Others took the concept far beyond what Charles Darwin intended.
We are prone to racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudice for many reasons, none of which stand the test of Scripture. Feelings of pride which cause us to view ourselves as different from others may cause us to look down on other groups as not being our equal. This pride may be the result of nationalism or some socio-economic advantage. God sets Himself in opposition to pride (Jas 4:6).
Strangely, almost paradoxically, racism and prejudice may stem from feelings of inferiority. In order to feel significant, I must make others insignificant. Sin is so subtle and pervasive in our makeup that both pride and insecurity can fuel prejudice and bigotry.
Fear often leads to prejudice. This fear may be related to competitiveness in the job market, to erosion of one’s cherished culture, or to issues on a global or world stage. Fear may be due to a higher crime rate among people who are economically deprived or may be related to personal experiences of bodily harm or oppression. We fear what we don’t understand. When something is strange and foreign, our natural reaction is one of fear and distrust. Racial and cultural differences may even seem dangerous to us. If we do not make the effort to understand those who are different from us, we may develop an immediate bias against them. Frequently, ignorance is behind fear.
The Erroneous Behaviour
Racial prejudice has within itself the power to perpetuate its own mindset. As a result of prejudice and discrimination, educational and job opportunities are not always made available to those being discriminated against. This serves to keep them in the lower socioeconomic bracket, living in inner cities, with high unemployment, and all that these circumstances bring. The frustration of trying to “beat the system” results in a sense of futility and despair. In turn, those wielding the power which creates these circumstances look on and feel justified in their prejudice because of the lack of motivation and ambition of those whom they oppress. There is no racial gene which predisposes to crime and violence; it is the poverty and futility which contribute to them.
As cited earlier by the allusion to the passage in James, to treat anyone in a discriminatory manner based on social, economic, or racial factors, is to dishonour the Lord of glory (Jas 2:1). All human distinctions and “greatness” disappear in the light of His glory. For a believer to act in a superior manner toward another culture, to harbour bigotry and prejudice toward an ethnic group or race, or to speak despairingly of them is viewed as sin by the Lord.
We are creatures of our culture. Most of us are tainted with the virus of bigotry. It is another of the sins which we must judge in the presence of God and seek grace to overcome. The influx of foreign cultures into North America has exposed believers to new and different ways of life. Some assemblies where gospel blessing has been seen in these new ethnic and racial groups have experienced “growing” pains. Adjustments have been made, suspicions assuaged, and differences which do not violate Scripture have been accepted. This last point is vital to grasp: no culture is “spiritual”.
The Erroneous Balanced
Differences do exist between races and between cultures. These differences have to do with the long history of civilization, and are not the result of more depraved minds in one group as opposed to another. Culture is the summation of a people’s history, environment, struggles, and values. No culture has an “inside track” on spirituality. When any culture clashes with Scripture, it must be altered. When a culture does not violate Scripture or scriptural principle, it can be left alone.
God does not favour one culture over another. When we trace God’s hand in history, He does seem to move among different people at different points in time. For the last several centuries, the western world has enjoyed this privilege. Obviously, that is now changing.
The many scriptures which speak of God’s love for the world, of Christ coming to be the Saviour of the world, and of the Spirit’s work in the world, should remind us that God is not favouring any one group with the gospel message. He loves every ethnic group. He loves without discrimination. Christ came for every people, group, and race. It cost the Godhead just as much to save a Chinese, African or Spanish speaking person, as it did to save a white Anglo-Saxon.
Galatians 3:28 declares that, in Christ positionally, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Those who discriminate are described by James, as “judges with evil thoughts” (Jas 2:4). We are to love our neighbours as ourselves (Jas 2:8). The racism which existed between Jew and Gentile was put to end by the Lord Jesus Christ, destroying the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14). Racism, prejudice, and discrimination are therefore contradictions to the cross of Christ. God is impartial and loves with impartiality. How can we, by demeaning the value of those He loves, work at cross purposes to Him?
Linked with perhaps the greatest Christology found in our Bible, Philippians 2:5-8, is the practical and personal imperative to be marked by “lowliness of mind”, and in Romans 12:3, not to think more highly than we ought to think, and to “esteem others better than ourselves” (Phil 2:3, KJV). This Christ-like mindset is the antithesis of prejudice and discrimination. Romans 12:10 enjoins us to “outdo” one another in honour. Admittedly, this is referring to believers within the family of God. And certainly, if we, as believers, find racism in our heart, we need to judge it, repent of it, and seek grace to overcome it.
In Colossians 3:11, Paul, referring to those in the Body of Christ, wrote, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all”. In this passage, the Spirit of God removed four barriers: national distinctions (Greek or Jew), religious distinctions (circumcised or uncircumcised), cultural distinctions (barbarian or Scythian), and economic distinctions (slave or free).
The Lord Jesus broke through barriers of racism and prejudice when He healed Gentiles, cared for widows, and brought salvation to a despised Samaritan woman at the well. The Spirit of God saved an Ethiopian in Acts 8 and a Roman in Acts 10, sandwiching these events around the salvation of a Jew in Acts 9. The Godhead knows no racial bias. As we move in fellowship with divine persons, we need, by the grace of God, to root out the evil of racism from our hearts.