Counter-Cultural Christianity: Racism

January 31, 2015 | Brian Bill

Do you feel some discomfort right now?  Me too.  And it’s about to get worse.  Let’s admit upfront that there’s racism in the room and its not all Anglo.

One of the reasons I am so compelled to preach this series on controversial issues is because the church has largely been silent on these topics.  But my motives are deeper than that.  I want us to be like a group of people called the Men of Issachar.  Listen to what is said about them in 1 Chronicles 12:32: “…who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.”  The context is the time period between Saul’s leadership and David’s reign.  In the midst of upheaval and uncertainty…

  • They understood their culture.  The word “understanding” means, “to have skillful insight.”  It’s important for us to have insight into what’s going on in our society.  This word also has the idea of “turning away from evil.”  We must not cave into our culture but instead live counter-culturally.
  • They engaged their culture.  They knew what Israel “ought to do.”  This phrase refers to a “moral obligation or purposeful response.”  We must be engaged with people, not enraged at them, moving from understanding to action. God is calling us to revolutionary love not reactionary hate.  We’ve analyzed and now we’re going to act.  We’re urged to discern our culture and then we must deploy into our culture as ambassadors of Christ.  Here’s a simple prayer: “Lord, help me to understand my culture and then enable me to engage with people in order to share the gospel.”

To my shame, I have never preached a sermon on racism.  But I’m convinced and convicted of the need to do so.  In my preparation and research I found it difficult to find sermons on this topic from other white evangelical pastors.  That says something, doesn’t it?

There is raw racial rancor in our country and community.  That’s why many pastors hesitate to preach on it.  I realize I will probably offend someone today because I won’t say something totally right and I’m sure I’ll leave out some things that should be said.  And, since I’m still in process with my learning and understanding I know I will not be able to enunciate every nuance.  While this is my first sermon on racism, it won’t be my last.

Having said all that, I’m not afraid to jump in and see what God’s Word has to say.  Three weeks ago we tackled tithing and giving, two weeks ago was abortion, and last week was homosexuality.  That’s quite a line-up, isn’t it?  Next week will be suicide.  Again, our aim is to not be politically correct but biblically correct.  We can’t be silent when God has spoken, can we?  John Piper urges pastors to not be cowards in the pulpit and to not think of racism as a temporary crisis that will eventually fade away, but as a sinful reality that will remain until Jesus returns.

According to a December Gallup poll, for the first time in more than two decades, more people are now saying that race is the most pressing issue facing our country.  The only thing that more Americans named as a problem was general dissatisfaction with the government and politicians.

Some of us may think that we don’t see color when we look at others or that our hearts are color-blind.  According to an article on entitled “The New Threat: Racism Without Racists,” research over the past 50 years shows that we’re more racist than we think we are.

  • One study conducted by a Brigham Young University economics professor showed that white NBA referees call more fouls on black players and black referees call more fouls on white players.
  • Professors from the University of Chicago and MIT sent out 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads.  Each resume included identical qualifications except for one variation – some applicants had Anglo-sounding names while others had black-sounding names.  Those with Anglo-sounding names were 50% more likely to get interviews than their black-sounding counterparts.

It’s good for us to admit right up front that we tend to absorb racial bias without even knowing it.

Let’s start with a definition of racism.  I like the one that John Piper adopted in his excellent book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian: “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.”  Or to say it more simply: “The heart that believes one race is more valuable than another is a sinful heart and the behavior that distinguishes one race as more valuable than another is a sinful behavior.” 

At its core, racism says, “I’m better than you.  I’m more valuable than you.  I have more worth than you.”  A racist heart ends up dehumanizing those who are different from us.

By the way, have you noticed that I’m white?  I admit that there’s something called, “Predominate Culture Privilege.”  I like how one pastor says it, “I’m a white dude born to white parents living under the privilege of the dominant culture.”  I have had two experiences with being a minority.  First of all, I’m Polish and have heard my share of ethnic jokes (most of which I find funny).  Second, our family lived in Mexico City, Mexico for three years where we experienced what it feels like to not be part of the dominant culture.

In order to stretch my understanding of this issue I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this week and was reminded that I have so much to learn about our country’s past mistakes.  I also pondered some statistics about what the future will look like in our country.  Here are some projections made in 2008 by the Census Bureau.

  • Minorities, now roughly 1/3 of the US population, are expected to be the majority in 2042.
  • The Hispanic population is projected to nearly triple, from 46 million to 132 million by 2050.  Its share of the total population is projected to double from 15 percent to 30 percent and nearly one out of three US residents will be Hispanic in three to four decades.
  • The black population is projected to increase from 41 million to 66 million by 2050.
  • The Asian population is projected to climb from 15 million to over 40 million.

Tracing Racial Reconciliation Through the Bible

My approach today is to walk through some key passages in the Bible in order to catch God’s heart for unity within diversity and His desire to enfold all ethnicities into His church. 

Just as we did the last two weeks, let’s go again to Genesis where we’re reminded in 1:27 that everyone is created in the image of God and therefore has great worth and value: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”  The imago Dei has been stamped on every human being.  Physical differences and ethnic distinctions are secondary to being made in the image of God.  C.S. Lewis put it like this: “You’ve never met a mere mortal.”  Or, as H.G. Wells said: “Our true nationality is mankind.”

We are of various ethnicities but only one race.  In that sense, Ken Ham is right when he says that the only race is the human race.  We’re all ultimately children of Adam and Eve so we’re all related. 

In Genesis 3, sin enters the world and disharmony and disease and disunity are unleashed.  The human race multiplies and if you fast-forward to Genesis 11, everyone in the world is speaking the same language and a group of people decides to build a tower to the heavens, known as the Tower of Babel.  Verse 4 tells us that they want to make a name for themselves and they didn’t want to be scattered over the earth.  In verse 7 we read that God confused their language and scattered them over the face of the earth.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and makes a covenant with him, promising in verse 3 that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed.  God makes it clear in His unfolding revelation that while He called the Israelites to Himself, His plan was for them to be a light to the nations around them.  Psalm 67:3: “God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”  God blessed Israel so that they would be a blessing to the cultures around them.  God cares for people with different ethnicities like Rahab and Ruth and even the Ninevites as seen in the Book of Jonah.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the Jews became proud of their status and instead of reaching out they ended up despising the Gentiles.  The prophet Micah proclaims a vision of a promised community made up of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures in 4:2: “Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’” And in Amos 5:24 we read this: “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

When we get to the Gospels, John Piper points out, “Jesus is saying with His coming, a radically new way of defining the people of God is here, namely faith in Him.  Faith in Jesus trumps ethnicity.”  In Luke 10:33, Jesus holds up the Good Samaritan, a hated half-breed as the hero in a story about compassionate neighboring and in Mark 7:26, He heals the daughter of a Syrophoenican, who is part of a mixed-race people group.  When He drove the moneychangers out of the temple He said this in Mark 11:17: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  And when Jesus gave His final commission to His followers, who were all from the same cultural background, He told them to cross cultures and continents in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

When we come to the Book of Acts, Jesus again clarifies that the gospel is for everyone in 1:8: “…You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  And in Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, as R.C. Sproul says, “Babel is reversed” when the Holy Spirit is poured out on all peoples from different languages.  Check out this list of culturally diverse people in Acts 2:8-11: “And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?  Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

In Acts 6, the new church, made up of those from a Jewish culture and those from other cultures had some conflict because Greek-speaking widows were being neglected.  They made some adjustments and accommodations in order to keep the ethnically diverse congregation together by appointing seven deacons.

In Acts 8, Philip, a white Greek guy preaches the gospel to a black Ethiopian and he gets saved and immediately baptized.  Then in Acts 10, Peter who was Jewish and held to Old Testament dietary laws, is doing his “Take 15 in 2015” Bible reading and has a vision where heaven opens up and a huge bedsheet descends in front of him. 

In the sheet are all sorts of animals that were considered “unclean” and forbidden food for the Jewish person.  God speaks into Peter, having to repeat Himself three times because he is so hesitant: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”  Peter refuses and in verse 15 he hears this voice: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”  

Verse 28 reveals the battle going on in Peter’s heart as he greets a room full of Romans: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation…”  He’s way out of his comfort zone.  He’s the like the guy in our opening video – “We don’t serve your kind here.”  But we also see his willingness to change: “…But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”  

God gave Peter this object lesson because the very next person he spoke to was a man from another culture, to a hated Roman military officer named Cornelius.  Peter finally gets it, and puts aside his ethnic superiority when he says these words in Acts 10:34: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.”  Drop down to verse 43: “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”

Everyone can maintain their own ethnicity and cultural distinctives and yet be enfolded into one racially diverse community called the church.

In Acts 15, the early church had its first major dispute.  It wasn’t over the color of carpeting or music styles.  The conflict was actually cultural because the gospel was exploding among different ethnic groups.  Ethnically diverse congregations were causing Jewish background Christ followers to have coronaries.  The church in Jerusalem has its first business meeting and votes to not make non-Jewish people become Jewish in order to follow Jesus.  Everyone can maintain their own ethnicity and cultural distinctives and yet be enfolded into one racially diverse community called the church.  When this decision was written down and circulated in a letter, people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds according to verse 31 “rejoiced over its encouragement.”  

Later on, Peter enjoys his newly found food freedom and is eating Bacon wrapped little smokies with some Greek guys at a Super Bowl party.  He’s having a good time even though the Packers aren’t playing, but when some Jewish-background Jesus followers find out, Peter stuffs his bacon under the couch cushion and attempts to go back to the old rules and his racist heart.  Friends, because of our sinfulness, we always drift back to homogeny.  Barnabas has an epic fail as well.  

In Galatians 2 Paul calls both of them out, confronting them publicly because it’s such a big deal.  Listen to verse 14: “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?”  Friends, we must call racism out when we see it as well.  

Paul sets the record straight in Galatians 3:28 when he says that unity in Christ trumps racial superiority: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  The gospel of grace trumps race.

Ephesians 2:14-16 hammers this home as we hear God’s vision for a reconciled community: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.”  Jesus Christ has restored and reconciled the races.  There are no longer two or ten or twenty or 20,000…there is now one.  Before Jesus, there were two ethnic groups on earth: Jew and Gentile.  After His resurrection and ascension, a new ethnic group was formed, made up of Jews and Gentiles, called “one new man” or the church.

Paul is using a word picture that everyone would understand.  The Jews worshipped in the Temple where there were walls and separated areas.  The Gentiles could hang out in the courtyard but they weren’t allowed to go any further.  In fact, archaeologists have discovered an inscription on the wall of the outermost court that read: “Whoever is captured past this point will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.” Jewish women could go into the next room and then Jewish men had access to go into the next area.

The Bible says that Jesus Christ has broken down all the walls of separation and made everyone one.  Everyone has full and complete access.  The Greek word for “one” means “new kind, unprecedented, novel, unheard of.”  John Piper says it this way in his book Bloodlines: “Racial harmony is a blood issue, not just a social issue. The bloodline of Jesus Christ is deeper than bloodlines of race.”  James 2:9: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

I love the picture of multiple people groups praising together in Revelation 5:9: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”  Revelation 7:9-10 gives us more detail: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Our worship down here is but a dress rehearsal for worship up there when all reconciled races will gather around the throne to worship the Lamb who was slain.

What About Edgewood?

Have you noticed that the QCA is a racially diverse community?  I won’t take the time to go through all the demographics but its important to be cognizant of our culture.  According to the 2010 Census, in Scott County, 86% of the population is white, 7% black, almost 6% Hispanic and 2% Asian.  In Rock Island County, 81% is white, 12% Hispanic, 9% black and 1.6% Asian.  I studied the stats for the greater QCA area as well but for the sake of time will just list the larger cities in our area.

  • Davenport is 10% black, 77% white, 7% Hispanic and 2% Asian.
  • Bettendorf is 3% Asian, 4% black, 4% Hispanic, and 88% white.
  • Rock Island is 68% white, 17% black, 11% Hispanic and 1% Asian.
  • Moline is 18% Hispanic, 3% Asian, 73% white and 5% black.

While Edgewood is made up of people from all different backgrounds, I long for us to more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity in our communities.  We need to intentionally integrate and become a refuge for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.

In order to help me grow I asked three non-white Edgewood members to give their input.

  • The church needs to remember not to make judgments on how black people or any minority will act based on what they hear on TV or from others…We as individuals have different backgrounds and life stories that can very well contradict the stereotypes that are “supposed” to define us.  They should spend time getting to know and understand us first.
  • We find Edgewood to be very welcoming…the mind can harbor ill thoughts and become a ticking time bomb if not diffused!  Every race must recognize we are all created in the image of God, having an intelligent mind, male & female, different skin tones, likes & dislikes. We all experience racism, but it’s how we choose to respond, and know our youth are observing our actions at all times. We must be the example, and not the reason racism continues to exist.
  • There are many like us out there who don’t really have a race to “belong to”, especially within the millennial generation…regarding how the church should not respond: we should stop advocating colorblindness. God didn’t sketch creation in black and white; He illustrated it on a canvas of colors. The idea of colorblindness comes from good intentions but what it essentially communicates is “forget about where you came from, forget about your family, and forget how God made you.”…The answer to racism is not found in running to government and making more laws, but in running to our neighbors, of all colors, and gaining more understanding so that we can call out racism whenever it rears its ugly anti-gospel head… Regarding what the church should be doing: it should listen.

Action Steps

Two years ago, USC conducted a study that examined the connection between religious groups and racism and discovered that religious people tend to be more racist than non-religious people.  I don’t see how that can be.  If that’s true it’s totally unacceptable.

Are we gracious or racist?

Here’s the bottom line: Grace must affect how we look at race.  Are we gracious or racist? Martin Luther King, Jr. penned these pointed and poignant words more than fifty years ago: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted on the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”  

Friends, we have far to go…but the gospel is enough!  Diversity is uncomfortable and difficult but it is decidedly better because it is biblical.  Pruning is always painful and the pursuit of holiness hurts.  But let’s be honest – we won’t drift into diversity, we’ll drift away from it.  One pastor says, “To embrace diversity is to lean into uncomfortable conversations and to risk being misunderstood.”  You may look around today and think, “These just aren’t my people.”  Actually, we are your people because we are the people of God.

To paraphrase the video we watched at the beginning, “One of our jobs is to get rid of the prejudice in our church!  The problem is not the color of my skin.  The problem is the condition of my heart.  And only Jesus Christ can fix that.”  Here are some ways we can do that.

  1. Repent of racist attitudes, words and actions.  The Southern Baptist Convention has recently launched a racial reconciliation initiative, signed by pastors from white, black, Asian, Native American, and Latino communities in which churches are being called to repent of racism and unify in love.  We likewise need to repent as a church and as individual Christians because it’s really a heart issue.  Let’s own our pride and our prejudices (let’s not let east/west divide us or Illinois or Iowa be our identity).  No more.  No longer.  Not here.
  2. Listen and love.  We’re drawn to those like us and we’re repelled by those different from us.  Let’s enter into awkward conversations by intentionally moving toward someone with a different background or skin color.  Refuse to tell or listen to racial or ethnic jokes.  We all have blind spots.  Racism wears many disguises.  No one automatically admits bias or prejudice or hypocrisy so let’s listen and let’s learn to love.
  3. Let’s make Edgewood ethnically and racially diverse and yet harmonious and united.  This is a place of grace for discussions about race.  We gather together no matter our skin color or background.  We grow together because we can’t grow alone.  We give to each other because of what we’ve been given.  And we go with the gospel to people who are different from us because the dividing wall of hostility has been knocked down by the gospel.  That includes the nations living next door as God has brought refugees to us and it also includes our neighbors and the nations around the world.

Since our country is focused on a big game today, let’s listen to what an NFL player named Benjamin Watson had to say after the Ferguson verdict.  When he posted it on Facebook it went viral.  I won’t take the time to read all of it but I hope you will.  After expressing that he has been angry, frustrated, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused and hopeless, he also said he was hopeful.  And then he said this:

“I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem.  SIN is the reason we rebel against authority.  SIN is the reason we abuse our authority.  SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own.  SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn.  BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind.  One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being.  The cure for…tragedies is not education or exposure.  It’s the Gospel…I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”

Romans 10:12-13: “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.’”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?