Racism is an ugly word, and it’s one that is often conflated with the related—but very distinct—word prejudice. In short, prejudice is a prejudgment. We all experience prejudice. If you run into a young man in the grocery store who is 6’10”, you probably assume he plays basketball. This is a rather neutral form of prejudice. Other than asking what is likely an annoying question—”Do you play basketball?”—little harm is done. Not all prejudice is harmless, however, even if the harm is relatively minor. Consider the experience of many Asian folk in this country. Simply based on their physical appearance, they are frequently asked—a bit more loudly and more slowly than normal, “Where are you from?”
Several years ago at a banquet at a local Christian university I was asked where my wife was from. I responded a bit more loudly and more slowly than I needed to, but I wanted him to understand where she was from: “Coo-pers-ville”. It may be easy to dismiss such questions as little more than annoyances, but given the dramatic increase in anti-Asian violence in this country it’s not hard to see the harm caused by assuming those who may appear different are therefore other. The prejudice—pre-judging—that leads to such assumptions, in this case that being of Asian descent is to be foreign, is the very prejudice that can lead to open hostility.
Such prejudice is not directed at everyone in the same way. When I walk into a gas station and look at items for sale, I never experience the prejudgment that I am a shoplifter, yet this is the lived experience of many black folk in our nation. This isn’t racism; this is a prejudgment of a person based on nothing other than his or her skin color. This is an ugly expression of prejudice. I cannot imagine living life always under such suspicion. Inevitably this sort of prejudice will result in an entire people group being treated with contempt and it is this contempt that leads to action. As ugly as prejudice is, racism is actually far worse.
In 2016 the Pew Research Center showed that nearly 40% of white folk think our nation has made the necessary changes to provide white and black people equal rights, while just 8% of black folk believed the same. That was six years ago. In 2017 the City of Grand Rapids revealed the results of a study that showed black drivers in Grand Rapids are twice as likely to be stopped by police officers as non-black drivers, yet are no more likely to have contraband than others. This is hardly unique to Grand Rapids. In 2020 George Floyd was murdered during an arrest for suspicion of using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. More recently right here in our own city, Patrick Lyoya was fatally shot in the back of the head by a police officer as he sought to flee from the officer.
This lack of equal rights covers a broad spectrum of life. Consider the disparity in hiring practices. While several studies have repeated these findings, a study in 2004 showed resumes with “white-sounding” names received 50% more callbacks than resumes with “black-sounding” names. In this study the researchers sent out fictitious resumes with either “white” names or “black” names. Resumes for, say, “John Smith” would get 50% more calls for an interview than identical resumes with “Javontae Smith” listed as the name, even though the experience and qualifications listed on the made-up resume were identical. On average a name like “Tamika Jones” would have to have an additional eight years of experience to get the callbacks that “Tammy Jones” would get.
When paired with the lived experience of prejudice, various disparities such as the one revealed in this study reveal the nature of racism: it is systemic. I haven’t mentioned things like the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights study that showed black pre-school students are nearly four times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as white pre-school students. I haven’t mentioned studies that show doctors are less likely to prescribe pain medication to black patients or that pregnancy-related deaths among black women are more than four times higher than among white women. Nor have I mentioned the incredible disparities in incomes and average net worth between black and brown folk and white folk.
On top of all this, last Saturday a man drove to the city of Buffalo, New York, knowing it had a high concentration of black folk, drove to a supermarket and proceeded to murder ten people and wound two others. He is believed to be the author of a 180-page manifesto espousing the so-called “Great Replacement” theory. This is a conspiracy theory that claims white folk in this country are being systematically replaced by non-white people. The host of the highest-rated cable TV news show has pushed this particular conspiracy theory on more than 400 of his show’s episodes. One wonders why so many would fear becoming the minority in this country. Could it be that so many recognize how terrible the plight of minorities in this country actually is?
Racism—the systemic, even if not organized—oppression of minorities is ugly. It is evil. Racism is the spirit of antichrist. Racism is a tacit denial of the imago Dei—the image of God every single man, woman, and child bears. Racism profanes God’s image in other humans. God never intended his world to be a monoethnic expression of himself. God is too vast and too amazing and too wonderful to be represented fully by any single group of people. God intended for humans to be fruitful and multiply and thereby develop new cultures that would more fully express his glory. To deny equal status and equal rights on the basis of skin color is a denial of an essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.Galatians 3:28–29 ESV
As we’ve seen throughout the book of Joshua, God never intended for his ancient people, the people of Israel, to be a monoethnic people separate and distinct from all other people groups. The “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) who left Egypt with the physical descendants of Abraham joined them at Mount Sinai and were included in God’s covenant. This is how both Moses and Aaron’s son Eleazar could marry African women. This is how Caleb the Kenizzite—a Canaanite people group—could represent the tribe of Judah as their spy sent by Moses into the promised land. This is how Rahab could marry the son of the most-prominent man in the tribe of Judah, though she was both a Canaanite and formerly a prostitute. The apostle Paul expressed the idea that in Christ ethnic and religious heritage and socio-economic status are not the defining factors for who is in and who is out.
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.Colossians 3:11 ESV
Paul says here in the church being Greek or Jew is irrelevant. A Greek who believes in Jesus is still a Greek and a Jew who believes in Jesus is still a Jew. Faith in Christ does not eliminate our ethnic heritage. Neither does our religious heritage. The difference between those circumcised and those uncircumcised has to do with religious upbringing, which was closely tied to the ethnicity of the parents as Jewish folk were those who circumcised their children. Paul was adamant that uncircumcised followers of Jesus did not need to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus. Romans viewed those of other cultures to be “barbarians” while Scythians were so barbaric they had their own category. Paul says that having a culture distinct from that of the dominant culture has no bearing on one’s status in the church. Finally he says in the church there is neither slave nor free. This was as much about socio-economic status as it was about legal status. A large percentage of people in the Roman empire were slaves and were therefore economically dependent on their “masters” for support. In Ephesians Paul wrote that God in Christ has taken from both broader groups—Jews and the nations—to create one new man in Christ. This doesn’t obliterate the differences between us. Rather, it illustrates the unity in Christ we have that is greater than skin color or cultural expression or economic status or education or political philosophy.
To say this another way, the unity of Christ is a unity of diverse peoples who share faith in Christ. Sometimes just about the only thing we may have in common between us is faith in Jesus—and that’s enough for true, genuine unity. This is why racism is the spirit of antichrist. It is directly contrary to God’s purposes in this world. God in Christ through his Spirit is creating his church. The systemic oppression of others in this country on the basis of skin color and cultural heritage is a direct attack on the unity created by Christ’s death for his people.
This unity that God intends in Christ should cause followers of Jesus to lament the very real and persistent racism in our nation. Those of us in the majority should be able to weep with our brothers and sisters who feel the weight of racism far more deeply than we feel it. The truth of the matter is that if I were suddenly thrust into an environment in which I were an oppressed minority, I still would not experience the oppression in the same way that a black person in this country experiences it, for I still would not have grown up hearing stories from my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins and next-door neighbors who experienced that same oppression. Even if I were suddenly an oppressed minority, I would have spent most of my life with a very different experience and would remember a time when I was not. Every black person born in this nation has had to work harder to get a job interview, has had to be on better behavior so as to not be suspended from pre-school, has had to endure suspicions of criminal activity based solely on his skin color. For his entire life.
Our faith in Christ and our longing for his coming kingdom should lead us to not fear changing demographics. If the Lord of all should bring people to our land from far and wide, let us recognize the beauty of our God seen in the incredible diversity of his image bearers, and let us recognize that in many ways God is bringing his mission field to our neighborhoods. Still further, given that every single nation on earth counts among its residents followers of Jesus regardless of the legality of the Christian faith, let us recognize that in many ways God is bringing missionaries to our neighborhoods—committed followers of Jesus who wish to proclaim the good news of Christ and him crucified to a world in desperate need of the Prince of Peace.
This truly is God’s world, and we just live in it. Let’s live in it as his people.