Racism And The Church: America’s Ugly Legacy

Jun 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a city policeman comes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, massive unemployment and fear stoked by uncertainty and tragedy.  In addition, the nation lacks the calming moral leadership that can foster unity and oneness of purpose.  Instead, there is division and bullying.  The demonstrations that ensued throughout the nation after Floyd’s murder, to some extent, echo the cataclysmic events that unfolded in 1968.  But, although there has been vandalism, looting and some burning of buildings, the comparison with 1968 breaks down.  The vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful and organized.  For those of us who love Jesus Christ, the tragic murder of George Floyd must cause us to think biblically about racism and our past as a nation—and the church.  The aspects of American history that focus on race cannot be ignored; they must be acknowledged.

A brief overview of America’s struggle with race:

  • As Timothy Dalrymple demonstrates, “The first slaves arrived upon these shores before the Pilgrims, before there was a Massachusetts or Connecticut. Slavery had been established for 113 years when George Washington was born and 157 years when the Declaration of Independence was written. Nine of our early presidents were slaveholders. Slavery meant husbands and wives, parents and children were violently torn apart and never saw one another again. It meant white men repeatedly raped hundreds of thousands of black girls and women.” America is the only modern nation that had racial, chattel slavery in its midst from the beginning.  It was justified by seeing slaves as property, only partly human (i.e., 3/5ths of a human as defined in the Constitution of 1787).  By the Civil War, there were over 4 million slaves in the US and slavery affected the social, economic, and cultural development of America.
  • “Slavery in the antebellum economy was one of the most powerful engines of wealth creation in the history of our people. It generated economic and cultural capital that flowed downstream into affluent communities, as well as opportunity for labor and investment and educational institutions that supported research, innovation, and quality of life. Yet it left African Americans utterly desolate.”
  • The Abolitionist movement to end slavery had its origins in the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, but it took the Civil War (1861-1865) and the subsequent 13th Amendment to end this abominable institution.
  • The Reconstruction of the South (1865-1876), which followed the Civil War, recognized the need to incorporate former slaves into the nation, and attempted to do so by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, together with a series of Civil Rights laws.  Union troops occupied the South enforcing these Amendments and laws, along with the formation of educational  institutions and other agencies to help the former slaves (e.g., the Freedman’s Bureau).  But once union troops left the South in 1876, the South denied blacks their role as legitimate members of the community and began to institute the laws of rigid segregation of the races (i.e., the Jim Crow laws).  Blacks were now brutalized by the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of blacks became the norm well into the 20th century.  Indeed, “lynchings terrorized black families and enforced a regime of domination and control, while southern legislators found ever more creative ways of preventing blacks from voting or defending themselves and their property.”
  • The Protestant churches across the South (e.g., Southern Baptists) gave solid support for the institution of slavery before the Civil War and then attempted to give biblical support to the laws of segregation in both the north and the south from the 1870s through the 1960s.
  • Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” laid the foundation for today’s Republican Party, winning the allegiance of white Southerners who rejected the modern Civil Rights movement.  Hence, the massive shift of southern whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party resulted.


Dalrymple brings some balance to how we think about our history and our development as a nation:  “The United States has been an extraordinary force for good, a powerful advocate for democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity. The ideals it champions have brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and oppression, and its technologies and innovations and art have changed the lives of practically every person on the planet. Likewise, the American church has advanced the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in countless ways, from sending missionaries to translating the Bible to supporting and staffing ministries that bring light and life to every corner of the world. And yet, historically, far too often, American evangelicalism has been silent on, complicit in, or an apologist for racial inequality. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, ‘The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.’”


How then should we respond?  Dalrymple suggests two biblical narratives.

  • “The first (from Acts 10) concerns the apostle Peter, who believes that as a Jew he should not associate with people of other nations. Jew and Gentile, he thinks, should remain divided. Yet God shows him in a vision that he should not call unclean what God has made clean. He goes into the home of a Gentile named Cornelius, preaches the gospel, and the Holy Spirit is unleashed. This is a watershed moment in the spread of the gospel to non-Jews, when Peter recognized that what he thought was righteous was actually unrighteous.  Likewise, it’s time for white evangelicals to confess that we have not taken the sin of racism with the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The deep grief and anger over the death of George Floyd is about more than police brutality. It’s about a society and culture that allowed for the abuse and oppression of African Americans over and over and over again. We have been a part of that society and culture, and sometimes we have been the last to join the fight for racial justice.”
  • “The other biblical narrative that comes to mind is the story of a tax collector in Jericho. Zacchaeus was a collaborator with the occupying Roman authority, and by adding his own extortionary fees, he plundered the wealth of his neighbors and enriched himself. Jesus encountered him and shocked the crowd by going to his home. Salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus on that day. He proclaimed, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will give back four times the amount’ (Luke 19:8).  Zacchaeus had not personally designed the unjust system of Roman taxation. But he had not denounced it either; he had participated in it and profited from it. So Zacchaeus did not merely repent of his ways; he made restitution. He set up what we might call a ‘Zacchaeus fund’ in order to restore what belonged to his neighbors. Are we willing to do the same? Black lives matter. They matter so much that Jesus sacrificed everything for them. Are we willing to sacrifice as well?”

Almost everyone agrees that something is wrong in America and that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., for an integrated society in which people would be judged by character rather than color, has not been realized.  Racism in all its ugliness still remains a part of American civilization.  It is sin and must be acknowledged as such.  What does God’s Word say about race?  How should we view people of different color?  What is the biblical solution to the sin of racism that remains in America? There are several essential biblical passages that form the center of Christ’s mind on the subject of race:


  1. 1 Corinthians 1:18.  The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18 establishes that from God’s viewpoint there are only two groups of human beings: those who are with Christ and those who are without Christ; in other words, those who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and those who have not.  The Bible does not allow for racial differences as a basis for discrimination or ranking of humans.  Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross was for all of humanity, not simply the whites, the blacks or any other group of color.
  2. Genesis 9:20-27.  Historically, this passage has been used to justify the enslavement of the black race that occurred in the United States after 1619.   Since some of Ham’s descendants populated Africa, then Noah’s curse must therefore apply to all those who are from Africa.  Many in the southern part of the United States prior to the Civil War used this argument to justify racial slavery.  Unfortunately today there remains this perception about Noah’s curse.
    The behavior of Noah after the flood provided the occasion for Ham’s sin.  There is a remarkable contrast between Noah’ conduct before the flood and after.  Noah, who walked in righteousness with God, planted a vineyard, became drunk and lay naked in his tent.  Unfortunately, the Bible never approves of drunkenness or nakedness.  They do not bring joy; rather, they are the origin of personal slavery and decadence!  Noah’s actions induce Ham’s sin.  Verse 22 states that “saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers.” Despite many interpretations, there is no clear evidence that Ham did anything other than see his father’s nakedness.  As Allen Ross makes clear, “Nakedness in the Old Testament was from the beginning a thing of shame for fallen humankind.  To Adam and Eve as sinners, the state of nakedness was both undignified and vulnerable. . . To be exposed meant to be unprotected; to see someone uncovered was to bring dishonor and to gain advantage for potential exploitation” (Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, Grand Rapids: Baker (1988), p. 215).  By stressing that Ham entered and saw Noah’s nakedness, Genesis depicts Ham’s looking as a moral flaw, a first step in the abandonment of a moral code.  In the words of Ross, “Ham desecrated a natural and sacred barrier.  His going to tell his brothers about it without covering the old man aggravated the act.”  Noah’s curse in verses 25-27 was on Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, that Canaan would be a “servant of servants” (i.e., slavery).    Noah’s curse anticipated in Canaan the evil traits that marked his father Ham and so judged him.  The text prepares the reader by twice mentioning that Ham was Canaan’s father, signifying more than lineage.  To the Hebrew mind, the Canaanites were the most natural embodiment of Ham.  “Everything the Canaanites did in their pagan existence was symbolized by the attitude of Ham.  From the moment the patriarchs entered the land, these tribes were their corrupting influence.” The constant references to “nakedness” and “uncovering” in Leviticus 18 designates a people enslaved sexually, reminding Israel of the sin of Ham.  These descendants of Ham were not cursed because of what Ham did; they were cursed because they acted as their ancestor did.  In conclusion, it is simply impossible to see any justification for slavery or any other aspect of inferiority from the curse on Canaan.  It is a gross distortion of God’s Word to do so.  Furthermore, as Charles Ryrie affirms, “it is [also] irrelevant today since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify a Canaanite” (You Mean the Bible Teaches That, p. 60).
  3. Acts 10:34-35.  The point of this extraordinary passage is that the salvation God offers is to all humans everywhere, regardless of racial background or characteristics.  Peter learns that “God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what it is right.”  Racial hatred or discrimination is impossible when one sees people the way God does.
  4. James 2:1-9.  The story is told of Mahatma Gandhi’s search for truth and harmony for his people of India.  Raised a Hindu, Gandhi did not believe that Hinduism offered the solution to the horrendous discrimination and rigid caste system of India.  As he studied law in South Africa, he believed that Christianity might offer the solution to India’s problems.  Hoping to find in Christianity what Hinduism lacked, he attended a church in South Africa.  Because the South African church embraced the system of racial segregation called apartheid, the usher offered him a seat on the floor.  Gandhi demurred, I might as well remain a Hindu, for Christianity has its own caste system as well.  What a tragedy!   James 2 will have none of this.  James decries the typical situation of the early church where the wealthy were given a place of privilege and honor in worship, while the poor were only permitted to sit on the floor.  Such discriminatory practices violate God’s royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  To show favoritism is sin; it desecrates God’s standard of love.

The church of Jesus Christ should therefore acknowledge its sin in supporting racism in its past and model the supernatural impartiality that refuses to discriminate.  The church should also set the standard for the reconciliation of all races and ethnic groups.  It should cut the radical path for all of society, for it alone sees people the way God sees them: Whatever race or ethnic background all need Jesus Christ and all bear His image.  The church has the radical solution to society’s struggle with racism.  It is a supernatural solution: Disciples of Jesus Christ who have experienced His salvation and who love one another with the supernatural love of their Savior.  The entire world needs to see this radical solution lived out in the church.See Timothy Dalrymple, “Justice Too Long Delayed” in www.christianitytoday.com (10 June 2020) and James P. Eckman. Christian Ethics, pp. 88-91.

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