The Tulsa Massacre, Racial Hatred And Biblical Christianity

Jul 3rd, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The Tulsa race massacre (aka the Black Wall Street Massacre, the Greenwood Massacre) took place 31 May and 1 June 1921, when mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It marks one of “the single worst incident(s) of racial violence in American history.” The attack destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States (known as “Black Wall Street”) home to nearly 9,000 Black residents.  When the violence ended, Greenwood Avenue was rubble:  The mob had destroyed four hotels, two newspapers, eight doctor’s offices, seven barbershops, half a dozen real estate agencies, and half a dozen churches.

More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were detained in large facilities, many of them for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records. Furthermore, the commission posited additional estimates of casualties, ranging from 75 to 300 dead. At this point, no one really knows the exact number of casualties resulting from this horrific destruction of an entire Black neighborhood.

The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator at the Drexel Building, 319 S. Main Street.  [There is significant doubt that Rowland was actually guilty of this charge].  He was taken into custody. After the arrest, rumors spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched. Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of white men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail in order to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched. The sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail.  As the group was leaving the jail, a member of the mob of white men allegedly attempted to disarm one of the Black men.  A shot was fired, and then, according to the reports of the sheriff, “all hell broke loose.” At the end of the firefight, 12 people were killed: 10 white and 2 Black.  As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded.  White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and into the next morning, killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, effectively ending the massacre.  No white civilians were ever charged for their involvement in the massacre.  About 9,000 Black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020). The massacre has been largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.

But, in 1996, 75 years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, published in 2001, stated that the city had conspired with the mob of white citizens against Black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.  The state passed legislation in order to establish scholarships for the descendants of survivors, encourage the economic development of Greenwood, and develop a park in memory of the victims of the massacre in Tulsa. The park was dedicated in 2010. In 2020, the massacre became a part of the Oklahoma school curriculum.

What should be the response of Christians to this horrific example of blatant racism and resulting violence toward fellow American citizens?  America’s history is littered with ugly manifestations of the sin of racism.  America is the only modern nation that had racial, chattel slavery in its midst from the beginning.  It was justified by seeing black slaves as property, and only partly human (i.e., 3/5th of a human as defined in the Constitution of 1787).  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 through 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.  The Protestant churches across the South 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.  The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 freed African-Americans from legalized segregation, denial of voting rights and blanket discrimination in the labor market.  Nevertheless, almost everyone agrees 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.  What does God’s Word say about race?  How should we view people of different color?  What is the biblical solution to the ongoing remnants of racism that remain?



 I. The Dignity and Equality of All Human Beings


The Bible stipulates clearly that all human beings are equally worthy of honor, respect and dignity and that racism, racial discrimination and feelings of prejudice towards other human beings are sin and hurtful to God.


  1. All human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Genesis 1-3 provides the biblical and historical basis for understanding the essential unity of all human beings because they are descended from Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26ff).  Genesis 2:20 declares that Eve is “the mother of all living.”  In Acts 17:26 the Apostle Paul argues that God “made from one man every nation of mankind.”  Finally, Paul demonstrates that what was lost for the human race through Adam’s sin is restored through the saving work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12, 19; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
  2. Genesis 1:26 announces that “God created man in His own image . . . male and female He created them.”  The Bible stipulates clearly that all human beings share in this status of being in the image of God.  It is the basis for a system of justice (e.g., Genesis 9:6)   and is the basis for treating all human beings with dignity and respect (e.g., 1 Peter 2:17 and Titus 3:2). James 3:9 even declares that being in the image and likeness of God should affect how we speak to one another.
  3. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded His church to “make disciples of all nations.”
  4. Acts 10:34-35:  The point of this extraordinary passage is that the salvation God offers is to all humans everywhere, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  Here Peter learns that “God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what it is right.”  Furthermore, the Apostle Paul declares that Jews and Gentiles are equal in New Covenant blessings in the church (Ephesians 2:11-22).  Jesus has indeed broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” between peoples so common throughout history (Ephesians 2:14).
  5. Paul implies in Galatians 3:28 quite clearly that there should be no racial discrimination or prejudice in the church, for those “in Christ” are equal in spiritual blessings.
  6. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18 establishes that from God’s viewpoint there are only two groups of human beings—those who have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and those who have not. Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross was for all humanity. In James 2:1-9, 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” or “partiality” (the biblical term for prejudice) is sin; it desecrates God’s holy standard of love.
  7. In Revelation 7:9-10, we see the emphasis on racial and ethnic unity because the innumerable multitude of people worshiping before God’s throne in heaven includes people from every tribe and nation of the earth.


Furthermore, the church of Jesus Christ renounces all past attempts to use the Bible to justify racism, segregation of the races and all forms of racial or ethnic discrimination.


  1. Genesis 9:20-25 together with 10:6-20 have historically been used to support the superiority of the white race and the legitimate subjugation of people of African descent.  The curse of Genesis 9 has nothing to do with racial superiority, with skin color or with legitimizing slavery in the American South.  The curse was on the descendants of Canaan (Ham’s son) and was fulfilled in the destruction of the Canaanite people by the nation of Israel during the Conquest and later when Israel subjected the Canaanite peoples to servitude (Genesis 10:15-19; Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 1 Kings 9:20-22).
  2. The Old and New Testaments were often mined by pro-slavery polemicists before the Civil War to prove that, since slavery was common among the Israelites and the early church, it was therefore justifiable.  [Today, critics of biblical Christianity often condemn the Bible as not authoritative and trustworthy because it does not categorically call for the end of slavery.]  This is a classic case of the need to understand the historical and cultural distance between the ancient world and our own.  When we think of slavery, we think of chattel, racial slavery in the pre-Civil War South.  But, in the first century, there was not a great deal of difference between the slave and the average free person.  In both the Old and New Testaments, the words used to denote slaves did not necessarily carry the same connotations that we associate with slavery today. Only by understanding the biblical texts and the cultures that produced them can we understand what is being discussed in the Bible.  Hence, important points of historical context are necessary when we study the Bible and the issue of slavery:
  • The stealing and selling of human beings, quite common throughout human history, was a capital offense according to Old Testament law. The return of fugitive slaves to their masters was also illegal.  In almost every instance, the kind of slavery governed by Old Testament law was debt-slavery, where an individual would offer labor in exchange for an outstanding debt that he could not pay. The laws that govern such transactions were given to protect the rights of such slaves, who could only serve for a maximum of six years. [See Leviticus 25; Exodus 21; Deuteronomy 15]
  • Early Christians lived under Roman law; they lacked the political influence and power to change those laws.   In the Greco-Roman world, people became slaves either to pay debt, because they had been captured in war, or because they had been born into the slave class.  An individual could also sell himself into slavery in order to live an easier life than he had as a freed person; one could actually advance socially as a slave.  In that culture, slaves differed from freed persons in several ways: [1] They could not represent themselves in legal matters; [2] They were subject to seizure and arrest in ways that freed persons were not; and [3] Their occupation and where they lived were determined by their master.  However, in Roman society, slaves could own property and other slaves, and were not enslaved based on the color of their skin.  In addition, slavery was often temporary. While there were certainly very degrading and dehumanizing forms of slavery in the Roman world, many served in more dignified social positions (e.g., tutors, professors, estate managers, bookkeepers, doctors, or artisans).  Roman emperors used slaves to manage imperial estates and often placed them in charge of important tasks (e.g., tailoring, wine-keeping and tasting, and cooking). The slaves addressed in Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Peter 2:18-25, as well as Onesimus in Philemon, were more than likely household slaves (“bondservants”).
  • The early Christian community was a counter-cultural movement in which social distinctions were all but erased.  Jesus was the true Lord, and masters and slaves were expected to treat one another as beloved brothers and sisters—equal members in the body of Christ.  The radical transformation that took place within the Christian community was the leveling of all individuals as equal brothers and sisters in Christ (Galatians 3:28). There would have been profound implications for slaves and masters regarding one another as brothers and sisters and loving one another with sincere “brotherly affection” (Rom 12:10; 2 Pet 1:7).  Indeed, Paul’s appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is nothing less than revolutionary:  That he might “have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 15b–16).



II. Jesus Christ, the Church and the Solution


The church of Jesus Christ should therefore model the supernatural impartiality that refuses to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin.  The church should model reconciliation of all races and ethnic groups.  The church should cut the radical path for all of society, for it alone sees people the way God sees them: All bear His image and all need Jesus Christ.  The church has the radical solution to society’s struggle with racism, prejudice and discrimination:  Disciples of Jesus Christ love one another with the supernatural love of their Savior. The church is the living example of racial unity and harmony, welcoming and including people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to full and equal fellowship in the body of Christ.

See the Wikipedia article on the Tulsa massacre; “The Tulsa Race Massacre” in the Wall Street Journal (29-30 May 2021); and “Policy Statement on Racism and Racial Discrimination,” Steadfast Bible Fellowship Church, Omaha, NE.

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