Diagnosing and defeating racism through the good news of Jesus

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Here are some thoughts on racism that I hope may help Christians to see the enormous difference that the grace of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus should make to racial tensions and division, and to our own hearts, whether we need to repent from racist attitudes and practices, or receive healing from being hurt by them. Other people are far more capable and qualified to write about this, and because these areas are so personally painful to many, it can seem easier to remain quiet, but as I've considered the pain that I hear from brothers and sisters I respect in different places, I felt that silence can exacerbate the pain, and we need to be rather proactive about engaging this issue.

I've found it particularly painful hearing of appaling stories of racism in Cape Town, my home city, in the last few months. For a number of years now people have been saying that the racism they experience in Cape Town is worse than in other parts of South Africa. Many white Capetonians have seen Cape Town as a historically more liberal place, and assumed that we do not have an issue. Yet we must open our ears and eyes to hear the stories, see the pain, and be willing to find ways to transform our city. And we must see that the extreme cases - as shocking as they are - are not the whole story, but we must also deal with the day to day attitudes that do not embrace and welcome all people - in fact we need to go the extra mile to find ways to counteract these attitudes.

The conflict between racism and the gospel

Racism greatly dishonours God by refusing to acknowledge, appreciate and admire his glory in all people created in His image. It leans towards idolatry by exalting a human image typified by race rather than the glory of the one true God. If God's multifaceted glory is only partly reflected in each person, then denying that glory in a certain group is ultimately to reject aspects of who God is.

Racism promotes a false gospel that locates acceptance and favour in physical and cultural characteristics rather than in the love of God the Father for all his children, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in dying for us all, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit who unites us in one body.

It is a form of iniquity that shares its roots with pride, and bears the ugly fruits of violence, oppression and hatred, sometimes disguised as indifference. Like any sin it comes in more and less visible forms. Blindness to its existence is a major impediment to dealing with it. As Jesus told the Pharisees, they needed to acknowledge their blindness, but in claiming that they could see their guilt remained undealt with.

Roots and fruits in society and the church

Racism entrenched over time produces structures of social evil. We must deal with both the root and the fruits. We cannot only rectify the injustice in society; we cannot only deal with the underlying sin. We need to deal with the smouldering embers of racist thinking and attitudes or we will not put out the fires of racial injustice. And we need to produce fruit in keeping with repentance by dismantling the systems that racism has produced. This includes dealing with the imbalance of power between groups, while finding ways to no longer be defined in those separate groups - valuing and honouring our differences but acknowledging our common humanity as those created in the image of God.

In the church, racism is a rebellion against God's eternal purpose - to make known his manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms through the church, which lives out the mystery that through the gospel both Jews and Gentiles (that is, all the other nations), are members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

It is ugly when we who bear the name of Christians deny the cries of pain from our brothers and sisters. Those who are experiencing the pain and disgrace of being treated as less than people created in God's image because of their race and then have the courage to stand up and say "No!" show incredible courage and dignity. In the vulnerability of doing so they should be heard, honoured and embraced.

The gospel tells us the truth and calls us to transformation

The true gospel tells that we are all together glorious as those created in God's image, but all marred and broken through our fall away from God into sin. We are all offered redemption and a way back into relationship with God through Christ's death on the cross, and then restored to his image through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We must not leave these truths to one side; if we understand the spiritual, mental and emotional roots of racism as described above, then we can only fully combat them by wielding the gospel armour that God has given to us.

This means that those of us who have consciously or unconsciously idolized our own race need to repent and acknowledge the glory of God in all those around us. We need to unlearn patterns of thinking that demean and overlook others and be transformed by the renewing of our mind, so that we can appreciate and admire the people He has created them to be. We need to deal with the pride that so pervades our thinking and recognize that we are all dependent on one another in Christ's body. And we need to stand with and speak up for those who are experiencing the painful effects of racism, honouring them as image-bearers of God.

It is good news that those who have been painfully hurt by racism can find grace as they drink from the deep healing wells of the love, grace and acceptance of God, honour as the body of Christ stands together with them, and joy as they see the transforming power of God at work in those who have previously been seen as their enemies.

Let's be the people of grace that God has called us to be and demonstrate the power of the gospel by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in these areas to produce true transformation. As a white South African, I'm learning to ask questions - what have people experienced - rather than assuming I know, and then listen with empathy. I'm challenged to think how I should live this out; let's pray and ask God to help us, with sensitivity enter into conversations across the divides and act towards unity and restoration.

As Jesus told his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35

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