RACISM, BIAS, AND PREJUDICE: A MESSAGE TO WHITE CHRISTIANS

Note: The following article is written from a Christian worldview with the Bible as the ultimate authority. While the words “racism,” “bias,” and “prejudice” encompass many facets that must be dealt with, in honor of MLK Day, this article is specifically designed with the racism, bias, and prejudice against African Americans that still permeates much of Christendom in America today. It is written in a spirit of humility, meekness, boldness, and love. I am happy to have my wife, Bethany, join me in writing this article. We have done our best to put proper qualifiers in places we believe they need to go. However, at times generalities may be used for readability and we ask that you please read all statements within their proper context. 

DEFINING TERMS

Racism, bias, and prejudice. When writing about such loaded terms and heated topics, it is hard to know exactly where to begin. But we believe the best place to start is by looking at some general definitions.

Racism means to have “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” It also encompasses “racial prejudice or discrimination.

Bias means to haveunreasonably hostile feelings or opinions about a social group.”

Prejudice meansunreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.”

These words can be boiled down to how we view people and how we treat people that are “different” than us. And in reality, it can be boiled down to simply how we view people. Because how we view people will dictate how we treat them.

We are not denying the fact that racism is often systemic and institutionalized and affects many people groups in America; but for the purposes of this article, we will be talking specifically about the general unjust treatment of and/or attitudes toward black people among Christendom in America.

THE PREVAILING PROBLEM OF RACISM IN CHRISTIANITY

When I served as an employed minister during my tenure, I was able to travel to churches all throughout the U.S. I have personally spoken at over 200 different churches in over 16 states and worked with over 500 churches when I was the director for The Gospel of Christ ministry. Unfortunately, what we came to find is that churches are still one of the most segregated places you can go to in American today. Not only are they segregated, but many “white churches” are full of racism, racial biases, and prejudices against black people (thus, why segregation still exists).

Being white Christians going to predominately “white churches,” we have both heard and seen prejudicial attitudes against African-Americans in many congregations. The following statements are just a few of the things we have heard from leaders and congregants in churches. Please be advised; the following statements are extremely offensive:

– “Black people have lower moral standards.”
– “Black men are predators.”
– “The black culture needs to change to become like us (white people).”
– “I can only tell you of a few good black people – and they are the exception.”
– “As long as my child doesn’t marry a black person, I don’t care who they marry.”
– “Black people need to learn their place.”

It wasn’t out of the ordinary for us to hear white Christians joke about how they celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday instead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or preachers not being able to get jobs at “white churches” because they were black or married to someone who was black. Some older ministers have even (unapologetically) talked about how they used to be in the KKK. One older minister’s wife even joked about how she used to wash their uniforms.

Here is what we must understand: racism in Christianity is very real. I am 33 years old and Bethany is 26 years old. It is something we have seen occur constantly in churches among people our age. Racism is not just something in the past – it is a present reality happening to people right now. If you are reading this, you may be thinking to yourself, “But I am not a racist.” If this is what you are thinking, please keep reading.

THE DISCONNECT: ‘BUT I AM NOT A RACIST…’

The problem we have found lies in what we like to call a disconnect. All of the statements uttered above came from people who denied they were being racist or biased (with the exception of the KKK members). In other words, in theory, they would claim they were not prejudiced against black people. They would make statements such as, “I have black friends” or “I am nice to black people.” Other church leaders who have made such racist statements as those above excuse their behavior by pointing to the fact that there are a few black people at their church or that they employ or work with black people at their place of business.

There is this false sense of security among many white Christians that as long as you aren’t part of the KKK, you have one or two acquaintances who are black, and are “nice” to black people to their faces, then that somehow means you aren’t biased, prejudiced, or racist. This is where the problem lies. Instead of being honest with the racism and biases that exist within ourselves, it is ignored and denied.

THE JUSTIFICATION AND “THE GOOD OLE’ DAYS”

Growing up, I kept hearing about the “good ole’ days.” These were the days when America was seemingly perfect and things were the way “they should be.” I remember asking when these “good ole’ days” were. The typical response is usually sometime in the 1950s. But let me ask you this if you are a white Christian. Does the following sound “good” to you? Imagine:

– You didn’t get the job you wanted because you are white.
– You got fired from the job you had because you are white.
– You couldn’t enter into a movie theater through the same entrance as everyone else because you are white.
– You couldn’t drink from the same water fountain or go to the same bathroom as others because you are white.
– You are refused service at a restaurant because you are white.
– You are not allowed to stand up and lead a prayer at your own church because you are white.
– You have to sit at the back of the bus because you are white.
– When you try to make a stand against this injustice for white people, you are threatened, beaten, and could possibly even lose your life.

By the way, this is just a very small list. Many more things could be added. Does that sound like “good days” to you? But these things didn’t happen to white people in the “good ole’ days” – they happened to black people. When the shoe is on the other foot, it becomes much harder to walk.

I have yet to meet a black person who lived during the 1950s who is just relishing to relive those days once more. When we choose not to educate ourselves and neglect empathy, we are left with ignorance and apathy – and those two words are some of the very reasons why prejudices against black people still exist among many Christians today.

One church leader once told me, “The best way to preach on racism is to not preach on it at all.” In other words, this man’s approach was to deny and ignore. Just act like it doesn’t even exist.

Another approach I have seen is that of reframing the narrative. This is where black people are viewed as the troublemakers by white people. I was once told by a Deacon in the church, “Kevin, you weren’t around to see all the trouble the black people caused.” To this man, the “blacks” are the bad people and the “whites” are the good people. If the “blacks” would have just stayed in “their place,” then we (“the whites”) wouldn’t have all the problems we have today. This is a case of imagined race superiority where black people are always going to be the scapegoat. This mentality says that black people should “just be happy with what they have and not buck the system.” Any form of resistance to the accepted racialized system in that community is considered “troublemaking.”

Another form of justification for racism we have experienced is deflecting. This is when someone acts like racism was in the distant past and has nothing to do with today. We have heard people say, “That was a long time ago, black people now have even more rights than white people…they just need to quit complaining about the past…they are being treated better than anybody today.” It is this idea that racism did occur at one point, but now it doesn’t occur – and black people just need “to get over it.”

While I am sure there are many more forms of justification for racism, racial biases, and prejudiced attitudes, these three (denial, reframing the narrative, and deflecting) are the most common forms we have experienced among white Christians. The main question, however, that should concern every Christian is “What does the Bible teach about racism, bias, and prejudice?”

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT RACISM, BIAS, AND PREJUDICE

One of the biblical terms that encompass the ideas of racism, bias, and prejudice, is “favoritism” (Rom.2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; Ja. 2:1). The Greek word for “favoritism” (prosópolémpsia) means “to show partiality” (because of someone’s race, sex, social status, etc.).

Rom. 2:11 and Acts 10:35 say that “there is no partiality with God.” Ja. 2:1-9 says “Show no partiality.” If you do, verse 9 says you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28 both say “There is no Jew or Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, male or female, slave or free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Clearly, the Bible condemns any form of racism, bias, or prejudice. 

Some go to the Old Testament to justify race superiority or to teach against interracial marriages. While the general law under the Jewish system taught against religious intermarriage with other nations (Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 23:12; Mal. 2:11), it must be noted that this law didn’t have anything to do with the color of skin or racial prejudice (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 21:10-14; etc.). Rather, it was a law given from a spiritual perspective to protect Israel from the influence of pagans/non-believers and to keep them from straying away from God (Ex. 34:12-16; Neh. 13:25-27).

Abraham (Gen. 25:1), Judah (Gen. 38:2), Joseph (Gen. 41:45), Moses (Num. 12:1-8), Salmon (Mt. 1:5), Mahlon, Chilion (Ruth 1:1-3), and others all married from other nations. In fact, when Miriam (who was Moses’s sister) condemned the marriage between Moses and the Cushite woman (which scholars unanimously agree was an “interracial/mixed marriage”), God was so displeased and angry with Miriam that he struck her with leprosy and shut her out of the camp seven days (Num. 12:1-15). Furthermore, Rahab, a Canaanite, and Ruth, a Moabite, both intermarried their way into Judaism and were even in the lineage of Jesus (Ruth 1-4; Mt. 1:5). There is nothing wrong nor has there ever been anything wrong with marrying someone just because they have a different color of skin or come from a different place. 

From the beginning, the Bible teaches we are all made in God’s image (Gen. 1). Any kind, shape, form, or fashion of racism, bias, or prejudice has always, always, always been sinful. No one is better than another. 1 Sam. 16:7 says “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We all come from one true human race going back to the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. Acts 17:26 says “From one man he made all the nations.”

All humans deserve to be treated with equality, kindness, and respect because we are all made in God’s image. Such should be especially the case for the family of God since we are all one in Jesus (1 Pet. 2:9). Jesus came to tear down racial divides (Eph. 2:11-18). Heaven is going to be a colorful place filled with people of all nations. Rev. Stan Long writes,

“…I cannot get beyond the vision of every nation, tribe, and tongue worshipping the Lamb of God (Rev. 7). That glorious future demands that we do all we can to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the church of God (Eph. 4:3). Paul’s vision was that Jew and Gentile together would ‘with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 15:5-13). In the Lord’s Prayer, we plead, ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10). As difficult as that task is, we must not do less than what God has called us to do” (Heal Us, Emmanuel. p.42).

THE CURE

We have seen what racism, bias, and prejudice are, we have seen what the Bible says about racism, bias, and prejudice, and we have noted the dominant problems that still exist in churches today. I was always told to never point out the problem unless you are willing to provide the solution. Therefore, how can we begin to cure our current state of racism?

First, we need to spend much time in the Bible studying about what God has to say about loving others and equality. We must educate ourselves in the Word of God and not in the way of the world. If we can’t see mankind the way God sees mankind, then we are destined to fail.

Second, we must educate our children. Once we are educated, we must educate our children. Racism, bias, and prejudice are all learned behavior. We must teach our children the importance of equality and how God created all people from one man in God’s image.

Third, we must kindly, lovingly, and boldly correct racism, prejudices, and biases. When we see or hear racism, prejudice, or bias, we need to be willing to kindly point it out and correct it. Saying nothing and doing nothing won’t change anything.

Fourth, we must learn empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of your black neighbor. Listen to the hurt they still experience today. Learn what it was like for their parents and grandparents. Hear stories from their families of what they had to go through and what they still go through on a daily basis and seek to understand their point of view.

Fifth, Christians must make concentrated efforts to break down walls in their churches and work together. I pray for the day where there are no more “black churches” or “white churches” – but simply churches with both black and white people working hand-in-hand and in leadership positions together.

Sixth, we must have courage. Don’t wait for the world to do the right thing; do the right thing now. One Pastor at a church told me that the world is becoming more accepting and it is making it easier on “white churches” to work with black people. Unfortunately, this man has things backward. Christians should be standing courageously at the forefront leading the fight for equality, not hiding cowardly at the back end of things.

A CALL FOR REPENTANCE

We must realize we all struggle with prejudice and bias at times in some form or fashion. But we also need to admit our humanity, our weaknesses, and our sinfulness – and realize it is wrong. We must be brave enough to confess our sins of the past and present and seek to love the way Jesus loves.

A simple song we used to sing growing up is called “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” In that song, there is a line that says “red, brown, yellow, black and white – they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” May Christianity become the religion relationship Jesus designed it to be. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” – MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

– Kevin & Bethany Pendergrass

www.kevinpendergrass.com

kevin@kevinpendergrass.com