Demystifying Racism

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)

We underestimate the power of that verse. It shows us the ideal, and all believers should be aiming for it. Yet, it seems that we fail at this more than we succeed. Racism remains an issue. It may seem like a strange topic to demystify, but there is a mythos that surrounds racism. As of today, June 9, 2020, our nation is embroiled in the 21st century’s worst racial dispute yet, making this a timely topic. This essay will seek to do three things:

  • Define racism and racial prejudice.
  • Reveal the cause.
  • Prescribe the cure.

What is mystifying about racism? What does it mean that there's a mythos that surrounds racism? The mystifying thing about racism is that large segments of the American population deny that racism is a contemporary problem. In contrast, the remaining segments believe it remains an issue to confront. Why is there such a divide of opinion? We're not talking about extremists who always find themselves polarly opposed to others. Ordinary, well-intentioned Americans from all ethnicities are disagreeing on this topic. That mystifies the issue, making it less clear.

What is the mythos of racism? A mythos is a traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure.[1] Recurrent narratives are common in the history of any nation. America has several recurrent narratives: immigration, ethnic groups, pioneering, entrepreneurialism, rugged individualism, and even athletic competition. Those are just a few, and we can see how those narratives repeat with regular rhythms in our history.

Unfortunately, racism has a mythos because it recurs with regular rhythms in our national story.

What is Racism?

Let's start at the beginning. What is racism? You may be surprised by the definition because the narrative that the news media feeds us is very broad. Racism is the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.[2] In other words, if you're a racist, you believe your race is inherently superior to others. So immediately we can make a distinction. There is a small minority of people who genuinely believe their race is superior. Then, some wouldn't say their race is inherently superior, but they prefer the experience of being their race. Preferring to be white or black doesn't automatically make you a racist, but, as with many things, preferences can lead to discrimination. You may like being white or black, but if you discriminate against people based on that preference, you're making the same choices an all-out racist would make, minus the superiority complex. At that point, in deeds, what's the difference between you and a racist?

Understand this. American racism began hundreds of years ago with the belief of white Europeans that black Africans were inferior humans. American (and British) ministers of the Gospel in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries would pervert the Scripture to justify subjugating Africans in slavery.[3] Generations of white men and women trusted ministers of the Gospel who were telling them that black people were cursed and destined to enslavement because of Ham's curse.[4] This alone doesn't exonerate them. It's estimated that in 1776, 80% of white men and 50% of white women in America were able to read.[5]

It wasn't because people couldn't read their Bibles and find the truth. The false narrative of Ham’s curse reinforced personal prejudices and economic benefits. These men and women benefited from believing an easily disproved lie, and the ministers benefited from perpetuating the false narrative in their offering plates.

Still, we shouldn’t be hasty to label them all as acutely wicked people. Like us, they led busy lives, filled with hard work. Like us, they extended a level of trust to their ministers to preach the Bible accurately because they lacked the time for in-depth study. And their ministers extended similar trust to the men who trained them for ministry. That doesn't make them especially wicked. It just makes them products of their time, place, upbringing, and education. They knew what they knew because it's what they were faithfully handed. None of that excuses slavery, but it does remind us that they were broken human beings raised in a broken time, broken place, and broken system.

So are we.

What is Racial Prejudice?

Now that we've defined racism, by that definition, it's fair to say that most people aren't racists. Most Americans don't believe in the superiority of their race. So, on what basis are we broadly labeling people racists? People are being labeled as racists because they make racially prejudiced decisions. Yet, these people don’t consider themselves racist, nor do they fit our definition. Let’s define racial prejudice.

Prejudice means a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.[6] In other words, you prejudge a situation or a person before you have any reason or personal experience with said situation or person. Therefore, racial prejudice is forming a bias by prejudging a person based on their skin color. Now, biases can be good or bad. The phrase German ingenuity is a bias that broadly paints all things German as smart and clever. That's a prejudice. It's a broad stroke statement not based on any single person's personal experience with a German, because, in fact, all Germans are not geniuses.

However, positive racial prejudices don't cause protests. There has never been a protest by Germans over constant accusations for being excellent engineers. Native Hawaiians don't riot over stereotypes about playing the ukulele or how they seem to love Spam. We almost always associate being prejudiced with injustice. Racial prejudice is a staple behavior of racists. Racists prejudge all people of other colors into an inferior category. But here we must make a distinction. While racial prejudice is racist behavior, not all racially prejudiced people are racists. Here's how.

Prejudice is almost an instinctive survival skill. People base their irrational fear of all snakes upon the fact that some snakes are venomous and even deadly. Therefore, we prejudge all of them, including harmless ones, to avoid the risk of pain and death. It's not a sense of superiority that drives the prejudice, but rather it's fear. Fear driven prejudice is why people can be racially biased but not racist. That doesn't make the act of racial prejudice any less unjust. Rather, it only gives it more context for understanding why people unconsciously do it.

Now, in the case of an actual racist you are dealing with a different motivation. The superiority complex of the racist is driven by unabashed pride. Pride fuels disdain for other races, and even when there seems to be a measured tolerance that keeps things civil, it’s wholly pragmatic. It’s only concerned with maintaining a kind of contractual peace where if you’ll do you, I’ll do me, and don’t get in each other’s ways.

However, it’s entirely possible that underlying force behind this kind of pride is still fear. Fear of loss. Fear of losing control. Even a fear of being subjugated themselves. You’ll find at the heart of many proud people a fear that drives them to seek power. They’d rather be in control than be the one under control. This is deadly to spiritual life and it’s the same thought that incited the first rebel, Satan, the Accuser of the brothers. Pride is deadly, but it’s connection to fear is under sold. Pride and fear are nearly inseparable. Where you see one, the other is lurking.

Racial prejudice is a form of racist behavior that isn’t confined to the textbook example of a racist but can manifest in anyone who is controlled by pride and/or fear. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Why Does Racism Exist?

It would be easy just to say, pride/fear, and move on, but that would be horribly over-simplified. Pride/fear is the broad-brush answer, but there’s tons of nuance that we need to understand if we’re going to make actual progress in fighting the problem. If pride/fear is the tree trunk, racism and racial prejudice are two of perhaps dozens of large branches that bear fearful fruit. A person controlled by pride/fear will see it manifest in many different ways.

Racism has a particular origin, but before we dive into that, we need to concede something important. Many things get blamed for the existence of racism. In the last forty years, one of the primary scapegoats has been a lack of education. If we would only educate ourselves about race, engage with the struggle, then we would make progress. Education has its place in the fight, but its lack isn’t the main reason racism persists. The late 19th century saw Germany become one of the best-educated nations on the planet. Their education did not stop the rise of the Nazi Party, which committed some of the most racially motivated war crimes in human history against Jews.

Others have blamed our government institutions for perpetuating the existence of racism. Our current wave of conflict is intertwined with this concept. Closely related is economic circumstances. Combined with government institutions, these two create the perfect storm to oppress minorities and keep them powerless and dependent on the state. Institutional racism isn't hard to demonstrate with a little research to uncover it, as many already have. However, if we de-raced, reorganized and restructured all of our institutions tomorrow, they would still be operated by broken people. All institutions gradually bend toward discrimination at some level because humans are running them.

People are the problem. As long as there are human beings, there will be racism and racial prejudice. You can throw all the money, all the education, all the reform you can muster at the problem, but the real problem isn't poverty, ignorance, or corrupt institutions. It's people. The people are broken. Poverty, ignorance, and corrupt institutions are merely fruits of broken people.

God’s Word isn’t shy about why men and women are broken. We are born sinners.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12)

Adam sinned against God, and his sin passed to all men. That's where the original break happened that broke all of us.  However, the interesting thing is this: racism wasn't an immediate fruit of humanity's sin. From Adam (Genesis 2) to Babel (Genesis 11), humanity was united as one race with one language. At Babel, something changed.

Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:9)

At Babel, seventy people groups formed, divided by language. From there, they departed and became gradually became nations. The first dividing lines between people groups was language. This is the foundational moment of all future racism. Why? On the surface, it seems more benign than the darker spiritual reality.

First, remember that what happened at Babel was a judgment from the LORD. He didn't one day just decide to confuse humanity's languages for fun. Humans had become arrogant, and the tower they were building represented the culmination of their efforts to be gods. God had said, "Subdue the earth and fill it.” They said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens…lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” The LORD wanted humanity to spread across the earth; humanity wanted to stay together in one place. Confusion of their languages made completing the tower impossible and forced them to disperse.

Second, the judgment didn’t stop at confused languages. In this judgment, God disinherited humanity and handed them over to lesser gods.

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. (Deuteronomy 32:8)

This verse is widely understood to be talking about the tower of Babel because there was no other event preceding Moses's time, where humanity divided. Genesis says he confused their languages. Deuteronomy gives us the other half of the judgment. He numbered the nations by the number of the sons of God. God gave the nations over to the sons of God, otherwise known as the hosts of Heaven, or the gods (lowercase). He did this as judgment.

Fortunately, that wasn't the end of God's dealings with humanity. In Genesis 12, a few generations later, God calls Abram (Abraham) and covenants with him to raise a nation for Himself that will bless the entire earth. Deuteronomy 32:9 echoes this.

But the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deuteronomy 32:9)

It may seem like we're in the weeds, but the beginnings of racism grew from these weeds. With the nations now under the rule of the gods, animosity begins growing. Before long nations are warring with one another over resources, but in the unseen realm, it's the rival gods of the nations pulling the strings.[7] It doesn't take very long before Egypt rises to dominance, and they enslave God's people, Israel, who had lived among them for generations. This is the first mention of large-scale enslavement of an entire people group in the Bible, and it comes only a few centuries after the judgment at Babel.
Let's review. Racism's origins began at Babel through God's judgment of the nations. God did not create racism, but His actions did two things that made space for racism to grow. First, His judgment created humanity's first divisions, which lined up according to language. Second, His judgment handed these newly formed people groups over to the leadership of lesser gods who would themselves be rivals with one another and lead their nations away from Yahweh, the Creator, the God of gods, and the LORD of lords. The lack of a common language in the seen realm and the rivalry between the gods of the nations in the unseen realm gave humanity all it needed for the sin of racism to begin flourishing.

We cannot overcome the spiritual problem of racism with worldly solutions. It's not just the proclivities of sinful hearts that give life to racist thought and action, but it is empowered and encouraged by principalities and cosmic powers of spiritual darkness. The fallen sons of God work in the unseen to perpetuate racism among humans. Not only does it destroy us, but it also perpetuates a lie.

The perpetuated lie is that there are many races, when, in fact, there are only two. There are two races with many ethnicities. At Babel, the LORD only confused the languages. He didn't alter skin colors or the physiologies of those people.  We went to Babel as one race with one language; we left Babel as one race with many languages. From those language barriers grew diverse cultures and ethnicities, but not multiple races.

What about the second race? That comes in the solution to racism.

How Do We Defeat Racism?

The word race may not even be the best word, but as things stand today, the earth has two races of humanity with many ethnicities. We’ve discussed the first race of men. They were judged at Babel, divided by language, and given over to the hosts of Heaven who became their gods. Before Babel, they were one race with one language and one God, but after Babel, they became one race with many languages and many gods.

A second race of men can only come from a second Adam. The first Adam, who fell into sin, acts as a kind of governor, or head, of the human race. As the head, all of humanity inherits everything Adam inherits. Since Adam fell into sin, we inherit sin. Since Adam’s sin resulted in spiritual and physical death, we inherit spiritual and physical death. The first race of men is fallen in Adam and inherits everything from him as its head.

For if, because of one man's [Adam’s] trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)

Because of the Fall (Genesis 3), Adam’s line is dead on arrival. We’re born in sin, and because of sin, we're spiritually dead and physically dying. Sin brings death. Death can only produce death.  A second race of men has to come from a new Adam. That new Adam is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ has brought forth a new humanity by succeeding where Adam failed. Adam is the head of broken humanity, while Christ is the head of the new humanity. Adam's old humanity is cursed by sin and death, but Christ's new humanity is free from the curses. Adam's old humanity inherits all of Adam's brokenness. Christ's new humanity inherits all of Christ's righteousness. These are the two races: Adam's and Christ's. The old and the new.

If this concept is new to you, don’t fret. It suffers from being largely ignored in contemporary Christian teaching. Yet, we find it here in the pages of the Bible. The new humanity, like the old humanity, is made up of diverse ethnicities, people groups, and languages. Like the old humanity, we are flesh and bone. We live, we breathe, we have struggles, and we suffer from the same physical problems. At this point in history, the only difference between the new and the old is spiritual.

Everyone still in Adam has a dead spirit. Ephesians 2:1 tells us clearly that all of us began this journey dead in our trespasses and sins. But Ephesians 2:5, with equal clarity, tells us that those in Christ have been made alive with Him. Those in Christ have a resurrected, living spirit. In addition, those in Christ are filled with the Holy Spirit, and He testifies with our resurrected spirit that we belong to Jesus (Romans 8:17).

It is only in the new humanity that we have the power to overcome the spiritual forces of darkness who perpetuate racism. Adam's humanity is spiritually dead, unable to rightly discern spiritual truth, which is why the world continually turns to different false hopes for racism's cure. The only way we get rid of racism is to reverse what happened at Babel. In Christ, the reversal of Babel is underway! He brings us back into one family, a redeemed race, freed from the power of sin and the authority of the fallen gods who received the nations at Babel!

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Paul speaks of Christ making “both one” and reconciling “us both to God.” The both he’s referencing are Jews and Gentiles. Yet, here in the middle of explaining how God is making Jews and Gentiles one new man, he’s also revealed the secret to undoing racism.

Jews and Gentiles had no love for each other. What does Christ do for these groups? First, he is our peace. Jesus personifies peace. Jesus is our peace with God and with each other. If you’re looking for the kind of peace that will end racism, it isn't about what you do, but instead, it's about who you know because peace is a Person.

Second, Jesus makes warring people groups into one new humanity. People who would have died in hatred of each other are brought together as one in Christ. Why? Because He is peace. How? Because in His death, the dividing wall of hostility was torn down. It's interesting because that is perhaps a direct reference to a wall in the Temple which divided the Gentiles from the Jews. Gentiles weren't permitted to go beyond that wall to the inner courts.[8] Christ has torn down that wall. Those old boundaries no longer exist, and all peoples, tribes, and tongues can come to the LORD because of Christ's death and resurrection.

Third, Christ’s work has initiated the creation of one new man. Christ’s death and resurrection began a new work of creation.  In Christ, the new humanity is being created one person at a time. We may not always link the act of creation with Christ's death and resurrection, but here and there, the New Testament uses creation language when it speaks of salvation. Perhaps the most familiar one is 2 Corinthians 5:17.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

This new creation – the new man – is what brings peace between old enemies. In Christ, the new man has peace with the LORD, enabling us to have peace with one another through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

What Now?

This is all beautiful truth, and many will nod their heads and heartily agree. Yet, there is a gaping incoherence between what we believe and how we live. The cure for racism is Jesus Christ. Amen! Now, why can't believers agree on this topic? Why isn't the church a bright, shining city on a hill where the injustices of racism and racial prejudice are eliminated forever? There are two large-scale reasons.

First, as saved as we may be, we still live in the reality of a broken world with a broken mind. Every believer is responsible to resist conforming to the patterns of thinking that are at work in the world.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

That means when it comes to racism and racial prejudice, we must guard our hearts against what the world thinks about these issues. Let the Word of God dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16), and in doing this, you will be able to discern the spirits at work in the world. As we said earlier, the world's methods of dealing with racism and racial prejudices always fail to deliver what they promise. The spiritual man will discern and understand spiritual truth (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). Because racism is a spiritual issue, it can only be defeated by spiritual means.

What does that mean? Simply put, the more the minds of God's people are renewed and transformed, the better we will discern the truth from the lies, which will mean certain death for racism and racial prejudice among God's people. This also means wherever you find racism and racial prejudice in God's church, you've encountered people who are stunted in their spiritual growth, unwilling to listen, and quick to speak foolishly.

The second large-scale reason is one of spiritual reality. The rebelling gods who have authority over the nations aren't going down without a fight. They know their doom is sealed, and in their defeat, they will rage.  Revelation 12 says as much.

…But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath because he knows that his time is short! (Revelation 12:12b)

Satan and the other rebelling gods seek only to destroy the image of God wherever they see it. Their war against the church is a given because we're God's family, but since all humans retain the image of God, they hate all humans. It is their joy to destroy as many humans as they can.

If spiritual darkness can cause division in God's family through racism and racial prejudice, why wouldn't they try? The devil doesn't make us be racist or racially prejudiced. But he certainly encourages it.  We can never fall on the defense of, the devil made me do it. But if you choose to be racist or racially prejudiced, be assured that the devil is pleased. Our fight is against rulers, authorities, the cosmic powers over the present darkness, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavens (Ephesians 6:12). If we forget that, we may not lose the war, but we’ll suffer needlessly along the journey.

The church will fight racism and racial prejudice until Jesus returns, simply because until then, people and the world will remain broken, and the rebelling gods will continue to press their agenda of destruction against all imagers of God. What do we do until then? Speak the truth, worship and serve together, endure suffering together, and spread the Gospel.

Speak the truth to each other. Don't allow racism or racial prejudice to find a safe harbor in your church. Confront it as it rears its ugly head with grace-filled correction. Don't give the devil a foothold in the one place where the family of God should be safest. On the other hand, don't allow worldly understandings of race to invade your church's thinking. Hold fast to this. There are two races: Adam's fallen humanity and Christ's new humanity. The new humanity is full of different ethnicities, tribes, people groups, and languages, but we are one in Christ. We don't minimize ethnicity because the Bible doesn't, but we also don't overemphasize to the point of creating division.

Worship and serve together. Revelation 7:9-10 previews the new multi-ethnic humanity in its uncountable number. They stand before the throne worshiping the LORD together, not segregated into our respective ethnic tribes. As much as we can in the here and now, we should find smaller, local ways to realize this preview in the present. This isn't a call to forcibly meld black and white churches together. Instead, it's an invitation to be creative, find ways to put aside preferences, and bridge our ethnic differences by worshiping and serving the LORD together. In doing this, we build friendships where we can learn and love one another in ways that we couldn’t otherwise.

Endure suffering together. This seems to be the most misunderstood point for many. Let’s use peaceful, non-violent protests as an example. Suppose a protest is scheduled for your city’s downtown over the next three days. There will be people who will criticize the protest along the lines of they should all be at work or something like that. It's true. Many of the protesters likely have families and bills that need money, so missing those days doesn't contribute. But that's the point. If you are to enter into the suffering of another person, you must suffer as well. The lost wages are a small way you can suffer and show support for those enduring real suffering.
It's bizarre how this concept is missed so easily when it is a cornerstone of the Christian faith that we enter into the sufferings of Christ. We endure hardship for His namesake. We suffer persecution, slander, scorn, all because of His suffering for us on the cross. What would be more Christlike than to enter into another person's suffering and endure some pain of your own as you support and encourage them in their suffering?

Keep spreading the Gospel. The Gospel is the key. In its saving power, we find the spiritual means to destroy racist thoughts and actions. We find, not just the ability to do this, but also the desire to do this. Therefore, the degree to which racism dies in this world is inexorably linked to the expansion of God's Kingdom and its citizens' spiritual growth. Since that's true, the only way to see a real change between now and Christ’s return begins with more people being born again into God's kingdom. Christ's return is the ultimate end of all racism. But until then, we can reduce the scope of the issue by preaching and living Jesus to the world.

Until Christ Returns

Racism and racial prejudice are remedied in Christ. Christ’s work on the cross and His resurrection from the grave began the undoing of Babel’s curse. God’s people are supposed to be leading the way in demonstrating the Babel-reversing, reconciling power of the Gospel.  Until Jesus returns, we are to champion justice for the oppressed. We are to be beacons of light, not pot stirrers and peddlers of confusion that muddies the water. We should bring clarity, not more layers of misunderstanding. As we do this, our narrative won’t line up with the media’s narrative. Our declarations won’t sound like the culture’s declarations. Our solutions won’t resonate with the solutions of the ideological forces at work in academia and government.

By the way, we shouldn’t be surprised. Neither should we be discouraged. The same Light of the world who saves us and makes us His lights in the world will guard us, protect us, and lead us through the conflict that rages. We can be calm and at peace, even as we suffer ourselves while we engage in the suffering of others. Be the light, church. Our light is His light, and His light is the only thing that will bring the blessed unity that we desperately desire.

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. (Galatians 3:28)

[2] This is the second definition provided by In the dictionary entry, the first definition states, prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized. It is my contention that the first definition is a list of behaviors that are derived from racism. Also, this essay will deal with the issue of racial prejudice distinctly.  [back]
[3] Lee, Felicia R., “From Noah’s Curse to Slavery’s Rationale,” The New York Times. Accessed June 9, 2020.  [back]
[4] Genesis 9:20-27 is the source text for the curse in question. A straightforward reading of the text demonstrates that Ham's son, Canaan, was the one whom Noah cursed. Noah's curse on Canaan made him a servant to all of his brothers. Since Ham was the father of Cush, whose descendants are believed to become Ethiopia, supporters of the slave trade would falsely interpret this text to make Ham the primary recipient of the curse instead of Canaan, thus cursing all of his children, including Cush (Ethiopia). This formed an integral part of the religious mandate to subjugate Africans. [back]
[7] Psalm 82 offers a peek into God's divine council, where he is chastising the gods for their unjust rule of the nations He allotted to them. Mainly, they judge unjustly show partiality to the wicked. Dr. Michael S. Heiser's book, The Unseen Realm, deals with this concept at great length and is careful to demonstrate that this view is well-supported and contends that this was the predominant understanding of Scripture by Second-Temple Jews well into the first century. [back]
[8] ESV Study Bible notes on Ephesians 2:14 [back]
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