Turning cheeks and tables: A Christian response to racism

I remember walking into an interview room a few years ago and being greeted with a look of surprise and disappointment. The interviewer who earlier in our phone conversation had sounded excited to meet me was anything but. I smiled politely then sat through a hostile interview that felt like an interrogation. As I sat there wondering if I should get up and leave and risk confirming a stereotype, I hoped against hope that I would say something that might, even for a moment, make the interviewer seriously consider me for the opportunity he seemed to have already determined I was unworthy. No such moment came. I knew I had experienced one of many challenges that racial and ethnic minorities endure daily around the world. I accepted it and moved on. But the death of George Floyd has been a reminder that although the fight against racial prejudice and its effects can be exhausting, passive acceptance is not and cannot be an option, especially for Christians.

I. The scourge of racism

Racism in all its manifestations continues to be among the world’s deadliest human rights problems. It kills in ways small and large, visible and invisible, and people of African descent continue to bear the brunt of the scourge. The everyday discrimination they face—through indignities like receiving poorer service in a restaurant; being threatened or harassed; being treated as unintelligent and with suspicion and less courtesy and respect than others; and so on—is resulting in their having poorer mental health and possibly killing them prematurely. They also continue to be disproportionately affected by all leading causes of death because they lag far behind in income and education. For them, racism is death by a thousand cuts. Some researchers are also arguing that by reducing levels of trust and mutual reciprocity (social capital) in communities, racial prejudice may be increasing the risk of premature mortality for black and white Americans. Indeed racism may be killing us all.

The limits of policy and legislation

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the conversation in the United States continued to revolve around familiar themes: racial discrimination in policing,  disparities in employment, healthcare, education, and so on. In response to widespread protests, the U.S. Senate debated an anti-lynching bill, Minnesota banned chokeholds, companies issued statements against racism, Washington DC painted “Black Lives Matter” on a street leading to the White House, and many worn suggestions regarding better policing were passed around. All gestures were encouraging and welcome in a country that was angry, hurting and struggling to come back to life as COVID-19 lingered.

The global protests that followed confirmed that the United States is not alone in its struggles with racism. Exacerbated by immigration and rapidly changing demographics, racism is prevalent in Latin America (e.g. Brazil, Chile), the Middle East (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia), Asia (e.g. China, India), Europe (e.g. Germany, United Kingdom, Nordic countries), North Africa, and Australia. Despite the ubiquity of national laws against racial discrimination, supplemented at the international institutional level through instruments like the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to which 182 countries are party, recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and ongoing programs like the UN-led International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), evidence of racism abounds worldwide.

These tough realities make one thing clear: policy and legislative proposals have limits. They may regulate or stop some acts or manifestations of racism, but they cannot eradicate all conceivable acts because they do not address the attitudes and ideas that produce them.

II. Why racism is difficult to eradicate

The fact that racism (and its close relative ethnic prejudice) have persisted throughout recorded history raises the obvious question—why? No blog post, certainly not this one, can fully address this question. Here I highlight just three reasons, based primarily on a biblical understanding of complex human nature and supported by views in psychology and anthropology.

First, there is within the fabric of humanity a desire, rooted in pride and insecurity, to be or feel “better than” or superior to others. Because hierarchy requires differences to which we can attach notions of superiority and inferiority, those seeking supremacy will find differences (real, superficial or manufactured), magnify them, and interpret them in ways most advantageous to themselves. And race—understood here in terms of skin color—is a powerful and convenient attribute and tool in the quest for superiority. This desire to be unequal is evident even within largely racially homogenous communities. One need only look at the role of skin color in India’s caste system and Brazil and Venezuela’s so-called “pigmentocracy” for contemporary examples. These examples and indeed sub-Saharan Africa’s tribalism demonstrate how efforts that focus on challenging the viability of the very concept of race, though intellectually robust, are unlikely to overcome the power of “difference” inherent in skin color or other random attribute (be it a physical feature, religion, social class, geographical location, or even diet) in the quest for supremacy.

Movements that advocate “equality” are thus pitting ideology against primal weakness. This invariably means the fight against racism will be long and hard, with no guarantees of success.  

Second, human fear and greed feed into the unending competition for power and access to scarce resources, and racism satisfies both. It soothes fear by ensuring that the racially (and ethnically) privileged retain as much political and economic control as possible and justifies greed by allowing them to view their disproportionate benefits as deserved. Psychologically, racist societies become like the con man who cannot afford to let up because he lives with the fear of being found out and perhaps being forced to relinquish some of his spoils. Thus to maintain the status quo, racist societies must contain threats by employing diverse tools of exclusion and subjugation to (a) ensure that “the inferior” remain “in their place”, (b) reinforce the “better-than-ness” supremacists seek, and (c) produce results or “evidence” to sustain the supremacy thesis. The evidence is then used to justify further racial prejudice and injustice, and round and round the destructive loop we go.

Third, like most ruinous human tendencies, racism hides well by hardening the conscience. Its effects can be likened to the stench in the house that we no longer (or pretend not to) smell because we have lived in it too long and know that identifying and addressing its source will prove more cumbersome than we would like. The fact that racist acts manifest globally, in places hallowed and low, perpetrated by liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, the cultured and uncultured, Christians and non-Christians, and those who would swear they are not racists highlights not only how well racism hides but also how it petrifies the conscience. This petrification allows communities to accept facts about racial disparities in various social, political, educational and economic outcomes as “normal” rather than as aberrant or possibly even evidence of injustice. The normalization creates an empathy gap that makes it possible to believe and indeed be at peace with the idea that the “inferior” are built for hardship; they can endure the daily slights and other challenges that are not wished upon others with the forbearance of a yoked cow. In societies with this perverse comfort with racism not even sensational tragedy can inspire the deep reforms needed to address it.

III. The Christian duty and distinction in the fight for racial justice and harmony

Because legislation and policy options cannot address these deep-seated, very human problems, Christians have an important role to play in addressing racism. But first, it is important to acknowledge that Christians have a mixed record in this regard. American Christians, for instance, continue to be divided by race in their views and attitudes about race relations, and Christians from all segments of the Church have been, in one way or another, complicit in their degradation. Christians have, in various periods, decontextualized biblical passages and used the Bible’s honest presentation of racism, ethnic prejudice and other morally wrongful conduct to support the existence and perpetuation of practices like slavery, miscegenation and racial segregation. By sanctioning these practices, the Church gave them moral and spiritual legitimacy, exacerbating racial tensions and injustice while also pacifying victims’ calls for change. On the other hand, Christians were instrumental in ending the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and continue to be active in their manifold professions and roles in countless civil/human rights efforts aimed at addressing various injustices.

Despite these inconsistencies, Christians continue to bear the Bible-based burden of being standard-setters who model a non-racial society within the church and a revolutionary force that aids the world in addressing racial injustice and disharmony outside the church.

The Church as a model of a non-racial community

Early Christians wrestled with issues of discrimination based on ethnicity, social class, culture, nationality, language and religion. Whether it was Grecian versus Hebraic Jews or Jews versus Gentiles, then as now, the problem was rooted in their failure to place their identity as Christians above all others. In New Testament theology, the only identity that matters for Christians is being “in Christ.” In Christ, personal characteristics such as race/color, sex, social class, gender, marital status, profession, nationality, and so on cease to be defining; they simply become diverse attributes through which each believer expresses his or her Christian identity. In other words, before they are anything else, Christians are Christians first. If properly understood and embraced, that core identity infuses and animates all others, preventing Christians from accepting and acting on racist ideologies, and restraining those who may be targets of various forms of racial prejudice from responding in ways that do not comport with Christ’s character.

Before they are anything else, Christians are Christians first.”

With Christianity prioritizing love and the kinship of humankind, the faith rejects ideas like white or ethnic supremacy. In fact, with its emphasis on service, Christianity encourages submission of self not the subjugation of another found at the core of racism and related forms of prejudice. And given its recognition of the value of every human as a being made in the image of God, the Church is to be a model of love, service and mutual submission triumphing over division. Together these doctrinal positions make Christianity especially suited to the task of racial reconciliation.

The Christian duty to aid racial reconciliation outside the Church

For Christians who embrace the primacy of the Christian identity, the challenge of aiding racial reconciliation outside the Church begins with recognizing that the world may not necessarily share the same beliefs, texts and priorities of the faith. Christians may thus be unable to transform the conscience, but they can influence it for good in their responses to everyday racism. Those responses involve (a) discernment and (b) action—discerning the source of the acts of racism one may be experiencing and acting accordingly.

Discernment is probably the most challenging aspect of the Christian’s response. Often a product of maturity and experience, it requires that Christians slow down enough, even in the heat of confrontation, to assess the source of the offensive act(s). Sometimes the source is indeed a visceral belief in racial or ethnic supremacy, but sometimes it is not. In communities with poor race relations it is easy to assume that any tensions between people of different races must necessarily have racist elements, but some acts are simply the product of ignorance, fear, insecurity, arrogance or misunderstanding. For instance, when a police officer angrily confronted me as I sat quietly in a coffee shop reading about a European terror group, I recognized the ignorance and assumptions behind the confrontation. And although I was not oblivious to the racial dynamics that may have also been in play and certain my reading selection was not his concern, I somehow stayed calm enough to tell him I was doing research for a law professor. His face softened and we both smiled (admittedly uncomfortable smiles). One thing was clear: in everyday encounters, correctly identifying the source could make the difference between violence and peace, freedom and incarceration, or indeed life and death.

Action, the second step, is indispensable. Once the source of the offensive act is discerned, Christians must act. The ignorant should be informed, the fearful and insecure encouraged and the supremacists resisted in ways covert and overt. In responding, Christians, both targets and observers of racism, have two options: turning the cheek or, in righteous anger, turning tables.

Turning the cheek may be the right course when the perpetrator proves too blind, immature, ignorant or arrogant to be corrected. This may mean simply humbling oneself, biting the tongue and walking away from fruitless confrontation. It always involves forgiving the affront because without forgiveness all that remains is anger and bitterness, dangerous emotions that only feed racial disharmony.

The tables, however, must be flipped over when the injustices or indignities of racism are so egregious or have risen to the point that they deeply offend or shock the conscience. This may involve employing the wide range of tools of civil/non-violent disobedience, legal action, advocacy, and so on. All actions require courage.

What Christians do not have is the luxury to sit out the fight against racism. Opting out because we (a) have been perpetrators of racist acts in the past and disqualify ourselves, (b) do not believe we can make a difference, (c) fear being rejected by our families or communities, or (d) do not want to be involved in something that is inherently ugly and risky is not an option because none of these reasons overcomes the Christian imperative to resist evil. And make no mistake about it—racism is evil.

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