Recent events have shown again that racism is still a major problem in North American culture. It’s bigger than the headlines and more persistent than the latest government policy decision designed to address it. North America has experienced revivals and awakenings but racism is still alive and well. At many times, the church has been more a part of the problem than the solution. What can be done? I certainly don’t have the answers but I find several important lessons in how the early church faced its own crisis with prejudice and discrimination.
The first century church confronted a major dilemma with regard to prejudice and cultural discrimination. The church was born in Jerusalem and made up, initially, almost exclusively of Jews. Judaism at the time was marked by extreme prejudice and superiority toward Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews). But as the gospel spread, the message of Jesus Christ reached many other non-Jewish peoples. Jews and Gentiles were thrust into worship together for the first time and had to overcome many issues in their fellowship with one another. Three foundations to their attempts at unity are instructive:
1. Take seriously what the Bible teaches about prejudice. The conviction that God had “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26) was significant to the church. Since God created all people from one man, then there is only one ‘race’ and the ethnic and cultural differences that divide us need to fade in their importance. Beyond the fact of our shared ancestry, the church overcame its prejudice through obedience to God’s example. It took a vision to convince Peter to go into a Gentile home for a meal for the first time (Acts 10:9-16) and even then it involved some arguing with God on Peter’s part. But the conclusion he drew was striking. He said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). It was this impartiality in God’s character that inspired the church to treat people with fairness. Paul reminded the church in Rome that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11) to encourage the Jews and Gentiles in their acceptance of one another. When we see how God has created us and how God treats others, it should change our attitudes toward the differences that otherwise divide us.
2. Speak out about prejudice when you see it. If you begin to look for it, you’ll see that the New Testament is filled with appeals to unity and warnings against prejudice. Paul often addressed Jewish-Gentile tensions and condemned the pride that caused one group to look down on another (Romans 11:17-18). But he also rebuked the same attitude among various social classes. So at Ephesus he warned the slave owners about their treatment of the slaves saying, “stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9). James tackled the prejudice that the rich showed toward the poor asking, “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). Paul and others taught on these subjects but they weren’t afraid to also address people personally when they crossed the line. Paul famously confronted Peter when he stopped eating with Gentiles out of fear of a group of Jewish Christian hardliners saying, “I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong” (Galatians 2:11, NLT).
3. Examine your own heart for traces of prejudice. Even when we’re committed to the first two points, I think prejudice can hold on because of blindness. We can look at events in Charlottesville and pat ourselves on the back that we’re not a part of the Alt-Right or the KKK. But it’s that attitude that Jesus saw as so toxic in the Pharisees. They looked at the extreme sin in others and condemned them for it, but never considered that more subtle forms of the same sin existed in their own hearts. So in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes the commandments they were familiar with like “You shall not murder,” and internalized them saying, “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). I think the same thing is needed for us to root out prejudice. We may not wear white hoods or set fire to crosses, but have we examined our hearts for more subtle forms of racism and prejudice? The latest results from the Black Experience Project show that those identifying as Black in the GTA report frequent experiences of racism and discrimination. One of the findings was telling, “participants believe that many non-Black people cling to stereotypes, are in denial about anti-Black racism, and lack knowledge and awareness of the strengths and contributions of the Black community.” Being Christian and following a God “who is impartial” means addressing these attitudes where they exist in our hearts and doing something about them. May God help us as we do!
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
In awe of Him,