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Published Date: January 31, 2000

Published Date: January 31, 2000

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A Biblical Response to America’s Racial and Ethnic Crisis

In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, I began to prayerfully study the Bible, looking for a scriptural response to ethnic conflict. I knew the Bible had hundreds of scriptures about the poor, but I never suspected it had so much to say about the problems of a multi-ethnic society. However, I found dozens of scriptures that spoke very directly to the ethnic problems we are facing as a nation. As a result, I have become convinced that God has a plan for a multi-ethnic society, and that racial reconciliation is the most important social need of our time.

The problem we face is not primarily political: It is first and foremost a spiritual problem. I therefore have no hope for lasting racial reconciliation apart from an approach that first deals with its spiritual dimensions. Hope lies with the church. Though in the past the church has been as separated on this issue as the rest of society, the church must move into the forefront of reconciliation if there is to be genuine healing.

Of primary importance is that we become more biblical people, and thereby more reconciled, loving people. We need to become more aware of all the dimensions involved in racism and ruthlessly root out the fears, misunderstandings, defenses, and prejudices that feed racial and ethnic separation and hostility. We have to learn how to live together as God’s people, and shape our values according to biblical rather than cultural norms.

Perhaps you recognize one of these oft-repeated statements: “But I’ve never discriminated against anyone,” “I’ve never owned any slaves,” or “Why does this issue of racism keep coming up—why can’t we just forget about it?” or “Why should I pay for what happened in the past, before I was even born?” or even “Why can’t ‘they’ just work harder and climb up the economic ladder like my ancestors did?”

Each of these statements reflects an individualistic lens. The biblical viewpoint is community-oriented. The abolition of slavery over 130 years ago did not end the problem of racism. We are not just individuals completely separated from the sins of our nation or our forefathers. We live in the effects of those sins. And God says that if the land is to be healed, the people who are called by God’s name must humble themselves and repent and confess their sins (2 Chr 7:14).

There are dozens of scriptures throughout the Old Testament demonstrating that God sought to address the difficulties of incorporating into the Israeli nation people who were ethnically, culturally or racially different. God knew that human nature would use these differences for evil to create division and oppression. But God wanted this new “nation under God” to be holy, set apart. Therefore, scriptures provide guidance for accepting “aliens” and “strangers.” The word “alien” literally means “non-relative, someone strange or different, foreigner.” We can learn a great deal by exploring the Bible as we seek a better understanding of God’s desire for racial reconciliation and a multi-ethnic society.

Legal Equality And Equal Justice

The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. Yo u and the alien shall be the same before the LORD: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you. Numbers 15:15-16 (cf. Lev 24:22, Dt 1:16, 24:17, 27:19)

We are required to practice the same laws and the same justice for both the alien and the native-born. As a nation, we still have a long way to go toward achieving equality. It took us two hundred years to repent of slavery. Another hundred years passed before a serious attempt was made to implement legal equality. One wonders whether we are under a curse for failing to follow God’s plan in a land where God’s intention for the nation is perhaps best expressed in the words on the Statue of Liberty.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Providing For The Poor And Alien

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Deuteronomy 24:19-21 (cf. Lev 23:22, 19:10, Dt 26:12, 14:28-29, Ez 47:22-23)

We are all citizens of heaven and aliens and strangers on this earth. We are therefore commanded to serve the poor and needy as servants of Christ. We should do our best not to hoard our possessions, but to help the disadvantaged.

Loving The Stranger

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33-34 (cf Dt 23:7, Ex 22:21, 23:9, Jer 7:5-7, 22:3)

We must not tolerate personal prejudice or mistreatment of ethnic minorities. Instead, we are told to love “the alien” as ourself, even though they may be very different from us. Invite the Holy Spirit to search your heart and expose your stereotypes, fears, suspicions, prejudice, hatred, or apathy to the pain of others. Confess what is in your heart. Ask for God’s help and power. Ask Jesus to give you his eyes and heart for those different from you.

Commit to the painful process of true reconciliation. Cultivate sensitivity through education and relationships. Read the stories and histories of those who are different from yourself. Spend time with people from other ethnic groups. Be prepared to face and hear hurt, anger, and fears with love and understanding. Lay aside all your instinct for self-justification. Talk about minority experiences. Get to know people who are different as real people with a whole variety of interests, not just as representatives of a group. Learn how to live together and give our nation an example and a hope for a better day.

Healing The Heart

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (cf Zech 7:10, 1 Cor 13:4-7)

Government is powerless to change hearts and relationships. All our human effort seems only to increase polarization and hopelessness. There is only one hope—a massive repentance and turning to God, with the church of Jesus Christ leading the way.

Unfortunately, the Christian church often reflects social divisions. Even many so-called “social action churches,” while committed to political involvement, are not actually providing a vital example of multi-ethnic people living and working together, understanding and loving each other.

God’s intention is for the church to be the place where those who have formerly lived in hostility can come together under the Lordship of Christ. The church, filled with God’s power and living out God’s plan, is to be a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 2:14-22 (cf. Gal 3:26-29)

Taking Responsibility For Action And Inaction

This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people. But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.” Jeremiah 22:3-5

The thrust of this passage is that not only must you refrain from doing wrong to those who are weak or powerless, but you must also take an active role in rescuing them from the sins of others. God holds us responsible for what we do, as well as what we do not do.

The New Testament reinforces that doing right is a matter of taking positive actions, not simply of refraining from negative ones:

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. James 4:17 (cf. Lk 6:31)

The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that if we stand by silently or passively while a neighbor is injured or beaten or spit upon, then we have failed to love our neighbor as ourself. If we see hatred and evil and prejudice, yet stand by and say and do nothing, then we have committed the sin of silence.

We have a communal responsibility for what happens in our midst, even if we are not the ones committing overt acts of evil. God holds us responsible both for what we do and for what we do not do.

Edmund Burke pointed out that all that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. In the days of Nazi Germany, most Germans were not Nazis. But they stood by and watched in silence and passivity, shutting their eyes and closing their ears, while the Nazis took over their country and attempted to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe. Sadly, most of the church in Germany also stood by passively while a country was destroyed and millions died.

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp said, “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We can’t simply say, “Well I am not the one who is fostering hatred. I just keep to myself.” We are responsible before God not to be passive in the face of evil, hatred and oppression.

What do you do when someone makes an ethnic joke at another’s expense? What do you do when someone is picked on because of the color of their skin? What would you do if you went to a hotel with a minority friend, and the hotel would let you in but not your friend?

Racism, whether active or passive, is simply a form of self-idolatry that exalts one kind of person over another on the basis of outward appearance. For much too long, the church of Jesus Christ in this country has not stood up to the racism and hatred that has been a blight on this land. It is true there were some Christians who stood up to slavery in the days before the Civil War, and it is true that some were involved in the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and sixties. But even then the majority of evangelical, Bible-believing Christians stood b y, or worse yet, reacted negatively to efforts to bring about a greater measure of racial justice.

Let us repent not only for any evil we have done, but also for the good we have failed to do.

Sins Of The Fathers

Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites. Numbers 35:33-34

God holds the nation and the land responsible for past sins which have not been confessed and repented of, and for which restitution has not been made. The land itself can be polluted by violence and oppression, and this can ultimately lead to judgment. King David encountered this during his reign, long after his predecessor, King Saul, had been killed.

During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the LORD. The LORD said, “It is on account of Saul and his bloodstained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 Samuel 21:1

If collective sins are not repented of and justice established, those living in the land will suffer the consequences. In urban society, we often lose our connection with the land and its sins and blessings, but we should pay attention. We cannot remain untouched by sin in the land. The Bible says that unjust blood cries out from the ground. Abraham Lincoln spoke of just this in his Second Inaugural Address during the Civil War:

And the war came. One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.

…The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” …And he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln recognized that the terrible Civil War was the judgment of God upon the nation, and anticipated that its destructive effects could continue until all the sin of 250 years of slavery in North America was fully paid for.

The legacy of 250 years of slavery cannot be wiped out in a year, or a decade, or even a generation. You cannot tear families apart for hundreds of years and then expect the victims to suddenly live normal lives. Slavery’s effects have permeated the mindsets of the descendants of both masters and slaves. In the 130 years since the end of slavery, we have continued to oppress the weak and live in hatred and prejudice in many ways. Today we are bearing the effects of these sins—in our nation, our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches, our minds, and our hearts.

Repentance And Confession

I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.” Daniel 9:4-5 (cf. Ezra 9:7, Neh 1:4-11)

We are called to repent and confess the sins of the nation, present and past. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah were righteous men who never personally polluted themselves with idolatry, and yet confessed to this very sin—the sin of their forefathers. In the same way that we are part of the current community and part of the land, we are also part of the historic community of our forebears. The sins of the fathers (and mothers) have an effect on the children, and we need to acknowledge and confess and repent of these sins. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah all participated in the restoration of their people, but it began with this confession of the sins of the fathers.

Standing In The Gap

The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.

“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.” Ezekiel 22:29-31

Many of us cannot fully repent and confess the sins of our forebears because we are not fully aware of what happened. We think, “Oh yes, there was slavery back then, and that’s bad, but it’s gone now.”

But the struggle is far from over. Even today, the evangelical church is largely separated along racial and ethnic lines. Minority people still live in the shadow of hatred and prejudice. Even in the church, people from non-European ethnic backgrounds often encounter misunderstandings, stereotypes, fear, avoidance, and a whole variety of insulting comments. While we may not be burning crosses, and may even be glad for the diversity in our churches, we need to work actively to eradicate the vestiges of our divided and prejudiced society. We must learn to live together in true love, understanding and mutual respect.

We must continually work toward racial equality, allowing God to heal our hearts and our relationships, and taking responsibility not only for our own actions, but also for those of our forebears.

Who will stand in the gap, committed to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem? May God grant us conviction, courage, perseverance, and commitment.