Is Racism Blasphemy?1
The recent acquital of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin has stirred up the debate over racism in a way that transcends any that I can recall. I don’t pretend to have the answer for this problem, although I highly recommend John Piper’s insightful and convicting book, Bloodlines, for those who want to dig more deeply. So let me say up front that what follows has been influenced greatly by John’s contribution to this volatile subject.
How does one gauge racial prejudice? How does one measure its presence in the human heart? How might we get a grip on the horror and wickedness of racism? Perhaps listening to Martin Luther King himself will help. King, as you probably know, was and continues to be a controversial figure. Elements in his personal life are deeply disturbing. But let’s set that aside for a moment and focus on the work he did as a public figure.
At one point, a number of white pastors and religious leaders urged King to be more patient and not to demonstrate for the sake of racial harmony and justice. To that suggestion, he wrote the following (please remember that he wrote this in the mid 1960’s; the language and circumstances reflect that time):
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policeman curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she's told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘Nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘Boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ - then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, with an introduction by Paul Chaim Schenck [no place, no date], p. 8-9.)
To the charge that he was an extremist he responded like this:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’? Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll to down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus’? Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God’? And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘Thus this nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” (Letter, p. 14)
So how do we measure the presence and influence of racial prejudice in our land? We can’t. We can only measure it within our own hearts. So permit me to ask several probing questions (ones that I regularly ask myself):
Are you instinctively suspicious of the motivation of another person simply because their skin is a different color from yours?
Do you draw conclusions about the moral integrity or honesty of another person based solely on the fact that their skin is a different color from yours?
Do you doubt the intelligence of another person because their skin color is different from yours?
Do you question the initiative and work ethic of another person because their skin color is different from yours?
Do you immediately become concerned about the safety and value of your home when a person of a different skin color moves into your neighborhood?
Do you find yourself avoiding direct social and verbal interaction with a person because their skin color is different from yours?
How many people whose skin color is different from yours can you honestly say are close personal friends?
I could go on asking questions like that for quite some time, but I trust that we are all sufficiently uncomfortable by now.
So what does the Word of God have to say about this? Let’s consider Revelation 5:9-10, where we read a remarkable description of the redemptive purpose of God in Christ:
“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
John Piper has helped me greatly in seeing the significance of this passage for our understanding of race, so much of what follows has been gleaned from his insights. Let me make three brief comments.
(1) God’s purpose in sending his Son to die was to redeem people from every ethnic group: white, black, red, yellow; all shades and shapes of people from every tribe and language and nation. God delights in diversity! It is at the very heart and core of his saving purposes in Christ.
(2) Not only does God delight in racial diversity but he also has it in his heart to unite these diverse groups into one kingdom of priests (see v. 10). White Christians are one kingdom of priests with black Christians who are one kingdom of priests with Chinese Christians who are one kingdom of priests with Arab Christians. And you cannot have a functioning, God-glorifying kingdom of priests if they despise one another because of racial differences or live in suspicion of the worth and value of the other based on racial differences.
(3) This purpose of God in redeeming a racially diverse people for himself came at great personal cost: it was with the blood of his own Son, Jesus Christ, that he redeemed them. If nothing else, this ought to convince even the most skeptical among us that racial diversity and harmony is something profoundly important to the heart of God.
When we permit feelings in our heart of dislike and suspicion and disdain toward a person of a different skin color, we are blaspheming the majesty of the Creator God. We are denouncing the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We are despising the shed blood of the cross. We are slandering the power of God in shaping men and women of all races in his image. We are denigrating and denying the purpose of God in redeeming men and women of all races and colors and making them a kingdom of priests.
So, in answer to our question, Yes, racism is blasphemy.