The Church and Race: Defining “Racism”

Raceandchurch

Background

Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Before discussing such a controversial issue, I thought it might be helpful to deal with some over-arching concerns.

The definition of “racism”

I should have defined “racism” at the beginning of the series to avoid the ambiguity increasingly being imposed on the term.

I am writing and thinking in terms of the Christian worldview — in standard English. I’m not writing in academic language, nor do I have Marxist view of class or Post-modern bias toward defining everything in terms of power and oppression.

Merriam-Webster gives this definition —

: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
: the belief that some races of people are better than others

I think that’s pretty much how ordinary people use the term.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “racism” as —

[MASS NOUN] Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
‘a programme to combat racism’

1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Among certain academics, an effort is being made to redefine “racism” as “prejudice plus power.” It is asserted that in the US blacks lack the power to oppress whites and so are definitionally incapable of racism. The same is said of sexism — only a man can be a sexist because men control the levers of power in this country.

I have several problems with this definition:

1. It’s just not what the word means in ordinary English speech.
2. There are countless cities and counties where the government is black controlled. Can blacks be racists in such a county or city?
3. In a nation with a black president and a female presidential nominee, can it be legitimately argued that only white men have power? White men do have greater access to power, but obviously enough, in this country, there are some very powerful blacks and women.
4. The definition assumes that power is held by a race rather than by certain individuals or institutions. Some whites have the power to oppress some blacks, but not all whites are in such a position. In fact, some whites are oppressed by other whites. Some may well be oppressed by blacks. Indeed, implicit in the definition is racial stereotyping: All blacks are oppressed by whites. All whites conspire to oppress blacks. No black has political power but rather all blacks are victims. These statements are plainly false on their face, and yet the definition is argued for in order to claim that no woman or black has the power to oppress any white man.
5. The definition lets powerless people off the hook. White men and women mired in poverty have no control over state or institutional power, and yet they are as capable of racial hatred as anyone. Indeed, it’s often the lack of power itself that drives individuals to scapegoat another race for their own suffering — leading to race-based hatred.

Therefore, the definition race = prejudice + power is NOT the definition I use. If you want to speak in the comments about “prejudice + power,” I suggest you say “prejudice + power” so you’ll be understood by the readers. By using a transparent term, the flaws and strengths of arguments will more easily become apparent.

Now, I said all that to say this. I’m speaking in terms of the Christian worldview, in which racism is a sin. Now, to sin is to miss the mark, and the mark is Jesus. Any attitude toward race that isn’t the same as Jesus’ attitude is sinful — regardless of how much power you have or don’t have or what race you are part of. I will refer to a sinful attitude toward race  — any attitude that falls short of our Savior — as “racist,” without regard to who has power or who is or isn’t oppressed. And my point will be that it’s sin.

Write all the definitions and academic papers you want, the question ultimately boils down to Jesus — and whether we share his attitudes toward the races. And we should not seek to play games with definitions to avoid accountability for sin.

The scriptures plainly point us toward a Kingdom in which Jesus rules as King and in which racial distinctions are overwhelmed by agape, selfless love. The case for this understanding of Scripture is overwhelmingly strong, and yet it’s rarely preached (much more so in the last 10 or 20 years, in my experience).

In fact, theologians often describe the NT as urging the formation a “third race.” That is, we were once Jews or Gentiles, but in Jesus we are part of a new race —

(1 Pet. 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 

And there’s just one Christian race — so much so that the early Christians called themselves a “third race,” neither Jew nor Greek but belonging to the Christ.

The strange title, “the third race,” probably invented by the heathen, but willingly accepted by the Christians without demur, showed with what a bitter spirit the heathen regarded the faith of Christ. “The first race” was indifferently called the Roman; Greek, or Gentile. “The second race” was the Jews; while “the third race” was the Christian. The cry in the circus of Carthage was Usque quo genus tertium? “How long must we endure this third race?”

John Rutherfurd, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 1915, 1–5, 2327.

God has made Christians into a new, distinct race and nation. Either we honor the unity given to us by God — or we let the world define “race” for us and divide based on distinctions that Jesus died to erase.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to The Church and Race: Defining “Racism”

  1. Dwight says:

    “Racism” is a result of pride in oneself and in one’s ethnicity or color or nationality versus another and thus leveraging this against another, but largely has nothing to do with actual race. Many “Caucasians” hate the Jews, despite the Jews being “Caucasian”. Many of the early Americans hated the immigrating Irish, despite the Americans having Irish lineage. The English hated the Scottish, because they were not English. I went to school with a person who declared he wasn’t black, he was proudly Jamaican, even though his skin was black. And so it goes.
    Thus “racism” is largely in the psyche of the individuals and cannot be defined purely by the differences of skin color, hair color, eye color, etc.

    Racism in itself wasn’t addressed by Jesus or the scriptures but preferential treatment and looking down on another was and thus could include racism, sexism, secularism, nepotism, etc. or anything that fits into this category of self over another to spite another.
    Now, purely speaking, there is no such thing as racism, as we scientifically are all of the same race…human. Thus what we are speaking of is making a decision based on certain qualities that differentiate us from another, which could be skin color, hair color, eye color, hair style, dress style, culture, etc, either as a person or as a group. It is largely pride into what we have been born into or as in opposition to another who were born into or as another, as we did not pick our “race”.

    Jesus, as noted, didn’t deal with race (groups based on physical characteristics), but people (the human race), all from different backgrounds, that were to be united as one under Christ…into the same body…into the same family.
    The goal of the body was to provide for another and thus be provided for, so there was no room for I didn’t get this as opposed to what didn’t I give. The hand wasn’t to take from the body and leverage that as a goal, but to provide to and for the body. The eyes and the ears did their part. The whole worked together towards the one goal of Christ. The able body were expected to work and give to the needy…family, saints, others.

  2. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Good post, Jay. Very timely topic, and lots to unpack.

    I have been gone for awhile, so I apologize if you have already covered this. The definition of racism is critically important to the discussion. I concur with your view…limiting “racism” to a “power” component doesn’t pass the sniff test.

    I’ve been very troubled by white, Christian responses to both BLM and the Colin Kaepernick / National Anthem issue most of the time, everyone is just talking past one another. The premise behind BLM is that ‘black lives matter too,’ which is entirely true and noble. Unfortunately, based on some of the icons of the movement, it is easy to interpret ‘Black Live Matter’ as “Black Lives Matter More Than Yours.’ Hoisting Michael Brown up as a cause célèbre is a huge strategic error for the movement. Good message but poor strategic communications.

    CK and the anthem leaves me scratching my head more than anything. I’ve personally know COC preacher and elders who have vilified CK in public on social media. Are you kidding me? Look, I don’t approve of CK’s method of protest…and he certainly hasn’t carefully investigated some of his assertions or exercised a significant amount of critical thought…but he does have a legitimate complaint in some respects. More troubling for me is the ‘Christian’ reaction to CK: calling him a thug, calling on him to leave the country, etc. Are we Christians first or Americans first? Sadly, I think many modern evangelicals are Americans first and Christians second. They have conflated American Christians into the same thing. I see it more and more everyday.

    We would do well to remember two things:
    -One, CK is a professed Christian, and we should treat him as such. We should not define him by his politics.
    -Two, the Christian hope will not be realized through political means. Not even in America.

    As a Christian, I could care less if CK sits or kneels through the National Anthem. As an American, I would rather he stand and show some respect. As a Marine, I want to grab him by the stack and swivel. Three conflicted feelings. Fortunately, as I have matured, I have gotten much better at viewing things through the Christian lens. CK is a brother in Christ, and we should treat him accordingly. At the end of the day, all this national anthem business will perish anyway.

  3. Gary says:

    Having grown up in Mississippi during the 60’s civil rights movement I’ve always been attuned to the subjects of race, racism and ethnicity. My working definition of racism for years has been the attribution of traits or characteristics to one’s race or ethnicity. A helpful guage for ascertaining whether we are racist is noting what our split second thought is when someone of a different race/ethnicity irritates us compared to when someone of our own race does the same thing. A daily irritant in Baltimore is pedestrians just walking out into traffic expecting drivers to brake for them. Since Baltimore is about two thirds African American it’s not surprising that most such pedestrians are African American. Nevertheless I’ve observed that my own initial thought when it happens is to attribute the practice to their race. I realized that my impulse is racist when one day a well dressed middle-aged white woman walked out into my lane of traffic forcing me to brake. My first unfiltered thought was one of deference- that of course I would stop and let her cross the street. Overall I think it’s best to recognize our own racist tendencies and then to refuse to give in to them.
    In my experience most whites I’ve known who claim to be completely free of racism have some racial blind spots.

  4. Christopher says:

    Jay wrote:

    “Among certain academics, an effort is being made to redefine “racism” as “prejudice plus power.” It is asserted that in the US blacks lack the power to oppress whites and so are definitionally incapable of racism. The same is said of sexism — only a man can be a sexist because men control the levers of power in this country.”

    If I’m not mistaken, Thomas Sowell effectively refuted that inane definition by saying that such a view would mean that Hitler was not racist until he seized power – that Mein Kampf is NOT a racist treatise. And what it shows is that many political “progressives” are guilty of the kind of reverse racism I alluded to elsewhere, by wrongly charging whites in power with racism while excusing the racism of blacks.

  5. Christopher says:

    Another thought: race and culture are strongly related, so we must be careful to distinguish between ethnicity and group behavior. Consider what Paul wrote in Titus 1:

    12One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13This saying is true.

    Now THAT sounds “racist”, but I submit what Paul is really talking about is their culture (which has enormous power over individuals raised in it). Since people tend to associate with those like them, it becomes easy to confuse culture with race. Every culture has its bad characteristics. The Irish are known for being violent and drunks. Puerto Ricans are known for being lazy and thieves. And so on and so on. But such behaviors have nothing to do with race per se – only the group behavior associated with a race. When people ascribe evil to a race rather than its culture, then they are being racist.

  6. Dwight says:

    Christopher, I would argue that most of the time when we talk of race we really mean culture, due to the fact that black people from different cultures are not the same and do not often look at each other the same. There are many Indians, from India, who have very, very dark skin, who do not see themselves as black. Just like a white person from Germany doesn’t have the same culture as a white person from America.
    Now , in Germany the Germans were in control, even though many Jews lived in Germany, so they did indeed have the power. Mein Kampf was a book about nationalism in Germany and focused on those that did have the power in their country in deference to those who didn’t and weren’t supposed to as they were “inferior”. Of course even the German homosexuals, sickly, etc. also fell under this thought pattern.
    But I do agree that racism isn’t based on power, but rather a belief, whether you have the power or not. A person can be racist, despite not having the power to subjugate or oppress another, but in some ways it is a lot like faith, to where it is not evident to others until acted upon and it is usually acted upon by those in power.

  7. Christopher says:

    Dwight,

    Or perhaps you mean felt more, rather than acted upon. Racism is acted upon every single day, by the great and the small, the powerful and the powerless. Just see how many examples you can find of it on the Internet.

  8. Dwight says:

    I thought that was what I said, maybe, but when we voice it, we have acted on it. If I confess Christ, I out of faith am acting…that is externalizing it. This what Hitler did mainly, he voiced it and gained a following it in that same thought. And then he grew to power in his ability to control others.

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