Racism is Heresy

At the 2017 assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America overwhelmingly adopted an uncompromising resolution that condemned the ideology of the Alt-Right (= white ethno-nationalism) together with “every form of racism.” It is a resolution with which we are in full agreement.

The Southern Baptists have adopted anti-racist resolutions in years past as part of an effort to distance themselves from the sins of their denominational forefathers. The most current resolution, however, is a response to the alarming resurgence of “blood and soil” nationalism. What is most notable about the SBC resolution is that it condemns racism as a theological heresy that is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is exactly right.

Racism and ethno-nationalism is a theological heresy that contradicts both the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of redemption. Moreover, these two themes are not separate; they are woven together. Central to the Christian worldview is the doctrine of the unity of the human race. All peoples on earth are traced back to two parents who were the special creation of God (Gen 2:7, 21-24). St. Paul found it necessary to teach Gentiles the proper doctrine of creation in preparation for the gospel message. “From one ancestor he made all nations” (Acts 17:26). Furthermore, God created this single human race “in his own image” (Gen 1:27), in true righteousness and holiness with dominion over creation. Even though sin has robbed us of this original righteousness, yet God’s image in humanity remains the basis for the universal dignity and respect (life and liberty) owed to all peoples regardless of ethnicity, religion, or even morality (James 3:9-10). God’s love for all peoples is the reason he sent the reluctant Jonah to the capital of Assyria, hated by all for their incredible cruelty. In the story the Lord asks the incredulous prophet, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (A reference to little children, 4:11).

It is often supposed that ancient Israel was an ethno-state that guarded racial purity. The facts are otherwise. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, it was already an ethnically mixed multitude (Ex 12:38). Diverse converts stood before Joshua, together with Abraham’s biological descendants and took the vows of the covenant (Josh 8:33). According to the law, all resident foreigners in Israel could become full-fledged Israelites by adopting the covenant (Ex 12:48; Num 15:14-16; Isa 14:1; 56:3-7). Ezekiel says, “You are to consider them [Gentile-converts] as native-born Israelites” (Ezek 47:22). There are a number of discrete examples of this. Moses married a Cushite (Ethiopian), Zipporah (Ex 2:22). Rahab was Canaanite (Josh 6:25). Ruth was Moabite, and she was also the great grandmother of King David! (Ruth 4:17). One of King David’s most faithful men was Uriah the Hittite (famously the first husband of Bathsheba).

Even those who were not citizens, who were resident foreigners, were owed both justice and love. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). Note that the logic of redemption is woven into the commandment. This becomes a major theme in the Law and Prophets. Minorities are held up as persons of special concern to God. Since a resident alien is more likely to be poor, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, scapegoating, prejudice and injustice. Therefore, they are grouped together with the orphans and widows as the center of focus for the obligation of social justice (Ex 22:21; 23:9; Lev 23:22; 25:35; Deut 10:18-19; 16:11-14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12; 27:19; Ps 94:6; 144:7; 146:9; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7; 22:29; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5).

God’s command for compassion toward minority peoples is grounded in Israel’s corporate experience of once being an oppressed minority in Egypt. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also lived as sojourners in a foreign land. This has continued relevance for the Christian. Christians are often a maligned minority. Peter writes his letter to “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). Majority culture Christians can easily lose this perspective. Yet, concern for the marginalized was central to Jesus’ ethical teaching.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? The rich young ruler wanted to justify himself with a narrow definition of “neighbor.” The first century Roman Empire was a society brimming with racial pride. Identity politics were strong on all sides. The Jews had a dim view of Samaritans. They would not eat with them, speak with them or travel through their towns. Therefore, Jesus tells his parable of the Good Samaritan. A man robbed and beaten lay on the side of the road. A priest passes by without assisting. A Levite passes by without assisting. But a Samaritan saw him and had compassion and helped him. “Which of these three do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The one who showed mercy. Jesus concluded, “You go, and do likewise.” It is clear, then, that Jesus teaches an unbound definition of the word “neighbor.” By no means may our empathy and concern be limited to our ethnic group (Luke 10:29-37).

When Jesus traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed the way that the Court of the Gentiles had been turned into a market, he overturned the tables in righteous anger. He appealed to Isaiah 56:7 saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). Rather than acting as a light to the nations, the religious leaders placed impediments in the way of Gentiles that discouraged them from coming to know the one God that created the world and all people in it.

On a hillside in Galilee Jesus commissioned his disciples. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). It was clear that the Christian religion could not be limited to any one nation. In its essence it is an international, multi-cultural religion. But this didn’t answer the question of how Christ’s one church was to operate when various ethnic groups exist within close proximity. This became a stumbling block for the early church.

The Christian movement began first in Jerusalem. Then it spread into Samaria. These churches were culturally homogenous. But then the Apostle Peter received his strange vision where God commanded him to eat every form of non-kosher animal (Acts 10-11). When Peter protested, God’s answer was, that which God has declared to be “clean” must not be considered “unclean.” As Peter was pondering the meaning of this vision, messengers from a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to fetch him. Cornelius had also seen a vision where God instructed him to seek out Simon Peter. Peter traveled to meet Cornelius, preached the gospel to him, and he believed. Those who were with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given “even on the Gentiles.” When news of this spread it scandalized the Jewish Christians. They accused Peter of defiling himself by eating with the uncircumcised. Peter defended his actions by relaying the whole story, and then concluded “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).

The unity of Christ’s one church requires that we work to tear down ethnic boundaries. This was a hard lesson for the early church. This was a hard lesson for Peter! The first truly multi-ethnic church was in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles were united to form a single church. They ate meals together and shared life together. Peter was among them. But then men from Jerusalem came to observe the work and they were scandalized by such race-mixing. For fear of offending his brothers Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles and adopted a separate-but-equal policy. Even Paul’s missionary companion, Barnabas, was drawn into this hypocrisy. The Apostle Paul fiercely rebuked Peter to his face. “Their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). If it were not for Paul’s radical leadership, the Christian church would have become segregated from the beginning. This would also be an implicit denial of the gospel. For “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” (Gal 3:29).

Paul paints a picture of God’s people as an olive tree. Wild branches are grafted onto this one tree. This represents Jews and Gentiles from all over the world who believe in the one Gospel, who have received the same Holy Spirit and who are united in Christ’s one church (Rom 11:17-24). In another place Paul teaches that Gentiles are by nature alienated from God, without hope and without Christ in the world. But Jesus has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile; he calls people far and near, and brings all peoples into the covenants of promise. In Christ we are reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:11-22).

It is incumbent upon Christians to work in order to better express our unity. This includes standing up for the dignity of all of God’s image bearers, tearing down racial barriers, and standing up for justice. Because of the persistence of indwelling sin, we will only achieve imperfect unity on earth. One thing is for certain: all of God’s people will be perfectly united in heaven. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tries and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 5:9-10). We are a Revelation 5:9 church and we condemn racism as heretical.