I think that most people have a general sense that Christians should oppose racism and that the Bible must condemn racism. God is love and you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, right? While this intuition is good and correct, I wonder if most Christians would be able to give a thorough explanation of how the Bible addresses racism. The purpose of this post is to provide a detailed survey of Biblical teachings that are relevant to the current discussion around race and racism. While the church has sadly often fallen short of the teachings and standards laid out in scripture, I thought it would be helpful for Christians and non-Christians alike to understand what the Bible actually says about racism in the first place.
First, I need to clarify that the term “racism” doesn’t appear in the Bible and our modern day understanding of race is a later development. Webster’s Dictionary defines race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits” and, in America, the trait that we predominantly use to categorize people is skin color. This does not mean that there was not enmity or conflict between different groups of people in the Bible. Far from it. However, people were likely divided more by ethnicity, which classifies “large groups of people...according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that people didn’t notice physical differences and use those differences to categorize people, but that grouping didn’t have the heavy emphasis on skin color that we see in America. Regardless of how we define race and ethnicity, the important point is that the Bible definitely is written in a context and addresses issues in which people were divided into groups based on a variety of different factors.
With those preliminaries aside, the best place to start is in the beginning. Regardless of the framework that is used to interpret the creation account in Genesis, God created “man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). This verse provides the basis for the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, that every human being is an image bearer of God, created with intrinsic worth and value. Being created in God’s image doesn’t mean that humans are themselves gods, but that humans are the only animals that possess some of the qualities of God’s nature, such as the ability to enjoy beauty, create works of art, think rationally, and desire justice. The doctrine of the Imago Dei not only establishes the worth of each human being, but also establishes that there is really only one human race, all created in the image of God, which is supported by modern science.1
Moving on in the Old Testament, it is clear that God’s plan of redemption has always included people from all nations. When God called Abraham to follow him, he promised, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3). Though God would work specifically through the nation of Israel and they would be his chosen people, his plan has always been to bless people from all corners of the earth.
Furthermore, prophecies of God’s deliverance through the Messiah clarify that God created and cares for all peoples of the earth and planned to bring light and freedom not only to the nation of Israel, but also to the Gentiles (i.e. non-Israelites).
“This is what God the Lord says - the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all the springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: ‘I, the Lord, have called you (the Messiah) in righteousness; I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:5-7).
It is too small a thing for you (the Messiah) to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob (the nation of Israel) and to bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Not only did God’s ultimate plan of salvation include people from all nations, but the Old Testament law gave specific protections for foreigners or aliens who came to reside in Israel. The following are just a few of many references showing God’s care for non-Israelites.
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-19)
Although God did have a special purpose for Israel as his chosen people, foreigners and aliens were welcome to become followers of the Lord. When Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in the land of Egypt, “many other people went up with them” (Exodus 12:38) and were given the right to partake in the Passover meal, provided that they became circumcised as a sign of their new commitment to God (Exodus 12:48). Rahab the prostitute joined the nation of Israel after providing refuge for Hebrew spies during the conquest of Jerhico. When she promised to follow her widowed mother-in-law back to Israel, Ruth the Moabitess declared that “your people will be my people and God my God,” (Ruth 1:16). Both of these women ended up marrying Jewish men and becoming ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).
As we move to the New Testament, both God’s plan of salvation and his love for all people of the earth reaches greater clarity. During his earthly ministry, Jesus primarily focused on serving the nation of Israel, but also healed and blessed Gentiles, including driving out a demon from the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Mark 7:24-30, Matthew 15:21-28), healing the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10), and bringing physical and spiritual freedom to a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39).
More striking, though, is Jesus’ interactions with and presentation of the Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews. The Samaritans lived in the area of the former northern kingdom of Israel and were considered by Jews to be half-breeds and apostate worshippers of the Lord. In fact, when travelling Jews would make a point to avoid walking through Samaria. This context makes Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman by the well in Sychar even more remarkable. When he asks her for a drink of water, she is taken by surprise because he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan and Jews did not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9). Not only did Jesus reach across ethnic and cultural divides to treat the woman with dignity and respect, but he goes on to offer her living water that will become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14). As a result of her life-changing interaction with the Messiah, many Samaritans came to believe that Jesus was the Christ (John 4:39-42). God’s salvation clearly extended beyond the borders of Judea.
Another shocking example of Jesus’ view of this despised group is his choice to feature a Samaritan as the hero in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A teacher of the law wanted to justify his prejudicial selection of which neighbors he chose to love as he loved himself by asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Jesus goes on to tell the now famous story of a Jewish man who was nearly beaten to death by robbers on his way to Jericho. After being ignored by two Jewish religious leaders, a Samaritan had compassion for him, brought him to a hotel, cared for his immediate needs, and financed his full recovery. When questioned by Jesus about who had acted as a neighbor, the teacher of the law couldn’t even bring himself to say that it was the Samaritan, but only acknowledged that it was “the one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 10:37).
In life, Jesus showed compassion and love towards Gentiles and Samaritans, but in his death and resurrection he extended salvation to all peoples of the Earth. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus commissioned his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Jesus affirms the messianic prophecies that salvation through faith in Christ is not only for the Jews, but for people from all nations.
However, the early church needed a little bit of divine prodding to accomplish God’s plan of taking the gospel to all people. An excellent example of God using all things for his glory and the good of those who love him comes in the book of Acts, where persecution against the Christians breaks out, but this actually causes them to disperse throughout Judea and Samaria, preaching the gospel as they went and fulfilling Jesus’ charge to be his witnesses in these areas (Acts 8:1-4). More prodding comes when God gives Peter a vision in which he shows him that he should “not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15). Immediately after this vision, Peter receives a call to share the gospel with the friends and family of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Upon hearing the gospel, Cornelious and his kin believed the message, received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized, leading the early church to conclude that “even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18).
In the coming years, the gospel would be preached around the Roman empire and many Gentiles believed the message and decided to follow Christ. The Apostle Paul was God’s “chosen instrument to proclaim [his] name to the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15) and was used by God, along with others, to plant churches across the Roman world. The Christian church, which started as a Jewish sect, became multicultural and multiethnic as the gospel broke down the “dividing wall of hostility” not just between man and God, but between Jew and Gentile. The hostility between these two groups was likely greater than the hostility between racial groups in present-day America, yet the gospel brought peace where there was once enmity. Listen to these words of radical reconciliation:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:13-20)
Even though the gospel brought transformation and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, early Christians still had to battle against the sinful nature and lived in a fallen world, as do Christians in the present day. As a result, it is not surprising that they would still need to correct unjust systems and battle against personal prejudice. In the early years of the church, a dispute arose that Greek widows were being neglected in the distribution of bread. As a response, seven faithful men were selected as the first diaconate to ensure that both Jewish and Greek widows received a fair distribution of financial assistance from the church (Acts 6:1-6).
Later, another dispute arose after large numbers of Gentiles came to faith in Christ. Some Jewish Christians had gone to these new believers and told them that they needed to be circumcised and follow the customs of Moses in order to be saved. A council was convened in Jerusalem and it was determined that the Gentiles were saved by grace in the same manner as the Jews. As a result it was decreed that Gentile Christians should not be impeded from receiving salvation through grace by the construction of cultural barriers.
Despite these systemic corrections, early Christians still needed to guard against personal prejudice, which is a good reminder for us today. Peter was the rock of the early church and had directly received from God the message that Gentiles were not impure, but recipients of eternal life through faith in the gospel. Yet, when he was visiting the church in Antioch, he abandoned his custom of eating with Gentile believers when this act was witnessed by members of the circumcision party, who believed circumcision was necessary for salvation. His hypocrisy led other Jews, including Barnabas, into error and prejudice. The Apostle Paul rebuked Peter because his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14). Just as we do today, early Christians needed to be reminded that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.” (Romans 10:12).
Which leads us to the ultimate end of God’s salvation story. While exiled on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John received a vision in which he saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes 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!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). People from all nations, languages, tribes, races, ethnicities, and cultures will be joined together in heaven in glorious worship of God. I have received a taste of this by worshipping with people from every continent on Earth and can’t wait until God’s plan of salvation of people from all the Earth is realized.
To summarize in a paragraph, all people are created in God’s image with intrinsic value and worth. God’s plan of salvation has always included people from all nations and God’s law provided specific protections and requirements for justice for foreigners and aliens. Jesus, the Messiah, demonstrated culturally radical love and concern for Gentiles and Samaritans and commissioned his followers to bring the gospel to all people and all nations. The early church, while not perfect, corrected examples of both unjust systems and personal prejudice, and reconciled Jews and Gentiles through the breaking down of walls of hostility. Finally, God will achieve his ultimate plan of salvation by drawing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to receive grace and eternal life through faith in Christ and to be united in worship before his throne.
So, yes, the Bible definitively and thoroughly condemns racism. Sadly, as sinners living in a fallen world, Christians and the church have not always lived up to the high standards detailed in scripture. That will be the topic of my next post.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “There is no Scientific Basis for Race - It’s a Made Up Label. National Geographic. March 12, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/