The process of disentangling racism and the Gospel has shaped the greater part of my time at university. My involvement in Cambridge’s Decolonise English Movement was driven by the conviction that racism is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel, one shared by the rapper Akala. In his memoir-polemic Natives (2019), while analysing the historical forces that led to West Africa becoming vulnerable to the exigencies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Akala asserts that anti-blackness is nowhere to be found in the Bible. He writes:

Genesis 9:18-25 talks about the sons of Noah; Ham, Shem and Japheth. Ham and all his children were cursed to be slaves because according to this verse, Ham did not cover his naked father.

Despite the actual verse not mentioning Ham’s colour at all, from this passage a whole mythology developed around black people being the cursed sons of Ham and therefore eternally suited for slavery[1]

The example of Ham is one of many dubious interpretations of Scripture that validated the establishment of such systems as slavery, segregation, and disproportionate incarceration through the expansion of European empire and the violence of settler colonialism. Time and again, I have grappled with the odious ways that many of us have internalised a racial hierarchy by which we assign a measure of humanity or human achievement: White Europeans sit at the top, those of African descent sit at the bottom, and East, Southeast, and South Asians sit uneasily between. The British Empire left this legacy of racial organisation across its colonies, one that continues to inform the question of social cohesion across such multiethnic societies as the United States, South Africa, and Singapore. It is crucial to remember that the British exploited existing tensions between racial groups as a way of containing and controlling colonial populations, entrenching deep-rooted biases that persist today. Amid widespread protests against systemic racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the impetus for the church to unequivocally denounce white supremacy and racial prejudice has been renewed.

First, we must combat notions of arbitrary human hierarchicalisation through the doctrine of Imago Dei. In Genesis 1, it is written that ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.’ Principally, this affirms that we have all been bestowed with ‘the indelible stamp of the Creator,’ as Dr. Martin Luther King describes, and are equal before God.[2] While intuitively easy to grasp, Imago Dei can be obscured by the insidious processes of biological racism, the belief that some people are ‘subhuman’, as well as anthropological racism, the notion that a racial group is inferior because of a presumed barbarity. Frantz Fanon describes the racist logic of colonialism as ‘a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity’.[3] The deprivation of subjectivity is one of the strongest mechanisms of racism, placing a burden on the stereotyped to contend for a recognition of their inherent dignity. The codification of ethnic stereotypes is present in Scripture, whether in the enmity that Jesus transgressed in speaking to the Samaritan woman (John 4), or in Nathaniel’s exclamation as to whether anything good could come out from Nazareth on hearing of Jesus (John 1). How stereotypes manifest in daily interactions is often subconscious: Black Brits are presumed to be hypersexual and culpable of criminality, those of Chinese descent are dismissed as unhygienic or passive. Such stereotyping betrays an inability to affirm the image of God in each person; it distills the entirety of an individual’s worth into a handful of discrete characteristics. These are prejudices we must recognise and resist.

Second, we must actively pursue our call to love God and our neighbours. As Jesus commands in Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV):

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

As Christians, our love for God and one another is united within the framework of agape love. Here, we must remember the doctrine of divine grace, that Christ would give His life for us while we were still undeserving. It is from this outflow of unconditional love that we find the spiritual stability to love those around us with radical generosity. What I have thus sought to do is to love others with the same generosity as Christ. This has entailed a willingness to sit and learn of the complex and irreducible histories and cultures that have shaped people and their experiences, while resisting the temptation to insist on my own prejudices. This is the least that is demanded of us, particularly since our Saviour actively and consistently sought to transcend ethnic barriers, evidenced by the Roman centurion who placed his faith in Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8), the Ethiopian official who asked to be baptised (Acts 8), and the multicultural members of the church in Antioch (Acts 11).

Thirdly, we must affirm the diversity that persists within the framework of God’s creation, rather than insisting on a false presumption of colour-blindness that flattens any cultural specificity. While we hold to the inherent dignity bestowed upon us by God, we must never mistake Christian belief for a fixed set of cultural practices. This is not the vision articulated in Revelations, in which John writes:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelations 7:9 NIV)

The eschatological vision that John beholds is a glorious display of unity as manifested across national, ethnic, and linguistic difference in the New Creation. It is the conclusive redress of the fragmentation enforced by God in response to the construction of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, a humbling of humanity’s disobedience. Such a principle holds powerful implications for how our churches minister and reach out to different communities, whether in our home countries or abroad.

If we as Christians believe that our actions emerge from a transformation of the heart, it bears believing that we must invite the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin, engage in proper repentance, and emerge with a clarity toward what the Bible affirms. We must recognise the pervasiveness of racism and actively seek the Lord in helping us to see each person as He does ­– precious and cherished in His sight. In doing so, we will find ourselves better equipped to understand how racism functions at a systemic or structural level, embedding itself in the assumptions on which policies are tabled or institutions are established and run. In our love for each of God’s people, we may find ourselves indignant toward the injustices wrought upon indigenous peoples fighting against construction projects on their lands, the xenophobia with which climate refugees are treated, the ways that migrant workers are systematically disadvantaged across the world, and how policing has resulted in disproportionate violence against minority communities.

Let us remember how important it is to recognise the ways that Satan gets under the skin of the church and let us reject the division that he foments. As Nancy Hill asserts,

My Christian faith is not in tension with the drive to love people who are different from me. My Christian faith demands I commit myself to loving those who are different from me.[4]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Akala, Natives, p. 112.

[2] James S. Spiegel, ‘MLK’s Theological Case for Racial Justice (and Today’s Thin Alternatives)’, The Gospel Coalition, 16 June 2020

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 182

[4] Nancy Hill, ‘Can we have Martin Luther King’s dream without his faith?’, The Veritas Forum, 8 May 2015

 

Sources and Further Reading:

Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (Great Britain: Two Roads), p. 116.

Curtin, P.  D., ‘”Scientific Racism” and the British Theory of Empire’, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 2.1 (1960), pp. 40-51

Dilley, Andrea Palpant, ‘The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries’, Christianity Today, 8 January 2014

Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963)

Hill, Nancy, ‘Can we have Martin Luther King’s dream without his faith?’, The Veritas Forum, 8 May 2015

Keller, Timothy, ‘The Sin of Racism’ in Life in the Gospel, June 2020

Lindsay, Ben, ‘Why we need to talk about race’, Premier Christianity, July 2019

Powell, Philip, ‘Understanding and responding to racism – a Christian perspective’, Jubilee Centre, 1 July 2020

Spiegel, James S., ‘MLK’s Theological Case for Racial Justice (and Today’s Thin Alternatives)’, The Gospel Coalition, 16 June 2020