The South African news headlines have recently been filled with the issue of racism once again. This was sparked by a comment made by Penny Sparrow who referred to black people as monkeys on her Facebook post. Political parties have been proactive in addressing the issue and discussing ways in which to curb the negative impact that it is having on our country. Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Arts and Culture, made this statement about the need for things to change “Racism cannot be resolved through discussion and debate but only through change in the economy.” What is the root of the problem? How do we deal with racism? I like what Adam Habib, Vice chancellor of Wits University, says in response to the ANC (African National Congress) who want to legislate racism “Government might legislate, but legislation is a limited response to what is a broader challenge in an unequal society”. I would add that legislating racism and thinking that we will stop racism this way is like pulling out the weeds in our gardens but leaving the roots in the soil. Racism, whether verbal or physical, are the symptoms of a much deeper problem. Racism like every other sin originates in the heart and manifests through the body and mind. If you’re not religious I appeal to you to please consider reading what the Bible has to say about racism.
God, Grace, and the Gospel
Our text for consideration is taken from Acts 17:22-31. The Apostle Paul was in the city of Athens. Here is the sermon he preached to the people of that city.
“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” We can glean three big truths from Paul’s sermon. These truths all relate to God- His greatness, His goodness, and His grace. Let us briefly flesh out these truths and see how they provide us with a biblical framework for addressing the problem of racism.
1. The greatness of God
Paul begins by unashamedly proclaiming to his hearers that God created the world and everything in it. This God is not Allah of Islam or one of the many gods of Hinduism for example. He is the Lord of heaven and earth! Paul taught this truth in a city where there were worshippers of many different gods. The God of the Bible is unique from all other gods: There is none besides Him. If you’re an atheist reading this post please consider thinking about the implication of this first truth. On what basis can atheism provide a cure for racism? I ask, and sincerely, “how can Penny Sparrow’s comment about black people being monkeys be racist when atheism teaches that we evolved from ape-like creatures in the first place?” So the first place we need to start in our efforts to end racism is to acknowledge with Paul that God is the creator and we are the created. He is all-powerful and we are powerless. He is all – sufficient and we are needy. He is independent and we are dependent on Him for everything! This brings us to truth number two.
2. The goodness of God
Being God- The most powerful being in the universe- He is not obliged to do our bidding. He does not owe us anything. Let that sink in for a minute…Yet because of His nature God choses to demonstrate His goodness to His creation. Paul makes it clear that it is God who gives us everything! That means that we are debtors to Him and not vice versa. He created us and therefore He owns us. How did this take place? Listen to Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. Let us make two observations from this account and see how they relate to racism:
a. God created the first two human beings: Adam and Eve- This means that we are all descendants from one blood. Hence we are all related to each other.
b. God created mankind in His image- This does not mean that we look like God physically but that we carry the image of God within us. This includes things like our mind, our will, and our emotions. With our minds we are able to reason and communicate, with our wills we are able to make decisions, and with our emotions we are able to express how we feel.
Let me ask you a question: Why is racism wrong? We all know that it is wrong because that is a self- evident truth. You might respond by saying that it’s wrong because we are all equal irrespective of the colour of our skin. I agree completely. But why are we equal? Because God created us! Our equality as human beings is rooted in the One whose image we bear. To discriminate or treat another human being as inferior based on the colour of the skin is wrong because it is a direct insult to the Creator of the universe. To elevate oneself to a position of superiority based on the notion that skin colour is a qualifying criteria is making oneself out to be judge, to be God.
3. The grace of God
Although Adam and Eve were made in God’s image in the beginning, that image became distorted because of sin. They disobeyed God’s command in the Garden of Eden and as a result sin entered into this world and separated mankind from God. Every man and women born into this world is born spiritually separated from God. But Paul makes it clear that God is not far from each one of us and provides grace that He may be found. His grace is undeserving, unearned, and unmerited. We cannot find God on our own terms but only by His. Trying to find God through religion or good works will keep people in the dark because God only accepts perfection. And that perfection is found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Therefore Paul proclaimed that we must repent and trust in Jesus Christ whom He has appointed as the final judge of righteousness. Jesus Christ is the qualified judge because He died for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day defeating death, sin, and the devil. The Gospel is God’s power to save people from their sins and is able to change the heart of sinners. The heart is the source of all sin, including racism, and Jesus Christ is able to create in us a clean heart. A clean heart accompanied with new desires- to love God and man- is the solution to racism.
South Africa we have a history of racism in our country. We can continue to blame the past for our current problems or we can start to accept responsibility for our own actions. I am persuaded that unless we own up to our own sins and turn to God for forgiveness that we are bound to continue on the same path that we are on. By His grace and goodness we can strive to fulfil the royal law “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Love is accepting each other irrespective of the colour of our skin and treating each other as we would treat ourselves. Francis Schaeffer summed up the matter of loving each other when he said “All men are our neighbours, and we are to love them as ourselves. We are to do this on the basis of creation, even if they are not redeemed, for all men have value because they are made in the image of God. Therefore they are to be loved even at great cost.”