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In February of 1956, almost two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling declaring segregation unconstitutional, W. A. Criswell, pastor of America’s largest congregation and arguably Southern Baptists’ most popular preacher, addressed the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s evangelism conference. As he exhorted his fellow ministers to preach the gospel, his sermon meandered off course into a bitter denunciation of the Brown segregation ruling. Governor George Timmerman was so encouraged with the denunciation he heard that he invited Criswell to address a joint session of the South Carolina legislature. Criswell gladly accepted the invitation and continued his diatribe against the Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court, and other Americans who supported the end of Jim Crow. He is quoted as saying, “Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” Sadly, it would be more than ten years before Criswell recanted his comments about his rejection of integration…
Growing up in a Southern, middle-class, white family in the latter decades of the twentieth century, I believed that racism was a sin of the past, one finally put to death by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I knew that there had been tremendous racism in our history due to such evil institutions as slavery and Jim Crow laws, yet the situation was now largely different—America had become a place where every color could enjoy freedom and unlimited opportunity, a nation that had learned from her past—a “shining city upon a hill” as the Puritans used to say (Kennedy and Reagan too).
However, due to recent acts of violence and rioting in the United States many are wondering what has gone wrong? Whether one is black or white or anywhere in between, the tumultuous events of the past year have many asking the question, “Is racism dead or alive?” Have the police shootings, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and other events merely drawn back the American curtain to reveal an ugly truth? Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, is racism alive and well in the land of the free and home of the brave?
Before continuing it’s helpful to line out exactly what the term “racism” means. Merriam-Webster defines it simply in two ways:
- Poor treatment of or violence towards people because of their race.
- The belief that some races of people are better than others.
Coupled with this definition we must further delineate the term with two facts we know according to the Bible:
- Although there are different physical characteristics among people groups, we believe that every race came from “one blood” (Acts 17:26), our first parents Adam and Eve.
- In some sense there are only “two races” of people; those who are without Christ and those who are believers (“a chosen race”, 1 Pet. 2:9).
With that being said, is the sin of racism defined in the Bible? Not exactly. Yet, is the sin of racism described in the Bible? Most definitely. We can look back as early as Numbers 12:1, when Aaron and Miriam objected to Moses marrying a Cushite woman (though they were also jealous of Moses’ authority). Racism is also cited in the ways many of the Jews disdained the Gentiles. The Jewish people were called to be holy and separate (Lev. 20:26), yet Israel was also to be a light to the Gentiles, a task in which they failed yet later accomplished by Jesus Christ (Lk. 2:32).
Due to God’s amazing grace, with the birth of the church and the indwelling of the Spirit, the people of God began to live out their “new creation” status (2 Cor. 5:17), thus inflicting damage upon the sin of racism. In Galatians 3:28 we read, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In this passage we do not see an elimination of the differences in races (a call for “color blindness”), but rather a clarification that these differences in races do not matter in God’s sight—we are truly “color blessed” (Derwin Gray, Transformation Church).
So, to conclude the answer to the question “Is racism dead or alive?” It is clear that if racism is in fact a sin and therefore inherent in the sin nature, racism is definitely not dead. It is just as alive in American society as the sin of lying, or gossip, or adultery. Racism was with us at the beginning of our nation, remains with us today and is not ever going away (to say otherwise is to deny the depravity of man). Not even in the enlightened country of America is racism going away…indeed it never will go away until Christ one day eradicates sin from the face of the earth. So, if racism is still alive and well, where do we go from here? How can we as believers be a part of the solution? Before we discuss where we should go in the future, it’s probably best to look to the past to see how American Christians dealt with racism back then. Yet sadly I am out of room, so this conversation will need to continue in my next blog post. Until then, “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Mt. 22:39)
 Manis, Andrew M. Southern Baptist Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Quoted in Baptist Message 33 (March 1, 1956).