The tragic and heart wrenching events that have flooded the news cycles over the past several days have shone a new light on the alarming problem of racism and prejudice. This is a problem that must be confronted, repented of, and addressed. And I want to say that the church of Jesus Christ should be leading the way in addressing this personal, systemic, and egregious problem. But sadly, we have not—at least not as well as we could have and should have. And for where I have failed in that, I am deeply sorry.
Now, I think the temptation for some is to think, Well, I guess today’s sermon isn’t for me today. I don't struggle with racism or prejudice. You see, all of us recognize that racism and prejudice is a problem; we just don't think it's a problem with us. And to be candid, before studying this topic in more depth, I would have probably said the same thing. I mean, after all, one of our ruling elders at our church is black, our church planter who we are sending out to plant another church is also black. And thankfully, we have a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, social-economic church. Surely, this isn’t a problem with us, right?
Well, as I studied this subject a lot more in the recent months, I have seen areas in my own life and places in my own heart that need to be changed when it comes to this issue. I would argue that racism and various forms of prejudice is a problem that all of us face to one degree or to some degree or another. And so, the questions that I want to address in this message are two-fold: How do we understand the problem of racism and prejudice and how can we overcome it?
(Read Revelation 5:9-10)
In these two verses, we are given a great vision of God’s eternal plan and God’s down-to-earth solution to overcoming the problem of racial, tribal, and national divisions. If we're going to seriously consider how to overcome racism and prejudice, we first need to be clear on what we're overcoming. We first need to understand the problem itself, and only then, will we be ready to treat it with the remedy that God has provided.
The first thing that we see in this passage is a song. Christians are people who sing. We don’t chant, or whine; we sing for joy. This song is a song that is celebrating how the work of Jesus has brought the diversity of the world together. But if we’re going to appreciate the beauty of this song, and if we’re going to sing this song in the land of the living, then we need be clear on the problem that Jesus has the power to overcome.
I want to start by getting some definitions out of the way. Let’s start by defining our terms and the problem at hand so we’re all on the same page. What is racism and prejudice?
The Definition of the Problem
Racism and racist are words that are being thrown around a lot today. So, let’s be clear: Racism can be defined as "a hatred toward, devaluing of, and discriminating against certain people because of their ethnicity or the color of their skin." What this means is that racism is not only limited to the extreme violent cases of the old Klu Klux Klan or even the recent events. It can take a variety of forms:
We have a couple in our church who were criticized and ostracized in their previous church because they were pursuing marriage and one of them is white and the other is black. I know of people here who found out that they did not get paid the same wage at their workplace even though they are doing the very same job—simply because they are Hispanic or African-American. Unfortunately, there are many cases where people are uninvited to events, overlooked for positions, or treated as inferior simply because their skin is a different color. Or say you’re looking to buy a house and move into a neighborhood and one of your concerns is whether this is a white neighborhood or a black neighborhood. Or as a pastor, am I interested in having a multi-ethnic church made up of Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans, so that they can learn how church is really done—so that they can learn from us? Or so that we can also learn from them?
By defining our terms we can see that there are many forms of racism.
Now, what about prejudice? The word prejudice is simply a shortened version of pre-judging someone. I’m making a judgment call without weighing all the available evidence first. Someone once said, "Prejudice is a great timesaver because it enables you to form an opinion without bothering to get the facts."
What we do is we size people up and we form our opinions of them without giving them the benefit of the doubt and all based on a first impression, how they may look or how they’re dressed, the language that they speak, the color of their skin, and so on. Perhaps the classic example of this in Western Literature is Jane Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice. If you remember, Elizabeth’s pride makes her misjudge Darcy on the basis of a bad first impression, while Darcy’s prejudice against Elizabeth’s poor social standing initially blinds him to her many virtues.
Now, we may not live in the same type of class system as England, or in the caste system of India, but let us honestly ask ourselves: Do we automatically assume something about a person based on the kind of car they drive? Do we treat people differently based on the way they are dressed? Do we think that we know a person’s character because they have tattoos or not? Or because they’re young or old? In a social setting, do we avoid talking to people who aren't like us? Who don't look like us or dress like us? Do we greet them and want to get to know them? If not, why not? Why leave it for someone else to do? Do we assume that we know what someone is like simply based on their profession—whether he or she happens to be a lawyer, a doctor, a construction worker, or works at McDonalds?
What’s the root of all this? Before we can get to a cure for this relational cancer, we need to know the underlying cause of it.
The Source of the Problem
The roots of racism and prejudice run deeper than deranged shooters, certain corrupt cops, lack of education on the issue, or bad upbringing. The roots run as deep as the human heart itself.
The biblical teaching on this issue is that because of the fall of mankind, outlined for us in Genesis 3, all of us are born with a nature that’s bent. By “bent” I mean, we are all born with an inner deformity and disability that the Bible calls sin. What sin does is it distorts the way we view and treat people who are different than us and it causes us to build up walls of division around us. It causes distortions that lead to divisions.
Think of the old carnival mirrors that when you looked into them, your face and body were all distorted. The mirror bent the way you saw yourself. This is what sin does. Sin is a carnival mirror that distorts the way we see ourselves, each other, and most importantly, the way we see God. Ever since the confusion of languages in Genesis 11, different tribes, races, and nations have all seen each other in a distorted way and adopted a “we are better than you” mentality.
Therefore, as it’s been said, “Racism and prejudice does not have a made in the USA label on it.” It's not an American problem. It’s not a white problem. This is a global heart problem because the source of this problem is the distorted view of ourselves and others that’s caused by the sin that affects us all.
Now, I understand that on the surface, this may not sound like good news to hear—that sin is the ultimate underlying cause to this issue—I mean, can’t we find something easier to deal with—something less spiritual? Something less hidden? But I promise you the reason that this is good news—that sin is the root cause of this problem—is because God came into this world in the person of Jesus to deal with this very thing.
We can’t avoid the spiritual. We can’t avoid the underlying cause to this issue and jump immediately into activism. We can’t settle for surface-level solutions that may eliminate some of the symptoms but never addresses the real cause. And therefore, we can’t avoid sin.
How are you seeing this problem? Do you look at racism and prejudice as only taking one form or many? And where do you think this all stems from? Do you really think this is something that can be solved by passing some certain legislation? Once we see that this problem can take 101 subtle forms and that it’s a problem of the heart—a problem of seeing people through the eyes of pride and prejudice. Only when we see that this is a problem that we can’t fix ourselves, only then will we be ready to learn, receive, and adopt the solution that God alone provides.
The solution to overcoming racism and prejudice that the Bible presents to us is twofold: 1) It’s recovering the truth that every person is created in the image of God and worthy of our deepest respect and 2) receiving the truth that every person is equally broken before God but can be forgiven and remade through the cross of Christ.
Now, I wish I had the time to develop both of these in more depth. There are countless books written on these two things alone. But very briefly, I want us to see the importance of these two solutions: the image of God and the cross of Christ. I would argue, without a firm grasp on these two things, you really can’t experience deep and long-lasting reconciliation between divided parties.
The Image of God
In 1859, Charles Darwin released, On the Origin of Species. Do you remember the full title? The full title is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Did you catch that—“The preservation of favoured races.”
Regardless of your view of Darwin’s work, one of the results of that work was that many people started thinking of people groups around the world representing more developed “races.” In fact, even leading evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould claimed, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by enormous proportions following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”
Now, I’m not going to get into the different views of evolution and their compatibility with the Bible. I’m talking here about the radical view of evolution that cuts God clear out of the equation and suggests that some races have developed further than others. This teaching is in direct contradiction with the biblical teaching on race.
What does Paul say in his sermon in Acts 17? “That God made from one man every nation of mankind” There it is, we are all created and we are all related! Each one of us has been made by God and each one of us can trace our ancestry to the same human family. It was the departure from this teaching on mankind that has led to the growing racism between mankind.
At a recent Passion conference, Christian rapper and recording artist, Lecrae shared the story of how he was visiting Beverly Hills one day and he needed to get a simple cotton t-shirt. So, he went into one of the regular department stores and he looked at the price tag on one of these t-shirts and he thought, “Oh, they must have put the wrong tag on this one.” So, he went and grabbed another shirt, same price—$640. For a t-shirt! He went to the owner and asked him, “All right, you’ve got to explain to me why this t-shirt is $640 dollars. I mean is some type of healing going to take place when I put on this shirt? Help me to understand why this shirt is $640.” And the owner said, “Oh, it’s all about the designer. The designer’s name is there on the shirt. That’s what gives it it’s value. It’s valuable because of who designed it.” You see, the shirt’s value wasn’t determined by what color it was or what size it was. Its value was determined by who designed it.
My friend, our value, worth, and significance isn’t because of what color our skin is but because of who designed us. God has stitched and stamped his label on each of our lives. Therefore, every person in this world, and every person in this room, is priceless no matter what your religion, gender, skin color, educational background, financial status, job occupation, physical appearance, or physical age. Every person has intrinsic value because you and I have been personally designed by the Maker of the stars! Not only are we all made in the same image but we all come from the same place—we’ve all come from Adam.
I’ve heard it put like this:
It was out of the dust, the dirt of the ground, that God formed mankind in his image. And we all know that there’s white dirt, and black dirt, and yellow dirt, and red dirt. Now, how crazy would it be for one clump of dirt to say to another clump of dirt “I’m superior to you because I’m a different color.”
But that’s exactly what so many people do with each other . Remember, what does sin cause us to do? It distorts the way that we see God, ourselves, and others. So, what we need is to look in a new mirror. We need a new lens to see life through—which is the truth that every person I pass on the streets or in the stores, each and every one of them is an image bearer of God and my brother and sister in a shared humanity.
But that’s not enough, that’s only part of the solution. That may stem the tide of racism but it’s not going to overcome it. The ultimate solution that we see highlighted here in our passage is …
The Cross of Christ
One of my favorite songs to sing when I was a kid was, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” How much love does Jesus have for the diverse people groups in this world? How precious are his people in his sight? So precious that this passage says he gave his life on the cross to redeem us, to save us. It says, “by his blood he ransomed people for God.”
The cross of Christ declares that all of us are equally sinful before God and therefore equally in need of a Savior. Each one of us. This is the clear biblical teaching that must be recovered in our day. Because where is the place of feeling superior towards one another with that in mind? There is none. The cross of Christ humbles us all.
But at the same time, the cross of Christ exalts us all because it tells us that when we receive what Jesus has done, we are equally forgiven, equally adopted, and equally saved for all eternity—and not one of us did anything to deserve it. Now, I ask you: Where is the place for prejudice and superiority in that? There is none.
This is why in Ephesians 2, Paul says that the cross of Christ has broken down the walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles and all the other racial and ethnic barriers in the world. What Paul is alluding to is that some of the strongest walls to tear down are not walls made of bricks, concrete, or wire, they’re the walls created in our heads and in our hearts. Walls of prejudice, suspicion, mistrust, pride. These are the walls that must be torn down and the only power strong enough to tear these walls down is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
The death of racism is found in the death of Christ. The blood of Jesus transcends the bloodlines of men. This is why, as we see here, heaven has no room for racism and no place for prejudice. Because only at the cross are we all brought to the same low because of our sin, but also lifted up to the same heights because of God’s grace.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul explained that we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Bringing people to be reconciled to God which inevitably leads to reconciliation with one another. That was the whole point of Acts. The book starts in the most holy City—Jerusalem, and it ends in the most heathen city—Rome. Because God is on a mission to fulfill this vision that we see right here.
This was the whole purpose in Acts of people speaking in different tongues. The Greek word there and in 1 Corinthians is the same word here. It means known languages. God was showing the world that through the love and message of Jesus, he is reversing Babel and is building a family and society of great diversity. This is the mission and vision of God, the question is—are we growing as Christians and as a church into that vision?
The Sunday hour of worship has been described as the most segregated hour of the week, but we see from this passage that God wants to move us from segregation to integration. The people of God in this passage are not singing many different songs they are all singing the same song! They're singing as one.
After all, what kind of church did Jesus come to build? It isn’t a black church or a white church. It isn’t a “blue collar” church or a “white collar” church. It isn’t an old church or a young church. He came to build the church—his church, a house of prayer for all the nations. What are we called to pray, “your kingdom come, will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
We have to see that this kingdom is bigger than you think. God’s kingdom is a society with the greatest sense of unity within the greatest possible diversity imaginable. Did you notice that it’s not a multitude of people coming together from some of the tribes, languages, and nations, but people representing every tribe, language, people, and nation on this earth. This means that heaven is made up of mostly people who are not white and have never spoken a lick of English in their lives. And what are we to be working for and praying for? This vision … this kingdom, right here … on earth … as it is in heaven!
How does that happen? It happens when the distortions of sin are more and more rendered and removed through the laser-correcting surgery of the image of God and the cross of Christ. We have to see the universal humanity that we’re all a part of, the universal need that we’re all confronted with, and the new humanity that God is creating in Christ Jesus.
So, may each one of us go away today asking the Lord to search us and to change us. May each one of us be able to pray today:
Correct my vision, Lord. Use your Word to change the way I see you, the way I see myself, and the way I see others. Where there has been racism and prejudice in my own heart, forgive me. Where I see hatred in others, let me sow love. Where there is conflict, let me sow peace. Where there is hurt, let me sow sympathy and comfort. And where there is despair, let me always sow and share the message of hope that we’re given in this gospel vision.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..