The traditional definition of racism, the definition that I learned as a boy and that was generally accepted until recently is this:
racism (rāˌsizəm) noun. prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races…(Oxford American Dictionary)
More recently a re-definition has been proposed wherein racism is said to be less about thinking and doing and more about being. It has come to be re-defined in terms of privilege and class, which are Marxist terms of analysis. According to the re-definition then, one is a racist simply by virtue of where and what and when one is, regardless of what one thinks, says, or does. It is a state from which one can never escape. In theological terms, the re-definition is a law from which there is no redemption.
This redefinition is untrue and unhelpful and should be rejected. Nevertheless, this is not to dismiss the sin of racism. Indeed, one reason why the re-definition should be rejected is that it unintentionally and ironically relieves individuals of their moral duty to acknowledge the reality of racism, to repent of it, and to fight against it.
The unrest of the last several years and particularly in the last few weeks has been an opportunity for Reformed Christians and the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (P&R) to reflect on the sin of racism within our midst. Even under the traditional definition we must admit that there is racism in our hearts and in our midst. If we deny it then we are deluding ourselves and denying our own doctrine. In Heidelberg 5 we confess that we are prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor. Racism is among those sins against which we must fight all our lives (Heidelberg 32). In Heidelberg 60 we confess that even though we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, nevertheless, even in a state of grace, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil…”. We are not perfectionists.
I am not here commenting on the value of the corporate statements that some denominations have discussed and adopted. I am talking about sanctification and the good works that are the fruit of our gracious salvation. After all, there are three parts to the Christian faith: our guilt, God’s grace, and the grateful, Spirit-wrought gratitude that flows from grace. We say that sanctification is a necessary consequence of our salvation and our union with Christ, that “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Heidelberg 64). We say that the fruit of our sanctification contributes (but is not the basis of) our assurance (Heidelberg 86).
The 1974 OPC report on race was correct, the OPC and the rest of NAPARC is mostly white and, in that regard, not much has changed in the intervening decades. As such, most of our churches and most of their members have a different experience from that of racial minorities. As a white person I do not have to wonder whether the loss-prevention staff are following me around the store or if it just coincidence. I do not get pulled over for driving in the “wrong neighborhood.” When I walk into a NAPARC congregation (most of the time) people do not give me funny looks, touch my (non-existent) hair, ask me if I am an illegal immigrant, ask me where I am really from, tell me that my English is pretty good for a foreigner, or make racist jokes at my expense. That sort of thing has happened to friends of mine, in NAPARC congregations, just in the last few years. These things have all happened within the last 24 months. In my 36 years of experience in a wide-swath of NAPARC churches I have heard racist jokes. I have heard God-fearing P&R Christians use the N-word about others without shame. It would not be difficult to expand this embarrassing catalogue of episodes.
There are more subtle manifestations of the sin of racism that are more difficult to see and to root out. Too often in our own hearts and sometimes in our P&R congregations, instead of welcoming the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises in our midst, that we have resented the influx of the “many nations” (Gen 17:5; Rom 4:17–18) because that influx meant change from the familiar and the comfortable. It meant new tunes and new ways of looking at things. Instead of welcoming our brothers and sisters as fellow heirs of the heavenly city, as gifts with contributions to make, we resented them. That selfish resentment is nothing but sin and our brothers and sisters in Christ feel that resentment.
What to do? The first thing to do is to recognize that this is not a new sin. The Apostle Paul had been a racist. As a Pharisee of Pharisees he despised “Gentile dogs” (Phil 3:2) as inferior simply because they were not Jewish. There were Jewish Christians who were still disgusted by Greek and Roman converts. There were Gentile converts who had been “God fearers” in the Synagogues, pushed to the margins of the synagogue and regarded as second class believers, who even though now converted to Christianity, continued to be regarded by some Jewish Christians as second-class citizens of the kingdom.
Second, because racism is an ancient sin we and because it is addressed by Scripture, we need to think about it in biblical and confessional categories. We should not make it a special sin nor the unforgivable sin. Second, we should expose it and address it openly. In this regard, though there are ways I might dissent from the way the OPC report speaks, I am in broad agreement with it and with Mika Edmondson’s response.
Third, as argued yesterday, I would rather talk about the sin of racism under the headings of the first and third uses of the law, as the Heidelberg does. Sanctification is hard work because dying is hard work and the first part of sanctification is dying to sin.
88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?
In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.
89. What is the dying of the old man?
Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.
Racism, racial and ethnic bigotry, racial and ethnic prejudice is a violation of the 6th commandment:
106. Does this Commandment speak only of killing?
No, but in forbidding murder, God teaches us that He abhors its very root, namely: envy, hatred, anger, and desire of revenge; and that in His sight all these are hidden murder.
The violation of the 6th commandment is not a “gospel issue.” It is a “sin issue” and a “law issue” since sin is the transgression of God’s holy law. Sinners sin but Christian sinners (does that expression shock you?) recognize their sin and repent. They rely on the grace of God. They earnestly seek to die to sin and to live to Christ. This is an ongoing process. Christians are penitent, i.e., continually recognizing their sin, confessing their sin, and repenting of (turning away from) their sin.
There is good news for sinners. First, Christ obeyed, died, was raised, and is now interceding for sinners. Those whom God loved, in Christ, from all eternity are those for whom Christ came, for whom he died, for whom he was raised, and for whom he is now interceding. As those who have been united to Christ by grace alone, by the Spirit, through faith, we are being gradually conformed to Christ.
Note the adverb gradually. We need to be realistic about the depth and width of the sin of racism in our hearts and in our churches. It will remain a struggle but if we admit that we are sinners, if we do not pretend to have arrived or to have been perfected (Phil 3:12) then we can admit what we are: simultaneously justified and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). If we not pretending to have arrived, then we can and must hear admonition from our brothers and sisters. If our congregations are marked by an openness about the pervasive reality of sin as well as the transforming reality of grace, we can and will become welcoming congregations where all the nations are gathered together at the feet of Jesus worshiping and serving together and reflecting the inaugurated (but not yet consummated) final reality of the new heavens and the new earth.