In response to yesterday’s column, a correspondent to the HB asked how we know that racism is sin. It is true that I assumed that we all know that racism is sin, that it is obvious on the face of Scripture but it is good to spell out the basics because in so doing we get to an even more fundamental point.
Racism Is Sin
Kevin DeYoung gives 10 reasons why racism is sin—with which I agree heartily— but I think I can name that tune in a single verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39). It is one of the two commandments upon which all the law and the prophets, i.e., the entire Old Testament, hang or depend. That is our Lord’s inerrant and authoritative summary and commentary on the moral law. It requires only two things of us, love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves. Loving God refers to the first table of the law and loving neighbor refers to the second. Racism contradicts neighbor love.
What is racism? The Oxford Dictionary of English s.v. “racism,” defines it as “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, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” This is a fine definition. The only wrinkle is the questions that are being raised about the very category of “race” as a 19th-century convention. Vincent Bacote explains some of the difficulties with this category “race” in this episode of Office Hours.
Questions about the validity of the category notwithstanding, the essential definition is sound. Prejudice is forbidden by God’s Word. If we may not say “you fool” to our neighbor without committing murder in our hearts and thus placing ourselves in danger of judgment (Matt 5:22) then surely we may not prejudge our neighbor on the basis of the degree of melanin in his skin. How should you like to followed by store security officers simply because of the way you look? That is the definition of prejudice. When people are prejudged on the basis of their ethnic heritage or their skin color, that is racism. It is, as DeYoung points out, partiality. It is a refusal to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, that is a violation of the second table of the law and that is sin, transgression of the law of God. Our confession is very clear about the definition of sin:
What is sin?
Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14).
God’s Word says “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). God hates sin and it is something of which we all must repent daily, constantly. The realistic, Augustinian, Pauline (!) Christian knows his sin and confesses sins and failures. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15; ESV). That is the confession of the believer. This is how Romans 7 is understood in Westminster Larger Catechism 78 and Heidelberg Catechism 60.
What The Law Does To Racism
In response to my argument that the gospel is the only remedy for racism another correspondent objected that Southern Presbyterian preachers preached the gospel for centuries and yet members of those congregations continued either man stealing and slavery of Africans. That is a fair objection but there is an answer. I did not argue that the minister should only preach the gospel. Those ministers failed in a fundamental way. They failed to preach the law in all its terror. They failed to apply properly the law of God to themselves and to their members. The law of God which says “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). The Old South was not the Israel of God. They had no divine commission to conduct a holy war against any Canaanites literal or figurative, i.e., to hate their enemies. They did have a divine command, however, to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44).
Instead of obeying God’s holy law, Southern preachers and their congregants justified their sin via a terrible theological anthropology, i.e., doctrine of humanity. They denied the humanity of those whom they enslaved. Further, they had a truncated gospel. The gospel should have led to new life, true faith, and from true faith good fruit, including seeing those whom they had stolen as fellow image bearers. There should have been repentance and sorrow over the grievous sin of kidnapping and man stealing and brutal chattel slavery. I will hear nothing of the self-serving romance of the affection of slaves for their “masters.” Patty Hearst defended her captors. It is called the Stockholm Syndrome.
The same points apply equally to Jim Crow.
The gospel does not discover our sin. The gospel is the message that announces the free salvation of sinners. The law, however, does discover our sin. This is what we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 3:
From where do you know your misery?
Out of the law of God.
The law has a vital, irreplaceable role in the struggle against racism. Its first job is to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery in committing the sin of racism, in man stealing, in Jim Crow, or in the small, subtle ways we disparage others who do not look like us. When the Spirit uses the law to teach us our guilt, he also leads us to Christ, the deliverer from condemnation and sin. It also teaches us that none of us is free from prejudice. Thus, Christians should shun the notion that minorities (of whatever class) are incapable of prejudice (or racism). That is contrary to the truth. To repeat such things leads to the very sort of arrogance condemned by our Lord in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10–14; ESV).
Is this not the essence of “virtue signaling,” sending out the public message, “I thank you Lord that I am not like those ignorant racists over there?” There is a racist in all of us.
The law has a second function in this regard: to norm the Christian life. To deny the normative role of the moral law in the Christian life is the definition of antinomianism. We sinners, who have been redeemed by the free grace of God in Christ, for whom the holy and righteous Savior laid down his life, for whose justification he was raised, and for whom he intercedes now, can hardly do anything else but give ourselves over to obedience to God’s law, to loving him with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves, no matter how different our neighbor may be from us. It is the necessary consequence of grace.
The law continues to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery. It continues to convict us of our prejudice, of our rotten attitudes toward others, of our hatred for God and neighbor, and it continues to drive us to Christ. The gospel announces that, despite our sins, we are redeemed by grace alone but it also impels us to die to prejudice and to live to the new reality that, in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek etc.
In our concern to address racism and prejudice there is a great temptation, which I have outlined in this space, to substitute the law for the gospel and to try to make the law do what only the gospel can do. That is recipe for frustration and failure and ultimately bitterness.
The Spirit uses the law to convict and to norm. He uses the gospel to change hearts and minds. When we confuse those things we frustrate the ministry of the church and we create Pharisees rather than redeemed sinners struggling against sin by the grace of God.
Racism is sin and the moral law convicts believers of that truth. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, even for believing, penitent former racists. If that shocks you then perhaps you have forgotten the greatness of your own sin and misery and how amazing the grace of God really is?