Good morning everyone. We’re going to be thinking a bit about racism and how we can respond as Christians but before we do that, I’m going to pray for us:
Father God, as we think about this important topic, help us to reflect on what we are seeing going on all around us, please speak to us through your Word and equip us to love you and to love our neighbour more. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen
No doubt, you have realised that racism is in the news; recently of cause was the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed it. And it is heart-breaking. Men and women, made in the image of God, should not be treated the way that George Floyd was treated. And we cannot stand by while it happens and not respond. Jesus would not have done, and so neither should those who follow him as their Lord and Saviour. And it’s not an isolated incident either; we see in our newspapers reports of increases in racism in this country and hate crime after Brexit, of antisemitism, and of the ‘problems’ of immigrants and so on.
And racism is not just in the news. It is closer to home. My first vivid memory of someone being treated badly simply because of the colour of their skin was when I just a little boy. I’m half-Arabic, and grew up in the Middle East. I still remember the shock, and anger I felt, watching a rich Arab man shout racist abuse at a foreign petrol station attendant. Then there was the time, now as a teenager living in the UK, when my mum was reduced to tears at the checkout in ASDA when the cashier asked her why she didn’t just go back to where she had come from, and take her 6 rowdy children with her. Or on my first sabbatical on staff here – when my travels took me on at least 6 internal flights in America and every single time I was ‘randomly selected’ for extra screening which meant long checks and interviews. I guess seeing in my passport that I was born in Yemen had nothing to do with that!
So, what does the Bible teach about racism? And what should our response be to it? Well the Bible’s teaching is very clear. Racism is sin, whether it is obvious and in your face, or more subtle and hidden. Whatever form it takes, it is against God’s will. Racism is wrong. We see that right throughout the Bible.
Right at the beginning we see that all men and women are created in the image of God. Genesis 1.26-27:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God made us all equally in his image and so we have value. That means that George Floyds life mattered; to his family and to his community, certainly, but it also mattered to the God who created him is his own image. What happened to him was wrong because he was made in the likeness of God.
We also see in the Bible that God didn’t create us all to be the same. There is an incredible diversity. The population of the world is about 7.8 billion people made up of 10,000 different ethnolinguistic groups living in nearly 200 countries. That we are different nationalities, and from different tribes and peoples and languages is not a result of the fall. True – in a fallen world sin touches everything. But we know that in heaven, where sin is no more and where God’s people are together, we will still see that wonderful diversity. Revelation 7.9-10:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Before that day, however, God will judge all of us for our sin; for the way we have treated him and for the way we have treated those made in his likeness. Sin is the source of racism and that affects all every single one of us from every culture; white, black and everything in between. We all sin and we are all racist. But, the Bible also tells us that Jesus (the son of God) gave his life for us on the cross so that we can be forgiven of all of our sin. He did that for everyone, and if Jesus welcomes everyone then so should we. The forgiveness he brings results in those who trust in him being brought into his family – all equally as his children. Galatians 3.28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
All Christians, whatever nationality, whatever station in life, whatever gender, they are all one in Christ. We do not deny our cultural differences but who we are in Christ now transcends those differences. We are one in Christ. We are family. So to sum up:
- Racism is wrong because every single human is created by God
- Racism is wrong because God created us with glorious diversity
- Racism is wrong because Jesus died to bring us peace with God and with one another
Racism is wrong, full stop. So we should stand against racism in all its forms.
Earlier in the service, we heard some words from James 3.7-10:
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.
James here is talking here about the use of our tongue and his focus is on how we treat one another. I’ve spent some time this past week listening to members of our church family speak of their experiences of racism. It’s not been easy to hear. As Jesus said, ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12.34).So it shouldn’t be a surprise that very often the demeaning attitude of our hearts towards one another other spills out in our words; how we speak about other people, how we speak to them. James is right. The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison:
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.
The point here is not to pretend that racism only extends as far as verbal abuse. It’s far more than that, but the key point in this part of James’ letter is that our attitude and how we treat someone should not be based on their race, or how wealthy they are. Instead, it should be based, as James says in verse 9, on the fact that they are made in the likeness of God. This is a clear reference to part of Genesis 1 that I read just now. We are to look and see before us someone made in the image of God. That is what should determine how we treat them, how we speak and how we act.
That’s what the Bible teaches about racism. What, then, should be our response?
Firstly, We are to care
Racism is a bigger issue than many of us realise. Perhaps you feel it isn’t a problem at all (in which case you are almost certainly part of the problem yourself)! It’s key that we listen well here to those effected. If, and I hope you do, have close friends who are ethnically different to you then ask them about their experiences of racism, ask them how they feel about the injustice of what happened to George Floyd. There are also good books you can read, and videos to watch which will help us understand this better. If you need a good steer; then a few good places to start would be the gospel coalition article ‘George Floyd and me’ by Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne, or Phil Vischer’s video on ‘Race in America’ or Ben Linsday’s book ‘We need to talk about race’.
The personal experiences you will hear are sad and unacceptable. Racism does exist and it needs to be addressed. Often we don’t speak about it much, probably because we don’t want to cause divisions, but in fact, our silence on the matter often communicates a lack of care. So, I think it would be helpful if the issue of racism could be discussed more in the church. John Piper has written a book on race relations called ‘Bloodline’, it’s available free online and it is very helpful and in it he says this:
‘…holding your tongue does not usually advance understanding, deepen respect, warm affections or motivate action’.
I think he’s right and I hope this sermon will help open up a helpful conversation on this topic in our church. Many of us wounded and need 'healing' and some of us need to be more aware of how we causing hurt through our words and actions, however unintentional they may be.
One example of that is the common response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign is to respond with ‘all lives matter’. of course that’s true, but it’s not necessarily the most helpful response in our situation. Firstly, it links us with white supremacists who often say that, but more importantly it denies the hurt that is both being experienced and felt by our black brothers and sisters. Perhaps better to say ‘yes they do!’ and then go on to explain why ‘…because we are all made in the likeness of God’ and then pray that will lead to a good conversation.
Once we have taken time to listen, we need to care, deeply. We need to pray for a right and holy discontent when we see racism. We need to be angry enough about it and care enough to want to see it changed. I know it can be uncomfortable, but when we see racism we need to speak out about it. In the church especially, we need to remember the Bibles’ teaching that we are all one body with many parts. So if one body is suffering, we should all suffer together.
Can I say too, having spoken to many this week about this, that we can easily forget to give thanks for the many who treat foreigners with kindness and who go out of their way to enable integration. There is much that is good in our church and we need to thank God for that. Speaking personally, the time when I was most conscious of being an ‘outsider’ and in a minority because of my racial background was at school, but that was also where I encountered the loving welcome and acceptance of Christians at the school Christian Union who drew alongside me in friendship and best of all shared the good news about Jesus with me.
So firstly, our response needs to be to care.
Secondly, We need to Take Care
We need to respond by intentionally loving and welcoming everyone, treating them as is appropriate for those made in the likeness of God. That means giving them the honour of making eye contact when we speak to them, giving them our full attention, listening to them and being willing to learn. It means making the effort to learn and remember names and being careful of banter that crosses into stereotyping.
It will mean celebrating and rejoicing in our differences. We don’t need to ignoring or downplay our different cultures, we should recognise and celebrate them. We love people less when we ignore how God made them. It means not just being a racially diverse church but being racially inclusive church. When we are all together in one place, we can look around and see many different races. That’s great, but it’s not enough to just exist in the same place. We need to take care to help everybody create and contribute to our church life and not just be observers and on the edge. Sadly, our divisions are often clearest when you observe where each group sits during the service and who people interact with after the service and changing that won’t happen without effort.
In his brilliant book ‘Christian Counterculture’ David Platt writes this:
“I am prone to prefer people who are like me – in colour, culture, heritage and history. If I walk into a room by myself and see two tables, one with a group of people ethnically like me and the other with a group of people ethnically unlike me, I instinctively move towards the group that is like me.”
One of the things I’ve loved most about this season of online church has been the zoom meetings after our services and the random allocation of breakout rooms which has helped break up our cliques and help us get to begin to get to know people outside our usual bubble. We’re going to need to come up with creative ways to keep doing that once things ‘return to normal’ after coronavirus. Perhaps things like our home groups need to be more flexible so we don’t exclude people simply by the way we run them. However, it happens, we all must make an effort to make friends with people from other cultures!
As I look at our church I feel sad that despite us being a very diverse church our leadership doesn’t seem to reflect that diversity as well as it could. Those of us with leadership responsibility, must take care to patiently and intentionally disciple and train everyone, and not just those like ourselves.
Finally – we must not be so scared of getting things wrong that we do nothing or avoid speaking to one another in case we say something stupid. 1 Peter 4.8:
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”
When we get things wrong we say sorry, we forgive one another and we remember that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Third, and finally, We need to pray and work to challenge racism
We live in a fallen, divided world. As followers of Jesus we need to be prepared to take a stand against racism whenever we see it. In fact, because we know that we are made in the likeness of God and called to love our neighbour as ourselves, we should be at the forefront of the challenge against racism. Sadly, however, the UK church’s response to this issue appears to be mainly silence.
The Black Lives Matter campaign is a big movement and was started by three women after the death of Trayvon Martin. They are right that black lives do matter, but it is not a response from a Christian standpoint. It’s not born out of the conviction that all are created in God’s image. If you look at the ‘about us’ section of their website you can see that clearly. They’re not pro the family and many Christians would struggle to wholeheartedly support some of their foundational principles. It is a secular movement. As Christians, we’ve got the Bible which tells us who we are and how we are valued in God’s sight. We need to promote and teach clearly about race and justice and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation both with God and with man. We should be leading that charge and the response to challenge racism as Christians. But what will that look like?
For many of that will mean examining our own hearts and our attitudes and our behaviours and praying for God’s help to change. It will also mean challenging inequality and speaking up when we see racism in our church or in our workplace or in our nation. I know of those of you who have done just that, for example supporting and speaking up for international students who have faced discrimination or racial attacks. But, this will only bear fruit as we preach the gospel and care for needs and contend for truth in our society.
Ben Lindsey recounts an African proverb about villagers who keep finding floating children in the river at risk of drowning. This strange occurrence happens again and again. The villagers keep on pulling the children out of the river, saving them in the process. Suddenly, the whole community is involved and, while not all the children can be saved, the villagers are congratulated for their efforts. One day, however, someone raises the question, ‘But where are all these children coming from? Let’s organize a group to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all these children into the river in the first place!’
Our response as Christians needs to get to the heart of the issue. And that is the problem of the sinful heart. So we respond to all of this by actively sharing the Gospel with people from different people groups. We need to remember that the greatest need in the world is not reconciliation with one another. Our greatest need is reconciliation with God and that’s why we need to intentionally share the Gospel across cultures. It may mean getting alongside a Muslim mum at the school gate, or reaching internationals students with the Gospel. It may mean choosing to live and work in a different city, or a different country, to reach more people with the Gospel, or staying here but intentionally reaching out to a minority group.
But, we also need to take a stand not just against racism but also the causes of discrimination in our culture. Challenging government policies that are intentionally or unintentionally racist and addressing disadvantages in education and job prospects and the impact of family disintegration and poverty. Who of us will see those needs and rise up to seek transformation in our society, propelled by a love for God and a love for man as many have done before in their own generation, like William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King? Will you do that? Will you pray for that to happen?
David Holloway’s coloured supplement in June was called ‘A Christian response to Racial Difference’ and he ends with a call to pray for:
“an Evangelical Revival that changes people and structures for the glory of God, and the good of all races, in our country and in the wider world.”
Will you take up that challenge?