Racism Versus Christianity

Racism is almost as old as the human race. It appears in many forms, both crude and subtle. Racism exists when we allow color, caste, language, nationality, tribe, ethnicity, culture or any such factor to erect a wall between people either individually or corporately so that one exercises contempt, prejudice, or lordship over another.

The suggestion that some people are inherently superior or inferior may derive from religion (caste in India or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia), economic aggrandizement (colonialism), chauvinism (Nazism, apartheid, tribalism), or a false genetic premise (Ku Klux Klan). Whatever the factor, racism asserts that all human beings do not necessarily have intrinsic value and equal worth.1

But is racism really a religion, as the title of this essay suggests? Why and how is it incompatible with biblical Christianity? What can we as Adventists do to promote biblical norms in human relations?

Racism a religion

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict points out that racism is a religion that is established on a naturalistic worldview. Racism, she states, is "the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by Nature to hereditary inferiority and another group is destined to hereditary superiority. It is the dogma that the hope of civilization depends upon eliminating some races and keeping others pure."2

Those who assume or practice the inherent superiority or inferiority of one group of people over another may not, however, admit that they are in fact adhering to a religion of their own. Nevertheless, racism shares all the essential characteristics of religion, secular or supernatural.3

As a religion, racism offers a sense of power. Racists make the superior race the center of value and the object of devotion. Therefore in this religion, members find their sense and "power of being" from their membership in and identification with the superior race. Racism's power takes two major forms: legal racism in which discriminatory practices are encoded in the laws of the land (apartheid, Nazism, slavery); and institutional racism where racial practices, even without the benefit of law, are subtly built into various social structures.

As a religion, racism has the structures common to religion. It has its own ideology (Arianism, white supremacy, black power, tribal triumphalism), tangible reality (swastika), a demigod (Hitler), creeds, beliefs, myths, rituals, and practices (purification ceremonies, mystic cults), symbolisms, community worships (periodic group assertions), and even moral values (with right and wrong defined by the group's perceptions and priorities).

As a religion, racism competes with other religions. Traditional religions appeal to supernatural and other-worldly figures and values, but racism is more earthy and secular. It may compete with or subtly exploit other religions for its own purposes. For example, consider how Nazism attempted to destroy authentic Christianity while cooperating with pliant churches.

Religion appeals to a supreme leader, condemns evil in society, seeks to provide answers to societal problems, extols lofty ideals of justice, equity, and brotherhood, requires absolute obedience and self-sacrifice, and has its own book of codes. So does racism, albeit restricted to its own group of superior humans.

Racism and Christianity: the incompatibility

Racism is absolutely incompatible with Christianity. Seventh-day Adventists need to understand this for the simple reason that racism, by wearing the cloak of religion, gets so easily domesticated that even sincere Christians sometimes fail to recognize its dangers and fall prey to its insistence of ethnic superiority. Genuine Christianity stands apart and indeed passes judgment on racism in any form or practice. We shall enumerate seven significant areas where the gospel of grace rejects the folly of racism.4

Epistemology. The Bible teaches that a knowledge of truth and reality comes "from above": from a revelation of God in Jesus and in the written Word (John 17:3; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Racism, on the other hand, appeals to sources "from below", which assume the existence of an alleged superior race and incorporates various versions of ethnic pride. For example, white racism in the 19th century found a comfortable epistemological basis in Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest. In that theory Europeans received confirmation that "they were the fittest of all."5 Herbert Spencer, arguing for social Darwinism, maintained that some races are "naturally unfit," because they are biologically or inherently inferior. Such arguments provided "the ultimate license for social policies of domination" and "lent spurious credence to racism."6

Also the source of knowledge for the racist is a subjective, usually derogatory, understanding of the other race, and it is strengthened by exaggerated beliefs, myths, stereotypes, and jokes. To fully understand what is going on in a given social context, one must belong to a particular race and adopt its interpretation of reality.

Racism's version of truth thus ignores or rejects the biblical assertion that all human beings, created in the image of God, have a capacity to understand, empathize, appreciate, and communicate with each other, irrespective of racial background. Rejecting biblical revelation, the racist looks to sociology, anthropology, history, and science to explain and to address racial problems. Racism may consult the Bible at times, but only to find support to its postures.7

Creation. The biblical doctrine of Creation establishes the biological unity and racial parity of the human race. Paul's declaration that God "hath made of one blood all nations of men" (Acts 17:26) emphasizes the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity. Racism's assumption of inferiority of some races not only negates this biblical teaching but also affronts the character of God by suggesting that He is responsible for the alleged defects in some human species.

Further, a racist theology implies that since some people are not part of the human family to which God entrusted dominion over the created order (Genesis 1:26), they can be subjugated and exploited by the superior race. T. F. Torrance has correctly argued that racism is "an inversion of the very order of creation," and runs "directly counter to the divine purpose of grace upon which the whole creation depends."8

The nature of human beings. The biblical teaching that humanity is created in God's image also argues that as free moral agents, they make choices for which they are answerable to God and to each other in community.

Racism rejects the biblical doctrine of humanity and appeals to genetic or biological determinism to prop up its racial assumptions. When, for example, racism teaches that some races are by nature physically weak, intellectually handicapped, or morally inferior, such determinism limits human potential and performance, and denies human accountability before God--something basic to the biblical worldview (see Acts 17:31; Revelation 14:6).

Sin and human depravity. The Bible teaches that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23; see also 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:22). Original sin and the consequent degeneration and death of all human beings are the result of the fall of Adam (Romans 5:12-21). But the racist argument of a superior-inferior race sees no such problem of Fall and sin. Racism argues for a hierarchy in depravity: the more the alleged inferiority of the race the more the depravity.

Even if racist theology admits that the superior race has also fallen, it reinterprets the nature of the Fall. Racism sees in the so-called inferior races a double-fall: the first because of Adam's fall, and the second, a special racial "fall." Hence to the racist, race mixing results in the loss of racial purity. So Hitler in his Mein Kampf held that the superior race experiences a Fall whenever it allows its blood to mix with the inferior race.

How can such a belief be compatible with the biblical claim that the entire human race has a common origin and a common problem?

The Great Controversy. The Bible portrays a cosmic controversy between Christ and Satan (Ephesians 6:10 ff.). The central issue of this conflict is the loving character of God and His dealings and requirements vis-a-vis the created order. Racism as a religion also acknowledges a cosmic conflict between two major forces, but its participants are split on a racial line: God and His angels are recast in the image of the superior race; Satan and his evil angels form the essence of the inferior race. This dualism helps racism create a "Us-versus-them" dichotomy.

This cosmic platform also helps racism to speak of an unbridgeable gulf between races.9 The only way for racial harmony is for different races to know their place in society. To avoid conflict, the two worlds must be kept apart, separated and segregated.10

But the biblical view of the Great Controversy anticipates an ultimate reunion of God's entire family with "one pulse of harmony and gladness [beating] ... through the vast creation."11 And when the gospel of Jesus demands the practice of such unity here on earth, how can racism with its hatred and segregation be ever compatible with Christianity?

Redemption. Racism runs counter to the Christian doctrine of redemption. The substitutionary atonement for sin effected by the cross redeems all human beings who choose to accept Jesus, irrespective of any differences between them (John 3:16; Romans 1:16; Galatians 3:26-28). The cross also assures an eschatological consummation of redemption in the earth made new (John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 2 Peter 3; Revelation 21). In racist theology, however, human beings (the superior race) seek to effect their own redemption: "The essence of redemption is racial renewal, the revivification of the superior race by techniques of purification."12 Through techniques such as eugenics, sterilization, warfare, ethnic cleansing, etc., the racist eschatology aims to protect superior genes from being diminished by the inferior race. That means the superior race must be bred and the inferior race must be eliminated.13

Ethics. The Christian ethic and the racist ethic are inevitably at odds. The former is based on the "sanctity of human life," arising from the doctrine of Creation. The Bible presents the Ten Commandments as the clearest norm for human conduct, and Jesus as the supreme example for humanity.

Racism, however, upholds the "quality-of-human-life" doctrine, which suggests that the personhood of human beings is determined by their biological characteristics, with some people having only relative value. According to the "quality-of-human-life" ethic,14 some human beings are not true "persons" and may therefore be exploited. Thus in the infamous Dred Scott case of 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court could argue: Since the blacks are of an inferior order "the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it."15

Philosophy of history. The Bible looks at history as proceeding under God's sovereignty. God brought creation into being to be the "arena of history"; He created time to measure the "movement of history"; and He formed the human being to be an "entity inhabiting history."16

But in the religion of racism, the superior race is the center of human history. The racist believes that it is only "one race [the superior race that] has carried progress throughout human history and can alone ensure future progress."17 Thus the racist not only ignores, discounts, or distorts the histories of other races, but also refuses to listen to or learn from other races. After all, there is only one history: the history of, or the history interpreted by, the superior race.18

While racism cannot be blamed for every failure to recognize the contributions and potentials of all people, one wonders at the subtle way racism has influenced the church's slowness in giving equal opportunity to all Christians in its life and mission.

Racism and Adventists: the challenge

Seventh-day Adventists have a unique opportunity to address the issue of racism in both church and society. Consider three advantages we have.

Being the remnant. In identifying ourselves as the remnant church, we lay claim to being God's final people, keeping the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus (Revelation 14:12). Such a claim should make us recognize in proclamation and practice that membership in the remnant is dependent not on natural birth but on spiritual birth (John 3:3-21), not on ethnic blood but on Christ's redeeming blood (Hebrews 9:14, 15), and not on a superior race but a holy race (1 Peter 2:9).

Having a global mission. With our faith, mission, and structure committed to the formation of an eschatological global family, we ought to combat everything that would drive a wedge between people and people. Racism hurts the body of Christ and destroys its global mission. We have been called to praise and proclaim the One who "has redeemed us to God by [His] blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Revelation 5:9; see 14:6).

Bearing a name. Our name calls for a rejection of racism and a display of harmony.19 To affirm the "Seventh-day" Sabbath is to affirm God as Creator and Father of the entire human race, and hence, to hold that all people are brothers and sisters. To affirm the "Adventist" component in our name is to look forward to a time and a place where people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language" will live together in perfect peace.

That such a grouping of humankind from every nationality, race, and language will actually exist will be a wonder to behold. Meanwhile, the church must be "a kind of preliminary model, on a small and imperfect scale, of what the final state of mankind is to be in God's design."20

Born in Ghana, Samuel Koranteng-Pipim is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.

Notes and References

  1. Stephen Jay Gould, "The Geometer of Race," Discover (November 1994): 65-69.
  2. Ruth Benedict, Race: Science and Politics (New York: Viking Press, 1959) p. 98.
  3. For a helpful discussion of the nature, characteristics, and types of religion, see Elizabeth K. Nottingham, Religion and Society (New York: Random House, 1954), pp. 1-11.
  4. A detailed discussion may be found in my article, "Saved by Grace and Living by Race: The Religion Called Racism," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 5:2 (Autumn 1994): 37-78.
  5. Alan Burns, Colour Prejudice (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1948), p. 23; cited in T. B. Maston, The Bible and Race (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1959), p. 64.
  6. See Stephen T. Asma, "The New Social Darwinism: Deserving Your Destitution," The Humanist 53 (September-October 1993) 5:12.
  7. See Maston, pp. 105-117; Cain Hope Felder, "Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives," in Stony the Road We Trod, Cain Hope Felder, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 127-145.
  8. T. F. Torrance, Calvin's Doctrine of Man (London: Lutherworth Press, 1949), p. 24.
  9. Lewis C. Copeland, "The Negro as a Contrast Conception," in Edgar T. Thompson, ed., Race Relations and the Race Problem (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), p. 168.
  10. See George D. Kelsey, Racism and Christian Understanding of Man (New York: Scribner's, 1965), p. 98.
  11. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1950), p. 678.
  12. Kelsey, p. 162.
  13. See Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 47-48.
  14. See Joseph Fletcher, Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1979), pp. 12-18.
  15. Dred Scott v. Standford, 60 U.S. 393 at 404. See also Curt Young, The Least of These (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 1-20.
  16. See Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, Robert W. Yarbrough, trans. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), p. 23.
  17. Benedict, p. 98.
  18. See Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 102-147.
  19. See Sakae Kubo, The God of Relationships (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1993), pp. 33-49. This book was reviewed in Dialogue 6:2 (1994), p. 30.
  20. C. H. Dodd, Christ and the New Humanity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), p. 2.