What does the Bible Say About Racism and Social Justice?

There are few issues more controversial and polarizing than the issues of race, racism, and social justice today. This is particularly divisive in the Church where battle lines have been drawn with each side accusing the other of perverting the gospel, capitulating to societal pressures and worldliness. Any attempt at nuance and thoughtfulness results in accusations of comprising with the “other team,” so advocating for a middle-ground perspective seems to do nothing but anger everyone.

Nevertheless, in this article I am going to argue that the Bible provides a middle-way forward that disagrees with both reactionary extremes when it comes to these lightning rod issues. I also will argue that there are places where the Bible does agree with some of each position–including some of the critiques lobbed at each other.

My burden in writing this is a pastoral one. I do not pretend to know everything and admittedly feel perplexed by much of it. I, along with the apostle Paul, admit that I only “know in part.” How are we to know what to believe? Who are we to listen to? I am reminded of the Father’s admonition to Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, “This is my Son, listen to him!” Luke 9:35. My aim in this is to provide Biblical categories for us to think through these complicated issues so that we may first and foremost “Listen to him!”

“Your Word is a light unto my path”

Imagine a boat trying to navigate through a rocky channel in the dead of night. There are deadly cliffs on either side that could destroy the boat, but there are also lighthouses positioned along the coastline to help ships navigate through safely. The captain may not be able to see precisely where all the rocks are, but he knows if he threads between the lighthouses on each side he will survive. That’s what I am aiming to do with each of these points: place lighthouses on each side of this issue that keep us from veering to an extreme and making a shipwreck of our faith. 

As you are reading, you’ll find that some of these points sounds very conservative, and others sound very progressive. Try to read these points as charitably and neutrally as possible–they are intended to provide critiques of both common responses:

25 Biblical Beacons:

1.     All people are descended from Adam and made in the image of God and are therefore deserving of respect and protection from discrimination/abuse. Genesis 1:27, 3:20; 9:6; Malachi 2:10; Acts 17:26Thus, Biblically speaking, there is only one “race,” but numerous ethnicities. For more on this, read here.

2.     All people of all ethnicities of all cultures are sinners, capable of any sort of depravity. Gen 6:5; Rom 3:9-18, 23; Eph 2:1-3.

3.     Diverse ethnicities display the creativity of God and should be celebrated. No one ethnicity is superior to another. Rev 5:9-10; 7:9-12. God has always intended for His people to be comprised of many diverse ethnicities. Gen 12:1-3; Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 60:3; John 8:12; Acts 13:47; 26:23; Rom 1:16.

4.     Ethnic partiality, racism, tribalism, and xenophobia are sins that have been present from the beginning and must be repented of. Numbers 12:1; Acts 6:1-7; Gal 2:11-14; Rom 15:7; Eph 2:14.

5.     The world, the flesh and the devil together can codify any sin into systemic structures, so that economies, governments, jobs, schools—any institution—can perpetuate, encourage, and ingrain sin more thoroughly in the hearts of those participating in it. Rom 1:28-32; 2 Cor 4:4; John 12:31; Titus 3:3; 1 John 2:15; 1 Cor 2:12; Gal 4:3; Acts 19:24-25For more on this, read here.

6.     We are all morally responsible/capable creatures who will answer to God for how we lived. No one will escape this judgment because he was a certain ethnicity or a part of a majority or minority culture. Matt 25:31-32; Romans 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; Romans 2:6-11; Gal 6:7.

7.     Governmental authority is a gift given by God for the correction of evil and the rewarding of good. Gen 9:6; Judges 21:25; 2 Sam 23:3-4; Proverbs 29:2; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14.

8.     Governmental authority has the right to use force (including lethal force) to punish evil. Gen 9:6; Rom 13:3-4; 1 Pet 2:14.

9.     Governmental authority and its use of force can be (and often is) abused. Rev 13:1-8; Daniel 7:1-8; Mark 6:14-29; Mark 15.

10.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to practice God’s “justice and righteousness” (the closest Biblical equivalent to what is now known as “social justice”) by defending and caring for the most vulnerable, abused, and destitute in society. Genesis 18:19; 1 Kings 10:9; 2 Chron 9:8; Psalms 33:5; 89:14; 97:2; 103:6; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:17; Jer 22:3; Amos 5:24; Matt 25:31-46; James 1:27.

11.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to not overcome evil with evil, but with good. Matt 5:43-48; Rom 12:14-21.

12.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to submit to the governing authorities as long as they are not coercing us to sin. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29.

13.  It is the responsibility of God’s people—black, brown, and white—to find their primary identity in their citizenship in the kingdom of God, not in their ethnicity or culture. All cultures–majority or minority–must submit themselves to the culture of God’s Kingdom—which is not synonymous with white, Anglo-European culture or any other earthly culture. Gal 3:28, 6:15; Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 12:12; 1 Cor 9:19-22; 1 Cor 10:32; Eph 2:11-22. For more on this, read here.

14.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to overcome racial hostilities within the church. If we do not, we compromise the gospel. Eph 2:11-22; Acts 6:1-7; Gal 2:11-14For more on this, read here.

15.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to both weep with those who weep and mourn the lawlessness of our land. Rom 12:15; Ps 119:136. We should not speak carelessly like Job’s friends so that we sound like we are calloused to those who are suffering nor should act like our personal experience is monolithic and universal. And yet we should never let our sympathy drive us to endorse what God does not endorse. Prov 25:11; Col 4:5-6; Eph 4:29We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger–therefore, we should never refuse to listen to someone because of their race, gender, class, etc. James 1:19-20For more on this, read here.

16.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to acknowledge the depths of our own sin and to repent of it. 1 John 1:8-10. We who have experienced the grace of God in Jesus Christ should be more aware of our own sinfulness than anyone else’s and quickest to admit it. This means that we, more than anyone else, should be open to the idea that we may be harboring racism in our heart. Matt 7:1-5; 1 Tim 1:12-15; Luke 18:9-14.

17.  It is the responsibility of God’s people not to participate in showcasing our deeds of righteousness simply to earn the approval of men or signal our virtue. Matt 6:1-4; Luke 6:26; Gal 1:10.

18.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to not bear false testimony, slander, or gossip, nor to rush to judgment hastily when reliable information is insufficient. We should be especially careful before accusing someone of a sin that is fundamentally an inward disposition of the heart (i.e. racism) when the outward evidence is spurious. Eph 4:25; Eph 4:31; Col 3:9; Prov 18:17. For instance, accusing someone of being a racist simply by being a part of the majority culture when there is no evidence they harbor animosity towards other minorities would be a slanderous accusation.

19.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to not endorse or make it look like we approve of what God hates, thus we should be slow to endorse a movement or group that has central elements to it that God despises. Rom 1:28-32; 1 Cor 13:6; 1 Cor 6:9-10.

20.  While it is possible to be sinning unintentionally (Numbers 15:28), the Bible teaches that individuals are not held morally culpable or responsible for the sins of past generations. Deut. 24:16; Jer. 31:29-30; Ez 18:1-32. For more on this, read here. This, however, does not exclude the category of corporate confession and lamentation of sin. Dan 9:20; Neh 1:4-6.

21.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to use our resources to love our neighbor as ourselves, which includes using our time, energy, and money. Luke 10:25-37; Matt 22:34-40.

22.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to pursue this love of neighbor first and foremost within the church, and secondarily in the wider community. John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:11-18; 1 John 4:20; Gal 6:10. This means that before we move to correct injustices “out there,” which often have little to do with our own sin and require little from us, we should first look “in here” and see if there is anyone whom we have sinned against within our community and seek repentance and restoration. Matt 5:23-26.

23.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to submit to God’s Word in all matters, whether or not it endorses our perspective, political agenda, or conveniences. 2 Tim 3:16-17.

24.  It is the responsibility of God’s people to both be angered and sorrowful over injustice, but to remain joyful and peaceful in the Lord. We do not grieve as others do who have no hope, but know that our ultimate hope resides in our coming King, so we can “Be angry, and…not sin”. Eph 4:26; 2 Cor 6:10; John 16:33; 1 Thess 5:16; Matt 6:34; James 1:20; 1 Thess 4:13.

25. Because God is eternally triune, existing before the creation of the world in a harmonious, non-exploitive, loving community, that means that fundamentally reality is built on love, not power. Thus, interpreting all of reality through the lens of power dynamics misunderstands the world and hurts people. While sin mars the image of God in us it does not erase it, and to assume that all human interactions are about power struggles denies the image of God in its triune, communal nature, and gives people only the tool of suspicion and anger when dealing with others.

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