Dr JL Williams, a Bible teacher and missions pioneer, once said, ‘Racism is not a skin problem; it’s a sin problem.’ The problem of racism and division goes far deeper than just color, tribe, ethnicity, language, creed, or religion. The problem is in our hearts.
The problem of racism and division goes far deeper than just color, tribe, ethnicity, language, creed, or religion. The problem is in our hearts.
Our fallen world witnessed the first crime when a brother killed a brother (Genesis 4: 8). It was sin ruling then, and it is sin ruling now, when we turn against each other, where God’s love is not received and reflected. Every racial wickedness is at its root sin against a fellow human made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen 1:27) and a breaking of the Great Commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matt 22:39-40). That is why we as the global church, empowered by the Spirit, need to lead, to bring hope through Christ’s love.
In this two-part article, we are bringing voices from across the world, led by Lausanne’s Younger Leaders Generation (YLGen) Empower Team, featuring lead author Richard Coleman, to understand why addressing racism is important, and how we as Christians could bring a change in response to the Great Commission of our Lord.
Unity in diversity
JL Williams’ ministry spanned the globe, forming friendships with local and national leaders. Though he has passed, his ‘leadership through friendship’ legacy still guides many today. Relationships are assets to a leader, and perhaps the health of leadership depends on the diversity of fruit-bearing friendships.
Racial skepticism and ethnocentrism go against God’s vision. Violent racism may be on the far end of the spectrum, but we are all guilty of prejudice in some capacity. We are born with skepticism and fear, the ‘other syndrome’ as I call it. Our selfish perspective on life (as opposed to relational and loving) causes us to sinfully react to differences instead of embrace them. Humanity has yet to achieve the diverse unity and familial intimacy that God wants.
From the beginning, God’s vision for the earth has been beautiful diversity with inspired unity. How do we get there? Jesus prayed for this with his disciples (John 17:21), and we see the vision of this fulfilled in Revelation 7:9 with all nations gathered before the Lamb. It would be inconceivable to think that at that time we would still be skeptical bystanders with those next to whom we worship.
The world has identified what the church has known for over 2,000 years—differences in culture divide without a unifying purpose or force. Only Jesus can bring perfect unity among vast diversity. Collaborating with God in his mission will unify us. It will conform our identity, culture, and purpose to God’s ultimate vision for humankind, which is foundational for solidarity.
Racism and the Great Commission
While any group of people can treat another group of people badly, the white-people-as-oppressor racism has been in the global spotlight. Footballers, cricketeers, basketball players, and many other athletes have been taking a knee prior to their matches in protest. Formula 1 race cars have been painted black in a display of support for black people, who have been the victims of racism for centuries. Statues of white oppressors have been toppled on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. We are living in an unprecedented time of revolt against racism, starting with that imposed by white people. It is only a matter of time before the momentum shifts to other power-laden constructs. Whether this be the caste system in India, the discrimination against the Roma people in Central Europe, or the marginalization of aboriginals in Australia, pressure is mounting for all people to be treated with equality.
Responses from the church
Where is the church in the midst of this historic moment? As I answer this question from my American vantage point, it seems that local churches are taking one of at least three different responses. The first is to label what is happening as a Marxist, cancel-culture uprising. The dominant group is more likely to take this view, as they feel that their history, their heroes, and indeed, they themselves are under attack. The discomfort they feel is understandable, but their response centers on themselves and lacks empathy, giving little credence to the injustices experienced by those who have been oppressed. For the sake of giving it a name, let’s call it a ‘defensive’ approach.
The first is to label what is happening as a Marxist, cancel-culture uprising. The second response is for churches to remain silent on the issue.
The second response is for churches to remain silent on the issue. They say, ‘This is a social issue, and we need not get involved. Our only job is to preach the gospel.’ Let’s call this approach ‘dismissive’. Believers in this camp think sound preaching, often addressing personal sin, is the only tool needed to confront racism. They view any other approaches as secular or inconsistent with their responsibility as Christ’s followers. However, it is a fallacy that preaching alone will deconstruct racism in the hearts of people and systems. Case in point, black and white people in the United States were once segregated inside a number of white evangelical churches in America that had solid preaching. Some gospel-preaching churches even sided with slavery by not advocating for the emancipation of slaves. Preaching is essential; but it must go hand-in-hand with other biblical practices that work toward justice and equity (see Acts 6:1).
Unfortunately, the defensive and dismissive approaches have served as an affront to the Great Commission. They have not only turned off the younger generation of unbelievers, but they have also distracted or even paralyzed the witness of younger believers. The latter group is disinterested in a religious system that cares only about salvation of the soul but pays no attention to issues of injustice in society. The internal conflict comes to bear when they see unbelievers advocating for justice, while their own spiritual leaders remain silent. The dissonance they feel causes them to question the relevance of the very gospel they proclaim and perhaps abandon their faith altogether. To them, they are like people Paul rebukes in 2 Timothy 3:5, ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power.’
Yet, there is a third approach, which we will call the biblical response. Believers with this third view value the Bible no less than the other two groups and are just as passionate about people coming to know Christ. They know that the purpose of the intricate system of laws found in the Old Testament was to facilitate a healthy relationship between people and God and people with other people. They know that Jesus fulfilled this law in the way he loved God and neighbor. He affirmed women, opened the way for the stigmatized to reenter society, gave dignity to the hated Samaritan, and even made time for a Roman centurion. Jesus proactively defied the ‑isms of his day and demonstrated God’s love in word and deed toward both the oppressed and the oppressor. His proclamation that the kingdom was at hand encompassed both spiritual salvation and the confronting of brokenness, in its various forms, in the here and now. He preached and he practiced what he preached. There was no hypocrisy in Jesus’ ministry.
Further, believers who have a biblical response to racism understand the paramount importance of what the Lausanne Covenant so wonderfully affirms:
Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and Man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. (Covenant pt-5)
As long as the focus was on the nations and unreached people groups, everything was fine. But when the subject of racism arose from either me or some other source, the atmosphere changed.
Most of my experiences with racism have taken place in the context of working with white Americans in global missions. As long as the focus was on the nations and unreached people groups, everything was fine. But when the subject of racism arose from either me or some other source, the atmosphere changed. Whether the response from my white counterparts was defensiveness or dismissiveness, I found myself growing bitter inside. That bitterness would fill my head with thoughts like this: ‘If they won’t address racism, then perhaps I should stop focusing on the nations and put my attention on my own community!’ I even started to feel like a sellout. ‘Am I becoming like the white missionaries who go overseas to hold black babies but completely ignore black babies back in America?’ It is only by God’s grace that I stayed true to my calling. I discovered my feelings were not unique at all. I heard African-American Christians express the same frustration many times. Let me be clear. I am not against white Christians. Many have made sacrifices proclaiming the gospel and demonstrating the love of Jesus to people not like themselves. And, quite frankly, I have been blessed beyond measure by my white brothers and sisters. I would lose track counting how many of them would genuinely take a bullet for me. But, the major issue is whether or not these dear friends’ defensiveness or dismissiveness toward issues of race have diminished and detracted from their message, thus creating barriers to both the message itself and to potential messengers.
As we—German, Jamaican, Georgian, Japanese, whatever—go into all the world making disciples of the nations, let us follow Jesus’ example. Let us be biblical in our response to racism. Our Lord neither lacked empathy for the oppressed, nor did he limit his ministry to teaching and preaching. Rather, he engaged the whole of the human experience. In following Jesus’ example, let us present an integrated ministry that inspires this generation to believe in and live out the whole of scripture, including the Great Commission.
Editor’s Note: This article is part 1 of 2 of ‘Racism and the Great Commission’. Read part 2.