Church Diversity: The Many Branches of Racial Tension

Jonathan WhiteChurch Blog

Church Diversity: The Many Branches of Racial Tension

In the Book of Revelation, John speaks of, “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… (7:9).” In many respects, as Christians, we view this as the ideal, yet we struggle to work towards that ideal in our walk with Jesus. Too often this seems like some far off, distant goal that can only be achieved when Jesus returns. Is He not among us now? Is His power only limited to when He is here in the flesh? That does not seem likely when we lean on his mighty power every day in our lives. So maybe instead, we feel that we have no role in creating a diverse church when we are called to “make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19)”?

This week, we will examine church diversity with a focus on people (race) and next week follow up with a focus on practice (preference). This is an uncomfortable topic for discussion, but it is an important one because it strikes at the heart of how we view and relate to other men and women made in the image of God.  Therefore, we must start with a difficult question: Do we consider racism sin? If not, why not? And how exactly should we define racism? We will address these questions with two goals in mind: (1) our world is trending towards diversity (i.e. racial, cultural, experiential, and personal) and (2) we need to learn to live out our Christian values in this diverse world.  The first step in this journey is defining our terms so we can begin to have healthy conversations around diversity.

So, what is racism? Who can be viewed as a racist? Let us begin with a helpful metaphor. Imagine that we have a seed. For it to grow, we must plant it, water it, and provide it with sunlight. Now, when it comes to the sin of racism, what is the seed, where is it planted, who waters it, and how does it grow?  In my experience, racism begins with the seed of stereotypes. From there, what we have been taught by our environment (e.g. news, school, parents, individual experiences, etc.) begins to manifest into a bias that can branch out from subconscious judgments into conscious ones if we decide to water it.  Over time, that seed has the potential to grow into overt racism if we are not careful to uproot the implanted seeds. Let us look at how one little seed of a stereotype can grow into different branches of racial thought and behavior.

  1. Seed of Stereotype:  This is an oversimplified generalization about a person based on their race.  For example, “Black people are more likely to commit a crime.”
  2. Roots of Implicit Bias: Generalizations that become subconscious judgments of a person based on the stereotype held to be true. For example, “Black people are criminals.”
  3. Trunk of Prejudice: Consciously judging a person based on the stereotypes held to be true. For example, “That black person is a criminal.”
  4. Branch of Discrimination: Actions that result from prejudice or implicit bias. For example, a black person is followed around a nice store under suspicion of shoplifting based on racial judgment.
  5. Branch of Racial Privilege: Giving someone the benefit of the doubt based on their race by demonstrating a higher degree of grace or reduction of suspicion.  For example, a white person walks into a store without suspicion of shoplifting based on a lack of racial judgment.
  6. Branch of Passive Racism: Turning a blind eye to a racial injustice.  For example, witnessing someone discriminated against as they walk through a store, and not saying something.
  7. Branch of Overt Racism: Outright hatred toward someone of another race and desire to harm them because of it.  For example, prohibiting someone from entering the store based on race and criminalizing it if they did.

Let’s return to our first question: Do we consider racism to be sin? Based on these terms, where do you see sin take root? At what point does it impact your relationships with people of different races? Stereotypes by themselves are not sinful, but once they create judgments of others, we have failed to see people as God sees them.  What about you? Do you see sin take root somewhere else?  I’m happy to engage with anyone interested in continuing this conversation.  May God bless us as we root out the sin in our lives and seek to worship God today alongside every tribe, race, and tongue.

Jonathan White Jonathan White
Pastoral Intern
IBC Richmond