by Tim Keller
We are continuing to answer the question, ‘is racism a sin?’ through sharing how Tim Keller answered that question. If you haven’t had the chance to read part 1 yet, you can here.
4. Because of the gospel of justification by grace through faith alone.
To understand and to make progress against racism as sin we must also understand racism as a violation of the principle of grace salvation at the heart of the gospel. Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of Spiritual Life) explains that the great majority of Christians have a theoretical-only understanding that they are saved by grace and not by their own righteousness. Functionally and practically, however, the majority of Christians are not “appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives”. Instead –
“in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for their justification… drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience.”
Richard Lovelace – Dynamics of Spiritual Life
When you rely on your own achievements or pedigree or behavior more than the justifying work of Christ for your sense of significance and security, Lovelace argues, it makes you “radically insecure.” We need to bolster our sense that we are really good, loveable, worthy people, because at the deepest level we know we are not. That insecurity shows itself in a variety of forms—arrogance and pride, or self-hatred and shame, or defensive criticism of others. One bitter and common fruit from this failure to grasp grace salvation and make it your heart’s operating principle—is racism. Lovelace writes:
“They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger… they fix upon their race, their membership in a party… and their culture as means of self-recommendation. The culture is put on as though it were armor against self-doubt, but it becomes a mental straitjacket which cleaves to the flesh and can never be removed except through comprehensive faith in the saving work of Christ.”
Richard Lovelace – Dynamics of Spiritual Life
For most people, then, race and culture are a kind of self-righteousness. We think of ourselves as the good ones, not like “those people” over there. That means we tend to make our cultural preferences—which are no more than that, preferences—into moral absolutes and badges of honor. For example, so many of the ways we do things in church—how we express emotion, how we sing, how long the service is, how we talk to one another—are merely cultural preferences, not prescriptions of Scripture. And yet without a deep grasp of grace we become wedded to our cultural styles and patterns as “the right way” to be a Christian, and we despise other cultural patterns. We secretly (or not so secretly) despise people of races and cultures (or politics!) different from our own as a way to patch up a righteousness of our own.
Paul says as much in Galatians 2, as we saw in our previous article. Paul finds Peter refusing to have table fellowship with Gentile fellow believers, and Paul does not appeal to him on the grounds of failure to love his neighbor or honor the image of God (though he could have). Instead, he says that attitudes of racial and cultural superiority “are not in line with the gospel.” They violate the gospel which equalizes us all as sinners and as recipients of grace, apart from anything about us (Galatians 2:14-16).
One of the flaws in the otherwise good and helpful Christian books on racism that have come out in the last few years is that, while explaining that racism is a violation of the will of God, they do not explain theologically why people are racist. They focus only on the attitude and behavior of racism, but they go no deeper. The impression, then, is that racists (or those who are indifferent to the effects of the social structures that support racial inequality) are just morally inferior to the rest of us. And that is dangerous. Those of us denouncing racism can begin to feel inherently superior and lose a sense of our common fallen humanity. We know from the Holocaust that whenever one group begins to look at another group of people as somehow willfully morally inferior than the rest of us, it becomes a justification for exclusion and abuse.
If, however, we see that racism is just one way, though a horrendous way, to establish a righteousness and identity of our own apart from God’s salvation, then we can keep the necessary sense of being part of a common fallen humanity. We only can do that if we look at racism as one virulent, destructive manifestation of something that absolutely every person is doing in their heart. If we forget this, then the only way to address people complicit in racism is to denounce them, which often has little effect but to aggravate our divisions. When Paul rebuked Peter for not living in line with the gospel, he wasn’t shaming him and putting pressure on his will to comply. He was reminding him that his racism was a failure to grasp the good news of God’s salvation. That is the path of humility and hope that can change people.
Is racism only a modern sin?
There are many contemporary thinkers that argue that the Bible does not really address racism, because “race” and “whiteness” have been created in modern times. It is argued that before the 1400s, different European nations did not see themselves as all of one race, but of different ethnic and national groupings. The English would refer to the Germanic or the French “races” as opposed to their own. But when the African slave trade started, the idea that there was a “white” race, as opposed to other non-white races including “black”—was a way to justify slavery and give it something it never had in antiquity—a strict racial basis.
This idea of “whiteness” was new. First, it was abstract, not really based on your place and culture as with ethnic identity. No longer were you primarily Irish or German or Swedish–you were primarily white. When the Irish and the Italians first began to enter the U.S. in major numbers in the mid and late 1800s, they were not seen as “white” and part of the dominant U.S. racial group. But they were eventually admitted. Second, because now there were only four or five races, it was easier to identify “higher” and “lower” races. It was a way to very quickly categorize the whole human race into a strict hierarchy.
This modern development did indeed produce a devastating new kind of racism. But is it fair to say that since the modern idea of race has been forged by white people in order to justify their slavery and colonialism—that therefore, while the Bible may address tribalism or ethnic prejudice, it does not speak to racism? I don’t think so.
As we have seen, the deep human need to bolster and justify ourselves produces some form of “Othering,” choosing a group of people to define yourself against by despising them as inferior to you. “Othering” is addressed all through the Bible. Consider the Pharisee “who looked down” on others in Luke 18, who says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (verse 11). Here is literally a man doing “Othering.” He is classifying entire groups of people, setting up a hierarchy, and then building himself up through his contempt.
This is not, however racial “Othering.” Is that in the Bible? I believe it is.
When Peter refuses to eat with any Gentiles at all, he was doing what modern racism does. He was “racializing” them into a category—regardless of their ethnic or national background—and in addition, he was setting up a hierarchy of superior and inferior races, and then “Othering” them by segregation.
The account of the historical creation of “whiteness” in modern times is helpful. One of the dangers, however, of saying that the Bible doesn’t address racism is that it implies that only white people can do oppressive “Othering.” But people from every part of the world know that each continent has its own version of racializing and “hierarchializing” people.
Next week, as we continue in our mini-series about racism, we will answer the question, ‘Is racism a corporate, as well as, an individual sin?’ and how do we repent of racism.
About the Author: tim keller
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and three young sons. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment. Some of Dr. Keller’s books, include the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.