Breaking Christians’ Silence on Racism
In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting in August 2014, there was a noticeable dearth of active, grassroots Christian involvement in the racial conversation in Ferguson, Missouri and the rest of the United States. This suggests to many that Christianity, or at least Christians, are strangely silent about racism. The assumption that might follow is that either Christianity itself perpetuates racism or that a Christian is simply no different from the next passive person in the room. On the contrary, Jesus Christ was far from silent on the topic of racism. He responded to the racist dynamics between the Jews and the Gentiles of his day by calling on Christians to be active in matters of racial equality. By challenging the Christian to “take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus invited Christians to follow in his footsteps—to risk their lives and their dignities to love the Lord and their neighbors as themselves.[i] Hence, the Christian faith condones neither racism nor silence. Instead, it offers each person a worth and identity that deems race entirely irrelevant.
The root of overt racism often lies in the genuine confidence of Christians and non-Christians in their own racial supremacy. As evolutionary theory developed throughout the nineteenth century, many evolutionists used this new framework to affirm the existent belief that the white race had reason to claim superiority—it had “advanced further up the evolutionary ladder” and “lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.”[ii] During the Atlantic slave trade, beliefs of evolutionary superiority were rampant, providing justification for the enslavement of millions of Africans. This race-based mistreatment persisted into the twentieth century. Hitler’s Mein Kampf actively sought to “make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution.”[iii] The Holocaust, what is now universally acknowledged to be a moral abomination, merely reflected an assurance in the superiority of pure German blood. Similarly, the “White Australia Policy,” an immigration policy that restricted Chinese immigration, coincided with legalised segregation in the United States. Even Christians actively perpetuated racial segregation and degradation. Christians supported the slave trade during the 1800s, often citing Cain’s curse to be black slavery.[iv] These problems persisted into the twentieth century, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1963 that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o-clock on Sunday morning.”[v]
Nevertheless, other Christians and non-believers have found that Christianity itself does not grant any person superiority over another. Sir Arthur Keith, a secular evolutionary anthropologist, noted that Christianity “seeks to break down all racial barriers.”[vi] As Paul writes to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[vii] According to Christianity, grace is humanity’s great equalizer. With grace itself being a gift to the undeserving, neither race nor good works could make someone any more or less deserving of God’s love. Christ offered this radically new perspective on human equality, which brought the second-century Christians to strive for a “third race.” This “third race” no longer defined identities by race, age, wealth, or moral standing, but rather by each person’s birth as a unique child of God. Hence, while individual Christians have been proud of their race, enough to condemn others into inferiority, the central supposition that the Christian faith makes about the nature of humanity contradicts such actions.
When silence in the face of racism is not bred out of pride, it is often bred out of a fear of mockery and backlash—in other words, a desire to “survive.” In societies dominated by racist sentiments, beliefs to the contrary can result in discrimination, social ostracization, and even imprisonment. This desire for comfort and stability can and has historically overshadowed even the greatest barbarianism and injustice. The outright silence of many Christian and non-Christian bystanders attests to the overpowering animalistic instincts to self-protect and the power of the herd mentality.
Nonetheless, both the natural discomfort in seeing another human suffer and the Christian faith reveal an acknowledgement of the worth and sacredness of human life. The theory of the survival of the fittest might view fearful silence as a healthy defence tactic, and oppression of another race as a form of victory. Christianity, however, does not encourage such fear. As C.S. Lewis argues in Why I’m Not a Pacifist, the command to “turn the other [cheek] to him also” applies in the case that the only victim is the person who might desire to retaliate.[viii] In other words, when direct revenge and ego are no longer at play, our duty to defend the defenseless still is. Accordingly, Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and social activist during the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany, preached on many occasions on the desperate necessity to not “keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”[ix] He openly declared that the Christians in Germany were guilty of the Nazi murders, for “in our world and in our name have these things been done.”[x]
And yet, Niemöller spoke of a revelation from God that still shook him to the core: speaking up was not enough. When he visited a crematorium of 238,756 human beings in Dachau in 1945, he stated,
God asked me—as once He asked the First Man after the Fall, Adam—Man, where wast thou in those years 1933 to 1945? I knew I had no answer to that question…Should I have said perhaps: ‘As a pastor in those years I bore courageous witness to the Faith; I dared to speak, and risked life and freedom in doing so?’ But God did not ask about that. God asked: ‘Where were you from 1933 to 1945 when human beings were incinerated here?’[xi]
Here, Niemöller presents the idea that Christians are called to more than just discouraging silence; they must not only speak up, but also take action. While Christians must turn the other cheek to their assailant, they must also actively defend the victims around them. At the Temple, when Jesus encountered a crowd who wished to stone an adulteress to death, he proclaimed, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” and later said to the woman, “Neither do I [condemn you]. Go and sin no more.”[xii] Just as Jesus was not silent but intervened for the woman, without condoning her actions, he calls Christians to similarly intervene for victims of injustice.
Some like King and Niemöller obeyed, showing that Christians in fact ought to fight silence with both words and actions. But even politically correct words and affirmative action, modern strategies to combat racism, have failed to stop teenagers such as Michael Brown and Xinran Ji from being murdered. Instead, what society desperately needs is a change of heart to give meaning and honesty to these words and actions.
The approach of emphasising national “tolerance” aims to stop overtly racist language and actions, but fails to appease people, precisely because it does not require a change of heart. Tolerance, or “[refrainment] from objecting to something with which one does not agree,” surrenders to the prevailing attitudes and judgments toward other groups.[xiii] It simply seeks to hinder actions or words that might reveal annoyance or indignation. The official Australian Immigrant Book, recommended to most immigrants entering Australia, portrays tolerance as “vital, because Australia is becoming more and more a multicultural society.”[xiv] Such a definition carries within it the damaging assertion that societies can and must be based on pretences to avoid criticism or unrest.
Numerical diversity is just as erroneous a metric for successful change in society. In educational institutions, nations, and churches, a level of racism is reduced to statistics; affirmative action assumes that diversity and equality can be quantified and solved by quotas. Unfortunately, this has given rise to the notion of a “token” minority student and a warped implementation of meritocracy. Even America’s ethnic churches that strive to become multi-ethnic, to mirror a united, Christ-like community, confront the failures of affirmative action due to their racial context. Pastor Suh of Joyful Sound Church writes, “Even if 21% of our members are non-Asian, most people would not consider us a multiracial church. For white churches, this same logic does not apply.”[xv] Ultimately, the numerical approach, like the word “tolerance,” lacks the depth a social attitudinal change requires.
With these mere words and numbers, humans have been settling for an equality that is too shallow. Instead, Christ redefines the premise of equality entirely. Just as each is equally humbled in the light of the superior glory of Christ, each is equally lifted up as his beloved child, for whom he died on the cross. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[xvi] St. Paul goes on to write that “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”[xvii] Indeed, the evolutionary principle that we are all of a common ancestor aligns with Paul’s affirmation of our equal standing and shared history as humans. Equality can be seen a gift, rather than the prize of a never-ending competition for power and influence.
Our struggle to equalize all races, to empower a cultural identity without overpowering another, calls for the kind of humility and pride that we can find embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was the Son of God, but crucified for mankind, “becoming Christian requires humbling yourself before God and becoming vulnerable before man.”[xviii] The commonly cited phrase that each person is in this world “but not of this world,” suggests that each person lives on Earth for a divine purpose.[xix] Hence, God makes “serving God and serving humankind inseparable.”[xx] Finally, Jesus warns that “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” reminding us that like all things, the act of serving humankind starts from the heart.[xxi]
Therefore, in the fight against racism, affirmative action, numerical quotas, and empty words of comfort have only plastered Band-Aids over a wound created by competing egos. Christ, however, offers a different solution. Rather than seeking equality in equal rights or power, Christ encourages us to focus on our shared humanity. Christians, especially, are called to love each person, whether Christian or not, as a child of God, and thus to find in each other a shared identity, regardless of race, religion or gender. As a testament to this love, each Christian is given the same Great Commission, leaving no need for competition. Christians have indeed been silent and “neutral in times of great moral crisis” regarding race, yet this attitude is incompatible with what Christ requires of his followers.[xxii] While Jesus promises to give rest to those who are “weary and burdened” by the injustice of racism, he also urges others to risk their lives to defend the oppressed and disadvantaged, with the radical love he himself first displayed.[xxiii]
i. Matthew 16:24; Luke 10:27. All scripture quotations from the NKJV.
ii. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959), 343.
iii. Himmelfarb, 343.
iv. David Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
v. James C. Klagge, “The Most Segregated Hour in America?” Virginia Tech, 12 January 2015, <http://www.phil.vt.edu/JKlagge/ConductorChurch.htm>.
vi. Arthur Keith, Evolution and Ethics (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949), 230.
vii. Romans 3:23.
viii. Matthew 5:39; C.S. Lewis, “Why I’m Not a Pacifist,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 85.
ix. Michael Power, Religion in the Reich (London: Longmans, Green and co. 1939), 142.
x. James Bentley, Martin Niemöller, 1892-1984 (New York: Free Press, 1984), 177.
xi. Dietmar Schmidt, Pastor Niemöller (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 19.
xii. John 8:1-11.
xiii. Anna Triandafyllia, Addressing Cultural, Ethnic & Religious Diversity Challenges in Europe.
xiv. “Tolerance Is the Australian Way,” The Australian Immigrant Book, 13 January 2015, <http://www.aust-immig-book.com.au/business/toleranceaustralian-way>.
xv. Sharon Kim, A Faith of Our Own Secondgeneration Spirituality in Korean American Churches (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 157.
xvi. Galatians 3:28.
xvii. Galatians 3:29.
xviii. Paul M. Andersen, Professors Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Christian Faculty (Downers
Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 45.
xix. John 17:16.
xx. Andersen, 45.
xxi. I John 3:15.
xxii. Mark Musa, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Trans. and commentary by Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996-2004).
xxiii. Matthew 11:28.
Jessica Tong ’17 is from Sydney, Australia. She is a Government major.Arthur Keith, CS Lewis, diversity, Ferguson, grace, love, Martin Luther King Jr, Martin Niemöller, Michael Brown, race, racism, tolerance