We’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King weekend. The great Baptist preacher, scholar and activist would have been 95 years old. We rightly honor him.
The Civil Rights Movement led by King was not that long ago. We still live with the reverberations of that era. Indeed, I would suggest our own miserably divided politics still reflect the divisions of that era.
Some want to see the nonviolent revolution for equality, jobs, and freedom, for a fully inclusive multiracial democracy, advanced and completed. Others appear to be motivated by profound backlash not just to that dream but to the advances won since Birmingham and Selma.
Expressions of racism are more open today than I can remember them having been in my adult lifetime.
I claimed in my first column this year that much of what ails us is cultural, ecclesial and institutional, not just political. In other words, our politics is sick in part because our culture is sick — and our churches seem to be functioning, too often, more as pale reflections of culture rather than as centers of resistance. King once said the churches act more like thermometers, which record the temperature, than thermostats, which set it. That is still so often true.
I preached the message below at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga., on Sunday, at the invitation of Pastor Jim Conrad. I was wanting to declare the Bible’s moral baseline when it comes to racism. I venture to suggest that if that baseline was not just accepted but a matter of passionate commitment on the part of all of America’s Christians, both our culture and our politics would look very different.
Consider, then, racism’s absurdity in light of the gospel.
1/ Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
David marvels at God’s knowledge of him, his actions, his innermost thoughts, his words before they are even spoken. God knows exactly who we are and what is in us, good and bad. God is inescapable. We can give up on hiding from God.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them — they are more than the sand.
This famous text has long been popular as applied to the issue of abortion. But it has far broader application. David describes God as the maker of his life, his bodily self, the one who knit him together in his mother’s womb. Whenever we might be tempted to feel our life is not worth much, remember this text. You and I are fearfully and wonderfully made.
“What David says about himself applies to all. God searches and knows and loves all human beings.”
One form racism has taken is the disastrous belief that humanity is divided into distinctive races, arranged in a hierarchy of value from greatest to middling to lesser to worthless. Somehow, the people who have come up with these specious racial taxonomies always manage to arrange their “race” at the top of their made-up hierarchy.
Psalm 139 defies any such thinking. What David says about himself applies to all. God searches and knows and loves all human beings. God knit all people together in their mother’s wombs. All human beings who have ever lived are fearfully and wonderfully made. All our lives are superintended by God. All of us live in the presence of God. Whenever we encounter another person — any other person — from any land, speaking any language, of any nationality that is what we are encountering. One fearfully and wonderfully made. Racism is absurd in light of Psalm 139.
2/ Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
What a majestic passage, absolutely central to Jewish and Christian theology and ethics. As the ultimate act on the sixth day of creation, God makes humanity. God makes us, male and female, in his image.
Theologians have suggested the imago Dei might refer to human intellectual capacity, or spiritual nature, or capacity for moral choices, or delegated responsibilities from God, as if we are ambassadors of God to the creation itself. But whatever we take the image of God to mean, it is shared by all humans, each and every one. This is the extraordinary contribution of this text.
“Racism declares some lives more valuable than others.”
Racism declares some lives more valuable than others. Based on imaginary racial classifications, racists rank lives on a scale of value. I remember reading a quote from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler who said, “Jews are the anti-man, the children of a lesser god.” Hitler also made sure to have his educators produce a book for children (The Nazi Primer) that explicitly denied the teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God and are thus of equal value.
This idea, which begins right here in Genesis 1, was understood to be completely incompatible with and a threat to Nazi racism. But the Bible is right and Hitler was wrong. All human beings are of infinite and immeasurable worth, as all are made in the image of God, and there is no hierarchy in the eyes of God. Racism is absurd in light of Genesis 1.
3/ Romans 3:21-26
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed and is attested by the Law and the Prophets, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to demonstrate at the present time his own righteousness, so that he is righteous and he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.
Here we encounter the Apostle Paul’s grand statement of the gospel message. The logic goes like this: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
In Paul’s Jewish world of thought the two main groups, seen almost as separate branches of humanity, were Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 1-2, Paul makes the argument for why both Jews and Gentiles are in a desperate position and in need of salvation. Here in Romans 3, he brings the point home: God’s rescue, God’s salvation is available to all human beings through Jesus Christ. All are offered salvation through God’s amazing grace, as a gift purchased at the Cross. The way that any person can access this grace gift is through faith in Jesus.
Paul’s theology of salvation has many implications, but for today here is a crucial one — every human being is in the exact same position in relation to Christ. We are all, each of us, everyone, equally, sinners in need of the grace-gift offered by God through Jesus’ death on the Cross.
“Every human being is in the exact same position in relation to Christ.”
When I look at myself, I am to see a sinner who has been offered the gift of salvation. When I look at you, I am to see a sinner who has been offered the gift of salvation. No way in which human beings might differ is relevant to this situation. Race is irrelevant, as is gender, sexuality, education, intelligence, nationality. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All are now offered God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Racism is absurd in light of Romans 3.
4/ John 3:16-21
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The world turned against God in rebellion. That includes humanity. God could have chosen to destroy the world, to give up on the world, to abandon the world. Instead, God chose love. God chose to offer God’s one and only Son to the world. The world responded by crucifying him. God responded to the world’s response by raising Jesus from the dead.
Our worst became the occasion for God’s best. So now, everyone who believes in the Son of God may not perish but instead have eternal life.
“Racism is absurd; more, it is heresy.”
There are those who have rejected God’s light and loved darkness instead. There are those who do not want God’s love. But God’s choice is indeed love rather than condemnation.
When we look at ourselves, even at our worst moments, let us remember that God chose to love us and to offer God’s Son for us. And when we look at other people, let us look at them the way God does — as objects of God’s love, exemplified most painfully, most profoundly, in the cost of that love to God at the Cross.
For God so loved the world. Every person. God’s salvation is not offered to people in terms of their color, ethnicity, race, class or nationality. All of us are part of this troubled reality called “world” and all of us were included in God’s response, offered in the incarnation, ministry, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus the Son of God. Racism is absurd in light of John 3.
Fearfully and wonderfully made, in the image of God. Equal in the eyes of God. Equal in the need of Christ. Equal at the foot of the Cross. Equal in the community of faith. Racism is absurd in light of the doctrines of creation, of humanity, of sin, of the Cross, of the church.
Racism is absurd; more, it is heresy. Adopting racist ways of looking at the world and at fellow human beings is not an option for Christians. It never should have happened in this country. It never should have happened in any country. This is not a hard call biblically, not at all.
We are talking about the core doctrines of our faith. Based on these texts, and these doctrines, I urge us as a church, and each of us as individuals, to utterly repudiate racism and to make sure it has no place in our hearts, in our actions, in our church and in any place that our influence can reach.
May it be so.
This article first appeared in Baptist News Global.