How Can We Think Biblically about Race?
From Complacency to Compassionate Conviction
“Let justice roll down like waters.”
The quote is often credited to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it originally comes from the prophet Amos, who lived in a time when many citizens were affluent and complacent, lounging on their couches, ignoring the injustice in their land (Amos 5:24 RSV). Dr. King often turned to this passage, as well as many other Bible texts, to comment on the state of affairs in his day. The prophetic message applies equally to our own time. We’re still lounging on couches. We may need to lift our eyes from the screen and remove our earbuds to hear the cries of the oppressed.
As you lead others into Bible engagement, you know true engagement is more than just reading Scripture. You urge people into a deeper interaction with Scripture, taking its message to heart, opening up to changes in thinking and behavior. You call people beyond hearing, into doing (James 1:22).
And perhaps you have grappled with this question: How should we live biblically in our world? What do the prophetic challenges mean today? As we face an array of modern issues, how can we put God’s Word into practice?
Race remains a critical issue in America. Week by week we hear of racial tension in communities all across this country. Often our cultural backgrounds put us on opposite sides of a vast canyon, making it a challenge to fully understand the racial realities of those on the other side. For example, while many argue that deep prejudice still exists in society, despite the strides made by the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, others counter that this case is overstated, that the racism problem has been solved, and that those who disagree simply need to move on.
As Bible engagement leaders, how can we provide leadership here? There is a great danger of getting enmired in political or social issues simply because they’re trending all over the media, but we have a higher calling. We can’t let the culture set our agenda. We must always pursue a biblical response.
So, what would Amos say about our situation? Or Micah? Or Jesus?
Let us lead our people to search the Scriptures on this matter—and then apply the Bible’s teaching in our lives and communities. There are many angles we could take in such a study. Scripture overflows with teaching on justice, love, peace, humility, and other key themes that are germane to this conversation. In various forms, racism was deeply embedded in the culture in which the biblical documents were written. Many places in the New Testament address the relationship of Jewish and Gentile believers, but the interaction between Jews and Samaritans might be even more pertinent to our situation.
To advance such discussions, we offer some thoughts here that are inspired by Scripture, along with ways they might aid your leadership as you wrestle with racial issues in your current station.
Compassionate Conviction.Ephesians 4:15 teaches us to speak the truth in love. In his book Uncommon Decency, Dr. Richard Mouw calls this idea “Convicted Civility.” His basic premise is that, while we need not sacrifice our core convictions, we should remain civil in our engagement with those who disagree. We want to push this concept a step further, to what we call “Compassionate Conviction.” The love of Christ calls us beyond civility, responding compassionately to those who differ in experience and opinion, while still holding true to our core values. Much as the Good Samaritan exemplified, our compassion can serve as a bridge over the canyon between “us” and “them,” while our convictions keep us grounded.
Fear-casting. Throughout social media and cable news. people are broadcasting fear of the “other,” and this can lead to hateful words and actions, even violence. But what if we followed the biblical exhortation to cast our anxieties on the Lord (1 Peter 5:7). Could a more conscious trust in God help us see our own situation more clearly?
We-first attitude. “And look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own” (Philippians 2:4 GNT). Again and again, Scripture challenges us to put others first. The unity of the church is a recurring theme in the New Testament. Can we have the same priority—uniting with our fellow believers of all races, and loving them as we love ourselves?
Courageous conversations. All of this prepares us to venture into uncomfortable territory, to talk with people “across the divide,” and to lean into tense interactions when our fears and anxieties would have us pull away. More importantly, this journey should lead us to listen better—to try to understand others rather than merely looking for ways to help others better understand us. What are the experiences of these brothers and sisters on the other side of the canyon? How can we show the Lord’s love to them?
Scripture advises us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19 RSV). That’s a great approach to the listening sessions we need to start having. Perhaps you, as a leader, can set up some of these conversations, maybe even partnering with another church in your area, one with a different ethnic makeup, to learn about the experiences of others and to study God’s Word together.
We’ve worried a lot lately about the declining influence of the Bible in our society. But imagine what would happen if biblical Christians united on this crucial issue of race relations. What if we joined the conversation—not to promote any particular social cause or political agenda, but to talk about biblical peace, love, humility, and justice? How would the world react if we took these words of Jesus literally: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:33 NIV).
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