I think if we truly understood the nature of God’s grace and how it works in our lives, it would help eliminate our racism.
Racism is a huge problem in our country today. We are sharply divided along racial lines, and racial issues make up a high percentage of the disagreement and conflict in our society (e.g., the Black Lives Matter movement and its opposition, attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, attitudes toward Syrian refugees).
Historically, the Christian church has had both a positive and negative impact on the problem of racism. In the 1800s, many Christians were on the front lines leading the movement to abolish slavery. However, other Christians supported slavery and actually used the Bible to support their positions. Even today, attitudes among Christians toward racial issues are mixed, and Sunday morning remains the most segregated day of the week.
I think grace should have a strong impact on our views toward race and racism. Grace is foundational to the Christian story. The basic idea is that God gives us unconditional acceptance because he loves and values us as human beings made in his image. Period. God doesn’t love us more or less based on our actions, behaviors, or anything we think we might be ‘doing for God.’ Also, God doesn’t love us more or less based on the color of our skin or our racial/ethnic heritage.
In the New Testament, the early church was struggling with cultural differences and racism just like we are today. Back then, the major division was between Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). Specifically, the early Christian church, which grew out of the Jewish faith, was trying to figure out whether it was okay to incorporate the Gentiles into their faith. Was the way of Jesus open to all, irrespective of their cultural background?
This struggle came to a head in a disagreement between Peter and Paul, two of the prominent leaders of the early church. Paul writes in Galatians 2 that Peter had been separating himself from the Gentiles and refusing to eat with them. In that time, eating together represented community and acceptance. So in this case, Peter was engaging in racism by refusing to accept those who were not part of his cultural group.
Paul writes that he opposed Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11), and Paul also writes that he [Paul] ‘saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel’ (Galatians 2:14). In other words, the Gospel says that God loves and accepts us because of grace. It is a gift that is free and available to all. It doesn’t depend on our actions, behaviors, or cultural background. Peter didn’t have a clear understanding of how grace and the Gospel applied to this issue, and it led to racism.
If you truly get grace, you will know that you are no better and no worse than your neighbor. Most of the good things in your life are due to things outside your control, such as your family upbringing and genetic makeup. What right do you have to look down on someone else and think of them as ‘less than?’ What right do you have to view yourself as superior to someone else? In light of grace and the Gospel, you don’t.
Discussion: What do you think of the connection between grace and racism? How does understanding the Gospel motivate you to engage with others who are different from you?
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Tim Keller, who wrote about the connection between grace and racism in his book, Counterfeit Gods.