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Derwin Gray: We Have to Raise the Bar on Racial Justice

In the church, we have set the bar too low for having a racist attitude. Often racists are portrayed as people who are involved in the KKK or another hate group or who have Nazi swastikas tattooed on their shoulders. We think racists are people we can easily identify by some outward allegiance or display. More importantly, we draw the line for what constitutes racism somewhere beyond our own attitudes and beliefs to make sure the label never touches our own hearts. However, racist attitudes and institutional structures can be much more subtle and just as damaging.

Racism is both individual and systemic (institutional). Individual racism or prejudice is the belief or doctrine that one’s ethnic group is superior to another; thus, the domination or unequal treatment of the group you see as inferior is normalized. For example, think of how Native Americans were considered savages or people of African descent were enslaved or of apartheid in South Africa.

Systemic or institutional racism is racism codified in laws, policies, or governmental systems that favor one ethnic group over another. This can mean actively harming these other groups or working to preserve power and advantages for the favored ethnic group. One example of systemic racism is the grandfather clause, which was a “constitutional device enacted by seven Southern states between 1895 and 1910 to deny suffrage to African Americans. It provided that those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, and their lineal descendants, would be exempt from recently enacted educational, property, or tax requirements for voting. Because the former slaves had not been granted the franchise until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, those clauses worked effectively to exclude Black people from the vote but assured the franchise to many impoverished and illiterate whites.” Or how the G.I. Bill “was structured in a way that ultimately shut doors for the 1.2 million Black veterans who had bravely served their country during World War II, in segregated ranks.” As a result, “the wide disparity in the bill’s implementation ended up helping drive growing gaps in wealth, education and civil rights between white and Black Americans.”

As a pastor, for years now, I have counseled and discipled people who are working through racism. The Lord has worked and is working in my own heart to rid it of prejudice. That’s what the gospel does. It defeats and overcomes all forms of sin if we allow Jesus to work in us. If we drop our pride and pick up our crosses, he will transform us.

Overt racism is real. But I am very concerned about the subtle racism that Christians have allowed into their lives.

I am concerned about the racism through which a Christian does not love their neighbor of another ethnicity as they love themselves. Love is sacrificial and costly, not a platitude that rings hollow.

I am concerned about the racism that produces paternalistic actions of progressives that reveal they think they know what is best for people of color.

I am concerned about the racism that is seen only as an individual sin issue but dismisses the historic systemic racial injustice that is baked into existing structures that have governed American society.

I am concerned about how “homogenous local churches reproduce inequality, encourage oppression, strengthen racial division, and heighten political separation.”

I am concerned about the racism of a Christian who intentionally remains silent in the face of racial injustice toward their brothers and sisters of different ethnicities and about disunity in the church and the broader culture.

I am concerned about the racism that causes a Christian parent to refuse to let their child marry a Christian of a different ethnicity simply because of the color of their skin. This mindset in essence says, “You can be my brother in Christ but not my brother-in-law.” This is what ethnic supremacy looks like.

In a recent conversation with a White brother who said he was a Christian, I asked him how he felt about Black people. He said, “I do not have a problem with them.” I asked him to show in Scripture where Jesus says, “Love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And do not have a problem with your neighbor.”

King Jesus calls us as his people to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbors the way we love ourselves.

If I do not love you as I love myself, I am not going to advocate on your behalf.

If I do not love you as I love myself, I am not going to be concerned about your pain.

If I do not love you as I love myself, I am not going to seek justice when the noose of injustice is suffocating you.

I have had similar conversations with Black and Latino brothers in Christ, who have equally prejudiced attitudes toward other ethnicities. Prejudice is not a one-way street. It is a traffic jam that can only be cleared by Christ-generated, Holy Spirit–empowered love that is “humble” and thinks of “others as better than yourselves.” The apostle Paul tells us, “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3-4, NLT).

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Racism and prejudice are cancers that affect all ethnic groups. Learning to love each other — to really love each other as God has commanded and as God has empowered us — takes an act of courageous faith to tell the truth, to offer grace, to extend kindness, and to be the change you want to see in the world.

When you love someone, you sacrifice on their behalf.

When you love someone, their pain is your pain.

When you love someone, the injustice they experience matters to you.

When you love someone, there is no “us versus them.” There is only “us” in Christ.

When you love someone, you love them the way you love yourself.

Those who love their brothers and sisters in Christ of a different ethnicity the way they love themselves are on their way to healing the racial divide. Love heals the hurt. Love undoes injustice. Love is the bridge that connects the disconnected. Love takes a sledgehammer of grace and breaks down the barriers that divide us: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (Ephesians 2:14, NLT).

Are you willing to be Jesus’ sledgehammer of grace?


Adapted From How to Heal Our Racial Divide: What the Bible Says, and the First Christians Knew, about Racial Reconciliation by Derwin L. Gray, released in April 2022 from Tyndale House Publishers.

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