Now that our racial hostilities have come to a fast boil – some might argue a volcanic eruption – I believe it is time we admit that our approach to the issue has been ineffective. I would describe my approach to racial tension throughout much of my life in terms of ignorance and apathy. I didn’t know, and I really didn’t care.
A little more than 20 years ago, God used a visiting evangelist to expose the racism in my own heart. It came through a discussion we were having after a chapel service in our Academy. I was an assistant pastor at the time. My evangelist friend had just preached a message to our teens about courtship and marriage. Our pastor had one objection, and he addressed it after the students were dismissed. His objection? “You didn’t say anything about interracial dating.”
Before I relate our evangelist’s answer, I should remind you that a traveling evangelist depends for his livelihood on the relationships he has with pastors and churches. It would be easy enough for an evangelist to be a little bit craven out of fear of losing meetings. Our evangelist friend was not. His answer stunned me, like an open-handed slap to my face. He did not hesitate: “I don’t have a problem with interracial dating or marriage.” He explained: “You can’t tell me that a black girl and a white boy who grow up in the same church and live a few miles apart shouldn’t marry because of the color of their skin. They were raised in the same environment, they have the same cultural experiences, there can be no Scriptural reason to forbid it.”
I interjected. “God separated the races at the tower of Babel. Interracial marriage blurs the lines between those races.” He looked at me and shook his head: first, nothing in the Bible commands that we maintain “racial integrity” through marriage standards. The idea that “God set the bounds of their habitations” came from Bob Jones, and (as my evangelist friend said it), “everyone knows that the old man was a racist.” Second, nobody could give a Scriptural breakdown of what constituted a different race, or which races were forbidden to marry one another. He pointed out that some pastors say there are three races, some say there are more – some as many as seventeen.
I respected this man for his answer, but at the time, I strongly disagreed with him. Since then, God has changed my heart. First, my friend was right – God has not put a restriction on marriages based on skin color. When Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses for his Ethiopian wife, God gave no credence to their criticism at all, though He did punish Aaron and Miriam for opposing Moses’ leadership. Second, God reversed Babel on the day of Pentecost, when the gospel was heard in the heart languages of – you guessed it – seventeen nationalities (Acts 2:8-11). Third, God has made of one blood all nations of men (Acts 17:26). And while it is true (as Bob Jones argued) that God has determined the bounds of their habitation, He has never restricted a nation to that boundary. Fourth, and I think most importantly, God has made us all of one blood. There can be no Scriptural grounds for forbidding marriage between blacks and whites.
In the twenty years since that discussion, God has made a lot of changes in my thinking. Not just on the subject of “interracial marriage,” which I consider a misnomer, but on the issue of race and race relations. These thoughts are the fruit of God’s grace at work in my heart.
In the first installment of this series, I offered two things we need and two things we don’t need if we are to heal the racial hostilities in our country. In the second offering, I offered one more of each. I have a combined total of five things we do need and five things we don’t need to heal these racial hurts. We will wrap those up in this part.
We do need to examine our own hearts for racist viewpoints.
As I prepared my own heart to preach to our church on racism, the Lord showed me some long-held opinions of our black brothers, which I believe expose racial bigotry on my part. The first is the idea that when blacks move into a neighborhood, they ruin it. This particular opinion has been repeated many times and in several different ways. I have heard it said that when a new restaurant opens in town, it is only a matter of time before they begin to hire blacks, and then the restaurant is ruined. I have heard the opinion that blacks have destroyed our inner-cities. As I said, this same kind of thing has been expressed in a variety of ways, but the idea is driven by racial animosity.
Similarly, I think a lot of white people have an impression of black men as dangerous, lawless, even wild. They are gangbangers and drug dealers and thugs. I hear this sentiment expressed by white people. Yet, I rarely hear the same people point out that the majority of frauds and cheats in the world have been white people, or that the vast majority of serial killers, mass murderers, and school shooters have been white. My point here is this: we tend to be very aware of the sins of our black brothers, and nearly blind to the sins of whites.
While I would not have you turn a blind eye to the sins of one group over another, we ought to apply these things evenly. And when an opinion clearly exposes a racial bias, we should work to eradicate it from our hearts.
We don’t need to apologize for our whiteness.
This sort of thing accomplishes nothing. It is a particularly craven kind of pandering that only serves to frustrate the issue. You aren’t helping anyone by apologizing for your white privilege. I hope my black brothers are thankful to be black. If by chance they begrudge me my whiteness, that is their problem. I, for one, am grateful for my own heritage, and I respect and appreciate theirs.
In many ways, the current push towards social justice has led to a new kind of white supremacy, where whites are lecturing blacks about what should offend them. It is the kind of white supremacy that says, “you poor blacks aren’t smart enough to know what should offend you.” We really need to knock it off with all the offense-mongering. Rather than set our race-detectors on hyper-alert, we should seek out the sinful attitudes in our own hearts (that is, opinions that God finds offensive), and we should repent of those attitudes. Then, we should go about seeking to correct those wrong attitudes.
It is not wrong for me to be thankful that God made me white, any more than it is wrong for a black man to be grateful that he is black. It is not wrong for me to be thankful for the blessings God has bestowed on me, just as it is right for my black friends to be grateful for the blessings God has granted them. It would be wrong for me to begrudge God His choice for my skin tone, or to think that God somehow burdened me with my ethnicity.
We do need to work towards removing the barriers so the gospel can be preached effectively.
I wish that I could offer a long list of practical measures that we could take to heal the racial hurt. I hope that we can go beyond mere sentimental feelings of empathy – which does little to ease the racial divide. Government programs have only served to drive the wedge deeper. Social justice mantras and critical race theory has sown more discord and deepened the gap and don’t seem to be focused at all on healing the hurt.
Our own heart attitude is the first step. It would be foolish for us to deny that there is a problem, or to continue to insist that there shouldn’t be one. For many, recognizing our own sinful attitude would be a great start. Having acknowledged that, we should look for ways to bring a resolution to the strife so that barriers can be removed and the gospel can do its work. I understand that many Christians have hated racism in all its forms. But more than a few have supported it or even fostered it.
The other practical solution that I would recommend is simply this. Let’s talk about it, face-to-face, black and white, man-to-man, like equals. Facebook and social media have allowed us to shelter ourselves from contrary viewpoints and uncomfortable discussions. Whites need to have frank and candid conversations with their black brothers, to ask them about their experiences, and to value their perspective enough to consider it. And, our black brothers also need to hear our view of these things, so that we can discuss what we see happening in the black community. Frankly, it can be challenging to find any examples of this kind of discussion online. I will introduce you to a model in a moment.
I spent about two hours watching (actually, I listened during a few workouts) to Douglas Wilson and John Piper discuss race issues and what can be done about it. Granted, these are two white men. But they provide some valuable insight. Wilson has taken a hard stand (and very controversial) on the Civil War and southern slavery that has gotten him into some hot water. Yet, Wilson makes some strong points about the way this discussion needs to take place, and more importantly, what needs to be discussed. And, he set an example by having an online exchange with Thabite Anyabwile. You can’t find this discussion in one place, but this blog post offers a handy list of all the different posts in the exchange – if you are inclined to wade into the tall grass.
John Piper has a great heart to see these racial animosities dealt with Scripturally. He has written an excellent book on the subject, one I highly recommend. You can hear his compassion on this issue in just about every syllable that comes out of his mouth. As I listened to the two of them, I found my own heart stirred even more for racial reconciliation.
The most important thing we can do is to preach the gospel of reconciliation. Ephesians 2:11-22 describes the power of the gospel to reconcile us to God so that we might be reconciled to each other. Ultimately, our race problems are sin problems, and will not be resolved apart from the new birth.
We don’t need to ignore the racist history of the Independent Baptist movement.
I will leave you with this point. Independent Baptists cannot and should not claim innocence when it comes to the racial animosity that plagues our nation. We have, in fact, played a central role in it. Our colleges and institutions were segregated, right along with everyone else. We maintained strict bans on interracial dating, stubbornly holding on to them long after we should have stopped.
My family became Independent Baptists when I was about ten years old. My pastor was one of the biggest racists I have known. He used the “N” word more than anyone I knew. He regularly told me that there had never been an all-black basketball team that won a major championship. He claimed that they had to have a white person on the team because black people weren’t smart enough to win. Growing up, we regularly told jokes that included a punchline about dumb blacks.
In the Christian school where I graduated, we had one black student. I made it my mission in life to be rude to him. I treated him like a jerk. I despised him. That was my sin. It was his response to my bad behavior that jolted me out of it, and I am forever grateful for that. One day, I went to get my lunch and found that my sandwich had been torn into tiny pieces. As I stared at the sandwich in disbelief, my classmates had a good laugh, and I found myself at the receiving end of all the meanness I had shown towards this young man. He had sent me a calling card, and I deserved it. I don’t remember that I ever apologized to him for the things I did to him, but if I didn’t repent before, I do now.
The church I grew up in was a Hyles church, and though I cannot provide you with a direct link to Jack Hyles’ teaching on race, I can tell you what I was taught – and I have reason to believe this was commonly taught by Jack Hyles himself. I was taught to think that black people came from Noah’s son Ham, that they were cursed as a race, and that was why they had experienced slavery. As I grew older, I wrestled with some of the ramifications of this. Was it our job to carry out this curse? Were we justified in despising them because of Ham’s sin? Were all the sons of Ham black?
And most importantly, aren’t we all cursed because of our sin? Suffice it to say, I now recognize the latent racism in this view. It is a horribly wicked twisting of Scripture.
I have been in the ministry now for nearly 25 years, and I have heard plenty of bigotry from pastor friends. I am saying this out loud on the world wide web. Let’s don’t pretend that this hasn’t been a big part of our worldview. It isn’t new. The men who shaped our movement were ardent segregationists. I have on my desk at this moment John R. Rice’s two books, Here Is My Question and Here Are More Questions. I bought them when I was a teenager. Rice includes a lengthy section on racial questions in the first book and an even longer section in the second. As a teenager, I heartily agreed with John R. Rice’s pro-segregation positions; they helped to reinforce my racist viewpoints and convince me that I was right.
John R. Rice, one of the leading voices in the founding of the Independent Baptist movement, might have been considered a voice of reason in his day. He certainly did not support every racist view of his day. He preached throughout the Jim Crow South. He once preached a revival in Sherman, Texas, not long after a white riot and lynching took place. Rice was not shy about preaching against the prevalent sins in a community, and God used him to turn people from their sin to the Lord. Yet, although John R. Rice opposed lynching, we have no record of him openly rebuking it from the pulpit.
I find it interesting that in both of his “Question” books, John Rice includes a question about the sons of Ham – apparently, the teaching I received as a young man was pretty standard in his day. And though he refuted that teaching, John R. Rice did offer qualified support for segregation. He made it clear that he opposed both forced segregation and forced integration and that race-based hatred or discrimination was sinful and wrong. Still, he consistently argued for segregation in his writings. In nearly every question he answered about racial issues, Rice brought up interracial marriage and the damage that would be caused by it. Rice argued that if young people of different races shouldn’t marry, then they shouldn’t socialize either.
I recognize the teaching and influence of men like Rice and Jones and Hyles still in the racial views of many in our Independent Baptist movement. Their defense of segregation and strident opposition to interracial marriage has colored so much of our viewpoint. It is not necessary or helpful for us to deny that we have been less than Scriptural on these issues throughout our history. I would challenge all who read this article to get out your Bible, examine your own viewpoints on race and racial harmony, and make all necessary corrections.
I hope that, as a result of this article, many will pause to consider the hostility and animosity in their own hearts. If we won’t, then there will be no healing of the racial hurt in our country. Until we are willing to cast the beam out of our own eye, we have no business attempting to extract the mote from our black brother’s eye. Repentance, as Peter reminds us, must begin at the house of God.
On Good Friday in April of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a peaceful protest against the policies that made Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in America. He was arrested for marching and thrown in jail that day, along with the fifty other people who joined him.
On Easter Sunday, eight Christian and Jewish clergy members in Birmingham wrote a letter, published in the Birmingham paper, rebuking King for demonstrating and urging patience on the part of the black man.
In response, Martin Luther King wrote his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…. But the judgment of God is upon the church (today) as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
How prophetic was his message. It is time that God’s people rose up to answer this call to repentance. Too often, we have ignored the problem, shown a terrible callousness towards our black brothers, and sought to maintain the status quo in our relations. May God give us a heart of compassion and a deep desire to see these hostilities resolved so that the gospel might go forth with power in our nation once again.