by Nick Schwarz

Many people understand racism as an ideology that teaches that people of some races are naturally superior and that those of other races are inferior.

It also teaches that a person’s race is indicative of their character and capabilities, that people of ‘superior races’ should have greater rights than people of ‘inferior races’, and that the lives of members of ‘superior races’ are more valuable than the lives of people of ‘inferior races’.

Some go as far as to advocate that multi-racial societies should be governed in ways that preserve the power and privilege of the allegedly ‘superior’ race.

People are drawn to believing that they are members of a ‘superior race’ because it boosts their self-esteem, gives them a feeling of greater entitlement and gives them scapegoats to blame when things go badly.

Indeed, racist beliefs have led to terrible injustices throughout history. People have dehumanised and mistreated their fellow human beings, stolen their land and possessions, tried to eradicate their languages and cultures, kidnapped, enslaved and killed them.

Integral to racism are othering, by which we sort people into ‘us’ and ‘them’; ethnocentrism, through which we see our own culture as natural and right, and other cultures as strange and objectionable; xenophobia, the fear or dislike of foreigners; negative stereotyping; and partiality and double standards by which we don’t accept or act as though the lives of people of all races are equally valuable.

There are many ways in which racism is present today in Australia and New Zealand.

Racial injustices, both past and present, are denied, trivialised, or regarded with apathy. People are resented, put down, maligned and made to feel unwelcome because of their race. People of particular racial groups are stereotyped as being of bad character and they therefore regularly experience prejudice in dealings with law enforcement officers, in sectors such as retail, transport, health care and finance, and when they apply for a bank loan, a job or a rental property.

And they may be assumed to be less intelligent, less emotionally capable and naturally contented with lower status and standard of living than others.

All racism is hurtful and harmful. It should never be dismissed as trivial. The most cruel and violent forms shock and sicken us. But constant exposure to what we might call ‘covert’ or ‘subtle’ racism can also be soul-destroying and lead to poor mental and physical health and premature death.

When a society succeeds in suppressing overt racism, attention may turn to suppressing less obvious forms of it. Ideally, this is done in ways that keep people on side. Antiracism campaigners risk losing support if they imagine they can eliminate racism entirely and punish people for innocent, non-malicious speech and actions.

But what is the Christian perspective on racism? It’s simple. Racism is sin.

When sin entered the world, humans began to see each other as competitors and potential threats. Only the people in one’s ‘in-group’ – the clan or tribe – were considered fully human. Outsiders were less than fully human – if indeed they were human at all.

The moral thing to do was to serve the interests of the clan. If this was done by treating outsiders well, perhaps because they were powerful or because trading with them brought benefits, it was right to treat them well. But if it served the interests of the clan to kill outsiders or enslave them and take over their property because they became weak and vulnerable, that would also be right. Outsiders had no value in and of themselves; their value lay only in what the clan could get from them.

We might like to believe that in the 21st century we have left tribal thinking behind. We might like to think that our commitment to universal human rights is unshakeable.

But our tribal instincts are deeply rooted and Satan is keen to take advantage of them. He wants to keep us divided and suspicious towards each other and he wants us to selfishly use each other for our own ends. Racism is one of the tools he uses to achieve these goals. He is especially keen to infect Christian families and communities with racist attitudes.

Jesus encourages us to overcome our tribal instincts, to recognise the full humanity of people of every colour and creed, and to treat them as we would treat ourselves or members of our own family. Within the Christian community, we are to see Christians of every race as fellow adoptees in God’s family and brothers and sisters in Christ.

Many biblical teachings provide the foundations for a Christian response to racism, none more so than Genesis 1:27, which tells us that all people are created equally in God’s image and that human dignity is therefore God-given, not dependent on race or other attributes.

Throughout the New Testament we are reminded that God’s love and his plan of salvation are for people of every race, language and culture – in other words, Jesus’ died and rose again for all people. During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught that the ‘neighbours’ we are called to love are not just people of our in-group, but strangers, including people in need and people treated unjustly (eg Luke 10:25–37), people who treat us unjustly (eg Luke 6:28,29), and people we are accustomed to seeing as our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48).

It’s a safe bet that those of us who are old enough to read this article have had uncharitable thoughts about other people because of their race and allowed those thoughts to shape our actions towards them. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us our prejudices and repent of them. And let us pray for the wisdom to discern how to respond in God-pleasing ways if we are accused of racism, witness it, or are targeted by it ourselves.

Nick Schwarz is the LCANZ’s Assistant to the Bishop – Public Theology.

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