Racism on the Eve of the Gospel

We’ve all likely seen or heard what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia: white supremacists protest across from counter-protestors. A white supremacist plows into a crowd of the counter-protestors in their car intending them harm and costing one his life. What could have been a peaceful protest turned into sinister acts of aggression, and the sad thing is that the white supremacists claim to be Christians.

It’s a shame and utter disgrace that such hatred and bigotry continue to exist in our country, but racism isn’t anything new. One need only to look to the Bible and see that it’s nearly as old as humanity. When Joseph was accosted by Mrs. Potiphar (an Egyptian), he escaped, leaving his cloak in her hands. She remarked to others that her husband “brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us” (Genesis 39:14). There she made a racist remark and distinction between herself and the man whom she desired, and her allegation was one she attributed not to poor character, but his race despite his innocence and her culpability.

We may go farther in our Old Testaments to the book of Jonah. The prophet was given a mission to go to the Ninevites and preach God’s judgment to them. He didn’t want to do this because he knew that God was too gracious and if they sincerely repented, God would withhold punishment from them. Once the prophet relented, Jonah went and preached, but he sat outside the city to see if God would destroy it thus indicating the Ninevites’ insincere repentance if He in fact had. When one studies the history of Israel’s and Assyria’s interactions before Jonah’s ministry, we see a bit of animosity (cf. Amos 2:6–8). However, Israel did well and began to prosper once again (2 Kings 14:23–27), but their prosperity in light of the Assyrians’ actions left a hatred toward them that Jonah could not get beyond to extend God’s mercy to the people.

We may also look to the book of Esther. One of the key players in this work was Haman, an Agagite. When honors were bestowed upon him, all the people fawned over Haman except Mordecai, the Jew. Once Haman learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he determined to extinguish all the Jews (Esther 3:4–6). The good Bible student knows that Agag was once King of the Amalekites, whom King Saul was commissioned to have blotted from the face of the earth (1 Samuel 15). Saul didn’t do as God had commanded, and King Agag escaped, and his descendants were forever known as Agagites. Haman had likely grown up hearing how the Jews nearly extinguished his ancestors, though the destruction of the Amalekites was God’s judgment upon them for how they mistreated Israel after they escaped Egyptian slavery. Haman, whose people were nearly extinguished, now was in a position to do likewise to a race of people he’d been taught to hate. Racism isn’t innate in a person, but taught.

When Jesus came on the scene, He taught not hatred, but love. One of the most famous of Christ’s parables was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). At the time of His telling this story, the Jews and Samaritans hated one another. This animosity went back as far as the time of Nehemiah when the northerners tried to halt the reconstruction of the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Between the Testaments, a 400-year span of time between the events of Malachi and Matthew, other things took place. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, noted that the Samaritans would claim kinship with the Jews when it garnered them a political favor, but when the Jews were in disfavor with the powers that were, the Samaritans claimed no kinship. On one particular holy festival, the Samaritans committed a sacrilegious act by thrown the bones of the dead into the Jewish Temple. The hatred had grown, but when Jesus told this parable, it was not the Jewish priest or Levite who showed compassion, but a Samaritan—something that the audience who heard Him tell this parable to likely found shocking.

One might hope that after following Jesus for so long and hearing Him teach that racial bigotry would have been eliminated in the hearts of His followers. However, even Peter found it hard to associate with non-Jews (Gentiles). He was given a vision of God where he was no longer to regard non-Jews as unclean, and he went to a Gentile but even stated to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). It’s my personal hope and prayer that we can say that God has also shown us not to hate.

Jesus came to break down the very walls some would seek to build because of one’s skin color or creed. Most of our churches are full of people from different backgrounds, and this is to be celebrated. In the church of Christ, there is no distinction between classes, races, languages, or educational acumen among those who would fear God and follow Jesus. The truth is as Paul wrote it, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). May we who wear the name “Christian” be such people who speak against those whose message is hatred, bigotry, and racism. May we denounce their acts from the pulpits entrusted to us by God’s grace and may be reconciled to God, first, and to each other, second. There is no justification for hatred if one follows Jesus. Until we begin speaking up and against such, we may very well be painted with the same brush as them.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.