Racism as Favoritism
Even with the recent surge of attention given to issues of race and ethnicity, any attempt to enter a conversation on these issues comes with a degree of timidity: Can I say this? Am I allowed to use that word? How will he respond if I ask about . . . ? Our reluctance to address race and to resign to “safe” silence often comes from a desire to respect others, but also from our own fear of being called insensitive, hurtful, or, worse, a racist.
That term comes with so much weight and penalty that people do not relate to it. There are few self-identified racists, though many in our country and our churches indeed struggle with racism. And if we are honest with ourselves and evaluate our actions and heart, we might be surprised (or perhaps not so surprised) to see where we struggle with the sins of favoritism, partiality, and racial bias. So, though we will most definitely concentrate on race here, let’s keep these other temptations in mind.
SIN OF PARTIALITY AND FAVORITISM
James challenged Christians about their sin of partiality. These Christians had preferred the rich who came into the assembly over those who were poor. They would pay attention to the visitors who would arrive in “fine clothing” and “gold rings,” giving them preferential treatment while essentially ignoring those who came in “shabby clothing.” James rebukes them, saying, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. . . . If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1-9).
The problem for James wasn’t that these visitors were rich. Wealth is not a sin. The problem was that some in the church thought that the rich were better than the poor. They elevated these men above others. Their preference wasn’t because they were honored to have welcomed guests; their preference was motivated by pride. They would rather have the rich in attendance than the poor, and their treatment of the poor reflected their view of them.
But God doesn’t view man by worldly, material standards. James explains, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). God is the Creator. God created man equally, in his own image. And then he sent his Son to die for us. Besides the fact that Jesus loved the poor, orphan, widow, tax collector, and prostitute, he died for those who weren’t his friends. His impartiality is absolute, extreme. His death wasn’t for his friends or for those like him. Jesus laid down his life for his enemies. This is amazing.
Our outward appearance has zero bearing on the gospel. In Galatians we read, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). These verses have been misinterpreted and I can see why. Paul isn’t saying that these various roles or descriptions (Jew, Greek, male, female, etc.) no longer exist. In other words, they retain their various roles, but in Christ we’re all equal. In the gospel there is no superiority. In the gospel there is no color. We are equal in creation and equal in redemption. The gospel ushers in the new covenant no longer requiring believers to become Jews or follow the Mosaic Law—because the ceremonies do not save.
In other words, being Jew or Greek had no distinction in the gospel. Yet, let’s be honest, we make distinctions and judgments based on those distinctions.
RACIAL BIAS AND FAVORITISM
I’ve written previously that Christians should evaluate their hearts to see whether pride and self-exaltation has fueled the sin of racism or racial favoritism within them. I know this form of favoritism is alive and well because I have met people who tell me they struggle with it. Over the past year, I’ve engaged with brothers and sisters who are willing to face their sin, repent, and ask God for strength to change. Many of these people, I believe, would continue to be complacent in their sin if some churches and organizations hadn’t become more vocal over issues of race. When we are willing to have difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, God works through them. But we now must further the conversation and dive deeper into the heart so that we can build churches that display the sort of race-transcending ministry found in the gospel.
So, what is racial bias? Racial bias comes as a matter of instinct. What’s your reaction when you see someone who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent boarding your plane? If you are walking in an urban area and a group of large black men approach, what do you think? Do you feel slightly unsettled when someone of your ethnicity marries outside your ethnicity? Do all your friends look like you? Would you prefer for your restaurant server, pastor, best friend, child’s dolls, child’s spouse, electrician showing up at the door, or the lead character in a movie to have your skin color? These biases can be instinctive and they can be a product of our racial favoritism. We are easily influenced by culture—what we’ve read, seen, or heard but not experienced—and the attitudes and belief systems of generations past. In order to see reconciliation and progress in our nation, communities, and churches, we must recognize that racial favoritism is indeed a possibility for each and every one of us. We then must fight our assumptions of others and learn to ask good questions.
The problem with racial favoritism is so often we believe our bias and react accordingly. This could lead to all sorts of errors and challenges within the body of Christ. If we believe, for example, that all young black men are “thugs” how might that affect the way we relate to a young black man who enters our congregation? It is true that crime rates are high in the black community but it is not true to assume that all black men (or black people in general) belong in that category. If we buy into assumption, we show bias and don’t treat these men as brothers and men made in the image of God. We ought to be fighting generalizations by truly getting to know our fellow image bearers…not starting with the assumption that this person is a terrorist, thug, etc.
If we treat that young man walking into the church as a stereotypes or a statistic, there are a few potentials: 1) we might become fearful and not approach him; 2) we might begin to view him as a project to be fixed rather than a brother to be loved; and 3) we could take our assumption and begin to try to relate with our perceived notions rather than asking good questions to get to know our fellow image bearer.
It is up to us to recognize these problematic assumptions and address our ignorance. Though the lack of understanding beneath much racial bias is not necessarily sinful, it can lead to an unbiblical mindset that favors your race over others’. Once bias causes unwarranted judgment, anxiety, or fear, it plagues us as sin. Repent of this sin. Find freedom from anxiety and fear, and celebrate the unifying, favoritism-destroying power of the gospel.