Football pundits are hardly prophets of our time. Sitting in their studios, their opinions on penalties and transfers could all be guessed before they open their mouths. However, over the course of the last year or so, as the spectre of racism has cast an ugly shadow over sport, they have regularly been asked to speak about social matters that stretch far beyond their footballing expertise. Football players have been the targets for all sorts of vile abuse online and in person. As pre and post-match talking heads are asked for their opinions, a familiar pattern emerges. ‘It shouldn’t happen in our day and age’, ‘no-one deserves to be treated like this’ or other variations on this theme are trotted out. Football pundits give us a window into our culture. They help us take the general temperature of those around us and their thoughts on racism.
That racism is bad seems to be a universally held belief by our neighbours, but when pushed to say why racism is bad, I suspect that these two thoughts would emerge: firstly, as a ‘progressive’ society, we should have left these things behind, and secondly, every human being is of equal dignity and worth.
Yet, do these arguments hold water? Are we as the church the equivalent of football pundits? Do we just spout the same predictable beige blanket comments in the face of the bad news of racism?
Dignity and honour because of the image of God
When we look at race through a Christian worldview, there is a foundation to the honour and dignity that we afford to every human being regardless of age, ability, sex and race. The dignity and honour afforded to every human by the Bible when it says that they are made in the image of God is the best news in the face of racism (Gen. 1:27).
Every human is made in the image of God. What an incredible honour this is! Regardless of skin colour, eye shape or hair texture, every human being reveals more of the living God than the most beautiful sunset, powerful thunderstorm or intricate snowflake. The doctrine of the image of God is the foundation for the belief that every human being has value, dignity and honour. Remove God, and this claim is baseless.
What implications does this have for racism? Racism demeans and dishonours humans as it says that one human is worth less than another. It says that one human bears more of an image of God than another, thereby distorting God’s declaration over humanity. Racism calls ‘bad’ what God has called ‘good’ (Gen. 1:31). Racism is a challenge to the word and decree of God. Therefore, we can say with confidence that racism is a sin before our holy God and it will receive his judgement and condemnation.
The court of public opinion is fickle and changing. It vilifies tweets and actions of those in the public eye, but what about all those experiences without any comeback? What about the times that insults have been shouted out of a car window as it passes by? What about each minority child that realised they are ‘different’ after their peers excluded them? What about the promotions that have been missed out on because faces didn’t fit?
These words, these blows, these exclusions – ultimately these sins – might have been missed by a watching world, but they have all been seen and will all be accounted for by God. To our friends who have been ostracized, targeted, belittled, humiliated, we have good news.
Race: not nothing, not everything
Not only does a Christian worldview give the firmest rebuttal against racism, it also helps us to understand what part race plays in our identity. When we read the Bible, we see that race is not nothing, but neither is it everything.
Scripture tells us that our ethnic heritage is a gift from God and one that is used to glorify him. It is a key part of who we are, and in some way will be preserved and glorified in the new creation. Before the throne of the Lamb, representatives of every tribe, race and tongue stand (Rev. 7:9). The slain and risen Lamb is seen to be glorious in part due to the scope of his victory. If he were only worshipped by a sample of the world’s tribes and tongues it would not be enough. God the Father says so in Isaiah:
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6).
God’s salvation plan has always been multi-ethnic: Israel and the ‘Gentiles’. Gentiles are not just a homogenous lump of ‘non-Jews’ but are representatives from all nations. Our ethnic heritage is preserved in the new creation as a proof of the scope of the work of Jesus himself. Who we are, ethnically, glorifies Jesus because it points to the fullness of the work of the cross. We need never wish away our distinctive curls, or eye shape or pigmentation; instead, we may cling to them with joy as we join with the rest of creation saying, ‘Isn’t Jesus amazing?’
However, for those of us who see our hair, eyes or skin as the primary source of our identity, the Bible confronts us. Our God-given heritages are taken and added to with a greater sense of collective. Our old markers of identity have died, as Paul writes in Galatians, ‘I no longer live’ (Gal. 2:20). We have died with Christ and we are raised with Christ as one new humanity (Eph. 2:15).
Whether we were considered majority or minority, insiders or outsiders, when we become Christians, these things die with Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), the things which divided us are torn down and we live as a new person. The new person of Paul’s writings is mirrored with the words of the Korahites in Psalm 87. New birth certificates are issued:
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion’ (Ps. 87:6).
For God’s children, their primary identity is ‘Zionite’, citizen of heaven. Our earthly heritage cannot be our everything.
We can heartily agree with our neighbours that racism has no place in our world, but unlike our neighbours we have such good news to share about race. Each of us has dignity and honour because we are marked with the image of God and so all forms of racism will receive his holy anger. Our ethnic heritage doesn’t have to be a heavy burden to shun, neither does it have to hold all the weight of our identity. What good news for people in their own skin!