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Reflecting on Racism and the “Black Lives Matter” Movement

July 14, 2020 | Dr. Jay T. Smith

For almost 160 years, give or take a decade, the citizens of the United States have struggled with the issue of “racism.” Racism, according to Merriam-Webster is:

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

Americans are split, or even confused about the issue. Ask almost any American today if they understand themselves as a “Racist,” and they will deny it. However, the acts of intimidation and violence around our country by politicians, public servants, and the Caucasian population-in-general suggest otherwise. How can this be the case? Although many nations have enslaved other people, none of them have fought a catastrophic war over the issue, with the exception of the United States.

The Civil War in the United States (1860-1865) is well documented. However, with the death of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, politicians with less commitment to Lincoln’s vision of national reconstruction supervised the process after the war. It was a difficult, even painful, process that never fully realized what most hoped it would, and there was never a “tidy” completion. Already humiliated by defeat in the war, the “carpetbaggers” and corrupt governance policies simply fanned the anger and resentment of the white citizens in the south. Out of this resentment arose the ideology of white supremacy and the manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan – a white terrorist organization dedicated to denying blacks their hard-won freedom and, in some cases, their lives. All of this amounted to a concerted effort to deny the newly freed black Americans the right to vote or to be treated equally. Many presidents followed Lincoln, but none of them either had the courage or strength to tackle the completion of reconstruction.

One hundred years after the Civil War’s end, the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement persuaded President Johnson, as well as the U.S. Congress and Senate, to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Despite these efforts, there are signs that racism still exists, and that a permissive government allows racists to pursue an agenda of cultural purification once again. How should we understand racism today, and what can we do to change our culture?

First, I suggest we understand racism, not simply as a mindset that can be changed at the drop of a hat, but as a moral infection that unless treated embeds itself in our lives and is passed down from generation to generation. As a virus, racism spreads from person to person and culture to culture. The insidious nature of this virus overwrites our sacred notions of personhood and ultimately compromises our ability to reason morally. If this virus is not treated, racism becomes embedded in our worldview and manifests itself in words and actions.

Second, the base cure of and inoculation against racism is spiritual and moral education. This education is a step-by-step process that involves several parts:

  • Realize that racism is a problem that has infected all of us. Thus, we must ask the question: How do we recognize that we are racist, and hold to racist beliefs and actively display racist behaviors? Here are some attitudes/behaviors that contribute to racism. Let us evaluate whether we hold any of them:
    • An unwillingness to acknowledge the pervasive nature of the racist problem
    • A refusal to become proactive in eradicating the problem
    • A willingness to tolerate aggression—verbal and physical—towards minorities
    • An attempt to justify racism as a cultural distinctive
    • Participation in attempts to physically, emotionally, socially, or politically perpetrate any type of violence toward a person or community based upon ethnicity
  • Pursue an educational process that allows you to identify the source of your tendencies and changes your previous understanding of the nature of race.

Third, each of us needs to practice and develop meaningful, positive relationships with men and women of all races, colors, and creeds; from friendships to social advocacy. This relationship building naturally leads us to become involved in the mitigation or prevention of racist violence. Our ability to connect, to relate and to love other human beings is what makes Christians different. We cannot sit idly by when those whom we love with the love of Christ are subject to harassment and physical violence. Freedom from viral racism requires that we get involved with guaranteeing the freedom of our fellow humans and American citizens.

So far, I have not addressed the theology and responsibility that Christians bear in the eradication of racism. Racism has both social and spiritual roots. As to social roots, both economic necessity, and a dysfunctional understanding of anthropological ethnicity resulted in the institutionalization of slavery in America. A predominantly agrarian economy in the south, combined with the dysfunctional concept that the black person was somehow “less” than the white, created an increasingly combative society. As Christians we affirm the primacy of Christ in all things. Yet, Jesus was not Caucasian, and advocated the freedom of all persons from the bondage of sin and death. Indeed, the foundations of our faith lie entrenched in non-Caucasian ancestors. The book of Acts articulates the salvation of an Ethiopian and that Ethiopian’s rebirth and membership in the Kingdom of Heaven. The apostle Paul was of African descent, and, declares that God desires all people regardless of race or gender, to be a part of His Kingdom. God does not give priority to any race or gender. In fact, the first hint of Caucasian conversion is most likely in Philippi and the household of Lydia, as well as the Philippian jailer. Jesus, in the Gospel of John 8:31ff tells us:

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (NASB95)

Jesus, in essence, is saying that if you believe in Him, and continue living by His instructions, you will be made free. Christians who deny this seminal truth are still living in bondage to sin. Let’s go one step further, if we are not loving others—our neighbors (Luke 10:27ff), our enemies (Matt. 5:44), and one another—regardless of ethnicity (John 13:35), then we are outside of God’s will. At this point, your own life is in danger because you are not concerned about loving others. In America, we have neighbors and other citizens who are the victims of racism and its violence—Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans—and the church is silent. As Christians, it would seem logical and absolute that we should step-up and come to the aid of Black lives, Hispanic lives, Native lives and Asian lives in America. Their lives matter to us. Christ has “re-tuned” our worldview so that his concerns are our concerns.

Racism as a disease that infects all of us, will only be eradicated when we re-educate our minds and retrain our behaviors to love others—unconditionally and fully. For Christians, the mandate is even more powerful. Christ is depending on us to continue His mission of love; if we cannot live our lives, not only loving God, but unconditionally loving others, then we have missed the essence of the gospel. Yes, all lives matter; but right now, black lives are in danger. Racism has infected our culture and our churches. It is time to stand up Church and make a real difference. It must start with us.

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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