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Racism and the Church: Where Do We Go from Here?

Racism exists because “racism begins with the creature rather than the Creator,” writes Carl Ellis, Jr.

Heart on string||heart on string

“Luke, it is about cardiology, brother.” This was one of Bill’s many pithy statements I remember most from our many conversations. Bill is a dear friend of mine and my mentor. Bill is white and an ordained pastor in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America). The inhumane deaths of imago Dei bearers, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery has once blindingly illuminated systemic racism in America. Such engagements between Black citizens and law enforcement (and unfavorable outcomes) are sadly not new to African Americans. As actor Will Smith quipped, “Racism is not getting worse, it's [just] getting filmed.” Racism is evil, and fittingly belongs to residents of the kingdom of darkness.“ Luke, it is about cardiology, brother.” What did Bill mean by this statement?

Individualism and racism

Racism exists because “racism begins with the creature rather than the Creator,” writes Carl Ellis, Jr. Racism begins with the known, the self. Ellis has termed this “me-ism.” Me-ism, explains, Ellis, is “when I judge everybody else by the standard of myself.” Instead of the Creator being the standard of beauty, morality or intelligence, me-ism shamelessly argues that the creature is the standard and measure of all things. This comparison to the self is as old as Christopher Columbus. Willie James Jennings explains further in his book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and The Origins of Race. Jennings offers this account of Christopher Columbus after his third voyage to the southeastern tip of Venezuela, near Trinidad, a place he named Punta del Arenal. “The next day there came from the east a large canoe with 24 men in it, all of them young and bearing weapons…As I said, they were all young and fine looking and not negroes but rather the whitest of all those that I had seen in the Indies, and they were graceful and had fine bodies and long, smooth hair cut in the Castilian manner. The logic of Columbus’ description,” continues Jennings, “is obvious—the comparison begins with the known, the self. Thus the whiteness he names is reflective, even reflexive of their European bodies.”

While racism was not a social construct during the time of Columbus, this inclination to practice me-ism traveled across the waters, along with slaves, during the Middle Passage. To say the lodging conditions for slaves were atrocious would be an understatement. Slaves, and often of different languages, were chained together like cattle. Such total disregard for human beings was morally justifiable when thinking and actions were governed by me-ism. This disregard for imago Dei bearers is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who experienced his fair share of racism, defined racism this way: “Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life. It is the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission.”Contempt for Black life is why ship captains treated slaves as mere cargo and not as human beings of inestimable worth; contempt for life is what drove Minneapolis police officer Dereck Chauvin to keep his knee on George Floyd’s neck until he suffocated the life out of him. So where do we go from here?

To the heart

Most believers believe that all people groups are made in God’s image. Genesis 1:26-28 implicates us, then, to treat all image bearers with dignity and respect. Most Christian brothers and sisters believe all people are crowned with royal dignity (Ps 8). Most churchgoers believe that God loves justice and hates injustices of all forms (Is 1:16-17). And most Christians know that Jesus’ ultimate purpose was, “not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering and death” as Tim Keller writes in The Prodigal God. Believers understand that Jesus has handed the baton to us, so his purpose is our purpose.Yet something is amiss — we have not lived by Jesus’ purpose. The reason? We have not guarded our hearts. We have allowed other narratives, antithetical to Scripture, to creep into and infect our hearts. That explains our failure to do justice (Micah 6:8), to correct oppression (Is 1:17), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:34-40). This explains our failure to both treat others with dignity and respect and our failure to demand every person be treated with dignity and respect.“Luke, it is about cardiology, brother.” Bill meant that our hearts need relentless guarding because our hearts direct our life (Pro 4:23). This precious possession, our heart, is the control tower for our affections, and especially our ethics.

  • The wisdom writer agrees: “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart” (Pro 27:19, NIV).
  • The weeping prophet Jeremiah agrees: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer 17:9-10, NKJV).
  • Jesus agrees: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23, KJV).

Haphazardly guarding our hearts is quite dangerous and unwise as this will open our hearts to become infested with unhealthy affections and bend our wills toward disobedience. Our hearts need continuous guarding and renovating, because, very simply, “We live from our heart” as Dallas Willard writes in Renovation of the Heart.

Checking yourself

Our true, unfiltered selves reside in our heart. So, a person may vehemently deny that he is a racist; however, his heart will eventually expose him. Like Columbus and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, we are prone to compare ourselves with the known, the self. The Pharisee compared himself to the tax collector, while the tax collector, the creature, compared himself to God, the Creator. Which character — the Pharisee or tax collector — do you emulate more often in this story? Who or what occupies your heart?When overt instances of racism occur, I am inundated with this question from my white brothers and sisters, “Luke, what can I do?” My response: What would the Great Cardiologist find in the dark places of your heart if he did open heart surgery? Would he find contempt for non-white people? Have you allowed foreign thoughts and affections to creep into your heart? What practices or habits are you practicing to guard your heart?" Give God permission to explore the deep and infected recesses of your heart. Allow God to clear out that sinful calcium build up; allow God, the great cardiologist, to operate freely and frequently, so that he might regard you and me as someone after his own heart (1 Sam 13:14).It is about cardiology.

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