“This is not Charlottesville” was the refrain that I heard many times. Our neighbors sought to assure us of this. We had moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, just days after white supremacists’ Unite the Right Rallies shattered the town’s charm. As blatant outside emissaries of racial hatred, they were vehemently opposed by people of faith and of goodwill.
On the other hand, I recall a ride with an African American taxi driver who grew up in Charlottesville. He recalled, without venom or vengeance, countless episodes of racism. The cruelty he suffered and the consequent disparities of life are part of growing up black in Charlottesville.
This is Charlottesville. This is not Charlottesville. Both statements are true. Somehow sorrow and hope coexist. Race remains both a painful and perplexing reality throughout America. Our nation writhes under its trauma—past and present. Wounds already raw have been inflamed. The media diagnoses our current racial turmoil as malignant, but the Bible calls it far worse. Racism is rooted more deeply than in our nation’s history. It derives from human depravity and the deadly combination of prejudice and power.
Power and Image Inequality
Our identity as humans is based on being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). More than a premise for discussion, to be made in God’s image is a declaration of dignity and a prophetic challenge to power. In antiquity, the notion of a god’s image was exploited for royal propaganda. About the Neo-Assyrian King Esarhaddon (7th century B.C.) we read: “A free man is as the shadow of God, the slave is as the shadow of the free man; but the king, he is like unto the very image of God.” Only the sole bearer of divine image, the king hoarded the image of God for himself and denied it to others. Royal monuments, socioeconomic systems, civic life, and cultural practices purposefully perpetuated image inequality.
Sound familiar? In modern America we face the same distortion exhibited in Mesopotamia and in countless other eras. Whenever a dominant culture wields power and weaves prejudice into the fabric of human life, society rips apart.
On March 21, 1861, weeks before the Civil War began, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens delivered his “Cornerstone” speech to justify the imminent conflagration. He acknowledged America’s founding ideal of equality and the conviction that the enslavement of Africans was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” But Stephens then flatly rejected those ideals as “fundamentally wrong.” He laid out the Confederate vision:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Scripture defies such ugly perversions of God’s image—whether in the ancient Near East, in antebellum America, or now. The image of God applies to all people. Nevertheless, sin crouches at our door, goading and tempting us to abuse God’s image and misuse human power. Racism is a bitter part of the long human history of fallenness. To work against it is hard.
Spiritual Renewal and Structural Change
Humanity’s lamentable history presents opportunities for the gospel and responsibilities for the church. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave birth to a church that proclaimed the gospel in many languages (Acts 2:1–12). God created a new humanity from many peoples united in Christ.
Yet, even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did not eradicate ethnic discord. As the church worked out its life together, “the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Whether or not the intention was discriminatory, the impact was. The early church commissioned seven leaders, all Hellenistic believers, to address the issue (Acts 6:5). In doing so, the church modeled repentance by owning the problem and diversifying the leadership to facilitate lasting change.
Spiritual renewal needs to be coupled with this type of structural change. For churches today to engage in racial justice and reconciliation, intentional efforts must be made at the leadership and organizational levels. Structural change must be a priority in personnel and policy decisions and in the regular preaching schedule, as it is in many black churches. My own church formed a Multiethnicity Ministry Team in order to better steward the work of racial reconciliation.
Real reconciliation requires a long-lived obedience. The apostle Paul returned repeatedly to the issue of ethnic division. Paul confronted the problem of Jewish and Gentile enmity with the beautiful truth of our common salvation in Christ (Rom. 9–11). The soaring theology of Ephesians tackles the very earthly problem of “the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11–22). In Colossians, after urging believers to be “renewed in the knowledge of the image of [our] Creator,” Paul turns immediately to the declaration that “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (3:10–11). A commitment to racial justice and reconciliation is no distraction for the church but, according to Paul, a core concern.
God’s concern comes also with his power. During the early 1900s, the manacles of Jim Crow hobbled our national life. Laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act fomented tensions that erupted in anti-Asian riots on the West Coast. Then, in April 1906, God called William Seymour, whom Yale historian Sidney Ahlstrom views as one of the greatest influences on American religion. The African American preacher and son of former slaves helped ignite an astounding revival that gave birth to modern Pentecostalism. Thousands of people thronged the Azusa Street Mission to worship at three services a day, seven days a week for almost three years. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians, rich and poor, well-educated and not—the Spirit did not discriminate. We need an outpouring of God’s Spirit once again.
Racism is not just America’s problem; it’s humanity’s problem. We serve a holy God who is near to the broken-hearted and who calls his people “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). We follow a Savior who came not to be served but to serve and who did not fight for his own life but willingly laid it down for ours (Mark 10:45). Too long has this call and its price been predominantly borne by the black church in America. It is time for God’s people to walk the path of the suffering servant Jesus in solidarity with one another. As the first evangelical, the first proclaimer of good news—the evangel—Jesus declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
Walter Kim is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor for leadership at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. His PhD from Harvard University was in Near Eastern languages and civilizations.