Reading the Bible Won’t Make You Not Racist

This title is intentionally provocative. However, there is a truth that we do need to seriously consider, especially in this week’s current climate: simply reading your Bible does not make you less racist. In fact, reading your Bible (alone) doesn’t help with your racism whatsoever.

I grew up in a Christian subculture. I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover several times over. I’ve also been taught by others within the church that have read and studied it more than me. But again, this, by itself, doesn’t mean much.

Because it was within that same culture and by those same teachers that I was taught “sparrows should marry sparrows and robins should marry robins.” They also taught me that being Caucasian granted me no more privileges than those living in Muskegon Heights (the impoverished Black neighborhood next to mine). Those in the “heights” just didn’t know how to take advantage of opportunities and stay away from alcohol like we did in Norton Shores, I was told. God made us all equal, right? Of course, my Sunday School teachers did not mean harm by these statements. They said them from a place of innocence and ignorance. But that’s exactly the problem. They were reading the Bible but still deriving racist conclusions.

Should we be surprised by this? Absolutely not.

The first century Jews knew their Bible way better than I ever will. They bled the stories of old. They memorized books of the Torah, not just verses. And they desperately longed for God’s Messiah to arrive. They were sure that they knew what this would look like. But these biblically literate people took a three-year-long look at Jesus and concluded that he should be put to death.[1]

The point?

We can love the Bible and read it daily. We can love God. We can love the Church and participate in every one of its functions. But we can still be racist.

Without learning to recognize inconsistencies in our worldview, we will not grow as believers in this way. We need to read our Bibles, yes. But we also need to do the real work of self-reflection and education.  

A Glimpse at Our Past

Let’s take a quick glimpse into our past.

By “our” past I mean the past of the white American church, that which I am a product of. They read the same Bible we do now and concluded some things that we today would consider incredibly cruel. It’s important that we don’t forget this.

For example, in our not so distance past, the mark of Cain given to Adam and Eve’s son in Genesis 4:15 was thought to be black skin.[2] And, of course, this exegetical leap was used to justify racism. They believed that those with black or brown skin were descendants from the first murderer and less-than-human. But this wasn’t the only verse in Genesis used to justify abominable practices. In Genesis 9:18-29, after Noah and his family anchor onto dry land, Noah’s son Ham sins against his father. In response, Noah scolds his son and tells him that his descendants will serve his brothers’ descendants. When we read this now, we recognize that these were Noah’s words and not a God-given curse. We also know it was in reaction to a behavior not a creation of a skin color. But when slave owners read Genesis 9:18-29, they found just the excuse they were looking for to continue to oppress.

Of course, there are even more passages of scripture that have been used to justify racism and the subjugation of people of color. I have written about the misuse of other passages like 1 Peter 2:18 elsewhere (see: The “How” and “What” of 1 Peter pt. 2). But before we begin to think that our ancestors simply misread scripture when it came to the sin of slavery, or that this is an issue far removed from our time now, consider a bit of more recent history.

It used to be the case (think 1950’s and sooner) than Christian fundamentalism and white nationalism were hard to distinguish from one another. This is somewhat of a generalization. Not every fundamentalist church embraced this sin so vehemently. But don’t forget that the IRS had to sue Bob Jones University[3] in 1971 to force them to allow black and brown students to even attend.[4] That’s 20 years after desegregation laws were passed.

But it’s also the case that Bob Jones did not allow black students to attend if they weren’t already married all the way until the year 2000. They did not want interracial relationships to occur on their campus. Think about that. This is just one example. But just from this one Christian university, how much racial harm has been done? How much influence have they, and institutions and churches like them, had?

And, of course, they were reading their Bibles while they were doing it.

A Glimpse at Our Present

Without properly taking the time to actually educate ourselves, to do the hard work of worldview reflection, and to learn to “walk in the shoes of others” we run risk of making similar mistakes. And I can’t overstate it, we really need to put in the effort. The culture I (and you) live in is deeply engrained within us. We are blind to it. We cannot really see it unless we deliberately look.

So, let’s look. What might the devil’s invisible claw still be grasping onto within our churches today?

Thankfully, I don’t think that we are so openly racist as we once were. We now live in a much more progressive society than even 20 years ago. And in some ways that is good. But a sin that’s so ingrained into the framework of our inherited culture doesn’t just disappear overnight. Like a virus, it mutates.

Instead of openly demanding segregation, using scripture to justify slavery, or advocating against interracial marriages, we now use soundbites and reactionary slogans to express similar sentiments.

This surely is better than it was. And surely most of us do this from a place of ignorance. In fact, a lot of these common phrases we use do have kernels of truth within them and seem biblical at first glance. But they aren’t the whole truth, and they aren’t really completely biblical either.

Let’s evaluate some now.

“I do not see race,” “God only created one race: the human race,” “Love is colorblind.”

These are common slogans that get thrown around in white churches when racism is brought up. And, again, there is truth behind these statements. The Bible does claim that all of humanity derived from one couple. And no human is worth more than another. No matter our skin color, we are all image bearers (Genesis 1:27).

However, there is something not quite right about statements like these either. They’re selective. While they account for some of the biblical text, they do not account for all of it.

A multitude of ethnicities was always a part of God’s divine plan (Acts 17:26-27). And scripture goes out of its way in several places to positively call our attention to ethnic differences. People from all nations worship around God’s throne in Revelation 7:9. And Paul talks about different groups of people in the 1st century coming together in unity through Christ (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:14-16). But it wasn’t that they became one “race” in their coming together. No, it was precisely their differences that made their unity more powerful and a greater testimony to the gospel’s effectiveness.

In other words, diversity should be celebrated and recognized. To say “I don’t see color” is to subtly say “I don’t see you.”

“It’s a sin problem not a skin problem.”

Racism is sin. Hating others because of the color of their skin is contrary to the Lord’s will. That’s biblical. And this is what most white Christians mean when they use this phrase.

In fact, this slogan is often used in an attempt to show others our compassion for people of color. I’ve heard others say “America has a sin problem, not a skin problem” and “only God can heal us” when racial divide makes the news. I’ve said it myself. But this is an unhelpful simplification at best.

That’s because it both makes an abstraction of racism and belittles the seriousness of sin. Many do have a skin problem which is fueling our sinful actions towards our brothers and sisters. And most participate in systems, even unwittingly, that unjustly favor one color of skin over the other. Racism is personal, it isn’t abstract.

God can and will heal us. But the way He has chosen to do so is through human agents, you and I. There is a sin problem because we have a skin problem. To hide from that is to hide from God’s will.  

“All lives matter.”

How often do you hear this rebuttal when the catch-phrase of the social movement Black Lives Matter is brought up? I hear it a lot, but especially in Christian circles. And admittedly, I was in agreement with that rebuttal for quite a while. I am not anymore.

When Jesus proclaimed that “blessed are the poor” in Luke 6:20, he was addressing some of the most vulnerable listening and assuring them that God was paying attention to their needs. Theirs was the “kingdom of God.” But isn’t everyone who calls on Christ blessed? Of course. Both the poor and the wealthy can experience God’s goodness. And I’d imagine that some in the crowds, when hearing Jesus say “blessed are the poor,” might have mumbled the correction “blessed is everyone.” But that wasn’t Jesus’ point. Similarly, “black lives matter” doesn’t discredit the worth of everyone who isn’t black. Saying “all lives matter” might, though. It’s normally used with the best of intentions, but when we say this phrase it makes us seem ignorant of the suffering of those less fortunate that we are. It isn’t loving or neighborly.    

Here’s the bottom line. We cannot claim that all lives are truly important to us until we actually do the work of making sure that those who aren’t like us mean as much to us as we do to ourselves.

How Can We Start Moving Forward?

There is so much more that we could discuss. But I hope that this small write-up has sparked concern in your heart.

Christians, and specifically white Christians, we HAVE to do better on this for the sake of the gospel. We cannot stay ignorant. The world is on fire, and we are God’s missional arm within it. We’re meant to be ambassadors of reconciliation, agents of love, and advocates of peace. We (myself included) aren’t doing that great of job at any of this at the moment.

But how can we slowly start to be?

Here’s a few suggestions:

1. Pray that the Spirit might grant us understanding, illumination, wisdom, and empathy.

2. Learn to recognize and genuinely mourn sin, even that which does not directly affect you.

3. Read history. And read good theology books by authors who are not white. And read books that help you explore what it actually means to be white.

For suggested readings, here’s what I have checked out in the past few years and found to be very helpful. If you’ve never read any of these, they’re all hyperlinked to an Amazon buy page. I’d highly recommend placing an order now.

4. Seek out and truly value the perspective of others unlike you. And when you find it, don’t interrupt, interject, or explain away. We (white Christians) need to listen much more than we speak.

5. Read your Bible!! But read it knowing that doing so (alone) won’t make you not racist.


[1] This wording was taken from: https://timgombis.com/2020/03/30/on-knowing-the-bible-and-not-knowing-it/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_and_mark_of_Cain#:~:text= Mark%20of%20Cain,preventing%20anyone% 20from%20killing%20him.

[3] They threatened to take away their tax-exempt status if they didn’t change their segregation policies. See: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-biblical-roots-ofracism_b_7649390?guccounter=1&guce_referrer= aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAANdLp1HLAcNRyPTiPnzBRytZeFqCJa6P2mTEMZrdJ1hT3QjXNqqZGYCcT w4rrHo1whQ5Gsl2XcS-LkgV0w6Tar_q4XckFsslu3_9xLMtT XiL11qZjN6nRGy88642w8vczZ3QTEVnj7GBc524Frvlf4aFdp8Aly Zzfp35AemP7TDy

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Bob_Jones_University

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