RACISM. SEXISM. CLASSISM.
You don’t have to watch the news for very long to see just how depraved our world is—to see stories of how we marginalize those who are different from us. Those differences manifest themselves in various ways, but they usually relate to our skin color, our gender, or how wealthy (or poor) we are. We have white supremacists, sexual predators, and all kinds of oppressors, dominating the news cycle week after week.
It’s not really new, of course. It’s just that, for what feels like the first time in a long time, the country as a whole is seeing what many people have been dealing with for years. We thought we were past this stuff! The rampant racism, sexism, and classism that had been festering underneath seem to be bubbling to the surface. We know about it now. It’s in our faces. We can no longer pretend that these social evils are somehow not related to us.
THE DIVINE IMAGE
Back at the dawn of time, when God was forming man from the dust of ground, He said, “‘Let Us make mankind in Our image, in Our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27, NIV). All men. All women.
We worship a God who has placed the imprint of Himself into every human being on this planet: the image of God, or the Imago Dei (if you prefer Latin). Whichever language you prefer, it remains the single most essential part of our humanity; it is what separates us from the animals. We affirm, unequivocally, that each human life is precious, has worth, and deserves godly justice.
As Christians, we believe that every person, regardless of race, gender, age, or religion, is loved unconditionally by Jesus. It is built into our theology, from the beginning of time, that racism, sexism, and all the other “–isms” are an affront to the Imago Dei. They degrade and strip people of their humanity.
We are here, in the thick of a sin-sick world, and we must be ready to deal with these “-isms” when we see and experience them. So, what do we do?
ONE BODY OF CHRIST
Racism was a recurring theme in the New Testament Church, as well. As the Gospel spread out from Jerusalem, the Gentiles were beginning to come to faith, more and more. They wanted to become Christians, but there were many who argued that in order to be a Christian, you had to become Jewish first. This presented a very real tension between the Jews and the Gentiles, and no doubt made the Gentiles feel like they were second-class citizens. Where the message about Jesus Christ was intended to bring joy and healing, it had been twisted and brought division and pain.
Paul knew that this was missing the entire point of the Gospel. He made his point this way in his letter to the Galatians: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).
He didn’t mean that we aren’t different, or that we should all strive to be the same. Instead, he was reminding the Church that despite differences of culture, language, and customs, we are still one Body of Christ. God certainly didn’t look down on the Gentiles for being Gentiles, so neither should the Jewish Christians. God certainly didn’t look down on the women, so neither should the men.
Today, the Church finds itself in a unique position: as the Body of Christ, we are meant to be God’s agents for bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to the communities around us. That includes confronting all the “–isms” that we know are wrong and vile, digging them out, and affirming the image of God in every person. In order to do that in the world around us, we have to make sure we root it out of our own hearts first.
I know there’s a temptation to immediately put up our guard and pull the “Peter Defense” from the Last Supper: “Not I, Lord!” Peter was so confident that he would never be the one who fell away, but his overconfidence left him vulnerable to temptation. It’s the same thing when we claim, “Nope, I would never be racist! I would never be sexist!”
I have some bad news. Racism isn’t really black and white (pun intended). There are shades of racism. We all have biases that influence the way we see people and situations. We naturally gravitate toward people who are like us. Makes sense, right? When I walk into a room, I gravitate toward the guys who are talking about basketball or Star Wars. What’s even worse, we are predisposed to be biased against people who are unlike us! Unless we are conscious of these biases and work toward overcoming them, we never will. We have to be intentional about expanding our circle to include people who are different than us. We need to hear their stories, share in their pain, and learn to empathize with people even if we have not experienced the same things. Unless we are honest about the effect the world has on us, and unless we are active in confronting these issues within ourselves, the Church itself will not be able to combat these evils.
In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus has seven messages for seven churches in Asia (modern-day Turkey). One of the things we learn in this passage is that the churches were dealing with issues very closely linked to the city as a whole. No matter how hard they tried, the Church seemed to sponge up the culture around them, like a water chestnut that soaks up the flavors around it. In five out of the seven churches, this included all the sinful habits. All the nastiness of the world around them snuck into the Church, and before long, the Church looked just like the city around them. When that happened, they were ineffective in combatting the sinfulness of the communities that surrounded them.
So please, let’s not delude ourselves into believing that we are immune to the sins of the culture around us. By no means! Without constant vigilance, we are each susceptible to adopting the same sinful and deadly belief systems that are at work in the world around us, and to becoming ineffective in our mission. If we are not conscious about what media we consume, what social media we follow, what friends we surround ourselves with, and even what books we read, we run the risk of sponging up all kinds of dangerous and damaging values and beliefs. If the Church is going to dismantle the systems of sin in this world, we must actively confront those same sins within our hearts and churches.
The world is not always kind. As General Gowans wrote, “There are people hurting in the world out there. They need you, they need me, they need Christ.” We have a divinely appointed charge to reach across social barriers and be the means of healing to those who have been victims of racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. This applies to everyone from the Middle Eastern man who deals with death threats from his neighbors, to the teenage girl who has been trafficked, to the homeless man who goes unnoticed on the street. These are the people who need the Church to be a safe place that dismantles the very systems that have caused so much pain.
God wants to use us to bring reconciliation to our communities. As the evils of racism, sexism, and classism pervade society, our role in this conflict has never been clearer. We are to confront it head-on, denounce it for the evil that it is, and embrace those who have been victims of others’ oppression. Ask someone about their experiences with racism, or sexism, or classism. Listen to their words. Feel their pain. Be someone safe who they can turn to, without fear of judgment. Use your voice to speak out for them. Celebrate our differences; don’t let what makes us different divide us.
I’ll close with the words of Jesus, who puts it far better than I ever could: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me… whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for Me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV).
How we choose to dismantle the evils of racism, sexism, and classism will demonstrate our fruit as true Christians. Though it’s not as easy as A, B, C, here are some practical ideas to get you started:
- Understanding the definition of these evils can help you not tiptoe around the issue. Know what you’re looking for.
- Be honest, and painfully retrospective. How have these manifested in your life?
- It may be ugly, but confronting these “-isms” means looking them in the face, not running away from them. Rather than make excuses for the given situation, name the sin for what it is.
- Confess every instance where you chose to act, feel, think, or believe something discriminatory.
- Confess times you chose not to act against what was racist, sexist, or classist.
- To denounce means to publically declare something as wrong. Would you be willing to walk away, speak up, or defend the victim? Walk in obedience to God’s leading.
- Listen to victims’ stories without making assumptions.
- Ask questions relating to how the situation made the victim feel.
- Provide support, don’t just offer it:
- Pray with them, and then continue to pray for them.
- Write a card with a Bible verse you selected just for their situation.
- Speak words of truth, affirmation, and encouragement into their life.
- Be a friend as Jesus is to us.
—Lt. David Eric Kelly, Corps Officer, RoxBorough, PA