the Church on the Hill
by D. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
Bible believing Christians agree that racial bigotry is at odds with the culture of Christ’s kingdom. However, Believers sometimes differ on how best to combat racism. Hence, is it the responsibility of the civil power to guard against racial discrimination or should the maintenance of right behavior on this issue be left to one of the other ordained institutions or the individual?
After the reconstruction era of 1865-79, racial segregation became the law in much of the South. Known as Jim Crow laws, post reconstruction legislation enforced segregation of facilities and services to blacks and whites. The laws also prohibited intermarriage between the two races. Institutionalized racism existed in the North as well although not to the extent as found in the South nor primarily by law. For instance, some neighborhoods prohibited blacks and unions denied certain job opportunities to nonwhites. In any case, racial discrimination was a nationwide problem prior to the civil rights act of 1964. It was often enforced by civil authorities and almost always found acceptance among the citizenry.
Church leaders involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s couched their crusade against racial discrimination in the language of religious revival. However, their aim was not the reformation of the nation’s moral character but the imposition of right behavior by the force of law. Yet, was federal legislation a biblically sound solution to a cultural conundrum? And should we expect law to provide a long term solution to the sin of racial bigotry?
In Leviticus 19:33-34 it says, When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
In the ancient world a foreigner was not defined by skin tone or ethnicity alone but included anyone who looked different, sounded different, served a different king or worshiped a different god than the “citizen.” In most cases these “strangers” were not afforded the same rights or protection under the law (when there was such a thing) as a natural resident. Thus the laws concerning foreigners given to Israel were far more humanitarian than the norm.
In view of the fact that a parallel to the commandment in Leviticus is found in the case law (Exodus 22:21) we recognize that the enforcement of this decree was the responsibility of the civil power. Therefore it was right for Religious leaders in the civil rights movement to agitate for laws ending racial discrimination. There never should have been such legislation in the first place. Racially motivated law is in direct opposition to the plain teaching of Scripture.
Moreover, the passage cited above reminds us that men individually answer to God if they are guilty of racial bigotry. When we see the phrase “I am the Lord” (literally “I Yahweh”) it is an indication that God will personally enforce the sanctions of the command. It is a matter of covenant faithfulness and God drives home that point by appending his covenant name Yahweh to the declaration (cf. Exodus 3:15 etc.).
Law is meant to keep evil in check. Not even God's law was intended to change hearts. Instead it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of each man, woman or child that begets the new creation. Therefore Christians should support legislation prohibiting racial discrimination even as they proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only real remedy for racial bias.