Few topics evoke as much emotion in our national conversation as the topic of race. In the wake of the Michael Richards episode, renown author Malcolm Gladwell writes about racism in his post Defining a Racist. He proposes that a racist may be defined on the basis of three criteria: content, intention and conviction. Here are snippets of what he says with regard to each criteria.
"What is said clearly makes a difference. I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is...To make a targetted claim is worse than calling a name. Similarly, I think it matters how much a stereotype deviates from a legitimate generalization...All hate speech is hurtful. But racism crosses the line and becomes dangerous when it encourages false belief about a targetted group. "
"Was the remark intended to wound, or intended to perpetuate some social wrong? Was it malicious? I remember sitting in church, as a child, while our Presbyterian minister made jokes about how "cheap" Presbyterians were. If non-Presbyterians make that joke, it might be offensive. But a Presbyterian making jokes about Presbyterians with the intention of making Presbyterians laugh is fine, because there is a complete absence of malice in the comment. "
"Does the statement represent the individual's considered opinion? In Blink, I wrote a great deal about unconscious racism--how powerful and how prevalent it is. All of us, in our unconscious, harbor prejudicial thoughts. What is of greatest concern, I think, are not instances where those kinds of buried feelings leak out, but cases where hate speech appeuuars to have been the product of considered, conscious deliberation. Comments made in writing, then, ought to be taken more seriously and judged more harshly than comments made in speech; comments made soberly are worse than those made in anger or jest. "
As far as I know, Malcolm Gladwell is not a Christian but his analysis and comments are insightful. Clearly, identifying racist speech and actions can benefit from a more thoughtful analysis than simply the use of certain forbidden words. Gladwell's deconstruction of what constitutes racist behavior is a great help in this regard.
However, it falls short in understanding the heart of racism. If, as Gladwell says, much of racism is unconscious, it points to the fact that its malignancy is more than skin deep. Racism emanates from our souls and finds its roots from our rebellion against God. Racism is morally reprehensible not primarily because it is hurtful to others. Don't get me wrong - it is certainly hurtful and heinous but it is also far more than that.
Racism is first and foremost an affront to God, who as Creator, made each person in his own image. Each person, regardless of race is created to be a bearer of God's image. The notion that biological differences between races constitute a basis for exerting superiority over or discriminating against another person distorts God's intention in creation. Yet our societal attempts at solving racism through analysis, education and social programs fall short because racism is a problem of the heart. Racism is a stark reminder of the effect of sin on the human race.
This is where the gospel brings hope. At the foot of the cross, all are found guilty before God.
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one"
In Christ, all are equally valued before God.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Here's the point of this post - the issue of race is strategically important in contextualizing the gospel to the world around us. It is a profoundly vital issue in our nation today but one that we've been unable to address effectively. God's answer to racism is to simply point to his church.
As the church, we have the opportunity to offer the only compelling picture of true unity and rich diversity. We also have the opportunity to tell them about the God who made such unity possible.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"