For 400 years, through slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and institutionalized racism, people of color (especially within the Black community) have been fighting and crying out for justice and equality. Justice is sought because they have been oppressed and abused for centuries; equality, because that is the underlying cause of their unjust treatment: they have been seen and treated as lesser humans because of the color of their skin.
I am a Mexican-American immigrant, and although my experience is not the same as Black Americans’ experiences, on some levels I can relate to the viciousness shown them. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people like me who have been told to, “go back to Mexico.” As upsetting as I find this, it makes me sad, for it reflects the failure of a society to nurture individuals that treat one another with respect and dignity.
As a pastor who serves a diverse and bilingual community, I will speak to these dynamics of prejudice that are persistently based on race, language, and economic and education levels. In all of this, the pervasive reality is that some people are inclined to judge others based on external factors. These judgments come with labels, and these labels add or subtract value to people.
For example, it is not unusual when I meet new people and introduce myself as a pastor, that they say: “so you are the associate pastor of the Hispanic church.” I am not offended by the Hispanic label, of course; however, the underlying problem is the assumption that because I am Hispanic, I must be the Hispanic associate pastor serving people like me. To put this in context, how often do we hear about white pastors, “so you are the white pastor for the white people”? Most likely never.
I invite you to explore the implications of this. Labels carry value (or lack thereof), and those at the top usually do not have the same labels – often they are the ones who assign them to others. Bias is not always a loud offense; sometimes it has the form of rather subtle but heavy weight to keep people “in their place” — often assigned by those in positions of influence.
These acts and attitudes have pained and oppressed many people of color over the years — centuries — and it breaks God’s heart, for it is sinful: a way in which we fall short of the glory of God.
So what does the Bible say about racism and bias?
In Genesis 1:26, we find the following statement that gives us a theological framework from which to address racism: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’” This scripture teaches us that God created every human being in God’s image. Every person measures the same amount of the glory of God in themselves. There is no distinction nor differences in the worth between one person or another. Whether one is white, black, brown, God loves all the same. In the Incarnation, God became flesh, embracing all colors, races, and ethnicities that make up the human race.
Racism, however, denies the image of God in humankind. It seeks to destroy God’s likeness in every person, both in those who invite and ignore racism, and in those who are the recipients of it, repudiating what God created and the way God created it. Therefore, the Bible teaches us that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching; it is sinful, for it denies the image of God in others and oppresses those who are the object of God’s self-giving love. Ultimately, it leads to the violation and denial of human rights, of justice, and of inherent human sacred worth.
Now, bias on the other hand, is a more subtle form that still leads to oppression. The apostle James makes a compelling case explaining bias and cautioning against it. In James 2:9, we read, “But if you show partiality [or bias], you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” James was addressing an issue of showing special treatment to a particular person or persons based on their social standing. He illustrates this with a hypothetical scenario where two men come into a church gathering: one is rich and given the best seat in the house; the other is poor and asked to stand away or sit on the floor. The rich man is given privileges because of his wealth, but the poor man is despised because of his poverty. Such treatment, James says, is evil.
Although James addresses a particular issue of class discrimination, the principle helps us to address any and all other practices of bias, including those based on race. (It was not long ago that people of color could not sit on the front seats of a bus in America.) In many ways, this reality resembles a “caste system” in which hierarchical structures communicate to subjects, “you are not all equal,” and, “here is your label and place.” This has caused profound generational suffering and loss, including economic, cultural, and identity devastation for people of color and marginalized groups.
Many Americans would be appalled to think that such blatant partiality or bias that mirrors a “caste system” could exist in a country founded on the premise that, “all are created equal” and that, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a right for all people — the American Dream. Nevertheless, even as this nation of ours may create more economic opportunities for people than any other place, we continue to have deeply embedded unfair policies and attitudes, like “redlining.” There are policies that are discriminatory, unfair, and inconsistently applied, when rule of law and distribution of community resource give preferential treatment to some people over others.
Most of these harmful practices reflect a subtle yet hostile and derogatory way in which some people are communicated to be more of a liability, or more valuable, than others. This stigmatization wears on people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. But if someone is spared these additional burdens, because of the sound of their name or the color of their skin, they don’t realize that they don’t have to prove themselves in the same way to get ahead in life, even if they’re born into poverty or other serious trauma, while others may have those struggles but also bear the additional burden of race-based bias and prejudice.
Have you ever observed how someone who is not white is often questioned about their capacity to accomplish a task? And if they do accomplish it, they are seen as an exception? The tragedy is that this is normalized and internalized by both sides: “we are more” and “we are less.” As a pastor, it breaks my heart when I hear young people begin to accept the labels and positions assigned to them, whether it is because of the color of their skin or their socio-economic status. It is heartbreaking to hear them settle for less than they dream, for less than they are capable of accomplishing as individuals, because their abilities, intelligence, or character are constantly questioned. These mental and emotional chains are heavy. To treat people in such a way is a terrible sin that plagued the early church and has continued to plague the church and society at large in every generation.
The apostle Paul, in talking about prejudice and favoritism in the church, wrote that, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Paul makes a compelling case about undermining the giftedness and value of people in our communities. By doing so, he says, we harm each other.
By now, I hope there is little doubt that we are called to face the pain, abuse, and oppression of a segment of our community that has been affected by racism and bias — “if one suffers, we all suffer together.” Not only that: the work towards eradicating unjust practices of racism and bias must be a top priority for followers of Jesus, not at all because of political affiliation or preferences, but because of our compelling faith in Jesus Christ, which is what James wrote: “because of your faith, you should not play favoritism but treat everyone as fellow brother and sister.”
My prayer is that the principle of “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves” will guide us (Matthew 22:39). Just as we care about our own needs, feelings, and desires, we must show the same care for the needs, feelings, and desires of others. So how can we foster and nurture communities (at church, home, work, school) where anyone is welcomed, respected, and treated with dignity?
We don’t need to have all the answers; we simply need to start asking the right questions from a place of compassion.
Featured image is an interior photo from the Don Bosco church in Brasilia, capital of Brazil. Photo credit: Vladimir Soares on Unsplash.