Racism is one of the cultural changes that most people agree about. Yes, there are still fringe groups on every side of the issue who don't want change, or even want change in the wrong direction, but these are even less than a minority report among Christian believers. I've recently been thinking about the 'why' part of this change, and trying to re-orient my thoughts about it (as I've done with my thoughts on a lot of cultural issues) around the idea of gospel-centeredness.
To summarize my thoughts, I think I can safely say it this way: The reason we need to change the culture of subtle racism within the Church is not because it is mean to ___ people (fill in the ethnic/racial group of your choice, black, hispanic, or any other group), or because it is insensitive, or because it is illegal; rather, because it is sin.(1)
I firmly believe that we ('we' as in Christians, or 'we' as in Americans) have no moral right to force people out of their racism, whether that racism be thoughts or words. In fact, I don't think we can. I still think the first amendment got it right, and without the first amendment we are left with things like blasphemy laws, which destroy freedom at every turn. I do think the government has a right, and a duty, to make sure that racism is contained to the areas of thought and word, and not allowed to become deed. Behavior is within the purview of government enforcement. Unfortunately, our government seems to regularly lose sight of these facts, opting instead of enforcing behavior to trying to implement and enforce laws against the way people speak, or even think, about racial issues. These attempts will always be counterproductive and even dangerous. But that's for another post.
Where we as Christian believers do have a moral right, and indeed a moral obligation, is to speak out against subtle(2) racism in the church. If we can refocus our thinking on racism from a so-called social-gospel issue (i.e., we shouldn't be mean to blacks because of what they suffered under slavery or under poverty) to a real gospel issue (i.e. we shouldn't think, say, or do racist things because it is a sin against God's image-bearer, and thus against God Himself; and more importantly, we should joyfully share the gospel with everyone), I truly believe we could almost eradicate racism in the church in short order.
Now, I understand that this kind of argument carries no water in the secular cultural world. That's fine; it doesn't need to carry any. We can't control what a pagan culture thinks, says, or does. But we can control what we believe as followers of Christ by staying always focused on Scripture and a scriptural basis for our attitudes and actions. And if we succeeded in eliminating racism (practically) from the church, we would make a much larger impact on a pagan society than many would think. The parable of the wheat and the tares tells me we can never fully eliminate racism, or any other kind of sin, from the visible church. Jesus will take care of that at the end of the age. But we can certainly minimize it.
Why should this practically matter to any of us? For one, the local church would be much more effective in local ministry if the subtle racism were to be tossed out the back door of the meetin' house. Take a look at churches in racially-diverse neighborhoods. It is hard to find very many that really look as diverse as they should. And if they don't, they are not ministering to the folks that live around them as well as they ought to be. Until we do something about the attitudes within the church that keep this the status quo, our churches will continue to fail to look like their surrounding communities. Someone will automatically argue that their church isn't racist. Other than a few weird sects, I agree that most churches are not overtly racist. But the subtle racism is still there. Walk into any one of about 70% of the churches in America and see if the church looks like the community where they are found. If it doesn't, there is something wrong.
We can't force this to happen. R. C. Sproul is fond of the saying, "A man convinced against his will is a man unconvinced, still." I agree. By attacking racism as the sin that it is, rather than (only as) an issue of civil rights or of moral decency, we move away from the current platform of coercion (which seems to have too many illegitimate grandchildren) toward a program that changes the hearts of the people. I've heard quite a few folks say that only the gospel can save our culture. This is a bit vacuous of a phrase until it gets some shoe-leather, and once we get practical, it is not so difficult to see the inherent truth in the statement.
Then the question-behind-the-question looms: Is our culture worth saving?
(1) Why do I call it sin? Read 1 John chapter 4 if you need scriptural support for this proposition.
(2) What do I mean by 'subtle racism'? This isn't the kind of racism that says, out loud, "I don't like black people" or "I don't like white people." It is the kind of racism that seem to be built into every fallen human heart, where we don't want to associate with people that don't look like us.