Racism is atheism

"Red and yellow, black and white, [we're] all precious in His sight."

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Among many of the major political stories of the past couple of years, one of the recurring and none-too-subtle undertones has been racism. That much of this has come coupled with a kind of politicised Christian conservatism is deeply disturbing. And that it seems to find proponents and supporters in our Church even more so.

As we understand it today, the concept of race was largely a creation and servant of European colonisation that grew from the 15th to the early 20th centuries to cover about 85 per cent of the world. And, of course, there were theologians ready to offer ideological support to these imperial projects in conjunction with their missionary endeavours.1

This was the rationale for occupation, slavery and exploitation of many kinds. As such, racism is one of the foundations on which the modern world was built and continues to colonise our societies, our politics, our attitudes and even our faith in ways that are deep seated, persistent, insidious and—it seems—increasingly overt.

But it is one of the most pernicious aspects of white privilege that the dynamics of race can be so often ignored—by white people. My race is not something I am forced to factor in to my everyday life. That Christians are not raising louder voices against the tide of racism in our societies also demonstrates our theological blind spots: “What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people.”2

If we actually believe in Creation—God making human beings in His image—and Incarnation—God identifying as one of the poor, the refugees, the oppressed, the murdered and making a way of salvation for all people—we must listen, learn and speak or risk losing our faith.

Writing in the context of racial prejudice—as one who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that prejudice is atheism, “a treacherous denial of the existence of God”. In other words, prejudice negates any pretence of trying to believe in a God who claims to have made all people in His image. Heschel continues, “Racial or religious bigotry must be recognised for what it is: Satanism, blasphemy. . . . Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart. Worship without compassion is worse than self-deception; it is an abomination.”3

When stated in such blunt terms the theological and moral urgency of the tasks of combating and overcoming racism cannot be ignored. It is as big and complicated as how we act and react politically and in our communities, and how our Church and its programs are structured, led, and accessible and welcoming to all. It’s as difficult and awkward as how we learn to listen better to people who are different and how we respond to that racist joke or social media post a friend makes. 

"Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart. Worship without compassion is worse than self-deception; it is an abomination."

Citing the transformation that a proper understanding of the gospel brings—as Paul set it out (Galatians 3:28)—Ellen White also recognised the positive call to listen, to act and to care (and, no, to say our objection is to differences of religion does not let us squirm out of our responsibility): “Whatever the difference in religious belief, a call from suffering humanity must be heard and answered. . . . They have been bought with a price, and they are as precious in His sight as we are. They are members of God’s great household, and Christians as His stewards are responsible for them.”4

Racism might be the most common atheism among Christians today. When we dismiss, devalue, exclude, marginalise and oppress others, we deny our shared Creator and Saviour. This sobering realisation must change how we listen and speak, “like” and post, vote and worship, think and work.

  1. For more on this theological history, see Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Yale University Press, 2010.
  2. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Orbis Books, 2011, page 159.
  3. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, pages 86–7.
  4. Ellen White, Christ’s Object Lessons, pages 386-7.
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