On August 3, 2019, a shooter entered a Walmart shopping center in El Paso, Texas, and murdered 22 image-bearers and injured dozens of others. According to news reports, the gunman was a white supremacist, and he is rightly being identified as a domestic terrorist.
This massacre marks the latest overt example of white supremacist terror in the US. The shooter allegedly wrote an online racist “manifesto” in which he refers to Latino/a immigrants as invaders into Texas who could only be stopped by deadly force. The shooter’s statement castigates immigration, making racist verbal attacks about “the heavy Hispanic population” in Texas. Of the 22 he murdered, news sources reveal that the terrorist targeted Hispanics and killed eight Mexican image-bearers.
Recent attacks like this one remind us that racism is a reality. With the rise of 21st-century hate crimes over the past several years, racism enflames the souls of those who allow the embers to burn. Racism will always be a matter of life and death for any image-bearer adjudicated by the racist as an enemy of the state.
Certainly, legislation and policies are important responses to the dangers posed by racism and white supremacy. However, for Bible-believing Christians and our churches, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a supernatural weapon by which to take all racist ideologies and actions captive in Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ can help Christians, with ears to hear, courageously speak in love the truth against racism and white supremacy. Through the power of the Spirit, the gospel can help Christians, with willing hearts, engage in the spiritual battle against racism and white supremacy, even when doing so is unpopular.
The Present Evil Age and Racism
The apostle Paul explains in Galatians that Jesus died and resurrected to deliver ethnically diverse groups of people from the present evil age and to redeem them from the curse of the law (1:1, 4; 3:13). Jesus also died for our sins to deliver us from God’s wrath, justify us by faith, reconcile us to God, and reconcile us to one another (Rom. 3:24; 5:7–10; Eph. 2:11–22).
Christ’s redemption results in the redeemed receiving the Abrahamic blessing, namely, the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:13–14). Scripture tells us again and again that walking contrary to the Spirit is opposed to the gospel and makes us complicit in the evil works of the present evil age (John 3:3–21; 14:15–31; 16:4–15; Gal. 5:16–26; Eph. 2:11–3:12; 1 John).
The present evil age at least consists of a cursed universe because of sin (Gen. 3:1–19). This is one reason the Bible speaks of the need for a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15; cf. Isa. 65:17–25).
The present evil age also consists of false ideas (Gal. 1:8–9, 4:8–11; Col. 1:21; 2:8), wicked behavior (Gal. 5:19–21; Col. 1:21), depraved human beings spiritually dead and walking in the path of trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–10), and corrupt earthly and demonic systems and authorities (Eph. 1:19–20; 2:1–3; Col. 2:14–15; Rev. 17:1–18:24).
The present evil age both enslaves people under sin’s power and is also enslaved to sin’s power (Rom. 3:10–18; 6:6, 20; Gal. 4.3), to the demonic forces of evil (Gal. 4:9-11; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17–19; Col. 3:20), and to everything within the present evil age (Gal. 1:4; 4:3). Racism and white supremacy are part of the present evil age because they are opposed both to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the love produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:13–26).
Jesus Christ himself gives us good news (Mark 1:14–15), because he is the good news (Gal. 1:15–16). He delivers his people by faith from the present evil age and gives ethnically diverse Christians his Spirit (Gal. 1:4; 3:13–14; 4:4–7).
The Spirit enables followers of Christ—people with beautiful Asian, black, brown, and white skin; with a range of immigration statuses; with different accents—to pursue mutual sacrificial love for one another in the power of the Spirit as the people of God (Rev. 5:9; 7:9–10). Christians must walk in love in the power of the Spirit as opposed to the lust of the flesh (Gal. 5:13–26; Rom. 8:1–16; 1 John 3:1–24).
One way we do this is by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, instead of taking advantage of our freedom to gratify our sinful desires or to serve the demonic forces of evil. As Paul writes in Galatians 5:13–14, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping with this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
This Spirit-empowered love can move willing Christians to speak against and to seek to defeat every form of racism and white supremacy with the supernatural weapon of the gospel, the inerrant Word of God, and God’s common grace.
Racism is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who willfully live to gratify the sinful desires of racism “will not inherit the kingdom of God” because they reveal they might be still enslaved to the present evil age and to its seductive powers (Gal. 5:17, 19–21), instead of being freely enslaved to love by the power of the Spirit as those redeemed by Christ and bound for the promised land of new creation.
The Requirements of Kingdom Citizenship
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s kingdom is a multi-ethnic kingdom, with a brown-skinned Jewish Messiah reigning as king, filled with diverse dialects and stories. These citizens of the kingdom have tasted by faith the salvation of the one God, the one Jewish Lord, and the one Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:4–6). The kingdom consists of ethnically diverse image-bearers who have died with Christ in Christian baptism and are raised to live a life transformed by the Spirit (Rom. 6:1–23; 8:1–16; 1 Pet. 2:9–10).
Professed Christians who perpetuate racism, pander to any form of white supremacy in overt or covert ways in the church and in society, and remain opposed to taking racist ideologies and racist behavior captive in Christ run the risk of falling short of the kingdom of God. Such people may hear Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,” when they stand before him in the day of judgment—even if they preached good sermons, performed many great works, and cast out demons in the name of Jesus (Matt. 7:21–23; Gal. 5:21).
Certainly, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God in many ways (Rom. 3:23), but kingdom-citizenship requires allegiance to King Jesus Christ above all (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Allegiance to Jesus requires us to obey Jesus (Matt. 5–7).
From where we sit as African American Christians, racism and white supremacy are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they pose a threat to all diverse image-bearers in our churches. Brown immigrants and people of color—families like Jarvis’s, with a Hispanic wife and a mixed African American and Hispanic son, and Curtis’s, with an African American wife and children—are genuinely afraid that white supremacists may murder us and our kids because of the color of our skin. These fears are present in many of our churches.
As we continue to live in the present evil age as Christians until Jesus returns, we who believe in biblical authority and in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ must answer this question with absolute clarity, “How will we respond?”
Regardless of political affiliation, Christians must not play political games with racism and white supremacy. We must reject all forms and expressions of racism and white supremacy. We must not employ racist rhetoric about image-bearers who are immigrants and people of color. We must not dehumanize or hate any image-bearer based on the color of their skin (Asian, black, brown, or white).
Christians must become aware of our own complicity in racism. With God’s help, Christians must also overcome convenient silence about racism because of fear of the political, social, and financial cost. Christians, and the churches in which we worship, must preach, obey, and apply the whole gospel in ways that will take every wicked thought and behavior captive in Christ, including racist thoughts and behavior, in the power of the Spirit and in ways that will cultivate Spirit-empowered love for all ethnically and racially diverse image-bearers.
Racism and white supremacy will spiritually kill the souls of every image-bearer. And racism and white supremacy are literally a matter of life and death, especially for immigrants, for people of color, for white people who oppose white supremacy or who stand in the path of white supremacist terror, and for anyone whom white supremacists view as the so-called ethnic other.
Will we who claim Christ be faithful to follow Jesus and engage in the spiritual battle against all forms of racism and white supremacy with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit in our churches and in our communities? We do not know. But we do know God is able, and the gospel of Jesus Christ can change lives, including the lives of racists. We pray and live with hope that the Lord Jesus would help all Christians to preach, obey, and apply a sufficient gospel to this present evil age!
Jarvis J. Williams (PhD) is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous academic works on salvation in Paul in its early Jewish context.
Curtis A. Woods (PhD) is the associate executive director for convention relations and communications for the Kentucky Baptist Convention and an assistant professor of applied theology and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
They are co-authors of The Gospel in Color: A Theology of Racial Reconciliation for Families.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.