The Content of Their Character: Racism and 5 Lessons in Total Depravity
I remember as if it were yesterday. The year was 2001. I was just a ten-year-old boy attending another day at my little elementary school in the city of Montgomery, Al. I was sitting behind a stage curtain at our end of the year party when I was given “the big part,” as the play director called it, for our upcoming school play. Being given that title made me extremely nervous. It was my job to deliver Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My cue to perform would be at the conclusion of our school choir singing the popular song “Lean On Me.” As I approached the podium, I quickly glanced around the room, settling my gaze on the all-black audience of my elementary school. I could not help but notice that everyone seemed preoccupied in conversations with each other rather than paying attention to me. Their disregard for me took some of the pressure away, and I realized that I had nothing to fear; however, when I said that I would be giving Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, everyone in the auditorium gave me their attention. Parents were quieting their children and quickly getting to their seats to listen. The audience seemed to hang on my every word as I presented Dr. King’s inspiring words, but towards the end of the speech I saw it stirred up a great deal of emotion. In his speech, Dr. King states, “I have a dream today that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That was the line that hit everyone in the room, and many of the black women began to weep. I remember walking off the stage, when Mrs. Bell, my fifth grade Science teacher, took hold of me and squeezed me for what felt like hours, and said, “See child, if you work hard to become a good person, you will be alright.”
During Dr. King’s time, he brought a heightened awareness to the problem of racism by fighting systematically against injustice in society. The discussions of race and racism have continued to this day and still effect us, even now. In this article, I hope to fight against the sin of racism theologically by providing you with five biblical principles regarding racism and the doctrine of total depravity.
First and most importantly, racism and total depravity need to be given working definitions. James 2:9 tells us, “If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” This word translated “partiality” in this verse means “to accept the face.” Racism is a manifestation of self-love and partiality by which we break the Ten Commandments in failing to love our neighbors as ourselves. When a white man or woman is “prejudiced” or “partial” against a minority, that partiality is ultimately rooted in his or her love for self. He or she finds value and personal identity first in features of race. The same dynamic is at play when a minority is “partial” against a white person. A good definition of total depravity comes from Psalm 53:1 which says “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.” The doctrine of total depravity teaches that fallen human beings are corrupt in every aspect of their persons and as a result, they have no ability to do good. They are completely unable to keep God’s law. Racism is a horrid sin, but the roots of racism are much deeper than racist behavior. At the very core of all racism is human depravity. Here are five lessons on racism and total depravity:
1. No one has to learn to be a racist. I have heard from white brothers and sisters that they were taught to hate black people. It may be true that others told them that they should hate black people, but because of their fallen natures, their hearts were already bent to hate those that are not exactly like them. Psalm 51:5 says “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Human beings are born with the innate desire to worship themselves. Racism is simply the sin of self-worship manifesting itself through the worship of physical and cultural characteristics of self. Therefore, Christ is the only solution to racism. The only way to fight racism within our hearts is by means of the new birth. In Ezekiel 36:26, God promises to give His people a “new heart” which in turn will allow us to “be careful to obey (His) rules.” At the same time, being a Christian and having a new nature does not eradicate all racism. It does, however, mean that Christians now have the ability to do good. They have the ability to repent of all racist tendencies, look to Jesus, and obey His good law because He is a good God and because His love for us is better than our love for ourselves.
2. A racist response to racism is still racism. Just as I have heard some white brothers and sisters tell me that they were taught to hate black people, I have also heard some black people tell me that they only hate white people because white people hated them first. I have no doubt that reactionary racism is real, but we should never believe it is justified. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” It is wrong to think that racism is a proper reaction to the sin of racism. Jesus proves this with His life and death. People discriminated against and opposed our Lord Jesus even to the point of murdering Him on a cross, and yet in His darkest hour, He displayed kindness and mercy, even so far as to plead with the Father for the forgiveness of those who persecuted Him. The Bible says in Romans 12:17 “Repay no one evil for evil.” If we repay racism with racism and call it justified, then we prove to be transgressors of the royal law of God.
3. Being a racist is not what causes you to be a bad person. The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that we are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners. If a man, woman, or child displays acts of racism, we know from Scripture that the sin is not what has corrupted that person. Rather, they can only display acts of racism because their hearts are corrupt. Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” This verse teaches us that sinful people left in an unregenerate state can “only” do evil. Since that is the case, then it is a grave mistake to call racists to turn away from their racism without calling them to repent of all their sins and turn to a merciful and mighty Savior. This leads to my fourth point.
4. Jesus is the only hope for a racist. If human beings are “only” able to do evil always, then they are utterly helpless to change themselves. Calling a man to repentance can never lead him to repentance, if the call to repent is not accompanied by the proclamation of the gospel. John Bunyan speaks truth when he says “Run John run, the law commands, but gives us neither feet nor hands, far better news the gospel brings, it bids us fly and gives us wings.” The Law certainly can and does show men their sin, but the gospel is the only news that can cause them to rise from the effects of it, if the Holy Spirit changes their hearts. The Bible clearly teaches that sinners can only sin, and regenerate believers who are placing their hope in Jesus can and will “do good.” Matthew 7:17-18 says, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” The only hope for the racist to truly turn from racism is to see Jesus in all of His loveliness, grace and authority. He must see and believe that Jesus is good and that His law is good. And believing the gospel gives the depraved human a new relationship with the Law. Before the gospel comes into our hearts, we all break the Law because we hate it. But seeing and believing Christ in the gospel changes our desires. The more we look upon Jesus Christ and see that He is good, the more we will keep the very Law we once hated.
5. Racism is not the unforgivable sin. The nature of sin is to divide and destroy. Sin divides us from both God and man. Luke 11:18 says, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.” Man’s separation from God makes us vulnerable and allows us to be conquered by sin. John 8:34 says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” The gospel message teaches us that Jesus has redeemed sinners from the “curse of the law” and He reconciles us to Christ. Racism, however, divides us from our fellow man, but even this horrid sin is redeemable in Christ. There is no mountain of sin that is too high where the blood of Christ cannot reach.
Dr. King had a dream that his four little children would not be judged by what they looked like but how they performed. As a black evangelical, I am incredibly grateful for the gospel and the fact that I am neither judged by my skin nor my actions, but judged on the basis of Christ’s work. We must remember our former sins and be like Jesus when dealing with racists and people who have racist tendencies. If the racist can find no hope, then what hope do we have?