EthicsArticles on Morality, Social Issues and the Law of God
The Biblical Offense of Racism by Douglas M. Jones III
Though non-Christians may condemn racism, they have no justifiable ethical basis on which to do so. In contrast, the word of God not only specifies our obligation to be color-blind, but it prescribes how this obligation applies to society. Neither collectivists nor traditionalists will be pleased.
MOOKIE: Dago, wop, garlic-breath, guinea, pizza-slinging, spaghetti-bending, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, non-singing ….
PINO: You gold-teeth, gold-chain-wearing, fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eating, monkey, ape, baboon, big-thigh, fast-running, three-hundred-sixty-degree basketball dunking spade…
STEVIE: You slant-eyed, me-no-speak-American, own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York, Rev. Moon, Summer Olympics ’88, Korean kick-boxing…
OFFICER LONG: Goya bean-eating, fifteen in a car, thirty in an apartment, pointed shoe, red wearing, Menudo, meda-meda, Puerto Rican…
KOREAN CLERK: It’s cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, “How I’m doin”, chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel and lox, …
These sentiments are some of the niceties of contemporary racial warfare. The destructive notions expressed by these terms often remain unstated in “proper” social circles. Nevertheless, such attitudes tacitly guide many people’s thought about the status, abilities, and dignity of racial groups. The underlying attitudes often find outlets in numerous subtle forms of behavior. And of course one of the ugliest features of the late 1980’s is the overt and fatal expression of these attitudes in terms of actual racial violence, a la Howard Beach, and the resurgence of the Satanic ideologies of numerous neo-Nazi covens.
The particular quotes appear in a series of characterized outbursts in Spike Lee’s raw and painful movie, Do the Right Thing. Lee places this racial slander in a morbidly humorous context in order to demonstrate (once again) the quagmire of modern race relations. Lee openly acknowledges that his film paints a very despairing view of the relationship between the races, and yet, he claims, “I think there’s some hope at the end, a shaky truce. But on the other hand, I think it’d be very dishonest to have a kind of Steven Spielberg ending where we all hold hands and sing We are the World.”
Spike Lee only claims to point to the problems at issue; he doesn’t attempt to offer any solutions. That, he asserts, is not his job as a film-maker. In response to a typical journalist’s question, “What’s the right thing”?, Lee retorts, “I don’t know. I know what the wrong thing is: racism.” This clear and confident moral condemnation of the view that one race is inferior to another is most often taken as a self-evident truth.
But this “self-evident truth” is subject to two questions. The first question is: how is an unbeliever justified in making such a judgment? In answering that question, we will see that those who reject a Biblical basis for moral judgments have no moral right to condemn racism or any other “obviously” unjust action or attitude.
The second question is: What does Scripture say about racial relations. Put simply, Scripture very clearly condemns racist attitudes and actions.
The Impotence of Non-Christian Analyses
From a non-Christian perspective, the ethical issues of racism are much more radically desperate than even the pessimism of Spike Lee will admit. The non-Christian has no ethical basis to determine the “right thing,” the wrong thing, the solution, the problem, or offer any hope for the future or an understanding of the past. Though racism and other sins are in fact widely condemned by unbelievers, the truth is that the only response that a humanistic worldview can offer is despair and silence.
Recent non-Christian attempts in the networks and educational institutions to raise the nation’s “social consciousness” about racism are ultimately hollow forms of moral breast-beating, since unbelievers have no legitimate non-arbitrary ethical standard by which to condemn racist practices. The non-Christian worldview must logically and horribly embrace racism.
In short, the challenge that the unbeliever ought to face squarely, instead of smuggling in Biblical standards, is to provide a legitimate basis on which to make the judgment that racism is immoral. We ought to raise this Biblical challenge repeatedly in national discussions, yet believers most often sit impotently silent.
How, then, do unbelievers attempt to justify the claim that racism is in some sense immoral? Unbelievers who have taken this question seriously have offered four prominent types of argument, which we will evaluate.
N.C. Argument #1 — The Irrelevance of Race
One of the most common arguments non-Christians use to justify their condemnation of racism is based on the claim that race is irrelevant to the way we ought to treat people. The argument runs: (1) It is immoral to treat people differently for arbitrary reasons, and (2) treating people differently because of their race is arbitrary, since race is irrelevant to whether a person has certain technical abilities, rights, and benefits. (3) Therefore, racism is immoral.
Understood in a Christian perspective, this argument has some significance, but the non-Christian has no right to use it. As it stands, the argument is unsound since simple counter-examples refute the universal claim made in the second premise. Singer, for example, argues that race is not always illegitimately irrelevant and thus arbitrary. His counter-example is the case of a movie director seeking black actors to play parts in a film about the lives of blacks in Harlem. A white actor shows up and claims that with the proper wigs and make-up, he can portray the mannerisms and speech of Harlem blacks. The director maintains that it is crucial for the film that black experience be authentic, and that however good the actor may be, he cannot satisfy the criterion of authenticity.
Singer argues, “The film director is discriminating along racial lines, yet he cannot be said to be discriminating arbitrarily. His discrimination is apt for his purpose.” Therefore, the second premise is false, and the argument is unsound.
However, there is nothing distinctively Christian in this criticism. The distinctive Biblical criticism of this argument is that the unbeliever cannot justify the first premise regarding the immorality of arbitrary treatment. Why, in terms of a non-Christian perspective, is such arbitrary treatment wrong? The non-Christian answer to this question always involves some appeal to the sacred nature of human life. A proponent of the above argument assumes that human life has some special moral value, worth, or significance, and, therefore, it is wrong to treat a sacred human life arbitrarily.
Yet, this conclusion is completely at odds with a non-Christian perspective of the world. If humans are merely the products of physical or impersonal forces, then they have no greater moral value or worth than other products of these forces. The non-Christian has no source to provide the requisite worth for human life. Taken to its logical conclusion, this view cannot demonstrate that human life is more sacred than a block of granite. Hence, the former should receive no better treatment than the latter. The non-Christian worldview simply cannot impute value, worth, or significance to human life. Nothing can be sacred for the unbeliever. Hence, the non-Christian may not justifiably use the first premise of the above argument against racism. We must look elsewhere for an argument which will succeed.
N.C. Argument #2 — Immorality of Presumed Inferiority
Richard Wasserstrom, in his 1987 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, contends that the above argument against racism “fails to get at the heart of the evil.” The irrelevance-of-race argument fails, he maintains, because it implies that there is another non-racial characteristic which might be relevant to treating people in a dehumanizing manner.
Wasserstrom speaks of the “deep injustice,” “deep immorality,” and “moral evil” of racism. Yet, how does he justify these moral judgments? His argument is simply that the immorality of racism (against blacks in particular) is contained in the “idea that blacks were fundamentally lesser and degraded persons, to be understood by all as such, and to be controlled and regulated by whites so that whites would not be contaminated or otherwise degraded by various forms of interaction with blacks.” Wasserstrom replaces the entire “irrelevance of race” argument with an explicit appeal to a sacred human nature. Racism is wrong, according to Wasserstrom, because it treats some humans as inferior to others.
The Christian justifiably hails this conclusion, but Wasserstrom’s justification merely makes explicit what was implicit in the first argument. He too, however, cannot justify the basic principle involved. Why do humans have any moral value deserving protection? As in the previous discussion, Wasserstrom’s argument fails because nothing can be sacred for the unbeliever. Wasserstrom cannot justifiably speak of the “deep immorality” of racism, since his system must welcome the very attitudes he opposes. We must look elsewhere.
N.C. Argument #3 — Prejudice based on Uncontrollable Circumstances
Non-Christians have also objected to racism by arguing that (i) it is immoral to deny someone fair treatment on the basis of characteristics beyond his or her control, and (ii) since race is not something within one’s control, (iii) racism is, therefore, immoral. Singer, who offers such an argument, supports the first premise by arguing that “a person who is denied advantages because of his race..may feel with added sharpness that his life is clouded, not merely because he is not being judged as an individual, but because of something over which he has no control at all.” In other words, such treatment is immoral because it harms another individual.
Once again, however, the underlying view is that human life is sacred; it is wrong to “cloud” or “add sharpness” to human life. But why? If there is no moral distinction between a block of granite and a human life, then the unbeliever cannot justify prohibiting such unfair and degrading treatment. The non-Christian worldview precludes countenancing any worth or significance to human life. Hence, this argument also fails.
N.C. Argument #4 — Violation of Equal Consideration of Interests
A fourth argument forwarded by non-Christian thinkers is utilitarian in form. Singer attempts to provide a fundamental principle to “help explain why racism is wrong. This basic principle is the principle of equal consideration of interests.”
Singer and others spell this principle out in several steps. First, one must adopt a “point of view of the universe” principle. This principle, following Sidgwick, instructs us to “imagine how matters would be judged by a being who was able to take in all of the universe, viewing all that was going on with an impartial benevolence.” This is no small feat. Nevertheless, this universalization of one’s principles is intended to remove our particular biases and circumstances. (The principle is a secularization of Christ’s command.)
Secondly, once we view the world in this universal fashion, we are to follow the principle of equal consideration of interests. This principle instructs us, according to Singer, to “give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions.” We are to consider impartially the interests of anyone affected by our actions. If one of my proposed actions will cause another individual to lose more than I stand to gain, then I should not act. Supposedly, if we only consider others’ interests from a universal point of view, then race, gender, religion, etc. drop out as irrelevant. Hence, at this general level, to take account of factors which are not in the interest of those affected (race, gender, etc.) is immoral. Therefore, racism is immoral. Singer allows various qualifications to this general principle, which is, he admits, “difficult to apply.”
Singer invokes a fanciful example to demonstrate how the facts of a situation will interact with the principle. He cites a Hindu legend in which the Brahmin priests are far more sensitive to pains and pleasures than the lower classes are: “It would be as if when a Brahmin scratches his finger he feels a pain similar to that which others feel when they dislocate their shoulder.” Given these facts, the equal consideration of interests principle would allow discrimination between the classes since the interests of the Brahmins would far outweigh those of the lower classes. Singer maintains that, even allowing for this sort of consideration, we would still be able to rule out unwanted cases of racial discrimination.
Three criticisms will suffice to show the failure of this attempted justification.
(a) Singer explains that the equal consideration principle “acts like a pair of scales, weighing interests impartially.” Though this claim is metaphorical, it brings to light a powerful assumption involved in the equal consideration principle, viz. that interests, pains, pleasures, and other subjective states are quantifiable objects. The principle assumes that we would be able to compare and contrast levels or quantities of interests or pains. Yet, this is obviously absurd. Subjective states are simply in a different category from objects which are quantifiable. We are not able to judge whether your desire for a new bench saw is twice the amount of my desire for cheese spread. Subjective values such as these are simply not quantifiable in the way Singer requires. The failure to see this point set economic thinking back hundreds of years.
(b) This first criticism serves as support for a second. The equal consideration principle also fails because one can use it to justify racist practices. For example, parallel to the Brahmin example, imagine that there were a group of Redneckians who suffered an immense amount of pain from being in the presence of those who are not of Redneckian upbringing. They might actually get nauseous over sharing a water fountain or a bus with non-Redneckians, and the idea that their daughters might marry non-Redneckians would give them convulsions. However, non-Redneckians do not suffer pains of such an intensity. They merely go about their business as usual. Given these not-so-fanciful circumstances, we would judge from the universal point of view that the interests of the Redneckians outweigh any others in these circumstances. Therefore, according to the equal consideration principle, laws which overtly discriminate against non-Redneckians would be justified. Therefore, racist practices would be permissible. More horrible examples are easily imaginable.
(c) Finally, the equal consideration principle also assumes that human life has value. If the principle did not assume this, then it would be baseless, since we would not have any qualms about ignoring the interests of valueless objects. We surely do not worry about the slighted interests of granite blocks, not even complex ones. As before, we note that the non-Christian worldview simply precludes human life from being of any value, worth, or significance. Nothing can be sacred for the unbeliever. The non-Christian may not appeal to the above utilitarian argument against racism. Once again, the unbeliever must embrace racism and the destruction that accompanies it. Given this, Spike Lee’s poignant question, “Why is black life less sacred than white life?” must remain unanswered in a non-Christian framework. Neither Black, Hispanic, Asian, or White life is sacred. We are cosmic debris.
Non-Christian Viewpoint Historically Motivates Racism
We have seen that, given the four types of argument discussed above, the non-Christian cannot logically preclude or condemn the sin of racism. But there is more. Historically, non-Christian thinking has actually motivated racist thinking. One example of this type of motivation is derived from evolutionary theory. A second is a general collectivism and anti-individualism which results from rejecting a Biblical view of personal responsibility.
Evolutionary theory allows for various branches of homo sapiens development. This aspect of the theory has suggested to some that other races might have arisen from lower evolutionary branches. Some evolutionists used to offer studies supporting “inferiority” hypotheses based on divergences in evolutionary species’ histories. These theorists claimed that what they considered as “Negroid homo sapiens evolved much later, and from different sub-sapiens ancestors, than Caucasoids; and that the resulting differences in Negroid and Caucasoid brain morphology determine such things as school achievement and crime rates.” These deplorable conclusions could not have had a starting point on a creationist account.
Secondly, non-Christian worldviews have also motivated deathly racist practices over the past century due to the prevailing collectivism of unbelieving thought. Collectivism, in short, is the view that the whole of a society is more important or valuable than the individuals of that society. Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, and a general Statism are all forms of collectivism.
As a culture rebels against a Biblical worldview, the people seek to rid themselves of the notion of sin and individual responsibility. They will go to great lengths to deny individual culpability, and the culture will clearly reflect this shift, as ours does. However, once a culture rejects sin as the result and responsibility of individuals, it must explain the evil in that culture by imputing wickedness to some other aspect of the world. If the individual is not the source of evil, then it is natural to make some collective the source of evil. In this century, collectivists have often blamed racial groups for cultural decay and “impurity.” Asians (“Yellow Peril”), Blacks, Jewish communities, etc. have all been victims of a humanism’s evasion of individual responsibility. We are well aware of the millions of individuals slaughtered because of the “evil” of their race.
Historian Paul Johnson comes close to the point when he notes that, “Christianity was content with a solitary hate-figure to explain evil: Satan. But modern secular faiths needed human devils, and whole categories of them. The enemy, to be plausible, had to be an entire class or race.” A healthy Christian culture with its doctrines of individual responsibility could not fall into the racial atrocities of humanism.
A Biblical Case Against Racism
Christ is the King of kings and the Lamb of God, whose shed blood has purchased His people “from every tribe, tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Christ’s gospel will lead “all the nations…and many peoples” to stream to His kingdom (Is. 2:3), and “all the families of the nations will worship before” Christ “for the kingdom is the Lord’s, and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:27,28). The gospel makes race insignificant. There is no religiously important category for race in the Biblical scheme. The only two groups who figure into the history of redemption are covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers, believers and unbelievers. Since Christ, as Lord of His church, has given us such great promises as those above, we should expect that the ethical imperatives of scripture would prohibit racist practices and attitudes. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
A. The Norm: The Sixth Commandment
The first Biblical argument against racism is found in the decalogue. The sixth commandment forbids us to take the life of another. Christ argues that the implications of this commandment are far deeper than simple murder. The Lord teaches us that the commandment also condemns vile mockery and unexpressed hateful heart attitudes (Matt. 5: 21, 22). He rescues this law from those who had clouded it with their human traditions.
The Westminster Larger Catechism expounds the sixth commandment as forbidding, among other things, “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge…provoking words, oppression…striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q. 136). If we are forbidden to have or act on hateful attitudes toward anyone, then we are forbidden from doing such things to an individual of another race.
Moreover, the Larger Catechism explains that the sixth commandment obligates us to preserve the life of others “by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent” (Q. 135). Racist attitudes stand in stark contrast to these prescriptions. The law of God goes to the heart of the issue. To be a racist is to be a killer.
B. The Situation: All Nations of One Blood in the Image of God
A second Biblical argument against racism is found in a Biblical understanding of our situation. We see this highlighted in Paul’s testimony to the Athenian humanists. As noted above, evolutionary theory has been used to motivate racial hatred, but Paul rules out any such option when he declares that God “made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Though we are not all of the same family of faith, we are all part of the same ultimate genetic family. If all humans descend from the same parents, then no one segment can be inherently inferior to others.
Moreover, since all of mankind has descended from the original parents, and the parents were made in the image of God (Gen. 1: 26), all of their descendants reflect the image of God as well. This point brings out the particular heinousness of racist attitudes. To treat a member of another ethnic group as inferior is to despise the face of God. And to despise the face of God is to invite His wrath.
C. The Person: Considering Others More Important Than Ourselves
Racism is not only prohibited by the norm of God’s word and the Biblical situation in which we live, but Scripture also instructs us concerning our motives. We fail to heed God’s norm for the situation, if we act out of wicked motives.
Paul’s instructions at Phil. 2:3 are readily applicable to the issue of racism: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself.”
This passage informs us that we are to seek to honor other persons in every situation. One way to picture this is that we are to treat others as if they were royalty. We treat royalty with respect, decency, and graciousness. This implies that our heart attitude must not be arrogant, paternalistic, or denigrating to others. This understanding clearly precludes racist attitudes. Calvin comments on this verse that:
If anything in our whole life is difficult, this above everything else is so. Hence it is not to be wondered if humility is so rare a virtue. For as one says, Every one has in himself the mind of a king, by claiming everything for himself.” See! Here is pride. Afterwards from a foolish admiration of ourselves arises contempt of the brethren. And so far are we from what Paul here enjoins, that one can hardly endure that others should be on a level with him, for there is no one that is not eager to have superiority.
Calvin notes the difficulty of obeying such an imperative since sinful human nature demands the rights of royalty for itself. Nevertheless, we are obliged to treat others as royalty. If individuals of another race were treated in this manner, then racist attitudes could not gain a hold in a person’s thought or practice.
Application to Social Spheres
1. The State: The Biblical norm, situation, and personal motive distinctively apply to the institution of the state. If race has no Biblical significance, then the state has no right to legislate in a way which makes race significant.
The Sixth commandment, in particular, applies to the state as well as to the individual. Hence, the state may not legislate in a way which deems one racial group inferior to another. Such legislation is contrary to the image of God in man. Therefore, the state is to be a color blind institution, not giving preference to one race over another. In this sense, justice is blind in regard to the race and status of individuals.
We can see this standard of color blindness implied in the case law of Scripture:
I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellowcountryman, or the alien who is with him. You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s (Deut. 1:16,17).
There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God (Lev. 24:22)
Though there are many verses which require the civil authority to be impartial (cf. Prov. 24:23-26), the above passages demonstrate that the law was to be equally administered to those outside of Israel, who might be of any race. The civil authority is to protect life, due process, and property without regard to the race of those in question. This one requirement has great implications for past and present civil governments.
This standard of color-blindness applies directly to American Jim Crow laws. This form of legislation, which arose after the War Between the States, was a form of coercive segregation. This legislation was designed primarily to keep blacks segregated from whites in public places, such as hotels and restaurants. Jim Crow laws were notoriously backed by lynchings. Such laws clearly violate God’s law, regardless of the historical rationale.
Similarly, past and present laws in many nations, such as Uganda, the Philippines, Thailand, and South Africa, which coercively segregate racial groups immediately fail to meet the Biblical standard. Many Southeast Asian governments have for decades legislated against Chinese entrepreneurs.
South African apartheid practices violate God’s word by requiring the civil authority to breach its obligation to be impartial. We need not side with anti-biblical insurrectionists to see this basic point. In short, the State usurps its biblical jurisdiction in each of these cases, much to the harm of individual rights.
This sword cuts two ways. The civil authority may not coercively segregate, but neither may it coercively integrate. The color-blind state may not legislate with regard to race in either case. Hence, politically volatile Affirmative Action programs and forced busing are clearly racially informed legislation which violate the color-blind imperative for the civil authority. Moreover, such white paternalism is a denigrating offense against those individuals in the affected groups.
The failure of modern civil authorities to heed the biblical standard of color-blindness in their dealings has and will compound the tragedies among their citizens. Segregationist and integrationist legislation not only stir racial antagonism, but both trample individual rights for the benefit of the collective. The rejection of Biblical faith invites such dire consequences.
2. The Church: The church is an agency of mercy and education; it may never use the coercion circumscribed to the civil authority. However, segments of the church are notorious for violating Biblical standards against racism.
There are simple applications: the church may not prohibit a man from ordained office due to his race; it may not refuse or even desire to refuse to preach the gospel to peoples of all races; it may not discipline someone due to his or her race. These are hopefully obvious and accepted applications.
Some segments of the church have a particularly abusive history in regard to barring certain ethnic groups from the Lord’s Supper. This is a particularly abusive sin. The grounds on which a church may bar an individual from the Lord’s Table are: (a) if the individual is not part of the covenant community, since the meal is for that body alone (Matt. 26:26,27); (b) if the individual cannot “partake worthily” in the meal due to unrepented sin, whether personally or formally recognized (I Cor. 11:27; II Thess. 2:3); (c) if the individual lacks the ability to examine him or herself (I Cor. 11:28, 29; Exod. 12:26, 27).
None of these conditions involves race, and, therefore, to bar someone on account of race is to adopt legalism (i.e. adding to the word of God). Hence, racist attitudes are Biblically precluded from the sphere of the church. As an agency of mercy, the church has an obligation to speak peace to the racial conflict which has arisen in a pagan culture.
3. The Family: As the primary institution in biblical sociology, the family must also heed the general biblical requirements of race relations. Individual family members must obey the Biblical requirements outlined previously, but one question which arises in the family context concerns inter-racial marriages.
Do parents have a Biblical basis to prohibit such marriages due to race? Parents too must heed the sixth commandment, image of God in man, and consider others better than themselves. For parents to forbid such a marriage solely on the basis of race is sinful. The church would be in its proper jurisdiction if it counseled and ultimately disciplined the parents for their sinful attitudes.
A very foreboding lesson is found in an Old Testament inter-racial marriage. Moses’ second marriage was to a Black woman, an Ethiopian. We are told that Miriam and Aaron “spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Num. 12:1; Jer. 13:23). We know that the woman has been made part of the covenant due to the Lord’s declaration in the same context that Moses “is faithful in all My household” (v.7). Miriam and Aaron are bitter and rebellious because the woman is a foreigner — she is of another race. The consequence of this bitterness and rebellion is that “the anger of the Lord burned against them” (v. 9). Moreover, in what is perhaps an ironic judgment, the Lord punishes Miriam with leprosy which made her “as white as snow” (v.10).
The only grounds Scripture gives us for prohibiting a marriage is religious in nature. Believers are not permitted to marry unbelievers (Deut. 7:2, 3; II Cor. 6:14; this would also include unrepentant sinners, criminals, etc.). This prohibition is repeated throughout Scripture, since it deals with the antithesis between covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking. And once again we see that race is insignificant in the Biblical scheme.
4. Private Associations: A final social sphere, private associations, is made up of businesses, recreational clubs, some schools, and sundry voluntary associations. The sphere of private associations is organized by means of voluntary contracts. In businesses, these contracts order the use and exchange of private property. Such private property is esteemed and protected by the Word of God (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 19:14; Matt. 20:1-16; Acts 5:4).
Private associations have given rise to several questions about race relations. One prominent question concerns the right of a private association to be racist. May a restaurant refuse service to hispanics? May a bus company prohibit blacks from sitting in the front seats? Can the pernicious KKK operate a grocery stand and refuse to sell to all other ethnic groups? The answer to these questions is yes and no.
Scripture distinguishes between sins and crimes. Crimes are a subset of sins. The civil authority is not permitted to punish sins which are not crimes. For example, the state may not punish an individual for sexually desiring someone who is not his or her spouse; this is sinful behavior, but it is not criminal. Similarly, it is sinful to hate someone, but it is not criminal to do so. The state cannot arrest and punish a person for either lusting or hating. These sins and many others are not within the State’s Biblically defined jurisdiction.
The family and church have a definite jurisdiction over such sins. For example, the family may punish sibling hatred, and the church may ultimately excommunicate someone who, given objective evidence, hates or lusts after another person. Similarly, a firm may punish unsociable attitudes by firing a boorish employee. But the State may not punish you for hating your enemy.
Racism is in this category of sins; it is punishable by all spheres except the state. Racism is a heinous sin, but it is not a criminal offense. Given these distinctions, a restaurant owner may refuse to serve a particular ethnic group for sinful racist reasons, but that owner ought not to be criminally liable for doing so. Contrary to contemporary statutes, the State violates its jurisdiction by attempting to punish this sin.
This application does not mean that the owner may sin with impunity. Though the State is forbidden to require the owner to sell to all racial groups (Matt. 20:15), he or she would still face other sanctions. If the owner is a believer, then someone may bring charges against him in the church (Matt. 18:15-20). And again the church may ultimately excommunicate him for such wicked behavior.
The sphere of private associations also has its own form of punishment. The free market can punish such sinful attitudes by driving such a person out of business. The costs of racism in a free market are high. For example, a racist florist may refuse to hire some minority individual. The minority individual job-seeker may increase the cost of this racism by underbidding the wage received by white workers. If the owner desires to stay in business, then he cannot ultimately afford to accept the higher cost of a white worker.
Obviously, minimum wage and occupational licensing requirements reduce such anti-racist market incentives. Similarly, government bureaucratic monopolies have no incentive to overcome racist practices. We must remember that the “back of the bus” regulations enlisted against blacks in the South were the practice of busing systems which were subsidized and monopolized by the government, and therefore they had no incentive to fend off potential competition by serving all their customers.
The market fights against racism in other ways as well. Mark Hughes argues:
When a member of a minority group opens a new grocery store in an unfriendly neighborhood, say a Korean in a black area of Washington, D.C., he is likely to be discriminated against. Instead of demanding that the government force shoppers to buy from his store, he chooses the peaceful method: he reduces prices. This increases the cost to consumers of discriminating against him, because they are now paying a premium to shop somewhere else. As a result, they begin to patronize his store. Racists may still be racists, but they no longer discriminate unethically.
Market and ecclesiastical sanctions against racism in private associations are potentially powerful forms of restraint. Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that a racist, in whatever sphere, if unrepentant, will face the wrath of God on the last day. All other punishments pale in regard to the final judgment.
The Biblical worldview can justifiably condemn racist attitudes and actions because such are contrary to the Word of God. Many non-Christians claim to oppose racism, but they cannot justify their condemnation. Their worldview precludes placing any significance or value on human life.
Pretoria, Howard Beach, neo-Nazism, and Spike Lee’s pessimism are the logical products of a dominating humanism. These tragedies are all aspects of a judgment due to a culture that refuses to “kiss the Son” (Ps. 2:12) and bow before the Lord of “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Lee, Spike and Jones, Lisa, Do the Right Thing, (New York; Simon and Schuster, 1989), p. 186,187.
Handelman, David, “Insight to Riot,” Rolling Stone, Issue 556/557, July 13-27, 1989, p. 107.
This is the argument assumed in Thalberg, Irving, “Visceral Racism,” The Monist, Vol. 56, No. 1, 1972, pp. 43-63, and discussed in Singer, Peter, “Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary?,” Moral Issues, ed. Jan Narveson, New York; Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 309-324.
Narveson, p. 309.
ibid. p. 311.
Though this conclusion most obviously applies to modern forms of naturalistic humanism, it also applies to non-Christian religions as well, but this concern is beyond my immediate focus.
Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Supplement to Vol. 61, #1, September 1987. pp. 27-42.
ibid. p. 34.
ibid. pp. 34, 35.
ibid. p. 35.
Narveson, p. 317.
ibid. p. 321.
ibid. p. 319.
McDowell, Jeanne, “He’s Got to Have It His Way,” Time, July 17, 1989: p. 92.
Thalberg, p. 44.
Some may respond that many Christians or pseudo-Christian groups (e.g. Latter Day Saints) have used Biblical teachings to support racial prejudice. The truth is that one must distort and eisegete the objective Biblical record to reach such conclusions, whereas though one may in fact have to distort the “evolutionary record” to reach the false views mentioned above, the theory in principle permits divergent branches of human evolution.
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) p. 117.
I am indebted to Greg Bahnsen for much of the following discussion.
Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentaries, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1984) Vol. 21, p. 52, 53.
Sowell, Thomas, The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, (New York: William & Morrow & Co.,1983) p. 21ff.
Block, W., “Racism: Public and Private,” The Freeman, Vol. 39, No. 1, January 1989, p. 28.
“Racial Discrimination and the Free Market,” in The Free Market Reader (Ludwig von Mises Press: Burlingame, 1988), pp. 40-44.
Doug Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Southern California, an elder at Covenant Community Church, and editor of Antithesis. Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1990