Racism, Tribalism, and Christian-ism
America has a tradition to pause each year in May for sober commemoration of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for its freedom.
This year’s Memorial Day was 25 May 2020. It was also the day George Floyd became the face of police brutality towards unarmed black men in America.
In the words of little Gianna Floyd, “My Daddy changed the world.” Only God could have foreseen the outcome when the Minneapolis police truck pulled behind the vehicle of the forty-six-year-old George Floyd.
Officer Dereck Chauvin saw a familiar face. Mr. Floyd had worked with him at the El Nuevo Rodeo club as recent as 2019. We know the end. Mr. Floyd paid the ultimate price as he choked to death underneath the knee of Officer Chauvin, crying, “Mama, Mama, I can’t breathe!” He was pronounced dead at 9:45 p.m.
Responding to George Floyd
As if divinely led, a seventeen-year-old Ms Frazier had taken her nine-year-old cousin along for a purchase at a nearby shop that evening. Something did not look right as she walked closer and observed the police encounter with a tall black man. Ms Frazier took her cell phone and recorded the video that would indeed “change the world.” America’s conscience was rudely awoken by the sound of the parting words of Mr. Floyd, “I can’t breathe!”
Today, the reverberations are felt in many cities across the world. America is exposed, and White Americans who did not know the extent of racism in their country have joined Black Americans to protest against racial injustice. The diverse composition of the protesters and those who have suffered for the cause is self-evident – they are African American, Caucasian, Asian, Latina/o. Thousands of White people participated in the Black Lives Matter protest that my daughter and I joined.
It is misleading for anyone to surmise that all White people are racist against Black people. The evidence speaks to the contrary.
What is at issue is a multiracial coalition against racial injustice. Lest we forget. The intrinsic properties and external manifestations of racism and tribalism have so much in common: dehumanization, hiring discrimination, stereotyping, vitriolic labeling, etc. The big difference is that systemic injustice in America gives those with the gun and power “permission” to intimidate, mistreat, and even take the lives of the disparaged.
Floyd’s death on Memorial Day 2020 has become a sacrifice for social change.
We see reactions of many forms, and I see no particular difference between what most Christians are doing from what the rest of society is doing. Some White pastors are proactively preaching repentance and healing; others are using the pulpit for micro-aggressions in subtle denial of the plight of people of color. Some Black churches are urging members to share their stories and participate in healing the nation, while other Black communities feel emboldened to take out their pain and aggression on White people.
All claim to want better race relations.
Responses to the social disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions could be put in these categories:
- Activism – Those who use protest for public awareness and as a necessity for change. Some emphasize the need for voting the right people into public office whereas others prefer lobbying lawmakers to alter conditions by legislation.
- Showcasing – Organizations, businesses, and churches featuring Black people on their team to cover-up their fault lines and portray a sense of inclusivity. It’s sad but true: the marginalized are exploited by their “superiors” to mask their conditions.
- Defensiveness – Those upset about what feels like a blanket attack on all White people and all police officers.
- Victimhood – Black people or people of color being vocal about their plight as victims of systemic racism, and those who seek to exploit the situation by wallowing in self-pity in the quest for attention or sympathy.
- Clansman-ship – Those who resist change and look for those who agree with them. They find likeminded people to reinforce their in-group identity and explore how they might express their disdain for the out-group covertly.
- Change – We also see businesses, sports/athletic organizations, academic institutions, and others making concrete changes to their policies and operations to right the wrongs of systemic racism.
The world has not seen such collective action for ending racial injustice until now. We could not demand more from goodwill actors among the non-Black community.
The Biblical Example
It is however imperative for Christians to remember that real change begins with a change of heart and mindset. The Bible speaks about renewing or transforming the mind (Eph 2:22–24; Rom 12:1–2). Jesus was keen to expose the heart and prejudice of a self-righteous lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, indicating the scope of those who belong in the kingdom of God (Luke 10).
Jesus crossed ethno-racial boundaries to reach out to a Roman centurion, a Syrophoenician woman, and Samaritans; he crossed class barriers to minister to the poor and outcast; he crossed geographical borders to free a demon possessed man, feed the hungry and share the good news with Gentiles. Jesus embraced ethno-racial inclusion and invited children (who were culturally insignificant) to come to him.
He is our model to follow.
Paul teaches that no one is entitled to or has earned salvation in Christ Jesus – no race, tribe or ethnicity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). Whenever Christians cling to racial or ethnic identities, they find ways to vilify those who do not belong to their in-group. Such was the case in Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, Ireland, and former Yugoslavia, among others.
It goes without saying that the reason some Christians have problems with fellow human beings is partly because they do not accept and value them as bearers of the image of God (Gen 1–2).
Paul suggests that ethno-racial tensions could be traced to one root cause: a lack of right relationship with God. Those who are at peace with God see what God sees in other people; they embrace salvation as a gift of God and live by the enabling of the Holy Spirit in mutual interdependence in the household of God (Eph. 2:14-22).
The reason some Christians have problems with fellow human beings is because they do not accept and value them as bearers of the image of God.
For Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). He names a marginalized group in Colossians to underline this fundamental tenet: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).
The Scythians were a disparaged group perceived to be the uncivilized “other” by Jews and Greeks. They were demonized and characterized as violent, uncivilized settlers near the Black Sea. One scholar indicates that they were “the epitome of unrefinement or savagery.”1 In Christ, Scythians found equal value and standing as all other people – Jews, Greeks, or Romans.
A Christian Response
Sinful impulses drive humans to explore what makes us different and fuels the cravings to be better than others – even to be like God. From the very beginning, Adam’s enthusiastic exclamation of “this is the bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” turned into a blame game of “the woman you gave me” as soon as sin entered the camp.
Shame on all of us who call on the name of the Lord but do not respect human dignity.
Imagine how the world would be if over two billion Christians in this world lived out the tenet of their faith: that all human beings are created in the image of God.
Sadly, racism and tribalism are rather more commonplace among conservative Christians than the rest of society. I have witnessed my own share from both White and Black Christians. What both have in common is their faith in Jesus, who was neither White nor Black.
Tribalism in African churches equates to racism in Western churches. But what is Christian about tribal tensions between Akans and Ewes in Ghana, Yoruba and Igbo in Nigeria, or Baganda and Acholi in Uganda? With the modern knowledge of DNA, what really makes White people different from Black people, Koreans different from Chinese, or Jews different from Arabs?
Shame on all of us who call on the name of the Lord but do not respect human dignity. I know Christians who condemn abortion but discriminate against Black people. They would sentence the mother to hell for abortion but also discriminate against the Black or disabled child when they are born.
Christians who cannot accept the value of other people as bearers of the image of God have no business sharing the gospel with them. It takes hypocrisy to justify a true desire to be in heaven with humans who we dehumanize on earth.
For fellow Christians who believe in Jesus Christ and have the Spirit of God at work in them, I offer four suggestions for the endeavor to bring the light of God to this dark world of sin.
It takes hypocrisy to justify a true desire to be in heaven with humans who we dehumanize on earth.
Self-awareness is an important quality for those who desire to grow.
I discovered recently that a Black American who is a zealous advocate for racial equality also held prejudice against Black African immigrants. Police brutality is not only a White trait in America. The truth is that some Black officers are equally brutal to Black people. In the case of George Floyd, not all of the four officers involved were White. Let’s face it.
The motives of some of those who call the police is as sinister as the conduct of a bad police officer. In March 2013, when three police vehicles with flashing lights stopped outside a Starbucks at Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and two officers rushed in with prying demeanors, it was simply because a Black man (and a team he was leading that included African- and Asian-looking college students) had gone in as a customer. I was that Black man.
Apparently, our presence was the security threat that prompted another customer to call the police. We were a team from Gordon College, Boston, using our spring break to repair the homes of some less fortunate people in Detroit.
We posed threat by virtue of our race!
The other side is also true. I like to say that Jesus saved many Africans from their sins, but he could not save them from their tribal identity. Outsiders may have no idea about the extent of tribalism in Africa and the sentiments against the “other.” We all need to assess the basis of our prejudice in light of our Christian beliefs.
Is it not bizarre that some Black people could protest passionately for Black Lives Matter and hate other Black people? Why are some White Christians so angry with those protesting for racial justice?
It is not difficult to figure that out.
If we can ask God to help us to search our motives and fears, we may be surprised by the falsity of our projections. Whatever informs the state of mind and condition of the heart is what makes us feel the way we do about them. So, what do you find in the mirror of self-evaluation?
Ethos refers to the mindset and underlying set of assumptions we have learned and believed in determining what makes others inferior. It consists of ideological constructs that inform our conduct. For example, the person who would accept your blood for their survival at the hospital might find reasons to believe that you are less than human after their recovery.
No amount of protest or activism is enough to dispel long held prejudice.
Radical repentance is imperative among Christians for real change to occur. Repentance is more than sorrow, regret or a feeling of remorse. It requires change of mind, mindset and radical transformation towards a better way of life. Emotive and cognitive sensations are insufficient unless they are accompanied by concrete action towards racial and tribal reconciliation. No amount of protest or activism is enough to dispel long held prejudice. Ephesians and Romans talk about “renewing” the mind (Rom 12:1–2 and Eph 4:23–24).
We must confront false ideological constructs that give us license to discriminate and name them what they are – sin! God is compassionate to forgive and transform our corrupt minds and sinful hearts, if we are prepared to come clean (1 John 1:9).
None of us know enough about our neighbor until we let them into our space. It is important to learn about other cultures and people groups. To be educated about “them” and “their” conditions is to acquire knowledge about “self” relative to “them.”
Learning about other races and tribes will enrich our ability to interact at church, work, and beyond. Just take a step back for a moment, and you may realize the nonsensical nature of exaggerated differences. Read, listen, and evaluate the basis of the stereotypical images, language, and concepts you have believed as a Christian about other people groups.
You may discover that social identity constructs apart from Christ have the tendency to berate others on no solid grounds. Informed Christians have a lot to offer in this experience of social disruption. The soil is also fertile for those who want to learn. Why not arrange to meet a person whom you may call the “other” for the sole purpose of hearing their stories, learning about their traditions, and exploring your shared values with their people group?
Don't mistake multicultural communities for intercultural communion.
Churches that like to showcase diversity can also be a haven for tribalism and racist sub-groups. There are pastors who are happy to see diverse races and nationalities in their churches but unwilling to promote racial equality.
Don't mistake multicultural communities for intercultural communion.
Jesus must be our model. He visited the Samaritan woman on her soil and crossed the Jordan to meet Gentiles. He touched the marginalized and wept in the home of those who mourned. Christians ought to be intentional in our efforts to reach out – to show our faith by our actions (Jas 2). Regrettably, the ugly face of racial and tribal discrimination is seen in too many Christian communities today. We must change it, if indeed we profess to be followers of Jesus.
Mr. Floyd’s death is speaking in two main voices: (a) it echoes the evil condition of the human heart and (b) the yearning of the tenderhearted for positive change. Our first encounter with Jesus should have made us aware of the extent of his grace and value for all of the human race. There is no doubt about the gains of public awareness, but lasting change will occur only if it includes change of hearts and minds.
May God have mercy and forgive us, may he keep convicting us of our sins until we surrender totally in repentance, and may he ever remind us that the rest of the world is looking to witness Christ in us.
Oh, that we may have a taste of John’s vision among us: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).
May this inspire hope and fan love aflame in our midst.
1. Douglas Moo, Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 271. ↩