By Dr Chik Kaw Tan
Because of human sin, there is latent racial and cultural prejudice in every society and every person. It is a worldwide problem, not limited to white Anglo-Saxon people. It is a heart problem, born out of our sin, even though it is often exacerbated by political, historical and socioeconomic factors. Undeniably, there is racism in Britain at every level of society. In Britain, however, there is at least a welcome, and widespread, disapproval of racism. There are necessary laws against racial discrimination. But, of course, racism is far more complex than the easy labels bandied about and ingrained racial bias does not disappear simply because we are told not to do it.
How, then, can we combat racism? We need to recognise these unwanted and unwelcome emotions as they arise, and act against them. No Christian should ever let such ungodly attitudes lodge and thrive in their thinking. We must acknowledge them, confess them, pray for forgiveness, and ask the Holy Spirit to change us. We humbly acknowledge that we are as much a problem to others as we perceive they are to us. The way of Christ is to love others, as Christ loves the world. It is the gospel of Christ which transforms our hearts and our societies.
The Gospel of Grace
The Church of Christ has the only good news which can fundamentally remove antagonism between ethnic groups. The gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the hostility between mankind and God, and between different people groups.
A legalistic rules-based approach achieves little with respect to the problem of human sin; it cannot with racism either. If the church is to be a solution (rather than being part of the problem) it must share the gospel of repentance and reconciliation without compromise, yet with gentleness, loving kindness, and respect. Christ is the ultimate solution, not our own efforts.
As an ethnic Chinese growing up in Asia, I harboured resentments and prejudice against the Japanese (ethnic Chinese in China and South-East Asia suffered appalling atrocities in WWII), and against the racial majority in my own country which discriminated politically against Chinese. It was my conversion from Buddhism to Christianity that took away that racial resentment and planted in my heart Christ’s love for them. Only Christ’s love can remove racial discord.
The Gospel of Welcome
The church must go out of its way to welcome newcomers to its neighbourhood and the church.
When you consider that many white visitors to church do not feel welcome, imagine how much harder it is for people from ethnic minority groups – even those who are fellow Christians! – to settle into our churches. I do not think that is because the genuine Christians in our churches are intentionally racist or unwelcoming; many simply want to catch up with folks they have not met for a week. Whilst that’s understandable, we have little right to call ourselves the Church of Christ if we do not make every effort to welcome strangers and visitors in our midst. We need a culture change where we make welcoming non-Christians and visitors to our church, of whatever ethnic background, our top priority.
When I came to study, and later live permanently, in England, I attended sizeable evangelical churches which gave me a mixed welcome. Whilst most were pleased to have me, there was little attempt to help me settle in as part of their community. But I saw that that as a general problem with most churches; newcomers are often ignored, whites or non-whites. Even evangelical churches with a reputation of spirituality often demonstrate no more than a faint shadow of how Christ wants our church community to relate to one another.
If Jesus were to visit your church unannounced, would he be welcomed, let alone acknowledged?
The Gospel of Integration
The church must look at how it integrates non-white Christians into its congregation.
When I later moved to a smaller church in Staffordshire, the then vicar welcomed my family and I into his church. He took a risk and invited me to preach at a small evening service. As the saying goes, the rest is history. The vicar? It was Wallace Benn (later Bishop of Lewes). Because of his trust in me, and of succeeding vicars in my church, I became involved locally, nationally, and internationally. All my British Christian mentors were white Christians; without them John Oxenham’s observation would be true of me: “And in between on the misty flats the rest drift to and fro.”
Integration goes further than welcome. Integration needs us to open up all our activities to involve people from the different races in our congregation and community. We need to be alert to discern spiritual gifts in those who look and sound different from what we’re used to. We need to be willing to let things change as people with different experiences and gifts get involved.
Whilst this is sadly not true for some, I have not experienced any overt racism in British conservative evangelical churches. There might have been some misunderstanding and naiveté, but mostly I received warmth in Christ. Friendship across ethnic lines, along with practical welcome and warm acceptance, is the key to reducing racism.
The Church is Christ’s body and it must model God’s kingdom, for whom Christ’s blood has ransomed ‘people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5: 9). In Christ’s church is true ‘diversity’. “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). In the gospel of Christ is true freedom from the sin of racial prejudice.
The author, Dr Chik Kaw Tan is a member of the General Synod. This essay first appeared on the Church Society Blog (www.churchsociety.org) and is used here with the permission of the author.