Racism and the Acts of the Apostles

A Hebrew, a Roman Soldier, and two servants walk into the house of a Gentile. The Hebrew says, “Why’s a nice Holy Spirit like you falling in a place like this?”

It wasn’t a joke, but good grief, was it delightful. Luke’s account of Jews and Gentiles becoming one speaks well to the tension we’re facing today

Same Song, Umpteenth Verse

Racism is an ancient evil, found whenever one human wants power over another, which means it can show up anytime, anywhere. Peter and the Early Christians dealt with it; so can we.

You probably know the story from Acts 10. After being told in a vision to respect what God had cleansed, whether kosher or non-kosher, Peter was instructed to accompany three Gentile strangers to the house of an Italian named Cornelius. There he preached, was interrupted by a Holy Ghost outpouring, witnessed the salvation of Gentiles, then performed a
mass baptism.

When devout Jews later challenged his association with “Those People,” Peter’s answer was a classic: “Who was I that I could withstand God?”

Three problems were evident then as they are now: the wrong attitude, the wrong tradition, and the wrong doctrine.

Wrong Attitude
Prejudice doesn’t ask for a reason; it just is. In Peter’s time, anti-Gentile racism was so prevalent that “I thank You Lord that you did not make me a Gentile” was part of a common Hebrew prayer, The pushback Peter got for entering a Gentile’s home also speaks to the bias of the time, as does a Samaritan woman’s surprise that a Hebrew male would even converse
with her.

The overt racists I’ve known (few, which is too many) haven’t bothered with reasons when I’ve asked for one. “I can’t stand those people,” they’ve said. Why? “Because I just can’t stand them.”

Wrong Tradition
At times, people may have observed anti-Gentile traditions without harboring overt anti-Gentile feelings, just because, well, “That’s the way we do things.”

A Hebrew man, for example, would likely have refused entrance to a Gentile visitor. He’d perhaps speak to the Gentile while standing at the door without letting him in, and he certainly wouldn’t have gone, as Peter did, into the house of a Gentile. Interactions with the “Others” was limited
and traditional.

As was the exclusion of Jewish or African-American people from private clubs and events for years, and from mainstream participation for decades. Whites eat here; Blacks over there. Why? “Because that’s our custom. It’s how we do things.”

Wrong Doctrine
There were also the truly convinced, those believing segregation and prejudice were divinely inspired. Misinterpreting sacred texts, they arrived at a false and lethal conclusion: “Some are better than Others, thus saith
the Lord.”

Perhaps it was a misreading of the Jews status as God’s chosen people; perhaps, because the law of Moses was entrusted to them and not Gentiles, that was seen as proof of Divine Preference. In any case, many in Peter’s time (and in recent and current times as well, tragically) believed an utterly false doctrine regarding race and human relations.

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An Early Response
The racial, social, and political enmities existing between Jew and Gentile in Peter’s time were categorically condemned when God’s voice told His Apostle, “What I have cleansed, call not thou common.” The Holy Spirit falling on Gentiles trumpeted a new understanding which early Jewish Christians had to conform to: God would dwell within any who called on His Son, without respect to race, sex, or any other human category.

Thereby God declared, plain and loud, that no race is, was, or could be superior to another.

Luke tells us the leaders in Judea, upon hearing this news, glorified God, extolling Him for bringing the Gentiles into the Kingdom. Thereby they officially abandoned the belief Gentiles needed to keep Moses Law to be justified, and that Jews had the moral and natural upper hand by virtue of their race. In short, they corrected both their wrong doctrine and their wrong tradition.

But what about wrong attitudes? Here’s what we don’t see:

We don’ t see all Hebrews called to confess to, then repent of, racism.
Clearly there were Jewish racists. But the Early Christians didn’t assume the sins of some represented the sins of all.

If a Hebrew individual had the wrong attitude towards a Gentile, he’d need to confess that as an individual sin. Maybe he’d be aware of it immediately; maybe he’d grow into a realization that he was, in fact, prejudiced. But that would be his sin to deal with, his alone.

Likewise, if he’d wronged a Gentile in some way, he alone, not the entire Jewish community, would be held accountable for it.

We don’t see Gentiles given permission to condemn all Jews.
If an individual Gentile had been wronged by an individual Jewish person, he would need to confront the wrongdoer with a complaint which was tangible and verifiable. He would need to seek justice if body or property were damaged. He would also have a mandate to forgive, a mandate not annulled just because the wrong done was racist in nature.

We don’t see shyness in the Early Church about confronting the sin of racism when and where it existed.
Paul’s writing on the subject was bold, correcting any false notions about racial or cultural superiority.

More notable is an event described in Galatians 2, in which Paul openly rebukes Peter for distancing himself from Gentiles. (Ironic, considering this man’s earlier experience with Cornelius.)

Significantly, the only instance we have in the New Testament of one Apostle openly “calling out” another involved the sin of racism. That alone says something about how God views this sin.

Justice and Mercy Uncompromised
In light of this, let’s cut to today’s chase.

If an African American has been abused by a white person, the African American and/or his family must seek, and be shown, justice. He is not called to simply pretend the injustice didn’t happen, and any call for racial reconciliation should bear this in mind. When injustices have occurred, pleas for harmony can’t be heard until the wrong is admitted and dealt with. Reconciliation without recognition is an empty, unjust pursuit.

But raging against all members of a race over the sins of some, accusing all members of a condition all have not be proven to be guilty of, and letting wrath (however understandable) become justification for sin, helps no one – not the person on the receiving end of it; not the person venting it.

“Defend the weak and the fatherless”, God commands, “uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.” (Psalm 82:3)

That same God, in the person of His Son, demands, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

That’s my takeaway, at least, from this passage in the Book of Acts.
Our God is the God of justice, truth, equality, correction, mercy,
and reconciliation.

To speak for Him is to champion all of the above.

To speak otherwise, or to remain silent in the face of open wrongdoing, is to withstand both His truth and His mandates.

And who are we that we could withstand God?

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leila Schroeder | Jun 11, 2020

Spoken like Jesus would have said it, probably. Thanks for all of those insights. We're all descendants of one man and woman, which is proven and mapped out at the Museum of Genealogy in Johannesberg, South Africa.

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