How Did Jesus Christ Deal with Race Issues?

Image courtesy of Jesus Film Project.

Just since 1992, when four LAPD officers were acquitted after beating Rodney King on film, there have been more than a dozen race-related riots in the United States. The death of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minneapolis, MN, kicked off protests in most of America’s major cities, many of which have erupted into riots.

Contents under pressure eventually explode, and when they do, the results can be messy. These tumultuous moments force our country to address racial tensions that many white Americans are largely unaware of, but that brown and black Americans live with every day.

When it comes to race issues, how might Christians respond? How did Jesus address the topic of race? And, in light of the Gospel, how should we engage in discussions about race?

Class and race in Jesus’s time

Our Savior was born into a world full of divisions. Israel was occupied by Gentile Romans and many of their own countrymen served Rome as tax collectors. These traitors served Rome and made their living exploiting their fellow Jews.

On top of the tensions with the Romans, the Jews hated their Samaritan neighbors. In fact, there was a Jewish proverb stating that bread given by a Samaritan was more unclean than eating swine flesh. It was the height of insult for an Israelite to call another Jew a Samaritan. We often miss this insult in John’s Gospel when the Jews are talking to Jesus, “The Jews answered him, ‘Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed’” (John 8:48)?

These kinds of problems have sprung up around race and class divisions since the beginning of time. Humanity’s inability to celebrate the differences of others, care for one another in their unique struggles, and empathize with their experiences spring from our fallen sinful nature.

The scandal of good Samaritans (Luke 10:25–37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’s most famous stories. After Jesus had summed up the Mosaic law as loving God and loving one’s neighbor, a lawyer had intended to justify himself with a pedantic question about who exactly was his neighbor.

Jesus launched into a story about a robbed and beaten Jewish traveler left to die on the side of the road. At different moments, a priest and a Levite both come across this poor man—and both cross the road to avoid him. Jesus didn’t give their motives. Why they ignore him didn’t matter.

Eventually, a Samaritan stumbles upon the unfortunate man and has pity on him. He goes out of his way to care for this traveler, offering both time and personal resources for his care. He pays an innkeeper to watch over the man, even promising to come back, check on the traveler, and reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expenses.

When Jesus finishes His story, He asks a simple question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The Gospel tells us the lawyer responded, “The one who had mercy on him.”

To make a Samaritan the hero of this story wouldn’t have been surprising—it would have been absolutely shocking. But Jesus wasn’t just stretching their idea of who was capable of kind gestures. He was telling His listeners that they were responsible for loving everyone—even people they’d been brought up to despise.

Jesus’s alarming views on race came up repeatedly. Imagine being the disciples coming upon Jesus chatting it up with a Samaritan woman alone. Her gender would have made that wrong. Her race would have made that wrong. And her lifestyle would have made that wrong. But once again, Jesus demonstrated that our relational obstacles and prejudices are not His.

In case there was any doubt about His desires, Jesus explicitly told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He expected the disciples to extend kingdom invitations to their worst enemies.

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SOURCE: Mission Network News, Katey Hearth

CALL TO ACTION

  • Join Jesus Film Project in praying and working for racial harmony in US cities and communities.