God calls Christians to oppose racism or prejudice of any kind. Over the centuries Christians have led campaigns to establish rights for minorities and groups who are oppressed because of their race or ethnicity. However, there is also a shameful history of Christians taking part in events in which people have suffered as a result of the colour of their skin.
In the laws which governed the lives of the Jewish people (told in the Old Testament of the Bible) three groups of people were singled out to be protected because they were vulnerable. They were orphans, widows and people of other races resident in the land. Laws were established so that they were able to thrive in circumstances in which they might otherwise be left helpless. Jesus too surprised people by his generosity toward minorities. In particular there was an ethnic group called Samaritans who were mixed race and hated by many Jews. Jesus engaged with them as equals and made them the unexpected heroes of the stories he told to teach his followers.
The letters to 1st century churches that are collected in the New Testament insist that all people, regardless of race, gender or status, are equal in the eyes of God. And people of colour were appointed to positions of leadership in those churches. For instance among the leaders of the church in Antioch was Simeon, and attention is drawn to the fact that he had black skin.
During the twentieth century movements to establish civil rights for minorities have been led by Christians. In the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a leading figure. And in the USA Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a Baptist minister, was among many Christians who opposed segregation. In the 18th century, Christians such as William Wilberforce worked to end the practice of slavery, which was substantially an oppression of black people by white people. He insisted that it was contrary to the ways of God that humans should own other humans. In recent years the Black Lives Matter movement has once again seen Christians among the leaders insisting that vigilance against racism will always be needed.
However, it cannot be overlooked that dark chapters in Christian history have also involved hatred and cruelty by one race against another. In 12th century England a rumour that Richard I had ordered a massacre of Jews led to bloodshed by Christians in York, London and elsewhere. The Crusades are part of a shameful legacy of violence against Muslims which continues to this day as different races and religions seek to live side by side in the Middle East. The hatred demonstrated by the Klu Klux Klan against people of colour was initially a movement ‘to re-establish Protestant Christian values in America by any means’, although it has subsequently been denounced by every single Christian denomination.
Christians in former times made ignorant assumptions that those of other races or faiths were wicked or benighted. Nothing whatever in mainstream Christian belief suggests that this is acceptable. Those assumptions have been swept away. Two things helped Christians to become better informed – migration and television.
For hundreds of years Jesus was portrayed as a blond-haired man with pale skin. This was profoundly unhelpful in the way Christians learned to relate to those of other races. Jesus’ dark skin and Middle Eastern birthright are part of his glory.