Show No Favoritism Based on Skin Color
Passage: James 2:1–2:13
God doesn't show favoritism based on skin color and neither should we.
Several years ago, Katie and I watched the movie Lincoln about our 16th President. This was of course a film produced by Hollywood but based on historical events. It at least gave us a Hollywoodized version of our nation’s history, whether fully factual or not. We saw Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, arguing for the equality of all people no matter their skin color and fighting with passion for the abolition of slavery to secure dignity for future generations. At the end of the film, it felt like a great victory for our country. One of our presidents fought against slavery, he fought for the equality and dignity of all people, and he won. Today our country no longer commits that horrible, racist practice. I ended the movie feeling a sense of happiness and pride.
Interestingly, in that same week, we watched a movie called The Help. The abolition of slavery happened in 1863, and The Help was set 100 years later in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. This movie did not claim to be based on historical events but was still representing life in the South. It followed a woman, named Skeeter, who came back to her hometown in Jackson, Mississippi pursuing a career in journalism. Many of the white families in her hometown had African American maids whom they called “the help.” The black maids would help with the kids, food, and cleaning. But Skeeter soon found that these African American maids were experiencing terrible racism from the white women that employed them. Skeeter built a relationship with a few of the maids and asked if they would tell their stories so she could publish them and expose the horrible ways they were being treated.
In the first movie, I saw the abolition of slavery with grand speeches about all people being created equal. At the end of it slavery was abolished and I felt proud of our country - like we could give ourselves a pat on the back for not enslaving people based on the color of their skin and giving both blacks and whites equal rights. But in the same week, I watched a movie based 100 years later and I saw white people treating black people as lesser and felt like not much had changed and we still had a long way to go.
Today, we are talking about a tough topic. It’s been 160 years since the abolition of slavery and five decades since the Civil Rights Movement, but the protests we are seeing happen over the past week and a half show that things are still not right in our country in regards to race.
The protests of the last week and a half that have been happening around our country and around our world have been sparked by the recent murder of George Floyd on May 25. He was killed by four police officers in Minneapolis at the age of 46. But before there, there was already the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23 by two white men who pursued them in their truck. He was out jogging, they thought he looked like someone who was wanted for a crime, jumped in their truck with guns, and ended up killing him. There was also Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police on March 13. They entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant thinking a drug dealer was there, which he wasn’t. She was shot and killed. These three deaths black men and women have sparked these protests, the most recent of which is George Floyd.
If you’ve been at our church for a while, you know I very rarely comment on news stories but this is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. The protests are rightly bringing to light a racial problem that our country has had for a long time that we haven’t fully dealt with as a country and that we will be dealing with for a long time. As the church, we can’t ignore it and hope it will just go away. As God’s people, we shouldn’t hope that all the protesters will get it out of their system eventually and just calm down. As the church, we need to care about the equality of all people because God cares about it.
I’ve been asking what God wants us to hear during this time. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable that I’m even talking about this. Maybe you are wondering why we are talking about protests in a church service. To be honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable too. To my knowledge, I’ve never talked about racism, racial inequality, or discrimination in a sermon before. In talking about it today, I feel like I’m about to have the birds and the bees talk with my first child. I’d imagine you go into that talk knowing it needs to happen and you prepare the best you can and you hope you don’t mess it up too bad.
That’s how I feel today. I know we need to have this talk and I’ve prepared the best I can, but I feel like every sentence could possibly be mistaken, offensive, or bad advice because I’m so new to this and I’m no expert. My eyes were opened to the deep issues in our country while in seminary through professors and the books they had me read, but just the fact that I used two movies to open this sermon shows that my real world experience is extremely limited.
So I’m sharing with you today as a pastor who has few answers and a lot to learn. I’m thankful that I have God’s Word as a guide. We just went through the book of James in May and I believe James would have a lot to say to us about what’s going on today. We are going to focus on the issue of favoritism in chapter 2.
James says in chapter 2 verse 1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Partiality is another word for favoritism. It means drawing distinctions between people based on certain criteria. James’ readers were drawing distinctions between people based on how much money they had. They would size people up and put them in categories determined by the amount in their wallets. Then they would treat them differently depending on which category they were in: rich or poor. They’d show favoritism toward rich people, treating them better than poor people.
But we can also do this based on skin color. We can use skin color as the criteria by which we show favoritism. We can treat people differently based on the color of their skin. We can treat someone better or worse based on their skin color. So let’s talk about how favoritism shows up first in our country and then how it shows up in our own lives.
First, we are a country that shows favoritism based on skin color. Slave labor is part of our country’s history. And part of that slave labor was the belief that people of one color were inferior. That belief doesn’t just go away. That belief didn’t just go away with the abolition of slavery in the 1860s. That’s why segregation was still happening until the 1960s - it’s because people still believed that one color was inferior to another. And it’s why the Civil Rights Movement was necessary. It’s also why we are seeing police brutality today and protests in response.
You may have heard the term “white privilege” before and didn’t quite know what it meant. It means that we live in a country where white people have always had the upper hand. White people have never been enslaved or treated as less than human in our country. Our country has always been built for white people to succeed and prosper. It wasn’t built for people of color to succeed and prosper.
“White privilege” means that even though we all perhaps have similar goals to live a good and happy life, white people experience far less friction when it comes to achieving that goal. Imagine we are all put into different lanes in a swimming pool with the goal of swimming to the other end. The referee says “go” and everyone who isn’t white discovers they are swimming against a current while the white people have no current to swim against. That’s white privilege.
We can see from history that adding a few Amendments to the Constitution in the 1860s doesn’t change everything. It doesn’t change people’s deeply ingrained ways of looking at each other and treating each other. It doesn’t change a country’s values and culture overnight. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had segregation and the need for the Civil Rights Movement.
But the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination, didn’t fix us either. There are things deeper than what can be fixed by acts, laws, and amendments. Systems need to change, culture needs to change, people need to change.
That’s why there are protests happening now over the murder of George Floyd by the police officers in Minneapolis. These protesters are trying to get our attention and tell us that things still need to change in our country.
First, we are a country that shows favoritism based on skin color. Second, we are people who show favoritism based on skin color. You may resist accepting that truth - that you are a person who shows favoritism based on skin color. With all the love, gentleness, and respect that I can, I want to say to you that unless you are a perfect human being, you show favoritism based on skin color.
It has been programmed into you by our culture, our entertainment, your family system, and our society. You have been programmed to assume things about people based on their skin color and that causes you to show prejudice and favoritism and to have biases. When you see someone’s skin, you assume things about their education level, where they are from, what they do for a living, whether they are a threat, whether they do drugs, whether you can trust them, and so forth. We have been programmed with stereotypes for every race. And we show favoritism based on that.
I’m going to read a version of James chapter 2 that I wrote using skin color instead of rich and poor people.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a white person comes into your assembly and a black person comes in, and if you treat the white person better than the black person, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen to make every race rich in faith and an heir of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
James is a big fan of making us consider whether we really believe what we say we believe. James said in his letter that if we really believe in the God that we say we believe in, then we can’t show favoritism. If we really believe the message that we say we believe, then we can’t show favoritism. Favoritism based on money, skin color, or any other criteria is incompatible with belief in Jesus Christ as our King.
So what kind of God do we believe in? What is the message we say we believe? Some people have said that coronavirus is the great equalizer because it’s affecting everyone. Sure, coronavirus is affecting us all, but it isn’t affecting us all equally. I don’t have time to get into how it’s having different effects on different ethnicities and doesn’t play out equally across socio-economic lines.
But let’s talk about the gospel message and what does affect us all equally. God created all of us equally in his image. God created humanity in his image to represent him on this earth. And he decided it would be a good idea for us to represent him in different colors. Different skin colors was his idea. No matter the color of our skin, we are all equally made in the image of God to live for him.
But we have all rejected his Kingship over our lives. We’ve all gone our own way. So we all stand equally condemned before him. One of the most horrible sins we commit is the sin of racism. Instead of loving people of other skin colors as ourselves, we don’t see them as one of us to be loved. We see someone of another skin color as one of “them”. Even though every skin color is equally made in his image, we take our differences and we use them to create distrust, discrimination, and divisions. We group up with people like us and see people who aren’t like us as worse than us and in the worst cases even see them as less than human. We form prejudices and stick to our group. We create labels and make judgments about people based on their skin color. We form stereotypes and don’t even find out what they are really like. We just stick to our own clan of the same skin-colored people. James goes on to say in verses 8 and 9 of chapter 2:
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But when you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)
James says that we break God’s law when we do this! When we don’t love others as ourselves because they don’t look like us, we are breaking God’s law.
The good news is that we can all be equally forgiven. God sent his Son Jesus to die for us so that any person of any color can stand before him on equal footing beside someone of any other color. In God’s family, it doesn’t matter whether we are black, white, Asian, hispanic, Indian, Middle Eastern, or anything else. When we trust in Jesus, he loves us each the same as one big diverse family. God’s plan is to have people from every tribe, tongue, and nation standing around his throne worshiping and praising him. God wants a family of every color!
James tells us that if we really believe in a God who doesn’t play favorites based on skin color, then we can’t play favorites either. If we believe in a God who created all races in his image, then we can’t show prejudice. If we believe in the gospel message that Jesus died to save people who are of every ethnicity and color, then we can’t show favoritism to one color over another. We need to love every color as ourselves.
There’s a well-meaning phrase we sometimes use where we might ask God to make us “colorblind” by which we mean we don’t want to see someone for the color of their skin. The heart behind it is good in that we don’t want to judge someone for the color of their skin. We want to just embrace them.
But I think the color of our skin can be a beautiful thing that we don’t need to be blind to. God made us with different skin colors and the goal isn’t now to be blind to those different skin colors. Different skin colors is God’s gift of beauty and diversity to us. Like usual, we’ve turned God’s gift into a way to divide ourselves.
Think of the rainbow. We don’t want to be colorblind to the different colors of the rainbow. We want to see all of them and appreciate all of them for what they are. Each color next to each other makes the rainbow beautiful. The diversity makes the beauty. But we don’t want to show favoritism to purple because it’s purple and treat orange poorly because it’s orange and not purple. But we want to love each color for what it is and see the whole rainbow together in all its beauty.
What should we do?
James also calls us to action over and over again. He says in James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” We can’t stand back and do nothing. We have structures, systems, and a culture in our country that shows favoritism. We sometimes hear people who make outright racist comments around us. We can’t just say to people suffering under these things, “Well, I hope it gets better for you someday.” James says we need to put our faith in a God who hates favoritism into action.
I don’t want to offer you some sort of three part plan for changing the world because I don’t have one.
I know one thing not to do based on what I’ve read on this topic. We shouldn’t take a “I fight racism and inequality in my heart” approach. This actually contributes to the problem because it never moves toward people of the other race. It says, “If I ever meet someone of another color, I won’t hate them.” It also is a very individual approach and doesn’t address the structural and cultural and cultural problems of our country that need to be changed. It basically takes no action at all and further contributes to the problem. There’s been research done on how this is the way a lot of white Christians respond and it’s really unhelpful.
Two things we can do:
- Speak out against degrading language and behavior. Tell people, “That’s not ok” when you hear it. Don’t tolerate it.
- Listen. Listen to what the protesters are saying. Listen to Black Lives Matter. Be humble listeners. Don’t just hope it will go away but listen to their concerns and what they are saying is broken in our country.
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