The Idolatry of Race

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1John 2:15-16

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

John’s first letter ends with the phrase: “keep yourself from idols” (5:21). It’s the first time the word idol appears in his letter but the fact that this sentiment concludes the letter reveals how idolatry has been at the core of John’s teaching to the church. He has been attempting to expose the idolatrous motivations beneath their behaviour.

The World 

John instructs the church not to love “the world”. Although “world” can be thought of positively as something worth loving (see John 3:16), in this passage, it’s defined in a negative sense. The broader context shows that “the world” is the organised system in opposition to God, under the ultimate control of spiritual forces of evil. It includes human participation as well, whether that’s in the form of false prophets or the workings of human society.

We need to analyse the impact of race, and the idolatry of it, on our societies. Timothy Keller writes, “It is impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols…there is no way to challenge idols without doing cultural criticism and there is no way to do cultural criticism without discerning and challenging idols.” South Africa will be our example, but the same thought process can be applied to other countries.

The Racialisation of Society 

Race is a social construct that developed in the 17th century and was perfected by the 19th century to legitimise European colonialism. However, the Bible affirms one common ancestry. While there are different ethnicities, we belong to one humanity with only miniscule genetic variations. Acts 17:26 puts it simply: “From one man He made all nations”.

But, one’s colour still affects one’s life. Emerson and Smith describe a racialised society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experience, life opportunities, and social relationships…a society that allocates differential economic, political, social and even phycological rewards to groups along racial lines’ lines that are socially constructed.” South Africa is a prime example of this: white people earn on average 87% more than black people, they are 700% more likely to be tertiary educated and are expected to live 20 longer than their black compatriots. In short, being white or black still matters in very tangible ways as there is an established system that continues to privilege white South Africans.

Tragically, historians have noted that Christianity has featured prominently in this, be it through the Dutch Reformed Church’s doctrine of apartheid or contemporary evangelicals’ continued omission of racial inequity in their definitions of justice. The way to mitigate against this is to deal with our racial socialisation and recover a theology of justice that isn’t shot through with self-interest and racial idolatry.

Systemic Racism 

Racial idolatry is linked to the “pride of life” (2:16). John uses an unusual word for life, “bios”, which can also be translated as material possessions (3:17), i.e. pride in one’s possessions.

It hard for someone to locate themself within the system because it takes humility to admit that one’s material possessions and achievements came through hard work assisted by a system. It feeds pride when we think that people of colour are where they are because they are lazy, inferior or have regressive cultures.

Racism is more than just prejudice. Such a view skews the reality and minimises our participation within the system. Racism is an arrangement of society that provides white people with white privilege. It’s like a moving walkway at an airport: different people move faster for the same amount of effort because their efforts are multiplied by a system.

Racial Socialisation 

Systemic racism impacts our thoughts and leads to racial socialisation. The systems around us influence our ability to access truth, with our racial frames shaped by explicit things such as racist banter or denigrating comments or more subtle things such as the overrepresentation of white people in positions of leadership or a preference for Western culture. The overarching message is that whites have the universal perspective and nothing else is needed, that there is no loss in a lack of diversity. It amounts to racial pride, and this is the warning John gives to the church.

This is the reason why learning and practicing theology in a healthy, inter-dependent community is so important.

Displacing idols 

1John2:15 says “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them”. Only the love of God can replace former affections. Grace must replace race, the love of the Father must replace the love of the world.

The message of 1John2:15-16 is that the church will be able to love the world when they’re not seduced by it and its idols. When we prioritise true justice and empathy, being critical of powers and system, when we prioritise doing theology in community, it’s healthy for the world. When the church discovers holiness, love, truth and justice, it’s able to advance the gospel more effectively.