This summer, the city of Charlottesville was the scene of an eruption of racial animosity — a sentiment that seems to continue simmering under the surface of a broader divide in our country. And it brings again to the forefront a question over whether racism is the product of nature or nurture. Are we born racists? Or is prejudice learned? This question came up recently for a listener named Ryan in Houston. “Pastor John, in the wake of recent events this summer in Charlottesville, President Obama shared this quote from Nelson Mandela on social media:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Several news agencies are reporting that this is now the most-liked tweet of all time. But it seems contrary to the teaching of Scripture. What are your thoughts?”
I have several thoughts about that quote. I’ve tried to think about it in a way that could affirm it. I’m trying to get inside his skin and think, “Is there a way to affirm it as a Christian?” rather than just my knee-jerk reaction to bring clear, biblical teaching against it (which I’m going to do, eventually, in a way).
The Nurture of Our Nature
Let me try to break it down. First, “no one is born hating another person,” he says, “because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate.” Now that’s tricky. Here’s a way to defend it.
When we are born, the Bible teaches that we have a nature that is rebellious against God. First Corinthians 2:14 says that we are naturally unable to discern spiritual things, like the beauty of God and his ways. Romans 8:7–8 says that by nature, we’re unwilling and unable to submit to God’s law and to please God.
Ephesians 2:3 says we are “by nature children of wrath.” That is, we are so opposed to God that it is just of God to pour his wrath out against us. Romans 3:10 says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” Romans 3:23 says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Now here’s the catch. This fallen nature, this sinfulness, is essentially proud and selfish and self-exalting and resistant to God and what exalts God over all things. But the form that this pride and selfishness takes is learned. It is! It’s largely shaped by our parents and our culture.
One form this sinfulness can take is hatred toward people who are different from us. This attitude can become bigoted and angry, wanting to create as much separation as we can. But another form our selfishness can take is a way of relating that wins the praise of others by doing helpful things for others — even others who are different from us.
There are many vain, selfish, anti-God people who have learned to treat others with decency and respect because there are very significant advantages to living that way, especially if there’s a group of people that you care about — a group of people who praise that behavior very highly, and thus build up your ego while you treat people that way.
So yes, we do learn to hate in the sense that our parents and our culture channel our natural self-exaltation into forms of opposition to people like us, or we may learn to channel our selfishness into benevolent ways that provide ego satisfaction for ourselves and win a good deal of praise from other people we admire.
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SOURCE: Desiring God, John Piper