Walter Kim on the Long Obedience of Racial Justice

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Portrait: Courtesy of Walter Kim / Background Images: WikiMedia / Unsplash / New York Public Library

Walter Kim is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor for leadership at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. His PhD from Harvard University was in Near Eastern languages and civilizations.

“This is not Charlottesville” was the refrain that I heard many times. Our neighbors sought to assure us of this. We had moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, just days after white supremacists’ Unite the Right Rallies shattered the town’s charm. As blatant outside emissaries of racial hatred, they were vehemently opposed by people of faith and of goodwill.

On the other hand, I recall a ride with an African American taxi driver who grew up in Charlottesville. He recalled, without venom or vengeance, countless episodes of racism. The cruelty he suffered and the consequent disparities of life are part of growing up black in Charlottesville.

This is Charlottesville. This is not Charlottesville. Both statements are true. Somehow sorrow and hope coexist. Race remains both a painful and perplexing reality throughout America. Our nation writhes under its trauma—past and present. Wounds already raw have been inflamed. The media diagnoses our current racial turmoil as malignant, but the Bible calls it far worse. Racism is rooted more deeply than in our nation’s history. It derives from human depravity and the deadly combination of prejudice and power.

Power and Image Inequality

Our identity as humans is based on being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). More than a premise for discussion, to be made in God’s image is a declaration of dignity and a prophetic challenge to power. In antiquity, the notion of a god’s image was exploited for royal propaganda. About the Neo-Assyrian King Esarhaddon (7th century B.C.) we read: “A free man is as the shadow of God, the slave is as the shadow of the free man; but the king, he is like unto the very image of God.” Only the sole bearer of divine image, the king hoarded the image of God for himself and denied it to others. Royal monuments, socioeconomic systems, civic life, and cultural practices purposefully perpetuated image inequality.

Sound familiar? In modern America we face the same distortion exhibited in Mesopotamia and in countless other eras. Whenever a dominant culture wields power and weaves prejudice into the fabric of human life, society rips apart.

On March 21, 1861, weeks before the Civil War began, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens delivered his “Cornerstone” speech to justify the imminent conflagration. He acknowledged America’s founding ideal of equality and the conviction that the enslavement of Africans was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” But Stephens then flatly rejected those ideals as “fundamentally wrong.” He laid out the Confederate vision:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Scripture defies such ugly perversions of God’s image—whether in the ancient Near East, in antebellum America, or now. The image of God applies to all people. Nevertheless, sin crouches at our door, goading and tempting us to abuse God’s image and misuse human power. Racism is a bitter part of the long human history of fallenness. To work against it is hard.

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Source: Christianity Today