Good (And Bad) Bible Passages To Teach Empathy in Race Relations
God Hates Far More Than Injustice
In Psalm 45, the unknown author petitions an unknown king in regards to his wedding day, “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice”. If you are an American, you undoubtedly know the current passion and focus on the third word. If you are a Christian, you should care just as much about the first two. In Proverbs 6:16-19 God lists proud eyes and lying (twice) alongside “hands that shed innocent blood” as things he hates. That is a strong verb and demands that we take it seriously.
Yet before I get further into that, I offer a couple of disclaimers. First, I am a Christian man. As such, I feel it prudent to do far more reading and listening than talking and writing. This is always advisable but especially when our culture begins to focus on issues like race and justice. I have waited weeks after the death of George Floyd before writing anything even remotely related to that topic. The only things I have posted to Facebook since May 25 related to this have been a video from a black friend of mine explaining justice and his grief from a biblical perspective and a rather inoffensive but brilliantly explained call to church unity written by a friend of a friend, based on how far apart Jesus’s apostles were politically. By contrast, I’ve read and listened to others for hours.
Secondly, I have firmly decided, based on reading and listening, to never respond to a “black lives matter” post with “all lives matter”. I doubt I would have ever used that retort even if wise Christians hadn’t advised me to avoid it. Because that type of response is not indicative of how I want to communicate on social media. Memes and pithy phrases and cliches do not tend to help facilitate edifying conversation. So I aim to avoid them. But the obvious dismay those words cause to people I love seals it for me. I do not use them.
The Prodigal Son Is Not About Empathy Towards Grief
Yet, I have discovered that in an attempt to explain to others why they shouldn’t say, “All Lives Matter” at times Christians have begun to use Scriptures that do not apply to this topic. Going back to Psalm 45, today I want to advocate for Christians to keep truth in mind when we discuss justice. Humility is equally as important, because if a Christian’s advocacy for justice causes them to become proud, then, again, God hates that just as much as injustice. But today I really want to focus on truth, the intersection of biblical interpretation and application. What it meant to the original audience and what it means today.
I’ll start with what I reference in the previous paragraph: the continued use of Luke 15 I have seen by people as a basis to teach others of the folly and insensitivity of saying “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter”. Luke 15’s references to a lost sheep and a Prodigal Son are about repentance, salvation and even celebration. Neither is related to showing empathy to people who are grieving injustice. They should not be applied to this situation.
Jesus Is Not A Meme
Another one I have seen is the use of “Blessed are the poor in spirit” as a contrast to “Blessed are all people”. Yet that is about who God’s accepts into his kingdom. Again, not showing empathy towards grieving injustice.
A final one I have seen is Jesus reaching out to the broken and making a big deal of Samaritans and other disenfranchised groups. This is closer to the point the anti-“All Lives Matter” Christians are making but even here, I would use caution. In Jesus’s Good Samaritan story, the Jew is the victim and the Samaritan is the hero. And as I’ve written before, when you read passages like Jesus’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman and how he refers to her people as “dogs,” it should give you great pause as far as putting Jesus into a box or nailing him down. Jesus doesn’t fit in cliches or hashtags. And he cannot be wielded as a convenient weapon on any topic. He requires deep study and detailed conversations to grasp.
Job’s Friends And James
By contrast, there are verses and passages I think can be used to support not responding with “All Lives Matter”. One is a study of Job’s friends and their simplistic theology and refusal to be empathetic when Job was grieving. Years ago when writing about this, referencing explicitly Job calling his friends “Miserable Comforters,” I spoke to the very issue of racial empathy. His friends words were vulgar in a time when they needed to be quiet. Another is James 1:19-21 and its admonition to be slow to speak and to anger and quick to listen. In a group discussion in 2017 for Rambling Ever On about the NFL flag protests, this passage was a focal points of my comments. James 1:19 is brought up so much in this discussion I imagine some may be tired of hearing it. Yet it still stands to me.
To be clear, Christians do right to bring the Bible into these discussions. Its presence is necessary to understand justice, empathy, and grief. I merely advocate for good Scriptures and correct applications. My favorite Grad school professor once said that he thought we make more errors in the church with application than interpretation. This would be an example of his point to me.
Not All Explanations of Injustice Are Biblical
A secondary point about Truth I want to make on the heels of this, which actually is far more important: Christians during these days of resounding calls for justice must remember that the vast majority of the world is unsaved. And that with the myriad of voices social media brings to our daily lives, we desperately need discernment.
What I mean is that just because a person, of any race, is advocating for justice does not mean they are speaking biblical truth. Using the right terms is not enough, even, as how the Bible defines “justice” may be quite different than the world. As such, I implore any Christian reading this to find the voices out there, both famous and not, who are seeking to interpret God’s Word as a reaction to what happened to George Floyd. And are seeking to apply it correctly. The amount of material that floods my Facebook feed on the topics of justice and race is overwhelming. And it is essential to my faith and practice to meditate on the healthy, biblical posts and block out those that are not1.
I do not mean to ignore those with whom I disagree. I’ve had my mind changed by disagreement many times. But always by mature Christian thinkers. Not by those who have a worldly agenda. My fear is that Christians I know are not seeing the difference and in an attempt to be empathic they are listening to anyone and everyone who has a passionate take on current events. This is dangerous to me.
The bottom line is this: If a Christian’s message about justice, on social media or otherwise, cannot be distinguished from an atheist’s or that of another religion, then it is not Truth. We strive to change the systems of this world, bringing God’s will to earth as it is in Heaven2. But our hope is not in man3. The message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection makes all the difference in the world.
As I do with nearly every article I write, I close by making it clear that I welcome feedback of any kind. Even criticism. Especially that. I only ask it to be as respectful and nuanced as I’ve tried to be. As with a few our articles in the past, we are trying to begin and foster conversation. Not mic-drop. So please feel free to respond below.
- Let me be also clear that by this I am not speaking about a person who is telling their story of injustice. I’ll gladly listen to anyone then. Especially non-Christians. I’m speaking to how Christians are to respond to arguments about injustice ↩
- As Jesus prayed in Matthew 6:10 ↩
- Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 146:1-5 and a whole host of other passages ↩
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4 thoughts on “Good (And Bad) Bible Passages To Teach Empathy in Race Relations”
A very good call to discernment.
Thank you for boldly clarifying the true meaning of Luke 15. I have been severely confused as to how many church leaders have used that passage as their leading example toward racial justice.
I remember the day my father preached one of the best sermon I’ve ever heard him preach, in which he lamented the lack of diversity in our church.
I remember that same day one of our family members publicly chastised him because he didn’t like the sermon.
I remember the sick feeling in my stomach when my father called me after the next church board meeting to tell me had resigned when the church told him they wanted to go in a “different direction.”
That’s why I know it took courage for you to address a fallacy like “All Lives Matter”.
In my heart I wish you could have gone further, but I also don’t want your voice to be silenced because I know in the end whatever voice they replace you with won’t be nearly as perceptive as you are.
Well-reasoned, nuanced, and balanced. Good job, Gowdy.