The Misuse of Scripture: Slavery, Racism and the Bible.
Dr. Jim Denison Shares Truths to Transform Culture
Police bodycam video, riots in the streets, protests across the country, anger and fear in families… Society doesn’t need studies to show that racism persists in America, and racism persists in churches (although there are plenty that confirm these findings). The current climate of the nation clearly shows change is needed. Conversations are crucial, facts are important, and feelings matter, so how do Christians help to change understanding and behaviors regarding racism?
Turn to the Bible. What does it say about racism? What does it say about slavery? What does it say about treating one another? And maybe, more importantly, how does one apply this in personal life today? How does anyone practically live-out the Word of God today, especially when it comes to a topic that could arguably be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Jim Denison holds a PhD in Philosophy of Religion and a Master of Divinity, has authored multiple books, taught on apologetics, and founded the Denison Forum where with his Daily Article, he guides readers to discern today’s news, biblically. Risen talked with Denison to dig deeper into what the Bible has to say and how these truths can be applied to transform culture.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: We’re halfway through 2020 and it looks like a century from the history books — political division, natural disasters, world pandemic, unemployment rates, riots and civil rights protests — where to even begin our discussion?! How are you navigating this time…
Jim Denison: I have believed for a very long time that God redeems all He allows because He is sovereign. He has to allow all that happens because He’s love. He wants our best because He is powerful enough to do what His will requires, He, therefore, can move through any circumstance for His glory and our good. We may not see that redemption on this side of Heaven. I don’t understand the technology by which we’re having this conversation right now, I certainly don’t understand how airplanes fly, but I trust them enough to get on them. I believe nonetheless, that God is doing that. He’s redeeming, even the pandemic and the recession and all that’s happening in our culture right now. So what I’m looking for is, how can I join Him in that? What can I do now that I couldn’t do a year ago? Who could I reach now that I couldn’t reach six months ago? What’s the opportunity in the midst of the crisis for the gospel? I think that’s where we need to concentrate because that’s where God’s at work.
Slavery in the ancient world, in the Biblical era was nothing like the Jim Crow sort of cattle slavery that you and I think about today. First of all, it wasn’t based on race. There was no sense of skin color or race relative to slavery. You became enslaved when you were conquered militarily or when you sold yourself into slavery for financial reasons or when your family did that, that sort of thing. But it wasn’t based on race at all.
RM: Let’s talk about what the Bible says about racism and slavery…. I know it’s a behemoth of a question but can you briefly touch on slavery in the Old Testament versus slavery in the New Testament, where you say it was more a process than a condition.
JD: Absolutely, yeah.. Slavery in the ancient world, in the Biblical era was nothing like the Jim Crow sort of cattle slavery that you and I think about today. First of all, it wasn’t based on race. There was no sense of skin color or race relative to slavery. You became enslaved when you were conquered militarily or when you sold yourself into slavery for financial reasons or when your family did that, that sort of thing. But it wasn’t based on race at all.
Quite honestly, and this is kind of a difficult thing to say because I would not for a moment mean to undermine the horrific slavery in America… wouldn’t mean to say that for a moment. But in the Biblical era, slavery was sometimes actually a step forward for some individuals who could enslave themselves to a wealthy person. A lot of doctors were slaves, a lot of attorneys were slaves, a lot of people that we think of as being progressive in their income, did that through that context. It was really just a very different institution than it is today. When people came along and tried to justify slavery in America, based on what the Bible said about slavery, they were very much misusing scripture. It’s apples and zebras really. It’s not even apples and oranges.
RM: You have said, “I believe that racism is the greatest sin in America, the failure which keeps us from addressing our other failures.” What do you mean by this?
JD: When I look at another person based on their skin color or their race, rather than through the Biblical prism of how God sees all of us, then at the very beginning, I’ve started out in a sinful place. Friedrich Nietzsche said the will to power is the basic drive in human nature. And that’s what racial prejudice does. It imposes power. It says I’m superior to you based on my race, regardless of educational differences or your achievements, your significance culturally, or any of that. And so, if I’m starting out from that sinful position as a foundational way of relating to you, then all other sin comes from that. At the end of the day, that has to get fixed before I can relate to you in any other context. Fairly inappropriately, I think we’re still seeing in our country, after 400 years, some of the outcomes of not addressing that institutional, even a systemic racial prejudice, that tragically has been with us across our nation’s history.
RM: It is so important to remember that every person of every race was created by the same God in His image. How do we get to a point as a society where this lived out?
JD: Only the Holy Spirit, I think can ultimately move our hearts to that place. We all want to be our own gods as the first temptation in Genesis 3 suggests, that the end of the day, I really can’t change me. I can only ask the Holy Spirit to do what I can’t do myself. So there’s some things I want to do in terms of the symptoms of this, of course, and that has to do with civil rights legislation that has to deal with systemic, institutionalized racial prejudice. But at the end of the day, to change attitudes and hearts is a spiritual transformation. That’s why to reframe this as an opportunity for spiritual awakening, Christians ought to be praying, I think, every day for a fifth great awakening. We’ve had four great awakenings in our history. I’m praying every day for a fifth spiritual awakening, knowing that the Holy Spirit can move our hearts and change our lives when no one else can.
When people came along and tried to justify slavery in America, based on what the Bible said about slavery, they were very much misusing scripture. It’s apples and zebras really. It’s not even apples and oranges.
RM: I found it extremely interesting when you cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of your articles where he said, Sunday morning worship services are still the most segregated hour in America. How can we change this?
JD: I think we work on two levels. The first thing we do is recognize the degree to which worship practices are themselves sometimes culturally conditioned. When I was pastoring in West Texas, for instance, I began developing relationships with Latino pastors, and I asked why we didn’t have more Hispanics or Latinos in our church service. They said to me that Sunday morning was their only chance to worship in their culture. The rest of the week, they had to be Anglo. And that was their one chance to really be Mexican or Guatemalan or wherever they had come from. Then they asked me how comfortable I would be in their worship service, even if language weren’t a barrier. And I had to admit to, whether it’s African American or Asian or Latino, worship practices, worship celebration, really can be culturally conditioned in a healthy way. So we’d start with that, by saying it’s not necessarily a bad thing for people to worship in their own cultures as long as — and this was Dr. King’s point — everybody else is equally welcome. As long as everybody else is equally wanted.
Then we take our second step, and that is a step beyond worship in the ministry, what could we do across racial boundaries as churches to advance the kingdom? Not as me just sponsoring you or you me, where can we be peers? Where can we be partners? What opportunity in your community could you address? Whether it’s a habitat house or it’s something relative to income issues or homelessness, where could two churches across racial boundaries come together as partners to advance the kingdom? That’s another step forward we can and should take.
RM: This might be sensitive, but in your opinion do things like Black History Month, and slogans like Black Lives Matter, actually compound the problem? We don’t have a history month for every ethnicity and there are many minorities that would argue their lives matter… could our own vernacular be sabotaging our efforts?
JD: Apparently it does among some, and obviously, truth is in the eye of the beholder. At that point, it’s how you perceive this to be. Take Black Lives Matter for instance, if you’re saying Black lives matter, then you’re perhaps suggesting that Black people ought to get preferential treatment in some specific way. If you say, “Black Lives Matter,” then you’re making the point that black people are the victims of police brutality or the victims of systemic racism relative to sentencing provisions in criminal justice, and that sort of thing. All of which, I think, can be very much that substantiated by the facts.
So to me, there’s a balance here. On the one side, we certainly ought to be leaning toward those disadvantaged people in our culture, whether that’s this minority or that, whether it’s people that suffer from physical disabilities or whatever the issue might be. It’s not a bad thing to elevate them, not a bad thing to elevate the need, to focus on that. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He was focusing specifically on individual groups when he said that sort of thing. But we don’t do this to the exclusion of others, of course. And we don’t do this to say that they are more important intrinsically. We’re just saying, “Look, there are issues here that we should focus on for this period of time.” If we do it that way, then I think we’re doing what Jesus would do.
RM: You founded the Denison Forum and have more than a million-and-a-half readers every month… why is it important to you to talk about current issues and apply biblical truths?
JD: Some years ago, Richard Niebuhr wrote a book, Christ and Culture, in which he described the five ways that Christians relate to culture. One is Christ against culture, have nothing to do with it, pull back from it. To me, that keeps the salt in the salt shaker, that keeps the light under the basket. But these days that seems to be a pretty popular position for evangelicals. I don’t want to have anything to do with that larger world out there. It’s so fallen and it’s so going in the wrong direction, I’m just going to pull back entirely. To me, that’s the wrong approach.
where could two churches across racial boundaries come together as partners to advance the kingdom? That’s another step forward we can and should take.
The second approach is the Christ of culture, and that’s where you go where the culture goes. And unfortunately, we’re seeing people do that, whether it’s same sex marriage or physician assisted death or whatever that topic might be. The third is Christ above culture, where I’m one way on Sunday, and another way on Monday. That really undermines our witness, doesn’t it? When we’re two people, and almost have two different sets of values. What I see a lot of people is doing this, the fourth, Christ in culture, where I engage the culture for the sake of getting people in the church. And that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t change the culture.
The fifth model, Christ transforming culture is the salt and light model. And that’s why we started Denison Forum, to equip Christians to be culture changing followers, to be salt and light, to be the Christ transforming culture. Because we believe that’s the critical need of the day.
RM: On your site, I love how you take the articles that everyone’s talking about and share a Biblical perspective. As the country’s going through up and downs with waves of the coronavirus and lockdown, how we should be behaving? What is important for Christians to be doing during this time?
JD: Two commandments, as you know, are to love God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. And that was Jesus’ answer to the question, what is the greatest commandment? Demonstrating that the two really are one. I can’t really love God unless I love my neighbor. And the way that I love my neighbor demonstrates the degree to which I love God. So at a time like this, I think it’s critical for Christians to be asking, how can I love my neighbor best during these days? I serve as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health, which is the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in Texas. I was in a board meeting just a week ago, when we were talking about the urgency of wearing masks, for instance. And our physicians insist that masks are absolutely in no sense, dangerous to the wearer and can absolutely, protect other people from sneezes and coughs and speaking and things that transmit this virus. Well, even if a person disagrees with all of that, other people around us would be uncomfortable if I don’t wear my mask, so I’m going to wear my mask because that’s a way of loving my neighbor. That’s a way, as 1 Corinthians 8 talks about, of not offending my brother. That’s me looking for a practical, proactive way to demonstrate God’s love in me. It’s everything from that to caring for senior adults that are quarantined to finding ways to minister online. I know of a church in California that had 8,000 online viewers before the pandemic, had 1.2 million on Easter Sunday. So how can we use these days, these opportunities to reach people that perhaps, we couldn’t before? People that are open to the Gospel in a new way.
Two commandments, as you know, are to love God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. And that was Jesus’ answer to the question, what is the greatest commandment? Demonstrating that the two really are one. I can’t really love God unless I love my neighbor. And the way that I love my neighbor demonstrates the degree to which I love God. So at a time like this, I think it’s critical for Christians to be asking, how can I love my neighbor best during these days?
RM: As a parent, I have two little ones, but regardless of age, what conversations should we be having with our kids? How much information is too much information and how can we make this a teachable time?
JD: Great question and blessings on you, by the way. As a father and a grandfather — I have four grandchildren — I will tell you, if you stay in it long enough, you’ll be so glad you did, because then you’ll have grandkids. Somebody said, “Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your kids.” We have a whole ministry, as part of what we do called Christianparenting.org, that exists specifically, to address that very question, how can we parent biblically? What can we do to be encouraging our kids to follow Jesus in these days?
One of the things that our experts in that space are talking about right now, is what can my children understand about this, and how can I communicate hope rather than fear? They pick up fear, almost intuitively, don’t they? They watch us watch the news. They watch us react to social media. And even if they can’t process all of that consciously and verbally, they just sense it, they feel it. And it’s so important that we communicate to our kids that God’s on His throne, that Jesus still loves us, that the Lord is in charge. We have hope in Christ and we find ways not to be naive, but at the same time to demonstrate what faith really means at a time like this.
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