Jim Crow of the Heart

34 So Peter opened his mouth and said [to Cornelius]: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Acts 10:34-35 (ESV)

The last Jim Crow law[1] fell in 1965, when the U.S. Congress passed President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act. Segregated lunch counters, water fountains, restrooms, and public transportation had already been outlawed, and now Black Americans’ right to vote would be protected by the federal government. Jim Crow may no longer be on the books, but it is sadly undeniable that unspoken Jim Crow laws still operate insidiously under the surface of American society—even in our churches.

Racism is not a new sin. First-century Jews were trained from birth to revile “outsiders.” Growing up in that culture, the Apostle Peter had come to believe any contact with non-Jews was sinful. Jews could not eat with Gentiles; they could not touch Gentiles. Jewish midwives were even forbidden to help Gentile mothers in labor because doing so would make them complicit in bringing another pagan into the world.

By all rights, Peter should never have been in the same house as Cornelius (10:28a). Yet sitting one day on a rooftop, Peter fell into a trance, and God told him in no uncertain terms: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15 NIV). Henceforth, both Jews and Gentiles—these bitter, irreconcilable enemies—would come together in Christ to form one new society (10:28-29, cf. vv. 9-15). Finally, Peter grasped that God does not discriminate, but rather accepts anyone from anywhere from any lineage, so long as they fear Him and do what is right, namely trust in Jesus for salvation (v. 35, cf. vv. 42-45).

Many Christians throughout history, realizing with Peter God’s impartiality, have rejected prejudice. They have opposed slavery, fought against racial segregation, cast down apartheid, and condemned anti-Semitism. Racism is not new, but it is not extinct, either. Christians of every race today have their own “Gentiles,” and if the no-contact laws are unwritten, they are nevertheless powerful. Churches are seldom segregated because of official policies, and sometimes homogeneity in a congregation is more a function of demographics than prejudice. But far too often, the prejudice is there, in the form of silent glares and unspoken interrogations. Why is he here? Who invited her? Isn’t there one of that kind of church across town? Such prejudice, however quiet, speaks volumes about the church in which it festers: it says they are nothing at all like the God they claim to serve.

A crucial part of preaching the gospel is exhorting Christians to love—not just tolerate—people who are not like them. There is something powerfully compelling about a group of people who care deeply for one another, even though they have nothing in common but their love for Jesus Christ. Putting an end to prejudice is not some addendum to the Christian faith. It lies at the very heart of the gospel. After all, the mystery Paul proclaimed was that finally, the dividing wall of hostility had been destroyed.

[1] Laws that discriminated against blacks and promoted racial segregation, named for a demeaning character in minstrel shows. A white man in blackface makeup would play Jim Crow.