The story of humanity begins in a garden with a man and woman made in the image of God.

It ends in a city with a vast population of their image-bearing descendants – women and men of every race, ethnicity, culture and language – joined forever in union with God and with one another.

To say things haven’t gone to script between those two endpoints would be a cosmic understatement. As fallen humanity, we’ve a record of hating and harming our fellow image-bearers who look or act or speak different from us. We conquer and enslave. We marginalize, criminalize and treat others as less than. We’re indifferent to their tears and their stories of pain and injustice.

At any moment, it can boil over with a vengeance. We witness acts of racially fuelled brutality captured on video and watch in alarm as justified outrage spirals into chaos.

As followers of Jesus, we’re heartbroken by suffering and injustice, and we wonder how to respond to it. How can we effect change in our culture, in our churches, in ourselves? As with all things, our answers and our hope begin with Jesus and his Word.

Unity and diversity

Every part of God’s creation shows that its Maker loves unity expressed through diversity. God has made billions upon billions of birds, flowers, snowflakes and stars. No two are the same in any category, yet each one remains a bird or flower or snowflake or star.

It only follows that humanity, God’s unique creation made in his own image, would exhibit these same qualities of unity expressed through diversity.

The Western art tradition typically portrays Adam and Eve as a white couple – which, given their origins in the Near East, is pure fantasy. Naturally, we have no clue what they looked or sounded like. Nevertheless, they carried the genetic potential for the entire human race in all its variety. Like a seed exploding into a brilliant flower, their descendants have filled the earth – people of every colour and custom, each still bearing God’s image and the value and dignity that goes with it.

Hope for all peoples

God inaugurated his plan to redeem his fallen creation through one man, Abraham, and his family. One of Abraham’s distant descendants would be God the Son taking human form as Jesus the Messiah to save his people from their sins.

From the outset, this plan included people from every racial and ethnic background. As God promised Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). According to the Apostle Paul, this offspring refers to Christ, in whom “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:16, 28).

The implications of this truth, of God’s love for his diverse human creation, play out across the Old Testament. The prophets speak of the coming Messiah as bringing light and hope to the nations. The Psalms, along with other OT books, describe the joy and thriving of all peoples under the kindness and justice of God.

In fact, injustice and cruelty to foreigners, women and outsiders are among the sins God most vehemently condemns. Among the ancestors of Jesus, God included three foreign women: Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute; Ruth, a poor Moabite widow; and Bathsheba, the wife of a Hittite, who became a sexual target for Israel’s greatest king.

The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon to test his wisdom with difficult questions. In modern terms, the two of them discussed theology, nature, ethics and philosophy. The queen was rich and powerful and clearly no intellectual lightweight. She was also black, ruling a kingdom in what is now Yemen, Eritrea or Ethiopia.

And in the Song of Solomon, the bride describes herself as “very dark, but lovely,” and urges the young women of Jerusalem not to despise her because of the colour of her skin (Song of Solomon 1:5-6). Whether one reads the Song as a metaphor for Christ and his people or a celebration of sensual pleasure between a bride and groom, the image of diversity in marriage and in the church is hard to miss.

The life and teaching of Jesus

Jesus’ life and teaching laid the groundwork for his church, the most multicultural, multi-ethnic, multiracial movement in all of history. His welcome and respect for every individual, regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status, was radical by the cultural standards of Jews and pagans alike.

Although the Greco-Roman world was cosmopolitan, there were clear hierarchies that ranked the privileged and those deemed less so. The Romans distinguished between citizens and conquered peoples who had relatively few protections under the law. The Greeks coined the term “barbarian” as a label for all non-Greeks. Their word barbaroi was meant to imitate how foreign languages sounded to them: “bar-bar-bar” or gibberish.

For their part, the Jewish leaders had twisted the Old Testament Scriptures, adding rules and traditions to justify their bigotry against gentiles. They avoided gentile territory, wouldn’t enter a gentile’s home, wouldn’t so much as share a meal with a gentile. They turned the section of the temple where gentiles could worship God into a marketplace.

Jesus subverted these cultural prejudices at every point. He travelled through Samaria and into the gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis. He welcomed and ate with people whom the Jewish leaders avoided like the plague. In Samaria, he approached the woman by the well and made her the first evangelist to the Samaritans. In the region of Tyre and Sidon, he healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and commended her for her great faith. And in the Decapolis, he fed four thousand men, plus women and children, a diverse group that would’ve included a majority of gentiles.

In his teaching, Jesus drew on non-Jewish figures from the Old Testament – Naaman the Syrian, the widow of Zarephath, the people of Nineveh in Jonah’s day, the Queen of Sheba – as examples of superior faith and divine favour. He told a story in which a Samaritan, the member of a despised ethno-religious group, was the moral hero.

As the time of his death approached, Jesus predicted that through his death, he would draw all people to himself (John 12:32). And after he rose, he commissioned his followers to make disciples of all nations, proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name, and baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47).

A diverse early church

The early church took Jesus’ commission to heart. At Pentecost, Peter addressed a group of thousands of Hellenistic Jews and gentile proselytes who had come to Jerusalem from lands that include present-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Greece and Italy. Hellenistic Jews spread the Gospel to Samaria and beyond, to what is now Lebanon, Cyprus and Syria. In Antioch, on the Turkish-Syrian border, large numbers of gentiles also came to Christ, the first followers of Jesus to be called Christians.

On one occasion, Philip the Evangelist met a high-ranking court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, and explained Jesus to him from the book of Isaiah. This official is the earliest recorded African convert to Christianity.

Within a couple of centuries, Christianity was firmly established in Egypt and Ethiopia, and the Egyptian city of Alexandria was one of the world’s great cultural and religious centres. North Africa also produced one of the towering intellects in church history, Saint Augustine of Hippo. A Romanized ethnic Berber from what is now Algeria, Augustine is considered the most influential figure in the development of theology and Western thought between the Apostle Paul and the Protestant Reformation.

Present concerns

The voice of Scripture is unequivocal. God has created wondrously diverse human beings in his own image. Each one possesses equal value and dignity, and is loved and cared for by their Maker. Because God so loved his creation, he sent his Son to save his people from their sins – men and women from every race, ethnicity, culture and language who will glorify him and enjoy him forever.

However, like the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day, professing Christians past and present have found ways to twist Scripture to justify their bigotry in its various forms – racism, misogyny, slavery, and the list goes on.

This is not surprising. As fallen humans, we have an impulse to marginalize and take advantage of our fellow image-bearers who are different from us. That’s why God speaks against these sins so often in his Word. They can be subtle. We may not actively oppress anyone, but we remain aloof to their suffering. We keep them at arm’s length, view them as impersonal stereotypes rather than individuals.

Racial injustice and other forms of prejudice can be personal, but also systemic. Laws and social structures are set up in such a way that they put marginalized groups at a grave disadvantage with respect to criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education.

It’s why many African American parents have a talk with their small children about how to behave and what to say when they’re stopped by police for no reason, so that they don’t wind up arrested or shot.

As followers of Jesus, how are we to respond when we see stark evidence of racial injustice on our screens and smartphones? First off, we mustn’t be dismissive or defensive. We can’t plead ignorance or claim that it’s not our fault, and therefore not our problem.

When confronted by suffering and injustice on this scale, the last thing we want is to retreat into debates about critical race theory or white privilege or the pros and cons of the Black Lives Matter movement. To be sure, those are topics that need to be engaged. But they need to be engaged with grace and nuance, not with outrage posts on social media. To put them first is to play the Pharisee, ignoring the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

Our first duty as believers is to open our heart, to weep with those who weep, to hear their stories and believe them. Like our Lord, we are to mourn suffering and be angry at injustice. We should examine ourselves, educate ourselves and repent where needed, if for nothing other than our indifference.

By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we need to cultivate compassion for those outside our tribe. We must learn not simply to tolerate them, but to value and love them.

God is building his kingdom and fashioning a beautiful, multiracial bride for his Son. He is also redeeming his creation, showing care and kindness to his human image-bearers in all of our diverse colours and cultures.

Jesus taught us to pray that his Father’s kingdom would come, and that his will would be done, as in heaven so here on earth. The social issues facing us offer a prime opportunity to take that prayer to heart and put it into practice.

Sources and further reading

Amy DiMarcangelo, “Oh God, make us angry!Equipped for Mercy, May 7, 2020.

Mika Edmondson, “Is Black Lives Matter the new civil rights movement?The Gospel Coalition, June 24, 2016.

Jasmine L. Holmes, Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope, IVP, 2020.

Bobby Jamieson, “How to respond when injustice seems to prevail,” The Gospel Coalition, June 5, 2020.

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.

Trillia J. Newbell, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, Moody, 2014.

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Zondervan, 2020.

Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, Crossway, 2020.

George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, IVP Books, 2006.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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