Could you eat a cockroach? No? How about a worm? Or a cricket? Contestants on the reality show Fear Factor, are expected to ingest creatures that would normally gross us out. I am not a fan of the show but the few times I have seen the contestants squirm, have helped me understand how Peter must have felt in Acts 10: 9-16.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. (TNIV)
All his life, Peter had been taught that certain animals were unclean and not fit to be consumed by those who belonged to God. One could imagine the reaction of a Muslim, or a Jew, if asked to eat pork. But it was time that Peter learnt that all peoples were now equally acceptable to God and to learn it by seeing Him dismantle the dietary laws that separated Jews from other races.
The experience of the early church revealed the existence of both racially superior assumptions among the Jewish Christians and the theological responses developed by the apostles to counter such assumptions, of decisive theological and ecclesiological significance is Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9ff. Through this it became clear that Gentiles were to be brought within the saving purposes of God, thereby revealing the universality of the gospel. In Peter’s words: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). (F.W Bridger, “Race,” New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, David J. Atkinson & David H. Field, editors, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995, p.718.)
The Bible begins with Adam and Eve, and not with Abraham. It ends with a vision of a congregation from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) worshiping God. Therefore, the bible is clear on the matter of racial equality. It also needs to be said that it is a racial equality that celebrates the diversity of the races.
As God’s creation, we are called to reflect His character. And our God is a God of diversity in unity. He is one God, yet Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In celebrating the diversity of all races and working towards a situation where all races work together in harmony, we seek to reflect the divine diversity in unity. As God’s people we are challenged ‘to promote racial equality as we reflect God’s character and holiness — by living in harmony and treating with respect and dignity all humans, regardless of their ethnic and cultural background.’ (Hugo Magallanes, “Racism,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Kevin J. VanHoozer General Editor, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, p.658.)
Therefore, Christians in Malaysia should take some comfort from the results of the recent general elections. After 50 years it looks like we are taking our first steps away from a race-based approach to politics. If you are in the U.S., the fact that an African American is now a serious contender to be a candidate for the White House also shows that there is progress there as well, whatever your personal opinion of Senator Obama.
However I have no illusion about how hard it will be to dismantle racism. It is a moral cancer that is deeply ingrained in all of us. Quick, fill in the blanks:
All Malays are…….
All Indians are……
All Chinese are…..
All African-Americans are…….
All Anglo-Saxons are………
All Hispanics are…………….
We quickly discover that we are all more racist than we realise. We may be theologically correct at our church meetings but I wonder what we say about other races in the privacy of our cars as we drive away from our meetings, or in front of our family around the dining table.
The fact that the Lord had to speak to Peter in such a dramatic way, and give the message three times, shows that it was a hard message for Peter to receive. Racism is stubborn. And if the apostle Peter needed so much help to get the message, what about us?
As part of our salt and light mandate, we should confront racism in all forms in the societies we live in. We should be grateful for all progress made in this area though I expect this problem to be fully resolved only when Jesus returns to usher in the new heavens and the new earth.
Our primary responsibility remains ensuring that racism is absent from our churches. Joseph A. Grassi reminds us of Paul’s agenda and of ours.
Paul’s goal was to create a circle of small house-church communities around the Roman Empire, which could be influential models and examples of what the world itself should be. (Informing the Future, New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2003, p.228.)
And so while the church must speak out in the public square against racism, she must make sure that her own house is in order.
It is interesting to note that Paul’s statement on social equality, that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female…” is found in a passage that speaks about one’s entry into Christ (Galatians 3:26 -29). God does not judge people on the basis of their race, their sex or their social status, and neither should we. Apparently this truth was so important that it was taught during baptism class. Now there’s an idea.