Creating Conversation: How can church in Vancouver respond well to racism?

Joshua Koh offers eight points to guide church discussion about racism.

This weekly editorial gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church to respond to. We asked Zenith Bose (see accompanying article) to respond to this article, in part to model healthy conversation.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue either here on Church for Vancouver or on the CityGate Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your church small group, your church staff, your friends or your neighbours. Feel free to repost the article on your own social media. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

As a pastor serving in Vancouver, I invite you to join an ongoing conversation. It’s a messy conversation. It can be an exhausting conversation. Sometimes it requires confrontation and conflict. I know that doesn’t sound like a very Canadian thing to do.

But as a follower of Jesus, I have become increasingly convinced and convicted that entering into this conversation is an essential part of our Christian discipleship. What conversation am I talking about? It’s a conversation about race and culture.

I grew up in an immigrant Chinese church that never named or recognized the importance of this conversation and I received my theological formation and training under White Evangelical men and women (mostly men) who didn’t teach me the grammar necessary to engage in this conversation well.

Among the sins my Christian communities seemed to hyper-focus on, the sin of racism just didn’t seem to make the cut.

So, what led to this strong conviction in me? The biggest change occurred as I learned to take seriously the cultural context of those who wrote the Bible. Doing hard-nosed biblical theology helped me pay attention to the flesh and blood circumstances of the authors who bore witness to God’s redeeming work in the world.

And what I found was a surprising amount in the Bible about how God deals with ethnic and cultural sins. Human division and conflict around our differences has been an age-old problem. And God has been very involved and active in calling His people to respond to the problems these sins caused in His created order.

Here are a few examples:

It can be argued that one of God’s primary motives for coming to the rescue of Jacob’s family in Egypt arose from a new Pharaoh’s xenophobic reaction to a growing ‘foreign’ population within Egypt’s borders. Pharaoh’s fears justified economic enslavement and even attempts of genocide through a system of selective infanticide.

Later in Israel’s story, God sent harsh prophetic rebukes against Israel’s ruling class around the nation’s unhealthy economic, religious and social relationship with the poor and foreign populations in her lands. Abraham’s sons were failing to be a blessing to the nations and God sent them into exile as a result.

When Jesus stood up in his hometown of Nazareth and preached from Isaiah 61 a thesis statement about his ministry, you might remember a – seemingly out of nowhere – violent reaction from his listeners. Have you ever wondered why?

Jesus’ midrash of Isaiah 61 makes the inclusion of Gentiles a central part of the Messiah’s mission. He’s arguing in front of a zealously Jewish congregation that at the centre of God’s good news is an announcement that the blind (non-Jews) will receive sight. He then backs it up with two Old Testament stories about Gentiles receiving God’s grace.

Instead of rejoicing, God’s people were having none of it. They wanted no mercy or grace for Gentiles and they made their feelings known. The result of this Jewish ethnocentrism was not only the eventual murder of God’s chosen one but also God’s judgment on Israel years later when Roman armies crushed their nationalistic rebellion and sacked Jerusalem (70 AD).

Fast forward to the early church. Though much more could be noted, I draw your attention to two passages in Paul’s Epistles: Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2.

In Ephesians, Paul includes as a central description of God’s salvation not only the saving of individuals from spiritual death (vs 1-10), which we Evangelicals love to preach, but he also states that “His [Jesus’] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” (vs 15-16)

Jesus’ purpose was also to make a new earthly community comprised of both Jew and Gentile. For this to happen, dividing walls of hostility needed to be destroyed.

To reinforce the theological centrality of God’s desire to deal with existing ethnic hostilities that created ungodly barriers, Paul tells a story in Galatians chapter 2 about his public rebuke of Peter at the church in Antioch. What got Paul so worked up? Peter chose to only eat with Jews.

Listen to Paul’s response:

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” (v 14)

For Paul, segregating oneself from Gentiles at a dinner table was a gospel issue. Anytime ethnicity and culture become a barrier for the formation of an earthly new humanity, the integrity of the gospel is at stake.

This is why I believe that the North American Evangelical church (I write this specifically to my immediate peers but it applies more broadly) must see conversations about race and culture as an essential part of Christian discipleship.

It’s 2021, and our human cultural differences and racialized realities across the globe continue to impact how God’s people are pursuing and expressing Jesus’ desire for a new humanity. I’m literally writing this as the verdict of George Floyd’s murderer is being publicly announced.

The church is called to join Jesus in mission to nurture a new humanity on earth, but I bear witness that the church around me is failing.

It shocks me how many Christians I know in our churches, in our denominations and across my social media feeds struggle to name and recognize the sin of racism and how it continues to impact our world and the church.

As North Americans wake to a new level of consciousness about this sin, our public witness as God’s people is on the line. If we cannot even join this conversation, we will rightfully lose any moral ground to proclaim the gospel.

Yes, the gospel. This isn’t a conversation to engage in the hippest, trendiest topic on twitter. This isn’t some church strategy to keep young people engaged or to plant churches in racially diverse neighbourhoods.

This is the gospel, that the kingdom of God is near and we should repent of sins like racism. Jesus lived, died, rose again and ascends to the Father so that the blind might receive sight. Oh Lord, open our eyes that we might see what you see.

So, you might ask, where can we start? Let’s get definitions sorted first. Racism is an unbiblical, demonic set of beliefs, actions and systems that advantage certain people based on an artificial construct called ‘race.’ The creation of this construct can be traced back to 18th century Europe. Sociologist Dr. Dorothy Roberts writes that “racism is a political category disguised as a biological one.”1

Its faux biological rationales have been used to justify all manner of injustices towards humans with darker skin, assigning systemic privileges and the proverbial benefit of the doubt to those with lighter skin.

Words like European colonization, white supremacy and white nationalism are the correct specific terms that describe racism. Racism is defined this specifically because this is how our modern world has been formed and constructed.

The point isn’t that all White people are racist, that White people should feel really guilty and bad about this, or that everyone else is off the hook. We were born into a world where Whiteness has reigned supreme for a long time and therefore, we knowingly and unknowingly participate in acts, thoughts and speech that uphold an ungodly supremacy of Whiteness.

Colonization and globalization have ensured that racism effects every corner of the earth and the modern church remains complicit in all its ugly expressions.

So, when naming this sin, resist the urge to reduce it simply to individual acts of meanness. Resist the urge to just focus on who is or isn’t offended. Resist the urge to just slap the label ‘racist’ on someone or something. Yes, meanness and microaggressions and offensive speech and actions matter, but it’s just the surface-level symptoms of a deeper-rooted systemic sin.

What is an appropriate Christian response to racism then? I don’t know. I don’t know how to specifically answer that complex question for your very specific context. This is why conversation is important. We need God’s people to crowd source the Spirit’s call for how the church should respond.

What I can end with are some thoughts on what I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Just because race is an artificial construct doesn’t mean being colour blind is the answer.
  2. Learn to talk about your particular culture (White, Chinese). Self-awareness is key to dismantling the ungodly parts of one’s culture.
  3. Nurture relationships with people who are different from you.
  4. When seeking reconciliation, public repentance and lament cannot be skipped.
  5. If you find yourself emotionally overloaded and bristling at the mention of this subject ask Jesus what’s going on for you under the surface.
  6. We should all learn to be anti-racist.
  7. There is an uncomfortable and necessary conversation to be had about how race intersects with broader issues like gender, sexuality and class. Just because you won’t agree on each issue doesn’t mean you should avoid the conversations.
  8. Develop a healthy theology about power. You can’t address racism without talking about power.

Church, I invite you to join this conversation. I need to hear your voice and learn from your experience. This is a Canadian problem. This is a human sin problem. The good news is that God promises to be with us each step of the way and empower us to overcome all sin, even this one. There is power in the name of Jesus, to break every chain.2 Even so, come Lord Jesus.

1 Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New York: The New Press, 2011), 4.

2 Will Reagan, “Break Every Chain.” Capitol CMG Genesis (Admin. By Capitol CMG Publishing). United Pursuit Music (Admin. By Capitol CMG Publishing), 2009.

Rev. Joshua Koh is a Chinese American born in Penang, Malaysia and raised in Chicago. Josh attended Wheaton College, where he received his bachelors of arts in Psychology and Bible. Josh has been living in Vancouver for almost 20 years. Here he met his wife Jenny and completed his Masters of Divinity at Regent College. He currently serves as a congregational pastor at Fraser Lands Church in Vancouver.

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3 comments for “Creating Conversation: How can church in Vancouver respond well to racism?

  1. As the kingdom of God is manifested through the history and culture of His people, God expects us to be engaged in much more than the latest church programs and waiting for His second coming. So I am thankful for Rev. Joshua Koh’s laying a sound theological foundation as to why relationships within the new humanity must transcend racial pride and prejudice.

    Since race, culture and history are parts of a unique matrix one is born into without choice, one’s entire life arguably is a process of awakening and responding to the privileges, bondages or baggage associated with that matrix. Obviously many remain unawaken. By God’s grace we are born again into his kingdom, where His reign requires us to discern what we inherited in the above.

    Unfortunately, with a risen and aggressive China, there is more than just White supremacy at work. As in Hong Kong, propaganda-driven polarization has influenced the local Chinese community. So many here find themselves caught between two equally evil choices: White supremacy and ‘Yellow’ supremacy. As both sides try to exploit patriotism and history for selfish gains, China has found ‘anti-Chinese racism’ a useful tool to corral unwary local Chinese into its fold and to silence Western leaders and critics.

    However, whether White or Yellow, Romans 11 reminds us we are merely branches from a wild olive tree grafted onto the roots by God’s grace. So irrespective of our skin colours, “Do not be arrogant, but tremble” (Romans 11: 20 NIV).

  2. We fear the unknown, especially when it comes to peoples of other cultures: Abraham feared how people in Egypt would react to Sarah and told her to lie about their relationship. The Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” feared what would happen in the future if the Hebrew population continued to grow and they turned against the Egyptians in time of war; the result? Slavery and murder to control them and decrease their numbers over time.

    The American and Canadian governments in power during World War II, with Japan as the enemy in the Pacific, had a strong distrust of Japanese Americans and Canadians respectively and sent them to internment camps for the duration of the war to prevent them from taking up arms in support of Japan.

    We in Metro Vancouver need to go out of our comfort zones, whatever our ethnic background, and nurture relationships with those of other cultures. This is likely the most effective way of overcoming our fears of others. We need more churches like Willingdon, intentionally multicultural and multilingual, where it is easy for members of the Christian community to build intercultural relationships because of the spiritual kinship they already share.

  3. I’m so pleased to see these ‘conversation starters’ about racism. As a grandfather of African grandchildren who have had to deal with racism here in Vancouver and as someone who has been involved in reconciliation efforts, I am aware of both the importance and the ongoing difficulty of meaningful conversations regarding racism.

    Underlying tendencies to think in simplistic and dualistic categories keep us from dealing with the complex and nuanced issues around race and racism. ‘Black and white thinking’ (if I may use this phrase) can assume various guises (and disguises).

    Ongoing, honest, respectful conversation involving deep listening and humble truth-telling, introspection and careful analysis, theological and historical reflection – only such committed conversation will begin to move us into a place of justice and peace, of Shalom.

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