In the late 1970s, British nationalism and racial discrimination were in full swing, and British Christians began to voice their increasing concern about racial diversity.
One way that evangelical leader, John Stott, did this was through his monthly column “Cornerstone” in Christianity Today, written between 1977 and 1981. Those articles covered “a wide spectrum of theological, ethical, cultural, and global issues.”1
In his column from November 2, 1979, Stott responded to this tension by drawing out four principles from Paul’s great Areopagus speech in Acts 17.
“I have a dream that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. . . . With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” So said Martin Luther King in his famous “dream” speech in Washington, DC, not long before his assassination. His dream lives on. It needs to be dreamed not only in the United States, and in Southern Africa, but in Britain as well.
Britain has now suffered 20 years of racial tension, beginning in 1958 when racial violence erupted in Notting Hill (London) and in Nottingham. There followed a decade in which four Commonwealth Immigration Acts were passed. These made Christians ashamed not because they limited immigration (which every country must do) but because the legislation was weighted against colored immigrants. Meanwhile, Mr. Enoch Powell, M. P., was fomenting racial tension by emotive speeches about “watching the nation heaping up its own funeral pyre” and about Britons “becoming strangers in their own country.”
Then some measure of justice was secured for racial minorities by two Race Relations Acts (1968 and 1976) since the first created a board to hear complaints and promote reconciliation, while the second created a “Commission for Racial Equality” that put teeth into the enforcement of the law.
But in 1967 the National Front, a coalition of the extreme right, came into being. Its policy is to stop immigration, promote repatriation, and fight communism. Its leaders had all been involved previously in Nazi activities and were ardent admirers of Hitler. Colin Jordan said in 1959, “I loathe the Blacks—we’re fighting a war to clear them out of Britain,” while John Tyndall’s fourth “Principle of British Nationalism” (1966) was to “oppose racial integration and stand for racial separateness.” Fortunately, such extreme statements are those of a small racist minority. Nevertheless, the well-researched book Racial Disadvantage in Britain, by David J. Smith (Penguin, 1977), documents the conclusion that, especially in employment and housing, “there is still very substantial racial discrimination” against non-white people.
A growing number of British Christians are deeply troubled by this stain on our society, and the Evangelical Race Relations Group is seeking to spread facts, allay fears, and arouse concern. Above all, we need to think biblically about the issue. Let me draw out some basic principles from Paul’s great Areopagus speech (Acts 17).
A biblical perspective on racial diversity
First, Paul affirmed the unity of the human race, or the God of creation. For God had “made from one every nation of men” (v. 26), and all human beings are therefore his “offspring” (28– 29). We evangelicals rightly reject the concept of “the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of men” if it is used to deny the special fatherhood and fellowship God gives to his redeemed people. But we should acknowledge the truth about creation it expresses. All men and women, having been created in God’s image, are equal before him in worth, and therefore have an equal right to respect.
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Second, Paul affirmed the diversity of ethnic cultures, or the God of history. For the “periods and the boundaries” of the nations are in God’s hand (v. 26). The apostle was probably alluding to the primeval command to multiply and fill the earth. It was certainly this human dispersal that inevitably resulted in the development of distinctive cultures. Now culture is the complement of nature. What is “natural” is God-given and inherited; what is “cultural” is man-made and learned.
Culture is an amalgam of the beliefs, values, customs, and institutions every society develops and transmits to the following generation. Scripture celebrates the colorful mosaic of human cultures and even declares that their “glory” will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24). This being so, we should seek to ensure that human society remains multicultural and does not become monocultural—for cultural diversity is a source of human enrichment.
Third, Paul affirmed the finality of Jesus Christ, or the God of revelation. For “now he commands all men everywhere to repent,” having raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him the universal Judge (30–31). The apostle refuses to acquiesce in the multireligious condition of Athens. He does not hail the city as a living museum of religions. No, its idolatry was abhorrent to him. We learn, therefore, that to welcome the diversity of cultures does not imply an acquiescence in the diversity of religions. On the contrary, Christians who appreciate cultural achievement must at the same time resist the idolatry [that] lies at the heart of many cultures.
We cannot tolerate any rivals to Jesus Christ. They “provoke” us, as they did Paul (16). We must therefore proclaim to all mankind that the God they may “worship as unknown” (23) has actually made himself known, uniquely and decisively, in Jesus Christ.
Fourth, Paul affirmed the glory of the Christian community, or the God of redemption. For God acted through Jesus Christ to abolish the barriers [that] divide human beings from one another and to create a single new humanity. His fullest exposition of this theme is in Ephesians. Luke only hints at it in Acts 17 by mentioning two converts by name,“Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris” (v. 34). Here was the nucleus of the new society of Jesus, in which men and women of all social, racial, and cultural origins are reconciled to each other through him. Whatever policies a country may develop for racial integration, they must reflect and not compromise these four theological truths.
Because of the unity of the human race, we must demand equal rights for racial minorities. Because of the diversity of ethnic cultures, we must renounce cultural imperialism and seek to preserve the riches of every culture. Because of the finality of Jesus Christ, we must insist that religious freedom includes the right of Christians to propagate their faith, and we must not deny this right to others. Because of the glory of the new community in Christ, we must rid it of all lingering racism and strive to make it a model of multiracial harmony.
Jesus calls all his followers to be peacemakers. We must pray, witness, and work to the end that the multiracial dream may come true.
This essay about a biblical perspective on racial diversity is excerpted from “Preserving the Richness of Racial Diversity” (1979) in Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essays of John Stott, available now through Lexham Press.
The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.
- Stott, John. Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essays of John Stott by John Stott, “Preserving the Richness of Racial Diversity” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA, 2019 ), pg. ix.