Is Anyone Born a Racist? Or Is It Learned?
This summer, the city of Charlottesville was the scene of an eruption of racial animosity — a sentiment that seems to continue simmering under the surface of a broader divide in our country. And it brings again to the forefront a question over whether racism is the product of nature or nurture. Are we born racists? Or is prejudice learned? This question came up recently for a listener named Ryan in Houston. “Pastor John, in the wake of recent events this summer in Charlottesville, President Obama shared this quote from Nelson Mandela on social media:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Several news agencies are reporting that this is now the most-liked tweet of all time. But it seems contrary to the teaching of Scripture. What are your thoughts?”
I have several thoughts about that quote. I’ve tried to think about it in a way that could affirm it. I’m trying to get inside his skin and think, “Is there a way to affirm it as a Christian?” rather than just my knee-jerk reaction to bring clear, biblical teaching against it (which I’m going to do, eventually, in a way).
The Nurture of Our Nature
Let me try to break it down. First, “no one is born hating another person,” he says, “because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate.” Now that’s tricky. Here’s a way to defend it.
When we are born, the Bible teaches that we have a nature that is rebellious against God. First Corinthians 2:14 says that we are naturally unable to discern spiritual things, like the beauty of God and his ways. Romans 8:7–8 says that by nature, we’re unwilling and unable to submit to God’s law and to please God.
Ephesians 2:3 says we are “by nature children of wrath.” That is, we are so opposed to God that it is just of God to pour his wrath out against us. Romans 3:10 says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” Romans 3:23 says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
“Our fallen nature is essentially proud and selfish and self-exalting and resistant to God.”
Now here’s the catch. This fallen nature, this sinfulness, is essentially proud and selfish and self-exalting and resistant to God and what exalts God over all things. But the form that this pride and selfishness takes is learned. It is! It’s largely shaped by our parents and our culture.
One form this sinfulness can take is hatred toward people who are different from us. This attitude can become bigoted and angry, wanting to create as much separation as we can. But another form our selfishness can take is a way of relating that wins the praise of others by doing helpful things for others — even others who are different from us.
There are many vain, selfish, anti-God people who have learned to treat others with decency and respect because there are very significant advantages to living that way, especially if there’s a group of people that you care about — a group of people who praise that behavior very highly, and thus build up your ego while you treat people that way.
So yes, we do learn to hate in the sense that our parents and our culture channel our natural self-exaltation into forms of opposition to people like us, or we may learn to channel our selfishness into benevolent ways that provide ego satisfaction for ourselves and win a good deal of praise from other people we admire.
“Love” Can Gain Nothing
Now the next part of Mandela’s statement says, “They can be taught to love.” Now, if love here simply means a kind of behavior that gives practical help rather than hurt to others, that’s true. That’s what we saw already. But that’s not what the Bible calls love.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” So the love that the Bible cares about is not merely giving our goods to the poor or being willing to sacrifice our bodies. Love, as 2 Corinthians 8:1–2 describes, starts with being overwhelmed by being loved by God and being overwhelmed by the grace of God to us in our guilt and our lack of deserving.
“The form our pride and selfishness take is learned.”
Then, overflowing with joy in God, we meet the needs of others and draw them into sharing our joy in God, which doesn’t just last for eighty years but for eighty thousand years. This love goes out to people unlike us — in fact, especially to people not like us. Jesus says we give love to our enemies. We pour out that kind of love.
The reason it matters to define love as coming from an experience of grace is that, without this, we perish under God’s wrath. God has made a way for us to enjoy his favor, and if we don’t come to Christ and confess our lovelessness and receive forgiveness and find our treasure in God himself, we will perish under God’s punishment.
This means that the effort to teach people to act lovingly, but not to love with the love of God — not to have the love of God flowing through us because of Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins, through faith in him — to teach people to love without that is not loving. It leaves people lost in their sin, and that sin then gets all covered by a veneer of good deeds. And therefore, it’s very destructive.
Finally, Mandela says, “For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” If love simply means doing many beneficial things for people, you could see why this might be true. For example, a mother more naturally feeds her child than throwing the child over a cliff, right? Almost everybody would agree it’s more natural. Most women find it more natural to be nurturing and feed her infant than to throw him over a waterfall.
But apart from Christ and his saving work, that natural love exists in a heart that is hostile to God, a heart that does not submit to his law. Every one of us has a fundamentally self-exalting heart, which, to be sure, will do many things that benefit others. But that heart has no expression of submission to God or desire that others find their joy in God.
“Love is finding Jesus as our treasure and desiring that others come and join, even at great cost to ourselves.”
If love, as the Bible teaches, is far more than learned behaviors — if it is the overflow of joy in being forgiven through Jesus Christ and finding him as our supreme treasure and desiring that others come and join us in that everlasting pleasure, even at great cost to ourselves — then love does not come naturally to the human heart. It is, in fact, diametrically opposed to what we are by nature.
The human heart is proud and selfish and resistant to the authority of God. It is insubordinate to his commands, including the command to love in the power that God supplies for the glory of God.
So my prayer for myself and others is that we Christians would pursue love in this world by pursuing faith in Christ. We know that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). It is unloving to train people to act in ways that looks loving, but is only sin.