Racism has no future (“I have a dream” 50 years on, from Australia)


Today, August 28 is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I have a dream speech”.

And I take this occasion to give an Australian perspective and to say that racism has no future.

For that was the theme of his speech: racism can have no future.

Think of arguably Martin Luther King’s most famous paragraph:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

As a Christian pastor, King’s dream was rooted firmly in hopes that went way back to Old Testament prophets. He knew the time was coming when God would put all wrongs to right, including the evil of racism. And so King quoted the prophet Amos:

“…we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’.”      

So I take the chance of this anniversary to look briefly at the Scriptures to consider the past and future of ethnicity. Because what sin does with our ethnicity is the basis for racism.

What is Ethnicity’s past?

What is ethnicity’s past? King’s speech quotes the United States Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

Of course, this truth is not self-evident to racists. But it’s clearly proclaimed from the first page of the Bible. Genesis 1:27,

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (NIV84)

The first man and woman were created in God’s likeness. And Adam and Eve’s children inherit that dignity. Now from that biological unity came great diversity. The first part of Genesis records how different tribes spread through the world.

Perhaps we might conclude that the different ethnic groups we see today reflect creative genius of God. We don’t just have birds, but many varieties of finches and eagles and owls and parrots.

In the same way, we have huge ethnic variety among humans. What imagination!

And looking back later, Acts 17:26 says,

From one man [God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”

John Piper says that when you put Genesis 1 together with Acts 17:26,

…what emerges is that all members of all ethnic groups are made in the image of God.

No matter what the skin color or facial features or hair texture of other genetic trait, every human being in every ethnic group has an immortal soul in the image of god: a mind with unique God-like reasoning powers, a heart with capacities for moral judgments and spiritual affections, and a potential for relationship with God that sets every person utterly apart from all the animals which God has made. Every human being, whatever color, shape, age, gender, intelligence, health, or social class, is made in the image of God.” [cited from Piper, by Thabiti Anyabwile, p299, “The Glory and Supremacy of Jesus Christ in Ethnic Distinctions and over Ethnic Identities”, For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper (2010, Crossway)]

Of course the early chapters of Genesis also record the spread of sin and its ugly impact throughout the world, not least in the confusion of human language into many tongues, and warfare and strife between the tribes and nations. So that is ethnicity’s past.

What is Ethnicity’s future?

But what of its future? For that we go to the Bible’s end, to its last book, Revelation 7:9-10. That great vision of the heavenly throne room…

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Here is John’s glimpse of God’s future. And here is ethnicity’s future.

The ethnic distinctions seem to remain. The tribes and peoples and languages still seem to be identifiable.

But for all that, there is an over-riding unity. In v10, they cry out in a loud voice. And notice, it’s a singular voice. A multitude of ethnicities singing one song of praise directed to God and the Lamb: his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the sacrificial lamb slain for our salvation. For Rev 7:14 says we have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Part of God’s glory here is not just how he arranged to forgive us as individuals. That’s true. Thank God for it.

But another great part of his glory is how he has brought the different nations, indeed warring tribes and nations together in Christ.

That is the future. Serbian and Croatian. Hutu and Tutsi. Iranian and Iraqi. Chinese and Japanese. Even Australian and English. Despite the Ashes!

The nations were made to glorify God. And God’s glory is magnified by how he has reconciled us – not only to himself, through the cross – but also to each other, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility, as the Bible puts it elsewhere. And somehow, with many different tongues, we’ll be singing one song of worship to Jesus into eternity, united in worship forever.

Now I will leave it to others more qualified to look back at MLK’s land-mark speech (view the speech here, or read the text) and to consider its context and significance back then, and for America.

But what about Australia?

Instead I’d like to reflect on racism in Australia. For none of this is irrelevant to Australia.

Back in 1963, Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement, for example, their Freedom Riders, inspired students from University of Sydney to form a group called Student Action for Aboriginals. They traveled to various New South Wales country towns on fact-finding missions, in 1964 and 65, dubbed the “freedom rides”, led by the indigenous man, Charles Perkins.

Aborigines were then excluded from the census by the Australian Constitution. They were not treated as true citizens. They were often denied pensions or maternity benefits, and the ability to vote. Aborigines were banned from public pools and libraries and movie theatres. They were forced to live in black areas in dilapidated living quarters. They were also called names like “nigger”. The Freedom Riders targeted these social barriers of discrimination and prejudice.

But what of our context today? Hasn’t so much changed? There is certainly no doubt that legislatively, racial discrimination has been removed almost entirely, in Australia as in America.

We’ve got rid of the White Australia policy that favoured European immigration against that from Asia, although it took until 1973 to be completely overturned.

And we have integrated and eventually welcomed wave after wave of migration: from Europe after the war, from Vietnam and China and the Balkans and the Middle East and Africa. Recently at a birthday party, I saw kids from Sri Lankan, Indian, Russian, German, Greek and Chinese backgrounds around the table. I myself watched the State of Origin with people from Brazil, Iran, Lebanon and Malaysia. I advertised it as a cultural occasion!

But Australia has its racism: indigenous AFL footballer, Adam Goodes, abused as an ape at the football, then compounded by a Club President, Eddie McGuire’s blunder. And on public transport recently, TV newsreader Jeremy Fernandez was racially abused on the bus, by a woman, for 15 minutes, in front of children. And the bus driver told him he was the one who should have moved. Fernandez said such incidents were still quite common in Australia. And there was that example of the French woman on the bus in Melbourne being heavily threatened on the basis of singing quietly in her own language late last year. There people filmed the incident on phones and police eventually made an arrest.

What would you do? I think you’ve got to work it out in advance.

I hope that if I witnessed such abuse I would stand in my place on the bus and in a loud voice ask everyone else who is disgusted by the racial abuse as me also to stand and to ask the bus driver not to move on until the abuser gets off the bus. I think I’d be scared witless. But not as much as the person being abused.

And more broadly Australia is sometimes very fragile in the welcome it gives boat people and other immigrants; we can also think of the Cronulla riots a few years ago.

Then there’s the situation with our indigenous people. Possibly Australia’s greatest ever speech was delivered by Paul Keating, in December 1992, at Redfern Park, becoming the first Prime Minister to unreservedly admit the role of European settlers in destroying indigenous lives and culture, with the effects still being felt generations later.

“We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

Don Watson, his speechwriter, reckons the key line in the Redfern speech was this.

“We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me?”  (source)

Conscious or otherwise, don’t you hear an echo of the so-called Golden Rule, which Jesus taught, Matthew 7:12,

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

However the gap in terms of indigenous health and education is still great and only being closed very slowly.

And the ‘Intervention’ in the Northern Territory was initially race-based, and arguably discriminatory, yet still permitted as such by our Constitution.

But one of the things that neither law nor political correctness can do is change the heart. The law can suppress immorality. Political correctness can mute racism, albeit only in polite society. But external forces cannot change the heart.

Conclusion: All One In Christ

Here we need to come back to John’s heavenly vision. People from every tribe and nation and people group and language will only stand together around God’s throne in heaven because of the redeeming work of Jesus. At the deepest level of all, racism is only cured when our robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb.

The Bible says we are all one in Christ. As I studied in Colossians earlier this year, with our lives “hidden with Christ”, we have put on the new self, and are being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. And here, Colossians 3:11,

“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Actually our new identity in Christ makes our natural and God-given ethnic identity secondary.

More important than whether we are Anglo or Asian or African or Arabic is the fact we were made in the image of God.

And for the Christian, more important still is the fact that we are being re-made in the image of Christ, himself the true image of God.

Modelling our Future Now

How do we go about modelling our future now?

Obviously we oppose racism at every step. We are very cautious even about the casual racism of telling ‘harmless’ ethnic jokes. And we resist the temptation to stereotype people on the basis of their race.

And positively we must seek to enjoy friendship across racial lines.

I was very moved – challenged to repentance actually – by Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler reflections on the 40th anniversary of MLK’s dream speech. As a primary school kid, he said he’d only seen black people at a distance, working in fields. At high school he entered an integrated school and got to know many black kids, whom he considered friends, but he admits now, he does not know where they are and he never really entered their lives.

Now he says he has many African-Americans as friends and cherished colleagues and cannot imagine a world in which this is not normal. But here’s the key quote:

“Honesty compels me to admit that this is more because my black friends have entered my world, than that I have entered theirs.”

What are we doing to enter the lives of indigenous people?

What are we doing to enter the lives of the many international students, such as those who come to my university city, Wollongong? In fact, maybe it’s not so hard with many of them, because the way they value education and their middle class aspirations make them quite like us.

So what about refugees who re-locate to our areas, and are not often found in the uni and the middle class professions? What are we doing to enter their lives? And of course, to welcome them into ours?

It takes more than a handshake. It takes more than one or two conversations. It takes real persistence when language differences can be so great, when cultural backgrounds and interests mean it’s harder to see what you have in common and to sustain relationship.

But that desire to be singing one song of the Lamb must lead us into each others lives, because racism has no future.

2 thoughts on “Racism has no future (“I have a dream” 50 years on, from Australia)

  1. This is a good and interesting article.

    As an observer from Britian it’s interesting to get an Australian perspective, because sadly for many, Australia is seen from the outside as a racist country because of its historical treatment of the Aboriginies and the White Australia Policy, and now confirmed by the asylum seeker policies.

    As for cultural diversity, I have no doubt that Australia is very diverse in many places, but it is not diversity across the board. It’s always very noticeable that Australia is, to all intents and purposes, very white and ‘Anglo’ at athletics championships. When the Australian team in track and field athletics line up, it is almost entirely white ‘Anglo’ (with some notable exceptions like Cathy Freeman) – for instance in the heats and semi finals of 100m events in past championships Matt Shirvington (very white ‘Anglo’) would often be the sole white sprinter in the field racing against black sprinters from the Carribbean, Africa, USA, Britain, France and other countries. Same for the relay events. This is the continuing legacy of the White Australia Policy, and is very noticable.

    But every country has it’s skeletons in closets – my country Britain – has, it goes without saying, lots!

  2. Hi Duncan, and thanks for commenting.

    No problems with reporting your perceptions of Australia. A couple of years ago, we also had a lot of bad press in India, because of some street attacks on international students from India. It was awful, but deserved, though not representative of the whole picture.

    Your observation about sport, athletics in particular, is an interesting one.

    There are certain fields where indigenous Australians do not feature so often, like athletics, although Australia doesn’t have many people of any ethnic background featuring on the world stage there actually. But you could say the same thing about cricket too.

    On the other hand, indigenous men are hugely prominent among popular football codes in Australia, most notably rugby league and AFL, but also rugby union. I am confident to say they are represented in the top competitions and representative teams at rates above their presence in the general community. And most ordinary Aussies are in awe of their sporting abilities.

    I think of names like Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges, Sam Thaiday and Andrew Fifita in rugby league and I could name dozens more in the top grade.

    I don’t follow AFL very much, but I think of Adam Goodes and Lewis Jetta from the team in Sydney, and Buddy Franklin, perhaps one of the best full forwards around.

    I could go on. Indigenous people are often doing really well in football codes. They sometimes still cop racism, but overall are greatly admired more often, in my view.

    By the way, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that in 2006, there were 517,000 indigenous people living in Australia, representing 2.5% of the total Australian population.

    That means – if you are going purely on averages – you might expect to see about 1 in every 40 members of a sporting team being an indigenous person. There is well above that rate in most NRL and AFL teams.

    Good to celebrate this area of success, although there are too many other areas where indigenous people are sadly under-represented due to the history of racism and entrenched disadvantage.

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