I wrote the following as preparation for the next video in a series of videos I'm working on for my church. This is not going to end up being the actual script, but it's a good reflection of the lines along which I'm thinking about these things.
You can check out the introductory video to the series here.
Human beings have a long-standing tendency to make moral judgments on the basis of mere appearances. We have always been inclined to ignore the inner essence of what is true and, instead, to love and emphasize what is physical, visible, and external.
The familiar warning that “we should not judge a book by its cover” represents exactly the kind of wisdom, accumulated from the past, which we so easily ignore in the present.
Maybe nowhere has humanity’s obsession with externals been more obvious or harmful than in its sordid history of categorizing and defining precious human beings merely on the basis of their physical appearance. Across time and in different parts of the world, people have been valued or devalued merely on the basis of the color of their skin. People have been treated, not as individuals, but as members of an arbitrary group, with an arbitrary value assigned on the basis of an arbitrary anatomical feature.
The Bible warns us in its earliest pages of the inherent danger of making judgments on the basis of externals. As Eve wrestled with a decision on whether to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden, one of the decisive factors for her was its appearance. (Gen 3:6) Ignoring the moral essence that had been communicated by God, she chose to eat the fruit because of the way it looked. Having made her decision on the basis of appearances, she and her husband brought catastrophe on the entire world.
Many years later, in one of the pivotal moments in history, God gave the world what we now know as “the 10 commandments”. The commandments provide us with not only a list of do’s and don’ts, but they also serve as a kind of commentary on humanity’s weaknesses and proclivities. Given the events in the garden which had already demonstrated the inclination of human beings to be enthralled by appearances, the very second command God gave was to refrain from making images and to refrain from bowing down and worshiping images of created things. In that commandment, God warns against our demonstrated weakness for emphasizing form over substance, even as the commandment harbors echoes of past events.
Now fast-forward to many years later. God’s chosen people have decided that, being unhappy having God as their king, they would rather have a king like the nations around them. (1 Samuel 8:20) And what drove their choice of king? Why, his appearance of course. The bible says that he was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else”. (1 Samuel 9:2) Later, when King Saul turned out to be a dud whose dashing appearance in no way foreshadowed his actual character (many young women have discovered how that works), a new king had to be chosen. And what, you might be wondering, was the criteria that again influenced the choice of a new king? Why, his appearance of course. The prophet Samuel immediately assumed the first candidate for king was the right choice purely based on his appearance. But at this point God, having apparently had enough of this shallow approach, intervened and removed any doubt about basing choices on mere appearances.
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Fast forward again to hundreds of years even later. Jesus himself is in a conflict with the religious leaders of his day. They actually want to kill him because he healed a man on the sabbath. But the religious leaders’ moral judgment is once again – you guessed it – based on appearances. Jesus has to again tell people, “stop judging by mere appearances” (John 7:24) More than that, he suggests that judging by appearances is actually the opposite of “right judgment”.
Are you sensing a theme at this point? In both the old and new testaments of the Bible, we are repeatedly cautioned against making moral judgments on the basis of external appearances.
Human identity and significance are not determined by our skin color, the shape of our ears, or the size of our noses. The physical characteristics of our bodies are not a guide to our identity, nor are they a clue to the kind of people we are. To believe such things is to judge by appearances. The Bible says, repeatedly in fact, that human identity comes from neither our physical attributes nor our physical appetites. Our identity derives from God – from the fact that we have been made in His image. (Gen 1:27)
The Bible also says the way to know what kind of a person someone is requires observing what that person’s life and actions produce. Jesus said, regarding how to evaluate the moral substance of another person, “by their fruit you will know them”. (Matt 7:16) We cannot, then, know a person’s heart or character on the basis of his skin color, or any other aspect of his anatomy.
In our day, a pernicious lie is spreading across the world, and even within the church. The lie being told is that moral judgments about people can be made merely on the basis of skin color -- that human identity itself is bound up with skin color. We’re being told that people who live in the present collectively bear the guilt of people from the past, just because they happen to share a similar anatomy. This kind of thinking is eerily reminiscent of ideas taught in previous generations when people believed that the color of a person or group made them fundamentally less valuable or less human as a result.
Just to be explicit, anyone who believes that another person’s moral standing is inseparable from his pigmentation is judging by externals.
In collectivist racial groupthink, we are encouraged to conceive of our neighbor as an abstract member of a group, sorted and arranged according to the color of his skin. Having been categorized based on appearances, broad sweeping judgments can then be applied to entire groups instead of to individuals. Vast collections of human beings can be summarily condemned as oppressors, or celebrated and granted moral authority as victims, or subjugated and mistreated as less than human, merely on the basis of appearances. Questions concerning the actual moral character of the individuals themselves are cast aside in favor of broad-brush assessments based on color.
This modern version of judging by appearances still carries within it the ancient seed of destruction that has always gone hand-in-hand with shallow judgments. The word “justice” may be what is being whispered into our ears, but the business of judging by appearances always produces injustice.
For Christians, the Bible says that we are actually a new race! Not a race based on skin color or national culture. Rather, through the gospel, Christians have become a chosen race. A holy nation. God’s own people. (1 Peter 3:9ff) Our race and family and community in Christ transcends the physical context of skin, or geography, or nation.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross for abstract groups, sorted according to their appearance. He died to forgive the sins of individual human beings. Our sins are not an outgrowth of our anatomy but of our individual wicked hearts. People of all skin colors are fallen and equally in need of redemption. We don’t answer to God for the sins of our forefathers, but because we ourselves fall short of His glory.
The gospel teaches us to grow beyond a shallow focus on appearances. God has torn down the walls of externals that separate us. The mystery of Christ, kept secret for generations, is that any unique racial standing has given way to the blending of everyone into the family of God. (Ephesians 3) All believers are united by having a common father. Adopted into a common family. (Ephesians 1:5) With Jesus as our older brother. (Romans 8:29)
Make no mistake, Jesus responded with surprising harshness toward those religious leaders who valued and loved appearances. (Matthew 23:5ff) What Jesus cares about cannot be found in our pigmentation but only in our hearts. It is not the color of our skin that matters to Him, but the content of our character.