Racism: dishonouring the image of God

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Racism: dishonouring the image of God

by Awais Mughal

The complexity of racism in its current state is difficult to summarise in a few words; however, in this article I aim to provide a personal reflection on the topic from a Pakistani Christian perspective. Racism elicits strong sentiments of anger, pain and even guilt from our varying viewpoints, and therefore, in this article I will draw on a variety of voices and perspectives both from the UK and from Pakistan to focus on the sociocultural and historical factors that maintain the structural racism within our society and institutions.

Fighting the daily racism we encounter

The recent tragic incidence of George Floyd’s death has once again flared up, on the global platform, the everyday battle of black communities who are victims of racism. Across the cities in the US and the UK many people came out on the streets. Their anger and rage was shown on the media and the backlash from this incident angered and upset some British citizens as well. This is not the first time a racist act of this nature has taken place; however, it did, once again, raise many questions about our responsibility and the role we can play, individually and collectively, to fight the systemic racism within our communities. Many have taken an introspective approach by analysing our own privilege, our role in maintaining the racist society and how we benefit from our privilege.

I was recently reminded of the 2013 film 12 Years A Slave, an adaption of the 1853 slave memoir. [1] For those who may not have seen it, it is heart wrenching story of a free man who was kidnapped and tortured for 12 years. The film portrayed a Sunday service for the black slaves on a cotton plantation, where the oppressive slave owner used Luke 12:47 for his own advantage. The words read, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (KJV).

The slave owner deviously used the verse to justify the whipping of the slaves who picked the least cotton each day. In this way, powerful people repressed the good news from the slaves. For example, the slave owner chose to ignore the words, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34, NIV). We can find many beautiful and inspiring examples in Rom. 12:10 and John 13:35 about love being the foundation of Christian faith.

As present mission partners for CMS, we are in a privileged position to influence and play a role in the fight against racism. As people of faith, we believe that God has created this beautiful cosmopolitan world in his own image (an image of love) to empower humankind, to preserve his creation and to encourage us to celebrate our relationship with God and with each other. The co-occurrence of this belief as theological doctrine is acknowledged in Judaism, Christianity and Sufism, making it more relevant to understand the purpose of God in creation of this world. Being made in the image of God also connects to humanity’s reflection of God that illustrates compassion, rationality, love, anger and fellowship. In Heb. 12.14, our relationship with God and others is described as a holy living: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV). Racism shatters the beauty of God’s creation, dividing the image of God through physical appearance. It is based on a false assumption of the superiority of one race over another. Those who have perpetuated these ideas have sown seeds of hatred, division and intolerance, resulting in disrespecting and dishonouring the imago Dei.

Many of us still encounter people who are still using the excuses of their ancestors and still misusing quotes from the Bible. Within our arsenal to fight and counter this racism we need to keep the following verse in mind:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, ESV). The Bible teaches us to keep respect and balance in our relationships, which, when disregarded, dishonours the image of God.

Race and racism

The seeds of racism were sown by the theories of many scientists in the nineteenth century who subscribed to the belief that the human population can be divided into races. [2] Early race theorists generally held the view that some races were inferior to others and therefore should be classified into races with differential abilities and dispositions. Race theorists have divided people into races rather than treating them as human beings. Interestingly, this theory has been contradicted by other scientific research that posits that around 1.2 million to 1.8 million years ago, early Homo sapiens evolved dark pigmentation as a protective evolutionary measure. [3]

Britain and other European countries created among themselves a hierarchy with white Europeans at the top and Africans and Asians at the bottom. Racism against black and Asian people grew after the 1860s based on the theories of scientific racism that, it was claimed, proved that because of brain size, black and Asian people are inferior intellectually to Europeans and can only be humanised and civilised by Europeans.

Many researchers and professionals working to eliminate racism maintain that race is a political construction to execute structures of power, culture, education and identity. [4] The slave trade is an example of such a structure used to justify that black people were inferior. While many maintain that modern issues of racism are a US-based issue, we need to acknowledge that the aftermath of colonialism continues to affect the lives of millions. Britain was one of the richest slave-trading nations in the world, with large numbers of slaves being transported from African and Asian colonies to Europe and America.

By the mid-eighteenth century, London had the largest black population in Britain, made up of free and enslaved people as well as many who had fought very hard to escape. The total number by 1914 may have been about 10,000, which trebled during the First World War. [5] As time passed, tensions between the white community and different ethnic minorities developed. During the Seaport Riots of 1919, in which white workers attacked black workers and their families, five people died and there was widespread vandalisation of property; 120 black workers were sacked in Liverpool after whites refused to work with them. Many of these people were forced to beg due to the lack of jobs and racial discrimination. A study by Jacqueline Jenkinson provides an example of the deep embedded institutionalised racism found within the law enforcement. She reports that during the 1919 riots police officers arrested nearly twice as many black citizens (155) than white (89). This was made worse by the judicial system which convicted half of the black arrestees while acquitting majority of the white workers. [6]

According to Historic England, the increase of immigration in the 1960s and the resulting discriminatory behaviour experienced led to the formation of defence organisations such as the League of Coloured Peoples and the Indian Workers’ Association, both of which were established in the 1930s, and the Black People’s Alliance in the 1970s. [7] However, their fight continues within the contemporary world.

Colonialism and its impact on Pakistan

By the first half of the nineteenth century, the region of India was fully colonialised by the East India Company. At that time Pakistan did not exist as a country. British rule ended with the creation of East and West Pakistan in 1947. When the British left the subcontinent after 90 years of direct rule, the aftermath of their of political decisions led to one of the largest migrations in history, as many moved from India to Pakistan and vice versa. It displaced 15 million people and more than one million were killed. The relationship between India and Pakistan remained sour throughout that time. Simultaneously, the decision to create East and West Pakistan with India sandwiched in the middle led to several governance and identity issues. The division of land ultimately led to East Pakistan seeking independence from West Pakistan. The creation of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) in 1971 and the war of independence resulted in the death of 500,000 people. [8]

Aftermath of colonialism

The negative impact of colonial legacies can still be felt today in the shape of interventionism, imperialism, neocolonialism and institutional racism. The continuing intervention of the West has led to serious problems between Pakistan and India that provoke tensions in the form of religious hatred and prejudices. The unresolved issue of Kashmir continues to raise tensions. Colonialism was followed by imperialism. Instead of taking physical control of another, imperialism is exercised by political and monetary dominance, both formally and informally. Some of imperial tools used to overpower people in developing or former colonised countries are the imposition and presumptive superiority of imperial culture, language and education.

The pandemic effects of the power of hierarchy are seen in all colonised countries, including Pakistan. We have witnessed unrest, bloody wars, revenge and destruction everywhere. British military and noblemen built segregated institutions for themselves including hospitals, clubs, and educational establishments to exclude the locals. Unfortunately, the people who came into power after decolonisation maintained these laws and cultural norms to empower themselves and to control the weak and oppressed. The rich had the right of judgement, which still dominates the Pakistan judicial system.

Ironically, those who struggled and protested for their equal rights and freedom during colonialism promoted and followed the same culture of superiority and inferiority when they came into power. This happened in both secular and religious leadership. So much so that some religious people use references from their holy books to supress the weak, such as the aforementioned verse from Luke 12:47. It has been my observation that religious references have been used to oppress the marginalised (minorities), especially women. It is a shame that political and religious leadership have failed to inculcate values of justice and equality for all. Tragically, the majority of people never dare to speak out against these injustices and have accepted this as their fate.

Social prejudices

Some of the social constructs that are deeply rooted in Pakistani culture are colourism, superiority of languages, fashion, social status and religious discrimination. It is important to acknowledge that subtle examples of western superiority are ingrained within the mentality of Pakistani and European people. For example, young people prefer western food, fashion and music and look down on their local culture. At the same time, while the British nation voted “curry” as its favourite takeaway, the generic term “curry” that is used to describe all form of all Asian food is perceived by some to be culturally inappropriate. In some Pakistani churches, food politics was manifested in racism when white clergy were not allowed to eat on the same table as the local catechists. Some clergy would have them sit on the floor instead of using the same furniture as them.

Regarding colourism, young girls are mostly the victims of this discriminatory judgement. In Pakistan, the culture of arranged marriages is still dominant. Every family wants to have a fair (white) bride for their sons, following a western concept of beauty. Most of the time young girls are rejected because of their dark complexion no matter how educated or qualified they are. Young girls often experiment with different bleach creams or homemade remedies/herbal mixtures to change their complexion. You can find countless varieties of bleach creams in the everyday shops and supermarkets. There are many cultural jokes and sayings that make fun of girls’ dark complexion. Similarly, black skin is taken to be associated with sorrow, suffering , as an insult or to depict the image of the devil.

There is also a hierarchy of language in Pakistan. English is superior over Urdu and Urdu is superior over Punjabi and other dialects of Pakistan. Those who cannot speak English are deprived of executive jobs and are less respected in upper-class society. The standard of education in private or English-medium schools is measured by the perceived quality of English language instruction and high tuition fees, depriving common people from getting admission in these schools.

Pakistani minorities face racism outside the country while internally they face extreme religious discrimination. The ill-treatment of minorities in Pakistan goes against some of the teachings of Quran. To disrespect another religion is explicitly condemned in the Quran: “Do not abuse those whom they worship besides Allah” (6:109). If a person claims to be Muslim, he is not allowed to insult or disrespect another religion. This is forbidden according to the Quran. Even to engage in arguments with non-Muslims in a disrespectful manner is prohibited: “And argue not with the people of the Scripture [Jews and Christians], unless it be in [a way] that is better [with good words and in good manner], except with such of them as do wrong, and say [to them]: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our God and your God is One, and to Him we have submitted [as Muslims’”(29:46).

Contemporary challenges and a way forward

As I reflect on how we can challenge racism and racist structures, I offer some things I have seen and heard as a way forward. Geting rid of the evil practices that dishonour the image of God requires cohesive acts to change the external and internal prejudices connected with institutional racism and social constructs. God is working in a miraculous way in people’s lives, guiding them to find hope in him; despite the antagonistic effects of colonialism, some weak and marginalised people in colonised countries look at its positive side as well. The introduction of Christianity offered more religious mission opportunities to transform people’s lives. CMS is an organisation that plays a significant role in transforming people’s lives all over the world. At this point I must acknowledge that my great-grandparents came to Christ because of the good news shared by missionaries in Pakistan and I am proud of their strong faith in Christ, which enables us to live the positive values of our faith.

A recent statement from Church House is a reconfirmation that the Church of England is committed to taking this issue seriously. The statement reads:

For the Church to be credible voice in calling for change access the world, we must now ensure that apologies and lament are accompanied by swift actions leading to real change. [9]

It is our collective responsibility to help eradicate negative behaviours towards the BAME community across the world. A worldwide 2015 survey by Pew Research Center found that of the 84 per cent of people who identified themselves with a religious group, 31.2 per cent were Christian, 24.1 per cent were Muslim and 15.1 per cent were Hindu; 16 per cent of the world’s population were secular or atheist. [10] Looking at the promising percentage of believers, we can see our potential to take an active role in combating racism by raising understanding of racial issues and its dreadful effects that dishonour different images of God and our churches.

The most widely accepted definition of racial discrimination is found in the European law produced during the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Article 6 states:

The State has prime responsibility for ensuring human rights and fundamental freedoms on an entirely equal footing in dignity and rights for all individuals and all groups.… The State should take all appropriate steps, inter alia by legislation, particularly in the spheres of education, culture and communication, to prevent, prohibit and eradicate racism, racist propaganda, racial segregation and apartheid and to encourage the dissemination of knowledge and the findings of appropriate research in natural and social sciences on the causes and prevention of racial prejudice and racist attitudes. [11]

The charity HOPE not hate surveyed about 1,000 adults in Britain in August 2020 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in the US and anti-racism protests in the UK. According to the report, 64 per cent of ethnic minorities in total agreed that the police as a whole were good. [12] Black communities were slightly lower on 58 per cent, but still a majority. Most of them agreed that it is down to a few individual officers. More than half of the BAME respondents also expressed that they had witnessed or experienced racist comments being made in public or on social media in the past 12 months. Almost three-quarters said they supported the recent Black Lives Matter protests, but there were fears that they might prompt a backlash from sections of the white population.

There have been some positive signs. Chief constables from forces across the country, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the chief executive of the College of Policing and the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association have spoken following the death of George Floyd and the events that have followed in the United States. “We stand alongside all those across the globe who are appalled and horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life. Justice and accountability should follow.” [13]

Together we can honour God’s image by respecting cultural and racial differences, and avoiding racial comments and the use of humour, words or jokes to intimidate or harass others. We can also use our influence to develop and support strategies that ban racist expressions and organisations. Part of the problem is that international law has not fully been decolonised. We need to work collectively to restore the dignity of those individuals who have been suffering from racism, fight for justice and seek guidance from Paul’s message from 1 Cor. 12:7–11:

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines (NIV).

Human beings are not commodities to be judged by brands or labels. Special measures must be taken to ensure equality in dignity and rights for individuals and groups wherever necessary, remembering that “he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26, ESV). As long as people strive for power, then injustice, inequality and hatred will continue to grow. As human beings we share so many things in common to celebrate together such as humility, simplicity, respect for people and family values, hospitality, love for nature, etc. Finally, it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of victims to understand how racism is damaging their lives.

I want to conclude with Nelson Mandela’s message: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour 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.” [14]

About the author

Awais Mughal is a fourth generation Pakistani Christian working as CMS mission partner in Leeds. In 2013, she began her journey with CMS and after serving almost two years in Pakistan, she moved back to the UK. She currently lives in Seacroft where she teaches language courses designed for asylum seekers and refugees, supports local churches by sharing the gospel and delivers activities that connect women from different cultural and faith backgrounds. In her spare time, she likes to knit, cook and write about human rights issues.

More from this issue


[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1853).
[2] Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982).
[3] Nina G. Jablonski and George Chaplin, “The colours of humanity: the evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 372, no. 1724 (5 July 2017).
[4] Racial Equity Tools, https://www.racialequitytools.org/home.
[5] Stephen Bourne, Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2014).
[6] Jacqueline Jenkinson, Black 1919: Riots, Racism, and Resistance in Imperial Britain (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009).
[7] https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/another-england/a-brief-history/racism-and-resistance
[8] Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
[9] Maddy Fry, “Bishops pledge swift action to combat racism in the Church of England,” Church Times, 3 July 2020, https://www.churchtimes. co.uk/articles/2020/3-july/news/uk/bishops-pledge-swift-action-to-combat-racism-in-the-church-of-england.
[10] Harriet Sherwood, “Religion: why faith is becoming more and more popular,” The Guardian, 27 August 2018, https://www.theguardian. com/news/2018/aug/27/religion-why-is-faith-growing-and-what-happens-next.
[11] Natan Lerner, The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 238–239.
[12] “Minority communities in the time of COVID and protest: a study of BAME opinion,” HOPE not hate, 19 August 2020, https://www. hopenothate.org.uk/2020/08/19/minority-communities-time-covid-protest-study-bame-opinion/.
[13] Sam Corbishley, “UK police say they are ‘appalled’ by George Floyd death and call for justice,” Metro, 3 June 2020, https://metro. co.uk/2020/06/03/uk-police-say-are-appalled-george-floyd-death-call-justice-12798761/.
[14] Susan Ratcliffe, Oxford Essential Quotations 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).