Racists Can’t Own An NBA Team But They Can Go To Heaven: An African-American Christian’s Perspective of Racism in the NBA
The recent racist rant of LA Clippers’ owner, Mr. Donald Sterling, caused an enormous outrage throughout the NBA and beyond. Virtually every major news and entertainment source, from ESPN to late night talk shows, applauded the NBA’s decision to ban Mr. Sterling from any association with the team that he owns or with the NBA. In essence, both the league and most major media sources have categorically stated that Mr. Sterling has forfeited his right to be part of the LA Clippers’ organization, although he purchased it with his own money, because he is a racist. Now that much of the controversy has ended, I think it’s time for an African-American Christian to provide his perspective on Mr. Sterling’s racism and to provide his perspective on what the gospel says about the eternal destiny of racists. In my view, the Christian gospel promises that Mr. Sterling and all racists can go to heaven.
As an African-American Christian, I think Mr. Sterling’s comments were both a sinful offense to God and hateful racist speech toward African-Americans. His comments violated Jesus’ basic commandment of loving God above all and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Luke 11:27). But if Mr. Sterling confesses his sins to God, turns from them, and gives his life to Jesus Christ by faith, the Christian gospel promises that God will forgive him of his sins (1 John 1:9), even his gross sin of racism, even if the NBA will not.
The NBA and the media have focused on the content of Mr. Sterling’s words toward African-Americans, and many African-Americans were rightly disgusted, hurt, and angered by his explicit racist comments. But the Christian gospel says that we should be more concerned with why Mr. Sterling perceives of African-Americans in the precise ways that he expressed in his private conversation with his girlfriend. The Christian gospel emphatically states that Mr. Sterling expressed racist comments and embraces a racist worldview because of the dominating power of sin in his life.
Genesis 1-3, for example, states that God created human beings; human beings sinned by disobeying his command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God cursed the entire creation as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Consequently, as Romans 5:12 states, sin and death entered the world through Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, and his sin transmitted sin to the entire creation so that all human beings are conceived in sin (Psalm 51). According to Genesis 3:8, after Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves from God. This reflects that their relationship with him was broken because of sin. According to Genesis 4, shortly after the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin likewise severed humanity’s relationship with one another. Cain murdered his very own brother, Abel. Thus, it is evident from the narrative of Genesis 3-4 that sin shattered humanity’s relationship with God and with one another (see also the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9).
However, the New Testament states on numerous occasions that Jesus died on the cross and resurrected from the dead to save all sinners from their sins. He even died for the sin of racism and he even died to save racists! He died to restore both humanity’s broken relationship with God (1 Peter 3:18) and humanity’s broken relationship with one another (Ephesians 2:11-22). For example, John 3:16 states that God gave his son to the world to die on the cross to save anyone who believes in him. Romans 1:16 states the gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s power unto salvation, and by means of the gospel God will save anyone from any race who believes. Romans 3:21-30 states that Jesus died on the cross to satisfy God’s wrath against all sins and all sinners so that they would be justified by faith. Romans 4:7-8 states that God counts the sins of sinners against Jesus on the cross and that he counts Jesus’ righteousness on behalf of the sinner who has faith in Jesus so that the sinner can be saved from his sin and from God’s wrath. Romans 5:8-9 states that God demonstrated his love for sinners by offering his son to die for their sins in order to save them by faith and to reconcile them to God.
The problem with racists and with Mr. Sterling’s comments is not fundamentally that they are racist. But the fundamental problem with racists and with Mr. Sterling’s comments is that racists and racist comments reveal the spiritual deadness of humanity’s spiritual heart and the need for God through Christ and by his Spirit to resurrect one’s spiritual heart from the dead (Eph 2:1-10). The solution to Mr. Sterling’s racism is not banishment from the NBA, which will neither change the way he feels toward African-Americans nor the fact that he’s a racist. But the solution to his racism is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If he trusts in and follows by faith Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and resurrected from the dead for all types of sins and for all types, races, and kinds of sinners, then Mr. Sterling can be liberated from racism. If Mr. Sterling chooses to become a Christian, the Christian gospel promises that he will go to heaven, a place filled with many sinful Christ-followers—even liberated racist Christ-followers. The NBA has decided that a certain kind of sinner (a racist) can’t own an NBA team, but this African-American Christian believes that racists can go to heaven by faith in Jesus Christ. May God give the church of Jesus Christ the grace to seek to win all lost people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, even racists!
Jarvis J. Williams serves as Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary. He is the author of Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement: Did Martyr Theology Shape Paul’s Conception of Jesus’s Death?, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology, and For Whom Did Christ Die? The Extent of the Atonement in Paul’s Theology.