“The black represents sin, red is the blood of Jesus, which brings us to the next bead—white, when we are washed clean of our sin.”
We sat in pairs and prepared to share the gospel by color. I was 16 and going on my first mission trip to Costa Rica. Our church youth group had practiced our mime for months—an allegory of the story of Jesus–and our bags were loaded with extra Bibles in Spanish. We all memorized some basic Spanish so we could share the gospel as we gave away bracelets with colored beads, called “Power Bands.”
This method of evangelism, a bracelet version of the “Wordless Book” has been an evangelistic tool since the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to have been invented by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. In this method, each color represents an aspect of the gospel. The Teen Missions website gives the following guide:
Each color of the Wordless Book / Wordless Bracelet represents an important Bible truth about Salvation
BLACK – Sin Romans 3:23 | All have sinned
RED – Blood I John 1:7 | Jesus’ blood covers all sin
WHITE – Pure Psalm 51:7 | Jesus washes away confessed sin
YELLOW – Heaven John 14:2 | Believe on Jesus and receive Eternal Life
GREEN – Grow 2 Peter 3:18 | Grow in the knowledge of the Lord
In a sermon delivered in 1866, Spurgeon read the verse : “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7), then shared:
“There is something about this in the text, for the person who used this prayer said, “Wash me,” so he was black and needed to be washed; and the blackness was of such a peculiar kind that a miracle was needed to cleanse it away, so that the one who had been black would become white, and so white that he would be “whiter than snow.”
If I were in the presence of an African American as this sermon was delivered, I would certainly be cringing every time the word “black” was spoken.
The imagery of purity being associated with the color white and sin or evil being associated with the color black is commonplace in western culture. But what is happening at the level of our subconscious when we associate “black” with sin and “white” with purity and then turn around and categorize one another as “white” and “black”?
I can hear the naysayers now:
“Don’t be so touchy.”
“Does everything have to be about race?”
But as a mother, I have to wonder what my children internalize when they are taught that black is sin and white is purity. Which color would you rather be?
Perhaps it is time to abandon the Wordless Book.
If you were (or are) a person of color, how would it make you feel to sing the following song (as is recommended by websites advocating the Wordless Book):
(Show the colors as you sing.)
(Black) My heart was dark with sin until the Savior came in.
(Red) His precious blood I know
(White) Has washed it white as snow.
(Gold) And in His Word I’m told I’ll walk the streets of gold.
(Green) To grow in Christ each day I read the Bible and pray.
Along with the fact that this method implies that black is bad and white is good, another problem with the Wordless Book is that our associations with color are not universal. When I lived in China, for example, I learned that white is the color of death and used in funerals and red symbolizes good fortune. In this regard, short term missionaries can sometimes do more harm than good when they fail to study language and culture before trying to share Christ in a foreign land.according to Wikipedia at least, it was used by China Inland Mission and missionary Hudson Taylor in China).
So what are some alternatives?
Rather than using colors, some people use the metaphors of being “dirty” and “clean,” utilizing object lessons like a dirty T-shirt washed clean to present the truth of salvation. Another alternative is to use the more biblical language of “light” and “darkness” when talking about sin and salvation. Though the Bible uses the word “white” in reference to purity, it never uses the word “black” to describe sin. The closest the Bible comes to color-coding sin is in Isaiah 1:18 that says “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
God can and does use even our faulty methods to share His love. But if there is any chance that our methods offend, confuse, belittle or perpetuate stereotypes, then perhaps we should abandon them for the sake of unity.
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.
Images: 1) Bracelets 2) Open-air preaching in China