Wait.. red.. and yellow…??? (Those darn racist Bible songs)

If you’ve ever spent even a nanosecond in Sunday school you can probably still recite the lyrics to many of the songs you learned as a child. You’ve heard them all so many times they’re forever etched into your permanent memory.

Let’s test this theory, shall we? Let’s have a sing-along!

The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me…

Jesus loves me this I know…

For many of us these songs represent the earliest seeds of faith that were sown into our lives. It was through these songs that we learned that Jesus loves us, that the Bible was the Word of God and that Father Abraham had many sons. Many of the foundational principles of our faith were passed down to us by our beloved Sunday school teachers in the form of songs.

As we grow older and start having children of our own, we often times find ourselves sharing these same songs with them. They bring back many fond memories of our own childhood and we’re happy to introduce our children to these treasured favorites.

But what do you do when you suddenly realize that one of the all time classics is inherently racist?

Each and every night my wife and I tuck our toddler son into bed. After giving us hugs and kisses, our little guy crawls into bed thanks Jesus for giving him another great day. After we finish praying we always close with a song of his choice. We cover all the classics; everything from “Old McDonald” to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to the “ABCs.” From time to time we’ll mix in a children’s song that we remember from our Sunday school days as well.

One night in particular our son asked to hear a new song, one that we hadn’t sung before. After scratching our heads for a minute, trying to come up with a new tune, it dawned on us that we hadn’t taught him “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” A classic! How could we have made such an egregious error?

So we started…

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

He seemed to like the sound of that. It was going pretty well so far, so we continued.

Red and yellow… black… and… white…???? *record scratches*

Wait a minute. Something didn’t feel right here.

First of all, it didn’t seem right to teach him a song that encourages him to categorize people according to the color of their skin. Even though we understand that the song’s intent is to explain that Jesus loves children of every race (well, almost every race, more on that later) it also teaches him – starting from a very young age – to see people in terms of their racial differences. We just didn’t feel right introducing that concept to a child who still instinctively plays with kids of all makes and models without the slightest bit of hesitation. He’s an equal opportunity playmate. We like that about him, and we’re not looking to mess that up for him anytime soon.

Secondly, while I will admit that the term “black” is still subject to debate in reference to African Americans (and white is its apparent opposite?) what about the other terms? Red? Yellow? I can only assume these colors are used in the song to refer to Native Americans and Asians. But the last time I checked it is pretty offensive to both Asians and Native Americans to be referred to as “yellow” and “red.”

And finally… what about the Latino kids? God apparently loves all the Native American, European, African and Asian kids, but not them? Why are our brown skinned friends from south of the border excluded from God’s love buffet?

After a brief summit between my wife and I to discuss the social and moral implications of teaching a song loaded with racial undertones to our four-year-old, my wife saved the situation with a solution. We could always just change the lyrics!

So we continued….

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Every color, shape and size, they are precious in his eyes.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Maybe we’ve bowed just a little at the altar of political correctness. And maybe our child will grow up singing a bastardized version of a Sunday school classic. And yes, we’re aware that the lyrics still highlight the fact that people are different colors (at least in our version they’re not segregated, and it’s not using derogatory terms to describe them!). But we’ll sleep better at night knowing we’ve taken steps to help prevent our son from developing into a little racist.

Even if that means sheltering him from those racist Bible songs. πŸ˜†

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27 thoughts on “Wait.. red.. and yellow…??? (Those darn racist Bible songs)

  1. oh wow. I never really noticed that before…except for being the only brown kid in a catholic sunday school πŸ™‚

  2. I kinda think it’s OK for kids to speak in those kind of general terms. It’s kind of innocent and honest. But it gets weird with grown-ups, and I suppose that does make it weird for grown-ups to teach a song like this to kids.

    Thanks for ruining that piece of my childhood with your hyper-sensitive racial views, Shane. Next you’re gonna tell me that Jesus didn’t really look the way I was taught he did (you know, like Ted Nugent).

  3. I’m sure there are plenty of objectionable things that show up in the dark closets and dusty corners of the church’s past. But I’m more worried about the actual racism displayed by current adults in the church. (I saw signs of that when I was in Texas, for awhile attending a Southern Baptist church that wouldn’t minister to their neighborhood because the local residents were African Americans and Latinos, but I have also seen signs of that in various “Christian” settings in New York.) And by the rampant heresies which have taken control of the evangelical church (stuff like the biblical prosperity heresy). And by superficial me-first “worship” songs which have completely drowned out the theologically solid hymns and worship songs of the pre-1995 era. I don’t know too many churches that actually teach kids that old song; my nephew (age 6) and niece (age 4 1/2) haven’t learned it yet.

    Oh, and as a kid, I found that song the first time that “other” kids were included in the love of Jesus. In my whitebread middle-class evangelical church, I eventually would see other signs of the inclusiveness of the gospel, but at age 3 & 4, that was the first clue I had.

    And “red” doesn’t refer to Native Americans. It refers to me when I spend an hour in the summer sun, with or without sunscreen. . . .

  4. Charles: I am honored to have you stop by! I hope life is treating you well. Feels like I haven’t seen you in years! We’re seriously talking about going to the OTR show in NYC in October. I wish it were the same weekend as homecoming so we could kill two birds with one stone, but it’s not. Anyway, might you be going?

    Oh, and as a kid, I found that song the first time that β€œother” kids were included in the love of Jesus.

    That’s a really interesting point. I grew up in a rural evangelical church which really had no people of color that I can recall. I certainly can see how that would be an eye-opening realization for someone in that setting!

    Also, on the topic of racism and segregation in the church. Two excellent books that I’ve recently read that address the issue are:

    Reconciliation Blues by Edward Gilbreath

    Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

    I’ve seen some of the tendencies toward segregation in the church first hand in Rochester. In the city you have a much more diverse population. It’s also where the crime, poverty, murder and other social ills are so prevalent. I’ve done some work in trying to get suburban (read: “white”) churches to care for and invest in the city, but it’s very difficult. It seems like all church and church-planting efforts target high growth suburban areas, which are nearly all “whiter” and richer. Sometimes I wonder if we’re just widening the divide rather than bridging it.

    Before I go too much further, I hope people do realize that I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek in my above post. I don’t necessarily feel that the song is racist, and maybe I shouldn’t throw that term around so haphazardly.

    But I do think it is interesting to consider how much different the culture is now than it was when most of us first heard that song as children. We just think about race so much differently than we ever did back then. And as a result a song like this can have dual-implications – such as alluded to by Josh in his comment above.

    And Jesus loves the brown kids too darnit!

  5. i think larry poston explained it when he said God hates catholics…and 99% of latinos are catholic. so that must be why.

    *sarcasm for those who may not have known*

    i like on the simpsons how they refer to themselves as yellow, not white…b/c they are actually yellow. i mean, sure, maybe miles davis was actually black, and that kid in the movie powder was actually white, but i’m not white. i’m close to it, being of northern european stock, but not quite. race is stupid. let’s start classifying people based on height, cause short people are evil. stupid midgets.

  6. It is funny that you mention this as my husband and I have been trying to explain some recent things our son had heard another child say about our neighbors.

    I love how innoncent and loving kids are when they don’t see the “color” of a person on the outside they only see the love on the inside.

    I guess I have always felt that I did not need to point out the difference in a persons skin color to a child or an adult.

  7. Good point Shane, but what did you guys do with the second verse? Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world, English, Irish, Dutch and Jew, Russian and Italian too, Jesus loves the little children of the world. And you can always find something “negative” in almost every song, depending on how you look at it, but the important thing is, you are both there, to “teach” Josiah to love as Jesus loves!

  8. Mom, you are kidding right. That IS NOT the real second verse?!? But I’m assuming that since you posted it it is real because I can’t see you making that up. Amazing! I didn’t know or remember that there was a second verse. Would make the bedtime process longer so lets just not tell Josiah about it and avoid the whole thing all together.

  9. Haha, when I was in Uganda on a mission trip, my buddy Ben and one of our interpreters Vincent (a Ugandan) would sing “…all the children of the world/ White and white and white and white/ they are precious in his sight”

    Hahahaha, it was soo funny to hear a Ugandan unashamedly singing those words. But then again, he called us all crackers lol.

  10. Mom2Ryan: I can’t exactly confirm that those are actually the lyrics of the second verse. In fact I haven’t found them anywhere. I’ve found many variations of the song online. With some the “Jesus Loves the Little Children” part is just the chorus and the verses are completely different. Another variation is that part over and over, but substituting “loves” for “came for”, “died for” and “rose for” each time around.

    I’m not sure where you learned that verse. Maybe Ryan’s Ugandan friend? πŸ˜†

    lord eddard stark: Don’t mess with short dudes man. Don’t make Dustin and I come out there with some hard, pipe-hittin’ shorties to go to work on you with a pair of pliars and a blowtorch.

    Katie: Glad to have you stop by! Oh, and who knew raising kids was so complicated?!? I’m probably pretty liberal with what music I let my kid have exposure to. Nothing raunchy mind you, but he’s no stranger to bands like the White Stripes, etc. But yet I feel the need to edit the Bible songs he hears? Apparently my middle name is Arbitrary.

  11. I think to use the word “children” would be offensive to teenagers and adults.

    Jesus loves all the many people.
    All the many people of the world.
    Every color, shape and size, they are precious in his eyes.
    Jesus loves all the many people.

    πŸ˜‰ kidding…thanks for pointing this out Shane.

  12. We had quite a stink at our church (in Australia) when my husband and I suggested to not sing this song in Sunday School anymore. I believe there are so many other songs to sing, leave the racist ones out. It isn’t political corectness, it’s actually moving into the 21st century where we don’t label people as this or that, but see them as who they are, and how God created us.
    Anyway, thanks for your post, it’s so encouraging to read that other people think about these things too.

  13. I actually grew up with a different version of the second verse than Mom2Ryan cites: “English, Irish, Russian, Jew, German, Jap, Italian too / Jesus loves the little children of the world”. Rather ironic: the composer of that verse apparently intended to convey Jesus’ universal love, but it hits contemporary ears as somewhat..well…tone-deaf. For the record, I’m actually of Japanese-American heritage–I don’t feel particularly oppressed by the use of the song, though I certainly prefer other versions. πŸ™‚

  14. Actually…Shane, might I beg the favor of deleting my previous comment and this one? In many cases, I prefer not to post w/ my real-name profile–I’ll re-post under another. πŸ™‚

  15. Children don’t need a song or poem to tell them about different colors of people, they figure it out for themselves in the school yard!! Get over it, and stop being so “politically correct”.

  16. I find it interesting that people don’t want to be singled out for their race or anything else when it comes to Jesus’ love, yet we have Black History month where we intentionally highlight the contributions of black people. We have cultural history day/week in our schools instead of Thanksgiving so each culture can emphasize their particular things that make them unique. And now our school curriculum wants to single out gays/lesbians for their contributions to society. So if I understand the argument, we can say blacks, whites, gays, and others accomplished certain things as blacks, whites, gays, etc., but we can’t say Jesus loves blacks, whites, gays, etc–we can only say Jesus loves people–so why can’t we just teach history or politics or art or science and just say people did these things? Nobody should identify themselves, or be identified by others, based on their color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, job, achievements, etc. We should all be identified equally as children of God, loved by God, no matter what.

  17. Shane, I wish I had come across your post yesterday. I had looked for alternate words and found a single-word modification that appeased me: “Red, *brown*, yellow, black, and white …” Even though as a child I’d understood the song was meant to be inclusive (“all the children of the world”), as a “white” child in a largely “brown” city, I had felt bad about the “brown” children not being explicitly called out for Jesus’ love.

    Today the children’s church school lesson was exactly this: “Let the children come to me….” I wanted to teach the song as part of the lesson but was uncomfortable about it. I sensed the song had been discarded but couldn’t put my finger on why. It didn’t seem racist, but I’m not a minority so I might not hear the racism. BUT I didn’t think about its stereotyping. Obviously I have a big blind spot. Thank you for these alternate words that rescue the song.

    (BTW, a couple of the children gently called me out on the colors. They pointed out that the Asian child in the class is not yellow, and the African-American child in another class is not black! It was part of today’s lesson *for me*. πŸ™‚

    Other songs I learned in church school 40+ years ago have gone by the wayside and I don’t understand why. Maybe I am missing inherent stereotyping in them too? “Tell me the stories of Jesus….”? “Jesus loves me… “?

    BTW, for both “Jesus loves me” (and the revised “Jesus loves the little children”), we sing *we* instead of *they*. As an adult it felt weird at first, but I think it strengthens the likelihood children will put themselves personally into the song to feel Jesus’ love (and I feel like a child of God too!). When I was little, singing “they” about Jesus loving the children of the world, I didn’t feel like one of the “children of the world,” just like I didn’t feel like one of the “weak” compared to Jesus’ “strong.” Those were the *littler* little kids!

  18. It’s not intended to be racist. Red, Yellow, Black, and white were the colors in Joseph’s “coat of many colors”, which symbolized God’s promise to Abraham: that he would be the Father of All Nations!

  19. My Japanese wife and Pechanga Indian co-worker disagree with you and said none of those terms are racist because of context. Which is what’s missing completely from your article. Yes I know I’m way late to this party.

    They also said if white people aren’t offended at being called white why would an Asian be offended at being called yellow.

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