This article first appeared in Viewpoint column in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
We hear a lot of talk of racism these days: its persistent presence, how to recognize it, and how to fight it. Lest we think this topic stays outside the confines of the church, there has been much discussion within evangelical churches in acknowledging and addressing ongoing racism. Terms such as “Whiteness” and “Blackness” have been employed to address disparities.
When we speak of the core issues, it helps to define racism. A challenge ensues because varied definitions exist. According to Merriam-Webster, racism is defined as (1) belief that certain races of people are by birth and nature superior to others, or (2) discrimination or hatred based on race. Some sociologists posit that racism extends beyond individual beliefs into systems of power and oppression. Whatever version you adopt, at its core, racism is a mindset whereby a group is classified, based on skin color, to be inferior and is therefore treated accordingly.
Certainly, history provides plentiful evidence. Subjecting a whole class of people solely based on place of origin and skin color produced some of the most heinous infractions. Chattel slavery in the antebellum South served as a primary example of debasing and dehumanizing humans, which spawned a historical legacy of subjugation dominated by the White race that lingered well past emancipation.
So it seems the best way to combat this rather lengthy legacy of racial infractions is to bring parity to different classifications of people based on race. Certainly, our broader society persistently highlights race as a factor for many examples of mistreatment. If race is the issue, then it makes sense for that to be the focus. With this focus, “Blackness” and “Whiteness” have become markers of identity in a quest for equal value and treatment, even in the church, whereby “Whiteness” is to be challenged and “Blackness” affirmed.
However, we run into a quandary with respect to race. In 2014, Newsweek published an article by Robert Wald Sussman entitled “There Is No Such Thing as Race,” based on his book, The Myth of Race: the Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. As evidenced by the titles, Sussman argues that the idea of race is purely cultural and has no biological reality in our anthropology. Affirmed by organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, Sussman does not deny the existence of what has been classified as racism but asks very important questions about combating its realities that have persisted for so long. “There is no inherent relationship between intelligence, law-abidingness, or economic practices and race, just as there is no relationship between nose size, height. blood group, or skin color and any set of complex human behaviors.”1
This article raises a logical question in my mind: if race is a myth, a social construct, are we creating a fruitless premise in which to address racism? In other words, how can we combat the ills of racism by focusing on the false premise of race?
The Genesis of Race. In his article “Many Ethnicities, One Race,” Thabiti Anyabwile raises this same issue and question:
We may safely conclude that insofar as genealogy is concerned, the Bible plainly records that there is only one race. With regard to bodily properties like skin color, we may conclude that, though differences exist, all people are made in the image of God — male and female; black, brown, and white; red-haired and black-haired. There is nothing about bodily distinctions that either disrupt the organic unity of humanity (Acts 17:26) or obscures the image of God in some groups with certain biological properties.
Strictly speaking, the Scripture knows nothing of our contemporary notion of “races.” People may have different skin color (or hair color), but they do not therefore belong to different “races.” The idea of “races” is, therefore, a fiction. There is but one human race descended from one parentage, all of whom are created in the image of God spiritually, rationally, morally, and bodily.2
In order to address sociological disparities within the church, it helps to anchor corrections in descriptions that Scripture provides. You would be hard-pressed to find the concept of race in Scripture, but the Bible does identify classifications of individuals based on ethnicities and socioeconomic status.
The concept of race was used to create a hierarchal system whereby one class was deemed superior and one inferior. This hierarchal system emerged out of Europe based on economic trade. Scripture was used to denote the subhumanity of those who were deemed biologically deficient, and this was justified by dominant power structures.
It is in this vein that racial superiority reared its ugly head. Hatred based on biological factors (melanin) infested a whole group of people based on a notion that God never approved. It was a false concept and idolatrous to the ones who held race dear. As Thabiti notes in his article, “They are constructs inherited from the alienation produced by the Fall.”
What Does Scripture Say? So what do we do with the realities of racism that have persisted for so long? I suggest that we dig deeper to get at the real trouble. At the core of racism lay dispositions that can be seen readily in Scripture. We don’t get very far in the biblical narrative before we discover what happens when dispositions of superiority/inferiority dominate. In Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel demonstrates the impetus to malign and to elevate oneself over the other. The desire to dominate over another rose up accompanied by hate, pride, jealousy, anger, and pompous justification. The impact of the Fall so easily seen in the dynamics of these two individuals infested families, tribes, and nations.
We can see these dynamics play out between groups of people as redemptive history unfolded. By the time Jesus’ earthly ministry came to fruition, Gentiles were considered outsiders and unworthy to receive the same promises of God’s good intentions. Samaritans were deemed inferior because of their hybrid nature from being scattered after Assyria defeated the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC. Even though Jesus’ revelation of Himself was to the Jew first (Matt. 10:5–6), His ministry involved acceptance of Samaritans and Gentiles as holding equal value in the kingdom of God based on their belief in Him.
A couple of New Testament passages regarding group dynamics are worth noting in this discussion. In Acts 6:1–4, the Grecian widows were being overlooked at the Lord’s table. Apparently, these Hellenistic Christians were experiencing a superior/inferior group dynamic since Jerusalem had been the hub of early Christianity based on its significance in the Old Testament. How was this rectified? The church recognized that a certain population was being overlooked based on a disposition that deemed them inferior. While on the surface the issue was their Gentileness, the deeper problem rested in an attitude of superiority that resulted in infractions.
While not related to ethnicity, James 2:1–3 illustrates how disparities in group dynamics work out from similar attitudes. The poor experienced marginalization from the dominant group (the rich). James confronts the problem of partiality by commanding obedience to the royal law of love, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8).
Jesus indicated that the world would know His disciples by the love demonstrated toward one another (John 13:35) — not affirmation of an anthropological identity. In the case of the Greek widows in Acts 6 and the poor in James 2, the core solution was to step in and make sure affirmation rested in considering the other as an equal heir of the kingdom of God.3
It’s clear that Scripture speaks to infractions that occur between groups that are rooted in specific dispositions. Where there is failure to consider the other as equally valuable, the corrections rest in affirming equality with respect to how the other is treated and deemed important. But I fear that the church has allowed the overarching culture to define these infractions according to the false construct of race. By doing so, the emphasis is placed on valuing “Blackness” or “Brownness” as the means to bring racial equity. But if race itself is a false construct, how does that resolve the problem? This is the same thing “White” people have done by elevating the “White” race as the standard by which to measure others. I can’t help but see this lead to an endless loop of animosity. The better method of resolution is to think in terms of the sin of partiality because that reflects the language and pattern of Scripture. Solutions must be rooted in how God defines the problem. Christians must disentangle from the cultural captivity of race and think differently about how we are supposed to relate to one another.
Perhaps the false notion of race can be absolved by considering that our image can be fully realized only in the reconciliation that Christ wrought. Ephesians 2–3 dismantles this notion of “racial” hostilities that has been ingrained in our culture for so long and compels us to relate to one another according to our identity in Christ, first and foremost. But this relation also is contingent on a recognition of where such partiality has existed in our hearts. Only then can any real reconciliation occur in which we deal with the very real differences of cultures and experiences. It is here that the image of God corporately manifests to the world the countercultural paradigm of Christ’s kingdom.
I realize the notion of abandoning identifiers such as “Black” and “White” is not an easy concept to embrace, especially considering the legacy of racism. Minorities with the ugliness of partiality as their heritage and contemporary experiences have cried out from the dehumanizing injustices that have occurred for so long. The demand to value the “Black race” is a sorely pressing need to seek validation. Contrarily, it’s hard for the racist and the bigot who would rather follow the dictates of a worldly culture that values “Whiteness.” However, I am convinced by Scripture that the kingdom of God must align with Jesus’ proclamation that His kingdom is not of this world. The church must follow His lead, not the world’s.—Lisa Robinson
Lisa Robinson holds a BA in Economics and received her ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. She blogs at theothoughts.com.
- Robert Wald Sussman, “There Is No Such Thing as Race,” Newsweek, November 8, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/there-no-such-thing-race-283123.
- Thabiti Anyabwile, “Many Ethnicities, One Race,” 9Marks, February 26, 2010, https://www.9marks.org/article/many-ethnicities-one-race/.
- See also Acts 10:34–35; Romans 10:12; Galatians 3:26–29; Colossians 3:11.