Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 1)

Bible and Race Title 1Peter W. Wielhouwer, Ph.D. (June, 2015)

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Col 3:14)

In this essay I articulate core principles of a Bible-based worldview of the concepts of humanity and race.

[Because this essay is long, I divided it into four parts, and each part builds on the principles developed in the previous parts.]

GO TO FULL ESSAY / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4

 

Why? Current events reveal to us that American society, including Christians, continue to be divided over race and racial thinking, problems and solutions. For nearly twenty years I have been studying these questions systematically, both as a scholar and as a Christian. This is the latest in my efforts to contribute to an ongoing discussion about the origins and solutions to the United States’ race problems.

As a teacher of the Word of God, I believe it is important to lay out the truth about a topic before introducing alternatives and problems, just as the Secret Service trains agents how to spot counterfeit bills by first making them experts on real bills. My audience is mainly Christians, as I want to educate my faith family about what the Bible says about humanity and what we call race. Then I want to expose them to major ways in which the Bible has been twisted to support un-Christian and un-biblical thinking about race. I have been surprised and saddened to learn how pervasive non-biblical ideas continue to be used to contort and disfigure the biblical narrative of human history.

Let me preview my central line of thinking for the present essay. Based on the Bible, we know that

  1. God created two human beings in His image, from whom are descended all other humans that have ever existed.
  2. As God’s created “image bearers” each member of humanity is inherently equal in the eyes of God, and He judges people based on the state of their heart or spirit, or orientation toward Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. To the extent we evaluate others’ intrinsic character or assign them value on any other basis than God’s, we sin by dividing ourselves artificially; thus, showing favoritism on the basis of social class or physical appearance (including what we call “racism” nowadays) is a sin problem.
  4. Since racism is a sin problem masquerading as a “skin” problem, Christians are obligated to resolve race-based conflicts as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes. This must take place at both the individual and the corporate levels.

Some Definitions

The idea that different “races” of humans exist is unbiblical. Historically “race” has referred to a biological species with a common ancestor. For example, Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary primarily defines race as “The lineage of a family, or continued series of descendants from a parent who is called the stock. A race is the series of descendants indefinitely. Thus all mankind are called the race of Adam.”[1] Nowadays, however, the general way people use the word “race” is more like “Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.”

To distinguish ourselves on the basis of an idea called “race” is also inaccurate scientifically. For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health acknowledges growing skepticism about the idea that there are different human “races,” based on analysis of the amount of genetic differences between different populations of the human species:

“research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, interbreeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens. This finding has caused some biologists to call the validity of race as a biological construct into serious question.”[2]

And from a social science perspective, Professor Michael Jeffries suggests that the idea of different “races” is a mere social invention.

“Race” is rooted in false beliefs about the validity of observed physical differences as indicators of human capacity or behaviors. Human beings build categories and make distinctions naturally. But there is no biological basis for racial categories and no relationship between classification based on observed physical characteristics and patterns of thought or behavior. Humans do not have separate subspecies or races the way some animals do…The company line among academics is that “race is socially constructed,” meaning that it is an idea produced by human thought and interaction rather than something that exists as a material fact of life on earth.[3]

Therefore, I and many others tend to believe that there one single human race, which has historically been divided on the basis of geography, language, and culture. Instead, More specifically, I try to distinguish between race and other social divisions known as ethnicity, defined as “a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition,” which can include a common language, dialect, or religion.

Ethnicity, being a function of nation, culture and language, is also related to our ancestral regions of the world. Ethnic differences are often marked by differences in physical appearances, such as skin tone, hair texture, eye color, eye, nose, and mouth shape, because across humanity these differences tend to be geographically concentrated. Physical characteristics sometimes give us simple cues about another person’s culture and ethnicity. It is often difficult, however, to discern ethnicity based solely on external physical characteristics (such as telling the difference between Koreans and Japanese, or Iranians and Saudis). People really create problems when they assess character, morality, intelligence, and worth based on appearances. As I learned in fourth grade, this is the very definition of prejudice, pre-judging another based primarily on their appearance. When we use physical characteristics such as skin tone, hair texture, and so on to make such judgments, we encounter the problem of what our culture calls “racism.” Racism as used in our times is commonly defined (here by the Oxford English Dictionary) as:

1 Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior;

1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races

It is important to see the difference between these two definitions; the first is a set of actions based on a belief, while the second is the belief itself. As Christians it is important for us to frame our understanding of race and racism based on biblical principles and concepts. These address first the notion that one of the so-called “racial” groups has value or is intrinsically superior or inferior compared with others; and second actions or behaviors that extend from those beliefs. You will note, therefore, that much of the discussion below addresses what race is and what it is not, and assumes the current social context, in which racism (as defined above) exists in our culture.

On to the four principles of a biblical worldview of race…

 

I. CREATION: WE’RE ALL RELATED

Our Creator-God purposively created the first two people, whose descendants are of “one blood” (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7; Acts 17:26). Thus, all diversity in the human race is genetically derived from the original two people.

This view of human origins has long been held by Jews and Christians, and historically provided a biblical basis for human equality. It was not until relatively recently (between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment) that alternative theories of separate creations, multiple creations, or macro-evolution significantly impacted these worldviews, weakening the traditional biblical view of humanity’s unity in creation.[4]

What about differences in physical appearance, such as skin color? Biologically, there is nothing odd about the wide variation in skin color, which is mainly determined by genes that control the amount of melanin present in skin cells. Of course, evolutionists hold that this is due to natural selection,[5] but the explanation for these differences needs not rely on evolutionary thinking.

In Judaism and Christianity, the oldest explanation for geographic differences in skin tone is based on the redistribution of humanity by Noah’s sons after the flood (Genesis 9-10). Briefly, Genesis 10 describes the regions of the ancient world where Noah’s descendants settled; the first century (AD/CE) Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the second century Church Father Hippolytus largely reinforce these distributions.[6] (The Genesis passage also influenced Arabic Islamic thought.[7]) Additionally, the names of Noah’s sons have traditionally (sometimes apocryphally) been understood as descriptive of their appearance. Thus there is an ancient perceived connection between the sons and the regional distribution of people with different physical traits.

Based on Genesis 10 and Josephus, the tradition has been:

  • Shem means ‘son,’ ‘marked with a sign,’ or ‘dusky;’[8] his descendants settled Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, and Syria. They were known as Semites, and Shem’s descendants included Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; thus the Israelites/Hebrews/Jews are Semitic in origin. Even today, persecutors of the Jews are known as Anti-Semites.
  • Japheth (Yepheth) means “fair, light,” “opened” or “spread out;” [9] his descendants settled Europe and western Asia.
  • Ham means “hot, dark, burnt” or “sunburnt;”[10] his descendants settled Africa (Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt) and southwest Asia; the descendants of his son Canaan settled what is now modern-day Israel, on the east coast of the Mediterranean.

That quite different skin tones could exist among three sons of the same parents is entirely plausible, and is occasionally observed in modern times. While I am not a genetics genius, here is a genetic Punnett Square presenting a simplified example of how a father and mother with medium skin tone genes can produce a wide variety of skin tones in their next generation.[11] All that is necessary for larger populations to exhibit predominantly darker or lighter skin is for them to “be fruitful and multiply” primarily with other group members with similar skin tones.Punnett Square Melanin 3The tradition of three sets of differently skin-toned descendants of Noah often produced maps like the one below, printed in 1878, which revealed the geographic distribution of predominantly light-toned people (of Japheth, in pink), medium-toned people (of Shem, in green), and dark-skinned people (of Ham, in tan).

 

Table of Nations Cases Bible Atlas (1878)

Favoritism based on skin tone

While some favoritism based on social class appears in early Christianity, the New Testament author James, the half-brother of Jesus, specifically warns against class-based favoritism (James 2:1-9); and Paul’s letters express the idea that that day’s social divisions were to be set aside within the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11). Until the Middle Ages Christian expressions of skin-tone-based favoritism appear to be mainly due to a “somatic” preferences. This simply means people idealized their own people-group’s appearance, not that they believed in the natural superiority of their group. Thus, medium-toned people, dark-skinned people and light-skinned people all saw their own skin tones as the ideal and different skin tones as something less than ideal. In general there did not seem to be a value assigned to people based on their skin tone, however.[12]

Later, through the Late Middle Ages (until about the 1300s AD/CE) Christian, Jewish and Islamic explanations for humans’ different physical appearances also hinged on perceived environmental effects,[13] but again the explanations were extrabiblical. It was thought that the more southern peoples were more exposed to the sun and lived where it was hotter, and therefore were burned a darker color. The more northern peoples were less exposed, and therefore were lighter due to less sun exposure. (Some Islamic legends suggested that the heat in lower latitudes caused children to be overcooked in the womb, and where the climate was cold, babies were undercooked.[14]) Of course, the discovery of the New World in the 16th century and its medium-toned people at the same latitude as Old World dark-toned people profoundly undermined this idea.[15]

In short, the Bible clearly describes a purposive act by God to create human beings. In the early Christian traditions, variations in skin tone were not usually related to differences in people’s perceived value before the Lord or their social position.

GO ON TO PART 2

 

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This essay is the first of three parts in a series promoting racial healing. In this essay, I have articulated a Biblical Worldview of humanity and race. Next, I address the twisting of scripture that produced the so-called “Curse of Ham,” which has been used as brutal weapon in the cause of white supremacy against people of color and against the unity of the Body of Christ.

 

 

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[1] Although Webster’s 1828 also acknowledges that “race” may allude to descendants of a specific person, such as “the race of Abraham.” This meaning is secondary to the primary concept of the race of humans.

[2] National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007-. Understanding Human Genetic Variation. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20363/

[3] Michael P. Jeffries, Paint the White House Black (Excerpt), accessed at http://genius.com/Michael-p-jeffries-paint-the-white-house-black-excerpt-annotated/ 26 June 2015.

[4] George Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), 52

[5] http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapters 5-6; Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

[7] Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford University Press, 1990), 44-45.

[8] Strong’s H8034 and H8035;; T.G. Pinches, “Shem,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1939), accessed at <www.blueletterbible.org>

[9] Strong’s H3315, H6601; Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Japheth,” ISBE.

[10] Strong’s H1990, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Shem;” ISBE.

[11] I sent a more rudimentary version of this Punnett Square to a friend of mine with a Ph.D. in genetics just to be sure I was communicating this point accurately. He wrote, “The image you sent is a Punnett square which is helpful in understanding how certain gene combinations are inherited. Melanin is the most important gene for influencing skin color, but there are many more genes that interact to determine a person’s skin color. Therefore, the chart is an oversimplification, but could be useful for illustration purposes.” For a more complex Punnett Square example see http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-teachers-06.htm

[12] David M. Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham: A Case of Rabbinic Racism?” In Struggles in the Promised Land, ed. Jack Salzman and Cornel West (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Accessed via cached version through Google.

[13] For example, see Tony Evans, The Kingdom Agenda (Nashville: Word, 1999), 356-7.

[14] Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, 45-46. The American offshoot of Islam, the Nation of Islam, developed its own bizarre theory of how different skin-toned people groups were created, called “Yacub’s History” (Malcom X and Alex Haley, [1964] Autobiography of Malcom X (Ballentine Books, 1992), pp. 164-167.

[15] Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham.”