Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 3)

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 1 / PART 2PART 4

 

 III. WE DIVIDE OURSELVES FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Although God divided people supernaturally by giving different groups different languages at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), and called Israel, and later, Christians, to be a separate and holy nation (Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Hosea 1:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12), people also have a tendency to divide themselves, but on a sinful basis.

Sin is self-centeredness, ignoring God’s will, and missing the mark of God-ordained behavior and attitudes.[20] Thus, when people place themselves above others on the basis of some external characteristic, such as social class, we impose our own idolatrous self-will over and above God’s standards for judgment; we say that our standards are better than God’s (e.g., James 2:1-9).

The clear inference is that sinful attitudes include a belief in one’s own (or one’s group’s) superiority based on social, economic, appearance, ethnic, or “racial” categories. This is not the same thing as recognizing that important differences may exist within and between groups, or that cultures differ across ethnicities. But our heart and attitudes regarding those differences are the central issue. This is especially the case when we use physical characteristics to assign different levels of value or desirability or dignity to another person or group, whether we do this consciously or subconsciously.

As Dr. Tony Evans puts it,

“racism is not first and foremost a skin problem. It is a sin problem.”[21]

Individual sins have collective consequences

Now, the problem of sin is at first an individual problem, but sin usually has collective consequences. For example, a father may sin against his wife, but their children often experience the effects of that sin, though they have done nothing wrong. The Bible is full of examples of people bearing the consequences of another person’s sinful actions. In fact, it is the very nature of sin; from the beginning, Adam’s and Eve’s individual sins wrought consequences for all of their descendants (Rom 5:12-20).

Moreover, when individuals with a bent toward sin are given authority over others, they may be prone to manage that relationship unjustly. (This is why the Bible spends so much time limiting and constraining the power that can be exercised by fathers, elders, kings, employers, and slave-owners!) For example, God gives fathers authority over their households. But a father who establishes an unjust disciplinary system in his home violates the authority with which he has been legitimately entrusted. His family management system must be adjusted in order to realign it with God’s will and plan for the Christian home. The first step may be converting, educating or correcting the father. But if the father doesn’t change the old system, even his redeemed soul will continue to exact injustice in the household via the old rules. No, the rules and system must be changed in order for a just family order to prevail. Moreover, the damaged familial relationships must be restored and healed.

The analogy may be applied to race-based divisions. Those in authority may legislate unjust laws, even if the legislator is or claims to be Christian. The general concept of an unjust law was expressed by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote,

“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”[22]

Christians see the Bible as a revelation of God’s eternal moral law. So it provides, if rightly understood, general principles and guidelines for establishing just human laws. If the legislator who sets up an unjust law is shown the error of his or her ways and changes his or her behavior and attitudes, that is good! But it doesn’t change the fact that the earlier attitude was institutionalized into the community’s social norms and legal codes. These must be changed as well.

Source: CNN

Source: CNN

In the case of American racial and ethnic history, men with unbiblical views on race were often the ones writing the rules (such as constitutions, laws, and municipal codes), and they often incorporated those views into the systems with which they had been entrusted. Sadly, there are many examples of this, such as the nation’s toleration of slavery, northerners profiteering from the slave trade, California’s anti-Chinese laws, and so on. (The use of the Bible to justify and defend American slavery is an extremely complicated topic, beyond the scope of this essay, and much has already been written about that.) One of the most egregious and widespread examples was the notorious “Jim Crow” system of comprehensive race-based social and economic stratification included in the legal codes of most of the US southern states after the post-Civil War Reconstruction. These were perhaps the most damaging of all, because they were often specifically justified and defended, as slavery had been beforehand, through the misinterpretation and misapplication of God’s Word.

It becomes clear that laws that encoded racist values into society were unjust, for they did not align with God’s basis of dividing humanity, and instead were based on sinful attitudes of racial superiority and favoritism. It is important to identify laws that continue to implement racist thinking and undo them; there is, of course, great political disagreement about how to identify such laws and what the remedies are. Such an extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

But it is possible to identify the principles of a strategy for undoing unjust laws. Such a strategy takes two initial steps, for which there is no ideal order, followed by two secondary steps.

  • The heart of the legislator(s) must be realigned with God’s will.
  • The laws must be realigned with God’s eternal law. It is acceptable to realign the law regardless of whether the legislator’s heart has been realigned.
  • Reconciliation between groups must take place, both at the individual and collective level. For example, those who imposed the racist legislation must repent of their sin and reconcile with those whom they oppressed, and the oppressed must forgive the former racist. Collectively, this might look like the Southern Baptist Convention repenting and seeking forgiveness for its racist origins and history.
  • Finally, part of the reconciliation may include an evaluation of the extent to which principles of restorative justice ought to be implemented to address the long-term consequences of the unjust laws on individuals. The longer the unjust regime was in place, the more profound the effects may be, and thus the more expensive the restitution is likely to be.

GO ON TO PART 4

 

 

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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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[20] E.g., “Sin,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.

[21] Evans, Kingdom Agenda, p. 364.

[22] King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963. Accessed at www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html