Sermon: Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing: A Biblical Worldview

Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing

Dr. Peter W. Wielhouwer

Message delivered on October 4, 2015, Cherry Creek Community Church, Portage, Michigan.

The text for this message was Acts 11:1-18; the first portion (about 17 minutes or so) is given by Cherry Creek Senior Pastor Ryan Doyle.

PDF of the PowerPoint presentation accompanying my remarks: Race, Ethnicity, and Racial Healing

MP3 File:

 



 

Celebrating the Swastika

Nazi_swastika_clean wikipedia.svg(If you are someone who finds the swastika offensive, please read my postscript at the end before you read this essay.)

For thousands of years, across Asia and Europe and many cultures, the swastika has represented noble cultural and faith-oriented values. Even early Christians used this symbol as a celebration of Christ’s life’s victory over death! Though some people are offended by it, I choose to celebrate it as a symbol of noble human values and our common human heritage.

The word ‘swastika’ is a Sanskrit word (‘svasktika’) meaning ‘It is’, ‘Well Being’, ‘Good Existence, and ‘Good Luck.’ (Citation). This elegant symbol is found in the Christian catacombs of Rome and in many ancient Christian churches, and in Nordic myths about Odin. Even the Navajos include this historically meaningful symbol in their headdresses!

To me, the swastika is a beautiful and elegant symbol of life and success, and represents my heritage as a believer in beauty, peace, and well-being for all mankind. Because I value my world heritage, I believe the swastika bridges cultures, continents, and time. Because I value my Swedish heritage, I value the Nordic tradition. Because one of my best friends is from India, I am actually honoring him by celebrating his culture’s appreciation of the swastika.

Now I know that some people see the swastika as a symbol of evil and hate, simply because for a few years (just a drop in the bucket of human history, really) one distasteful regime chose to use the swastika as its primary symbol. It is unfortunate that for a few people this symbol has come to represent the hatred of that regime; and it is true that this particular country was led by a misguided megalomaniac that some people choose to label as a racist and anti-Semite. But the swastika should not be held “guilty’ due to this temporary association!

And I know that certain people repeatedly connect the persecution of some religious and ethnic groups with the symbol and therefore think it is offensive. But still, we have to doubt the credibility of these people, because there are credible historians who tell the true history of that era, and show that most of the accusations against that regime are dubious and the result of rewriting history from the perspective of that one group.

am flag swastikaAdditionally, how many other people have been oppressed and persecuted by groups using other symbols. I mean, think about the cross! How many so-called Christians engaged in the slave trade? And don’t forget the crusades! What about the so-called “American” flag? For 170 years this symbol reigned over a racially oppressive regime! Some good hearted soul even created this post card joining together these two wonderful symbols of luck and security!

Seriously, people need to get over themselves and learn the true history!

I don’t really care that all those people choose to be emotionally limited to the negative connotation of the swastika. Just because one group led by one misguided soul used our beloved swastika doesn’t mean I should give up my love of the symbol and my freedom to celebrate it publicly. I stand with my brothers to fight the oppressors who discriminate against those of us who love the swastika. We even have our own website to “Reclaim the Swastika.”

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should put others’ interests ahead of my own (Phil 2:1-5). But that means they should put my interests ahead of their own too and let me celebrate the swastika!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should seek peace to the extent it depends on me, and that living at peace with others is praised by Jesus and throughout the New Testament (Rom 12:18; Rom 14:19; 2 Cor 3:11; Gal 5:22; Eph 4:3; 1 Thes 5:13; 1 Tim 3:3; Titus 3:2). But that means they should see that the swastika actually represents peace to me, and stop criticizing me for loving it!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian I should obey Jesus’ “new” commandment to love one another (John 13:34-35, John 15:12-17; Rom 12:10; Rom 13:8; Eph 4:2; Heb 10:24, 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 3), and that some people don’t choose to find the swastika loving. But they should show their love to me by letting me display the swastika proudly, because I find it beautiful and peaceful!

Yes, I have heard that as a Christian just because something is lawful doesn’t mean I ought to do it, especially if it offends or hurts others or puts their faith at risk (1 Cor 6:12, 1 Cor 10:23-32). But it is their own fault if they let their faith be weakened by this symbol of peace and love! It’s not my responsibility!

Yes I have heard that as a Christian I should live self-sacrificially, going above and beyond what others ask so that God will be glorified (Matt 5:38-42). But they should be the ones who sacrifice, because I love this symbol dearly!

And yes, I know some people will find it odd that as a person who claims Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior would celebrate a symbol that so many people find offensive. But those people have to be better educated and realize that my being a Christian has nothing to do with this! I am saved, and you can’t take away my freedom to express my cultural heritage in the way I want to!

 

Postscript: This post is satire, and the point I’m trying to make, in case some readers have missed it, is that symbols matter. In the same way that the swastika represents hatred and violence now, regardless of what it meant in the past, symbols of the confederacy, such as the confederate battle flag represent racism to large majorities of African-American Christians, regardless of what it meant in the past. The biblical principles of love, peace, and self-sacrifice mean we must be willing to give up what we find precious for the sake of others. As long as some Christians aren’t willing to do this, they are complicit in keeping the Body of Christ divided on racial lines, and God will hold them accountable for that.

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

 

———————————-

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.

 

 

———————————–

[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.”

 

Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 2)

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 3 / PART 4

 

II. CREATED EQUAL, BUT SINFUL

Because our two common ancestors were created by God in His image (Genesis 1:27-28), each person has inherent dignity. Biblical teaching on humanity’s unique creation from a single couple produced a strong tradition that God sees all of humanity as being in the same fundamental situation.

Though created in God’s image,[16] all of humanity falls short of God ideals and expectations, and we are all sinful, fallen, and separated from him (Romans 3:22-23). God, out of profound love for us, extends His redemptive plan to all people, via his only begotten Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17; Acts 4:10-12; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Tim 2:3-7; Titus 2:11).

There is extensive biblical support for the principle that Christianity and salvation are not constrained by ethnicity, nationality, sex, skin tone, or social status. To cite just a few examples…

  • God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to bless all nations through their descendants (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 22:15-18; 26:4-5; 28:13-14) are generally taken seriously in the New Testament as actually meaning all nations (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8).
  • Among the Israelites, non-Semites were sometimes elevated to positions of equality with the Hebrews, such as
    • Manassah and Ephraim (Gen 41:50-52), sons of Joseph’s wife from On, a city in North Africa (the area settled by Ham’s son Mizraim). Jacob (Israel) declared them equal to his own sons (Gen 48:5).
    • Moses married a woman from Cush (Num 12:1), a region of Africa named for a son of Ham who settled in West Africa.
    • Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba; Sheba was a tribe of Cush, son of Ham (Gen 10:7).
  • Jesus’ Davidic genealogy in the first verses if Matthew’s gospel includes four descendants of Canaan and Ham (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Solomon);
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28), while initially being an apparent reinforcement of the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:24-27), has long been interpreted actually as rescinding the curse.[17]
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan (mixed “race”) woman (John 4:1-26) makes clear that God’s salvation comes through the Jews, but will eventually be based on whether people are “true worshippers,” not one’s heritage.
  • Jesus’ Great Commission commands the disciples to go to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).
  • The Apostle Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40).
  • Peter received a vision from God that there are no people who are unclean, and therefore the gospel ought to be spread beyond the Jews (Acts 10).
  • A major theme in Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the extension of salvation beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.
  • Paul taught that in Christ the region’s major social divisions and classes of the day were to be set aside among Christians (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11).
  • Revelation states that Jesus’ blood purchased salvation for all people (Rev. 5:9).
  • John’s vision of heaven included believers from all nations who had come through tribulation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10).

The Fundamental Equality of All People Before God

While God evaluates people based upon their heart and spirit and orientation toward himself and His Son (e.g., Romans 2:12-16; 3:21-26), people tend to judge others based on external factors, such as the way we look (2 Sam 16:7). Nonetheless, the view of historic Judaic and Christian thought is grounded in the essential equality of all people before God, regardless of their ethnicity, external appearance, sex, or social status (e.g., Gal 3:26-29).

While most Christian theology verifies this historic accessibility of salvation to all people, the point has long been evident even to secular observers, such as Stanford University professor George Frederickson, who observed,

“the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of mankind based on the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humans was a powerful obstacle to the development of a coherent and persuasive ideological racism.”[18]

Frederickson also observes the odd counterpoint of skin-tone based racism that emerged in the Middle Ages against the core message of Christianity and the Cross:

“What makes Western racism so…conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind. First came the doctrine that the Crucifixion offered grace to all willing to receive it and made all Christian believers equal before God. Later came the more revolutionary concept that all ‘men’ are born free and equal and entitled to equal rights in society and government.”[19]

In short, though ideally humans are created equal and in God’s image, every human’s sinful state before a holy God means that every person needs salvation, and Christ’s death makes that salvation available to all people. The differences in human appearances or economic status are unrelated to one’s status before God. Divisions have appeared, of course, in spite of this principle of equality.

GO ON TO PART 3

 

———————————-

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.

———————————–

 

[16] By “in God’s image,” traditional historic Christianity does not mean God’s physical image, but that humans bear the imprint of God’s character on their soul and spirit.

[17] For example, see the Introductory Note to The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature Company, Buffalo, NY 1885) (E-Sword STEP edition).

[18] Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 52

[19] Frederickson, Racism, p. 11.

 

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

 

 

———————————-

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.

———————————–

[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

 

Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 4)

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 2 / PART 3

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

 

GO TO FULL ESSAY

———————————-

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.

———————————–

 

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race

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 have a version in which I divide it into four parts. If you want to read it in shorter chunks, keep in mind that each later part builds on the ideas developed in the earlier parts. To read it part-by-part, start with PART 1]

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.

 

II. CREATED EQUAL, BUT SINFUL

Because our two common ancestors were created by God in His image (Genesis 1:27-28), each person has inherent dignity. Biblical teaching on humanity’s unique creation from a single couple produced a strong tradition that God sees all of humanity as being in the same fundamental situation.

Though created in God’s image,[16] all of humanity falls short of God ideals and expectations, and we are all sinful, fallen, and separated from him (Romans 3:22-23). God, out of profound love for us, extends His redemptive plan to all people, via his only begotten Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17; Acts 4:10-12; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Tim 2:3-7; Titus 2:11).

There is extensive biblical support for the principle that Christianity and salvation are not constrained by ethnicity, nationality, sex, skin tone, or social status. To cite just a few examples…

  • God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to bless all nations through their descendants (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 22:15-18; 26:4-5; 28:13-14) are generally taken seriously in the New Testament as actually meaning all nations (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8).
  • Among the Israelites, non-Semites were sometimes elevated to positions of equality with the Hebrews, such as
    • Manassah and Ephraim (Gen 41:50-52), sons of Joseph’s wife from On, a city in North Africa (the area settled by Ham’s son Mizraim). Jacob (Israel) declared them equal to his own sons (Gen 48:5).
    • Moses married a woman from Cush (Num 12:1), a region of Africa named for a son of Ham who settled in West Africa.
    • Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba; Sheba was a tribe of Cush, son of Ham (Gen 10:7).
  • Jesus’ Davidic genealogy in the first verses if Matthew’s gospel includes four descendants of Canaan and Ham (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Solomon);
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28), while initially being an apparent reinforcement of the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:24-27), has long been interpreted actually as rescinding the curse.[17]
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan (mixed “race”) woman (John 4:1-26) makes clear that God’s salvation comes through the Jews, but will eventually be based on whether people are “true worshippers,” not one’s heritage.
  • Jesus’ Great Commission commands the disciples to go to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).
  • The Apostle Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40).
  • Peter received a vision from God that there are no people who are unclean, and therefore the gospel ought to be spread beyond the Jews (Acts 10).
  • A major theme in Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the extension of salvation beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.
  • Paul taught that in Christ the region’s major social divisions and classes of the day were to be set aside among Christians (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11).
  • Revelation states that Jesus’ blood purchased salvation for all people (Rev. 5:9).
  • John’s vision of heaven included believers from all nations who had come through tribulation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10).

The Fundamental Equality of All People Before God

While God evaluates people based upon their heart and spirit and orientation toward himself and His Son (e.g., Romans 2:12-16; 3:21-26), people tend to judge others based on external factors, such as the way we look (2 Sam 16:7). Nonetheless, the view of historic Judaic and Christian thought is grounded in the essential equality of all people before God, regardless of their ethnicity, external appearance, sex, or social status (e.g., Gal 3:26-29).

While most Christian theology verifies this historic accessibility of salvation to all people, the point has long been evident even to secular observers, such as Stanford University professor George Frederickson, who observed,

“the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of mankind based on the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humans was a powerful obstacle to the development of a coherent and persuasive ideological racism.”[18]

Frederickson also observes the odd counterpoint of skin-tone based racism that emerged in the Middle Ages against the core message of Christianity and the Cross:

“What makes Western racism so…conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind. First came the doctrine that the Crucifixion offered grace to all willing to receive it and made all Christian believers equal before God. Later came the more revolutionary concept that all ‘men’ are born free and equal and entitled to equal rights in society and government.”[19]

In short, though ideally humans are created equal and in God’s image, every human’s sinful state before a holy God means that every person needs salvation, and Christ’s death makes that salvation available to all people. The differences in human appearances or economic status are unrelated to one’s status before God. Divisions have appeared, of course, in spite of this principle of equality.

 

 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.

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

———————————-

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.

———————————–

[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.”

[16] By “in God’s image,” traditional historic Christianity does not mean God’s physical image, but that humans bear the imprint of God’s character on their soul and spirit.

[17] For example, see the Introductory Note to The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature Company, Buffalo, NY 1885) (E-Sword STEP edition).

[18] Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 52

[19] Frederickson, Racism, p. 11.

[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

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.