Few subjects prove as fraught with difficulty, pain, suffering, and awkwardness as race, especially race in the United States of America. Some people wish to deny the existence of race and/or racism; others conceive of their fellow man primarily and almost entirely in terms of race. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes on the spectrum and attempt to sort out the matter of race relations in America.
Race is a social construct. Humans have found all sorts of ways to differentiate among various groupings of people, but have not always done so on the basis of the distinguishing characteristics normally subsumed under the idea of “races.” The idea of “races” as currently conceived is a product of the past few hundred years, often in the service of justifying European imperialism and slavery. These theories of race pervaded all Western thinking by the 19th century; it was taken for granted as “common sense” to white people that they were biologically racially superior to other people, a premise agreed upon by most religious and secular people alike. Only within the past 50 years have such theories regarding race been demonstrated as false through scientific inquiry; while there may be some genetic markers that are consistent among members of a given “race” and not seen in members of other “races,” one could say the same thing about ethnicities or other ways in which people might categorize each other. Therefore, race as conceived of in Western civilization is not biologically mandated or driven; it continues to exist according to social conventions.
We cannot find race as a form of biological or even social categorization in the Scriptures; where certain translations might use “race,” “birth” or “nation” would be more appropriate. Unfortunately Christians in past generations sought to justify their racial ideology with Scripture, appealing to “each according to its own kind” in Genesis 1:25, the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15, and/or the curse of Ham and Canaan in Genesis 9:25. Such was a shameful distortion of the teachings of Scripture; other passages strongly insist on the singular origin of all humanity (e.g. Acts 17:26). In Acts 17:26 Paul indicated how distinctions among people are most frequently seen in Scripture: from one man God made every nation (Greek ethnos) to dwell in their distinct boundaries at distinct times. We derive the English term “ethnic” from ethnos; ethnos is often translated as “Gentiles” when contrasted with the “Jews.” Thus, in Scripture, we are all from different nations; we are not of different races.
Nevertheless, even if race is not an accurate category according to biology, race remains a culturally constructed reality in America. As Christians we cannot pretend that race does not matter; even if it has no significant biological grounding and even less Biblical merit, race remains a predominant means of categorization in American society and culture. Various forms and means of racial segregation persisted in America for many generations; should we then be surprised when people of the same “race” end up developing their own distinct culture or subculture within America, and maintain a form of racial identity? Numerous studies persistently show how Americans retain racial bias, even if often implicit or subconscious. According to Scripture we have every right to say that all of us are part of the human race (Acts 17:26); we have no right, however, to deny the differences which have arisen among people on account of the persistent categorization by race. Perhaps one day in America race will cease to be a predominant form of categorization in society; on that day we can lay race theory to rest fully; however, that day has not yet come, and Christians ought not to marginalize others because of it.
The New Testament is unambiguous about whether certain groups of people are superior to others: all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God, and in Christ, not only can all find salvation, but all stand equal in the sight of God in Christ (Romans 3:23, Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:1-18). Unfortunately, for many years, far too many Christians did not uphold this teaching, and on the basis of their theory of race advanced the cause of white supremacy. To this day certain groups claim white supremacy is consistent with the teaching of God in Christ; nothing could be further from the truth. As there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, so assuredly there is neither white nor black in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:28). Christians must acknowledge the violence done to people of color in the name of white supremacy and lament how it was often done “in the name of the Lord.” Christians should take every opportunity given to denounce white supremacy wherever it may raise its head and to powerfully and unequivocally proclaim the Gospel truth of man’s fundamental equality before God.
Race proves particularly fraught for white people in America, for most white people do not really believe themselves to be a distinct race or manifesting a distinct culture. White people in America tend to presume their understanding of America and race is normative; they often have difficulty understanding how their experience is not “normal,” and often could never be “normal,” for people of color. White Christians do well to heed James’ advice and be quick to hear and slow to speak, proving willing to endure discomfort and to have their viewpoint expanded by the perspectives and experiences of people of color (James 1:19). Through such interactions white Christians may learn to see the world with a different set of eyes and recognize how so much they take for granted is a luxury many people of color have not been able to enjoy, and only because of this societal construct. White Christians can then work to advocate for and uphold the integrity of people of color, striving to make good on the Gospel truth of the equality of all people before God.
In Revelation 7:9 we are invited to see a beautiful picture: people from every nation, tribe, and people standing before God’s throne, praising Him. God’s goal for Christians in Christ is not to eliminate every difference or distinction, but to have all hostility among people killed through what Jesus accomplished on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Paul did not cease being Jewish when he was converted (Acts 23:6); those of the nations remain part of those nations, yet maintain a stronger loyalty to the trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21). Through the church God declares His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities (Ephesians 3:10-11): people from every walk of life who remain very different people and yet are one in Christ (John 17:20-23). Christians are at their best not when they deny all differences among people but celebrate each person’s and each group of people’s distinctiveness, recognizing how the body of Christ is not a factory churning out thousands of the same part but made up of different parts all working to build up the whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-28).
Thus race may be a social construct but remains one acutely felt by Americans; as Christians in America, we must denounce racism and embody the Gospel imperative of racial and ethnic inclusivity, all in ways which glorify God in Christ. May we uphold the truth of God in Christ, strive to build up the body of Christ, and invite all to serve the Lord Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry