When it comes to conversations about the Bible’s teachings regarding race/culture/ethnicity/color, there are multiple – not always consistent or complimentary – narratives to consider…
Narrative 1: ALL people are created in the image and likeness of God. ALL people have inherent sacred worth. ALL people share a common parentage. ALL people are sinners in need of a common savior (Jesus Christ). As we’re reconciled with God, through Christ, we’re reconciled with one another, making us ALL “one in Christ.” As such, in Christ, ethnicity, gender, and status cease to matter. ALL, in Christ, are children of God.
Narrative 2: The world consists of a great variety of cultures and ethnicities. Instead of choosing from an existing group, God created a new, distinctive ethnicity/culture/religious people to save the world – Israel/Judaism. Israel’s purpose, as God’s created and chosen people, was to bless all of the nations/ethnicities of the world. Israel’s prophets imagined all of the many and diverse nations gathering at God’s holy mountain (Jerusalem). From Israel, a Jewish savior (Jesus) was born for all people of all nations, tearing down the walls of difference that divide us. Heaven reflects this diversity, as people of every tribe, language and nation gather around the throne of God, in multi-lingual worship.
Narrative 3: “Outsiders” are evil and a threat to the exclusive holiness and sanctity of God’s special, chosen people (Israel/Christianity). Diversity is a result of human sin (Tower of Babel). God’s chosen are clean. All others are dirty. People like me are my neighbors. Others are strangers, to be avoided. God’s people are faithful. Other nations are idolaters. Israel was warned about taking foreign wives, worshipping their idols, and making deals with godless nations. God blessed God’s chosen, but used other nations as evil instruments to fulfill God’s good purposes. Some nations are actually agents of Satan (Book of Revelation). Gentiles (non-Jews) were considered lost, sinful, and unclean – never to be associated with.
These three narratives run concurrently throughout Scripture – from start to finish – and through the minds of most believers. People of faith vacillate between believing ALL are God’s children, to believing all “could” be God’s children, to believing only some are good enough to be God’s children, and issues of race, culture and ethnicity are always at play. Contradictory notions of God loving everyone versus “insiders” and “outsiders” run concurrently in Scripture, and in the minds of most believers.
Dare I say, Narratives 1 and 2 most closely reflect the heart of God, and God’s intent for humanity, whereas Narrative 3 is a reflection of a fallen, divided, racist world?
One expression of this tension is an all-too-common Christian response to the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Some are quick to defensively counter with, “ALL Lives Matter!” While others understand that saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t have to suggest other (White) lives matter less, only that Black lives need to matter as much, but haven’t.
Unfortunately, since the first African slave was brought to these shores, “Black lives” have been valued only to the degree they’ve served “White America,” but always less than “White America.” When “Black lives” are seen as a threat to “White America,” their value rapidly diminishes, as exemplified by the deaths of George Floyd and far too many others.
In moments like we’ve recently witnessed, when America’s unfair racial divide and pervasive, racist, systemic injustices are publicly exposed, many are quick to deny their personal racism, claiming colorblindness. “I’m not racist. I don’t see color!” But, is colorblindness the answer to racism? Or, is the claim of color-blindness just another form of prejudice in disguise?
A little theology might help.
Christians believe in the Incarnation. We believe God became incarnate – in human flesh – in the person Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, as the Bible says, the fullness of God was pleased to inhabit. Jesus of Nazareth was the visible representation of the invisible God. Jesus himself said that he was one with the Father. Jesus was both “Son of God” and “Son of Man.”
This is a core theological concept. But, that’s not always been the case. In fact, in the centuries following the life and death of Jesus, the Church struggled to understand how this Jesus could be, simultaneously, both God and human. Jesus could be God OR human, but how could he be both?
Some erred on the side of believing Jesus was only human; a truly exceptional human, undeniably blessed and favored. But, only human.
Some. erred on the opposite side, believing Jesus was truly divine, and that his humanity was merely a mask or disguise.
The problem for both groups (later deemed heretics) was the humanity of Jesus. The idea of God co-mingling with sinful, fallen, depraved human flesh was beyond comprehension. Jesus had to either be an extraordinary human, or God cloaked in a convincing disguise.
But Jesus WAS fully human. And, he was NOT a generic, nondescript version of humanity. He was ethnically Jewish; meaning he had olive-toned skin, dark hair and eyes, and was likely small in stature. He was ethnically Jewish; speaking Aramaic, eating a Middle Eastern diet. He was religiously Jewish; circumcised on the eighth day, and steeped in the Laws and traditions of the Jewish faith. When we claim the Incarnation as a theological truth, we can’t leave out the particularity of Jesus’ fleshly, Jewish humanity.
God not only became living flesh. God became the flesh of a particular, specific ethic/cultural/religious people, and embodied them fully. One cannot overestimate the importance of this fact. In fact, one might argue, we can’t accurately understand Jesus, or the Incarnation, and be colorblind. To know Jesus, we have to know the particularity of his Jewishness.
When someone claims to be colorblind, they’re devaluing the full humanity of the other, which is essentially a racist stance. What they likely mean to say is, “I don’t hold a person’s skin color against them” or “I don’t judge a person based on their skin color.” But, while that is well and good, it falls short. It doesn’t say, “I see all people of all skin tones equally, and I honor the unique life experience of every person, including his/her color, ethnicity, and culture.”
As a white, Southern, American male, living in this period of history, I have a unique and particular life experience, inseparable from my Whiteness and my maleness. Some would say I’m “privileged,” and I can’t deny it. My peers – male or female, cisgender or non-gender specific, gay or straight, abled or disabled, African-American, First Nation, Latino/Latina/Latinx, Asian American, Islander, etc. – have experienced life differently, and each person’s life experience is inextricably bound to their color/ethnicity/culture. If I don’t see their flesh, I don’t see their personhood. If I don’t see their flesh, I don’t see the gift of their ethnic and cultural heritage. If I don’t see their flesh, I don’t honor the unique challenges and hardships others have endured.
Ibram X. Kendi, African American author of How to be an Antiracist, explains,
“I still identify as Black. Not because I believe Blackness, or race, is a meaningful scientific category but because our societies, our policies, our ideas, our histories, and our cultures have rendered race and made it matter… I see myself culturally and historically and politically in Blackness, in being an African American, an African, a member of the forced and unforced African diaspora…. The gift of seeing myself as Black instead of being color-blind is that it allows me to clearly see myself historically and politically as being an antiracist, as a member of the interracial body striving to accept and equate and empower racial difference of all kinds.”
The transformation our world desperately needs is not colorblindness, as if such a thing actually exists. The transformation needed is to stop seeing some people – based on color, or anything else – as less. The transformation needed is to see each and every person as a unique expression of the image and likeness of God. The transformation needed is to respect and honor difference as a gift from God. The transformation needed is to neither ignore nor deny the significant differences between us, nor to over-exaggerate their significance.
We’re all different, thank God. But, differences need not divide us. In our diversity there’s unity, made possible by the ONE who became a brown-skinned Jewish man.