It is difficult to imagine a more contentious topic than race in today’s society. Being American by birth, it is difficult for me to read any news without seeing troubling stories of my homeland being constantly plagued by racial tension. Violence, protests, police brutality, blaming, shaming, and disorder – all in the name of what?
Race is difficult not just because it is so emotive, but even more so because it is so ambiguous and problematic as a concept. What is race? At its core, race is a means of classifying people on superficial characteristics. David VanDrunen recognizes, “To speak of race implies that the peoples of the world can be categorized into a handful of distinct groups based primarily upon shared physical features associated with particular geographical regions—features such as skin color, hair texture, or the shape of eyes, nose, or mouth. Saying even this much provokes serious questions about the validity of ‘race.’” So, at the heart of the concept is a poor way of thinking about humanity, a means of categorizing people based on appearances. What difference does it actually make that someone’s skin is lighter or darker than someone else’s? Can we really say that all “white” people are the same? Does skin color (or any other biological feature) necessarily mean that the people categorized as similar based on appearances actually think or identify the same?
But just because we can show the concept of race is bogus, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a thing – at least something we know in our experience. I’ve been haunted by the recent song lyrics from Beyoncé: “Brown skin girl, ya skin just like pearls, your back against the world, I’d never trade you for anybody else …” The devastating double-entendre of these lyrics are moving: brown skin is beautiful like a pearl, but also just like white (pearl) skin; when your backs against the world, know I’d never trade you for anyone because I love you, but also I’d never trade you (like a slave). The struggle associated with race is present another of her songs “Black Parade” in which she sings, “Being black, maybe that’s the reason why They always mad, yeah, they always mad Been past ‘em, I know that’s the reason why They all big mad and they always have been.” While race is an illegitimate concept – distinguishing, categorizing, and treating people differently because of their physical features – it is a real problem in the world.
Christians find themselves scrambling to respond well in the face of racial injustice. Much of the difficulty about discernment in the face of these cultural tensions is the ways these issues continue to divide Christians. By splitting society based on colour, we import these categories into the church and respond along skin-colour lines. So, how can a white-skinned Christian speak thoughtfully, considerately, and with credibility into an issue that’s historically been perpetrated by similar looking people? How can a dark-skinned Christian speak thoughtfully, charitably, and with credibility when the agenda is so largely set by a corpus that is external to the church (though, of course, still a church issue)? But how can we not speak?
When it comes to speaking, many Christians are eager, or at least feel pressure, to join the woke crowd. This is the crowd that is ever aware of the social injustices and therefore a warrior for cultural change. Amongst the racial tensions of late, “Black Lives Matter” is the rally cry of the woke. While being a formal group with a fairly radical agenda, the slogan has come to represent a movement in society desperate to see change to the treatment of racial minorities. Christians rightly see the problems in society and want to publicly denounce racial injustice along with those declaring “Black Lives Matter.” But unknowingly, Christians joining the movement may allow the movement to set the agenda for justice. In doing so, we neglect the use of God’s Word that offers an even better way forward in combating injustice.
Recently I was rebuked in my own quest to be woke. Like the time I tried to evangelise a smoker by lighting a cigarette, I tried to persuade my non-white friend that I was up-with-the-times on race. In a conversation with my friend of Asian descent, I told him that I was excited by the prospect of a “brown-skinned man” taking a significant position of leadership, as opposed to the long history of white leadership in the role. Thinking my friend would declare “amen” to my comment, he instead said, “I’m not so sure that’s important. What would be best is if the right man got the job – irrespective of the colour of his skin.” I had simply sought to tip the racial scales like the world, answering race with race.
We need theological clarity in order to avoid the many mishaps that have come as a result of the naiveté of wokeness and its approach to systemic issues. Naïve is not used here in a derogatory manner, but rather to warn that joining a trendy cultural campaign without real understanding is bound to be misguided. Again, Christians are right to decry racism! But even in this instance we need to see the problem framed theologically and entrust our action for change to the wisdom of God’s Word.
It is in the interest of a better way of thinking about the problem of race that I wish to show better categories of thinking about the peoples of the world. In particular, I want to demonstrate the ways that God has purposed to bring differing peoples together in the church. This unity amongst different peoples is grounded in our union with the human Jesus Christ.
The answer to racism isn’t further racial distinction, but instead seeing we belong to a common race – one humanity.
One of the most wonderful parts of the gospel is that while it is an exclusive message – Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father unless through him (John 14:6) – it is also beautifully inclusive of all peoples. This does not mean that all people will be saved, but instead that God desires all nations to come to Him as the one true God.
Paul takes care to encourage Timothy with this inclusive nature of the exclusive gospel. In the face of some bad teaching in Ephesus, apparently one that would promote a Jewish exclusivity and make demands of law upon Gentiles, Paul reminds Timothy to squash this sort of bad teaching (1 Tim. 1:3-7). Paul tells Timothy that God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) because in fact there is only one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
It is worth taking time to carefully see this argument unfold. Paul wants Timothy to be clear that because there is only one God, He is the God for all. In other words, there is no other who supplies life, sustenance, or salvation. Our God is not a tribal deity. He is not just a God of the minority interest party. He is the Lord over all. We can recall Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians, when writing about his prayers, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15).
Furthermore, there is only “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5, emphasis mine). Take notice here of the emphasis on Jesus’s humanity. Paul wants Timothy to see that because there is only one humanity, the work of one man Jesus Christ can be applied for all. In Jesus Christ, we see on display the singularity of humanity. If there were essential differences between human beings on the basis of gender, skin colour, or any other demarcations, the sacrifice of Jesus would not suffice. In fact, it is because we have a common heritage as children of Adam, under the curse of sin, that we need a new Adam to deliver us. The clearest picture we have against racism or race of any kind is the Lord Jesus.
But part of the beauty of the gospel is that it doesn’t just water down humanity, eradicating all differences. The gospel is for all people – every tribe, tongue, and nation. So, a helpful biblical corrective to the language of “race” is to recognise “ethnicities.” Ethnicity recognizes common cultural influences in a much more focused way than simply identifying superficial features to distinguish people. In other words, when someone says, “black people” or “white people,” they hardly recognise any meaningful basis of categorisation. But in identifying Aboriginal people or Lebanese people, one can begin to identify a common heritage and customs that amount to culture. On this basis of culture, we can move away from meaningless ways of dividing people, in pursuit of more fruitful interactions and engagement between people groups.
In the face of racial injustice, the world has pursued its own solutions. To combat racial division, they’ve sought to answer the problem with the problem, race with race. No sensible person could say black lives don’t matter. But, in thinking hard about the issues, we must recognise that saying “black lives matter” isn’t going to bring the ultimate solution. We can’t continue to propagate the problem in our solution. Much better, is the solution that Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped for: that we don’t judge people on the basis of the colour of their skin, but on the content of their character.
Christians can lead a better way in the midst of real tensions today by recognising the dignity of all human beings, as they are shown value in the death of the man Christ Jesus. And, in knowing Christ, we can begin to model what real peace looks like in our churches as we live with one another – different ethnicities brought together by the peace secured at the cross.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16, ESV)