About three weeks ago, while I was off the grid for a few days in the hills of Kentucky, a contingency of white nationalist, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan members were marching across the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville chanting phrases of white supremacy and carrying lit torches in their hands. I re-entered the world of news feeds and social media timelines on my phone after the event had already transpired, including the violence and sorrowful death that ensued in the midst of this hate.
When Sunday arrived after my return, I shared the following brief understanding of the truth, lies, and history of race with my local church family on Sunday, August 20. These words were meant for my immediate church family. They are intimate words written by a white man to a dear group of people bearing the beauty and artistry of multiple shades of skin from lighter to darker hues. I am dreadfully aware that I bear the resemblance of the group marching on that day in Charlottesville, and I acknowledge that my ignorance pertaining to the experience of being black in America is beyond my ability to even begin to grasp. However, my ignorance aside, I felt compelled to address this topic as a pastor because I do believe silence in the midst of this pain causes more hurt than my speaking insensitively or ignorantly ever will.
I share these words now in this blog, roughly 3 weeks after the original event which led to their being written, not because I feel that I’m an expert on such issues, but because I’ve been asked to do so by dear friends who do indeed excel beyond me in their experiences with racism.
For more extensive reading on this issue by authors to whom I’m indebted, see the links at the bottom of this post.
The Truth about Race
The bride of Jesus Christ—the church—began as one people group speaking many languages roughly 2,000 years ago during the time described in the Book of Acts as the “Day of Pentecost” (where we see a picture of the reversal of Babel). And the church is on a God-ordained trajectory to include people from every tribe and language and people and nation (this is the portrait we have of Heaven in the book of Revelation). But let’s rewind the tape back before the church was ever formed, when the Creator was making humanity.
Acts 17:26–27 (ESV) “And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”
The Bible does not describe multiple races; it teaches us instead about one human race created in the image of God, sons and daughters of one human couple fashioned by the hands of God, which bears the diverse beauty of multiple ethnicities, cultures, and languages.
The Bible does speak of human divisions like families or clans, languages, or ethnic groups, but it never ties these divisions to biological markers and it never ties these distinctions to human inferiority or superiority.
This in no way requires us to deny the rich diverseness of our sovereignly orchestrated biology by claiming “color blindness.” To “not see” the color of my brothers and sisters is akin to “not seeing” the purples, pinks and blues of those glorious sunsets which take my breath away or the golden-orange tapestry of the Creator when the sun rises in the morning. How can I not see–no, how can I not celebrate what our God has designed? I am not saying the Bible is deaf to our differences; I am saying that it categorically does not divide us according to skin as racism seeks to do.
From a scientific perspective, the human race is diverse in skin color and other biological factors because whenever people, animals, or plants live in isolation for a period of time, dominant genetic traits among that group become prevalent and recessive genetic traits are minimized or even disappear entirely. For a long period in world history, after the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, people groups were divided by the oceans and difficult to traverse land masses, and isolated in this way, specific biological traits became dominant and common among them. Later through ships, planes, and other technology we all reunited and started calling one another inferior even though we were originally brothers and sisters.
The Lie about Race
Racism is the sin of idolatry directed towards your own perceived “race”; it is the placing of supremacy both in word and deed on your own particular biological markers (which you did not work to receive, but were handed by your Creator) or your culture (which you did not work to receive, but were born into), when in fact the Word of God places supremacy solely on the shoulders of the Savior of all ethnicities and cultures, Jesus Christ. To place supremacy or primacy on anything in this life other than Jesus is idolatry. Racism is just another form of worshipping the creature (our biology) instead of the Creator.
The false concept of separate “races” has existed in multiple parts of the globe, at different points in history, but it really became a household term and institutionalized as a way of thought by European slave owners who wanted to define varying levels of human species, a sort of biological caste system. Again, race, at least as defined by biological markers like skin color, hair texture, or eye shape does not exist in the Bible.
The History of Race
In the late 18th century, pro-slavery groups taught that there were three races: Africans, Indians and Europeans (or black, brown, and white). This was specifically upheld as a legitimizing reason to steal Native American lands and to enslave Africans.
Prior to this point in world history, slavery and “race” were not based on skin color, but based on whether your people group was generally poor or not. For example, the Jews, the Irish and Italians were all once seen as members of separate, inferior races who were also enslaved. But with the switch to racializing slavery, runaway “property” became “easily identified” by skin color, and all those poor pale people groups became “white.”
Once these ideas caught hold in America, they were propped up by virtually everyone in society. They couldn’t stare the horror of sub-human slavery in the eye, so they invented logical explanations for it. Some churches taught the lie that the curse of Cain in the book of Genesis was the curse of dark skin, and this became a falsehood perpetuated among Christians. Some scientists later began to develop a theory of biology called evolution which placed the races on different evolutionary paths from different sub-human species, and thus different levels of humanity. For example, it was popularly held in the mid-1800’s that Africans were closer to apes than humans (see for example, Types of Mankind, co-edited by George Gliddon, 1854).
Let me be very clear and explicit in stating that current-day white supremacy groups like the Alt-Right, the KKK, and neo-Nazis who were chanting “Blood and Soil,” and “Jews will not replace us,” last weekend in Charlottesville are anti-God, anti-Gospel, and their ideology calls light-skinned people to worship themselves instead of their Creator.
The Gospel in Summary
There is one human race created in the image of God in the book of Genesis. Humans chose self over God and they chose self over the other person. Our common ancestors Adam and Eve and their children were marked, not by darker skin or lighter skin, but by sin in their hearts.
But then God sent one savior, Jesus, who died to absorb our selfishness and rebellion against him, and then rose back to life victoriously over the grave. Jesus now commands us to make disciples of all ethnicities in Matthew 28:19-20. Furthermore, Ephesians 2:11-22 presents an extravagant portrait of ethnic conciliation being bound up in the reality of reconciliation between God and man in verses prior. The final result of such conciliation is the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural bride of Christ, which we call the church. Jesus said his church would be known by our love for one another (not just by being in the same building together on a Sunday, but by truly knowing and loving and affirming one another in our differences).
Revelation 7:9–10 (ESV) paints a picture for us of our future reality which we long for and live for and strive for now: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”
Heaven is limitlessly colorful, and we will sing and praise together the supreme Jesus.