From Pastor Dan's Blog

Is Racism a topic the Bible directly addresses?

For too long I assumed the answer was “yes.”  To my eyes, the Bible was replete with examples of various forms of tribalism, the dynamics of which can easily teach us about God’s desires for modern-day forms, including racism.  There are fights between opposing family lineages (Genesis), Israelites and ancient Egyptians (Exodus), and various tribes and nations (Numbers, Joshua, Judges).  Tribal and national conflicts continued throughout Israel’s monarchic times, during and after which there are prophecies about God’s plan to transcend those conflicts and gather all the nations to worship Him (Isaiah 60, Micah 4:1-5, Zephaniah 3:9-10).  In the New Testament, Jesus has instructive encounters with Samaritans, Romans, and various cultural or racial others, and then the early church has to reckon with some stiff Jew-Gentile issues (Acts 6, 15, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians).  All those examples meant that Christians and preachers could faithfully talk about race as needed, using any of those texts, so I once assumed.

However, just because these situations are present in the Bible does not necessarily mean a direct application to issues of race and racism in these United States.

One reason is that the majority of Biblical accounts are descriptive.  We have to be careful about deriving moral prescriptions for the present from descriptions of the past.  What happened does not automatically translate into do or don’t do.  What if the sum of Biblical accounts simply record that people have historically been nasty to one another and long used tribalism as a weapon against a perceived “them”?  To complicate matters, different kinds of descriptions relate differently to moral ideals.  For example, the Biblical description of the cosmos assumes the sun goes around the earth, so is it ok, in a moral judgement, to condemn Galileo?[1]  Or notice that the New Testament not only acknowledges the reality of Greco-Roman slavery, but also gives direct moral advice amidst the slave Philemon’s situation.  Does that situational advice lead to Biblical principles that would support American slavery?

What is needed is hermeneutics, a big word that deals with how to get from back there, back then, to here and now with faithfulness.  That process is delicate and should be done with caution, not assumption.  In the case of race, just because the Bible describes episodes of tribalism might not mean we can draw an easy interpretive line to modern concerns about race.

This leads to a second, more potent problem for reading race in the Bible.  The many episodes of clan conflict, cultural rivalry, and religious division are not exactly racial in the way race is defined in the present time.  In the United States and other countries, race has a biological component based largely on skin color, and in part on facial structures or body shapes or hair type.  Paired with prejudice, power, and history, those genetic differences are bred into a massive and sinful social construct.[2]  If racism as constructed in the United States is different from Biblical conflicts between clans or nations or cultures, it becomes more difficult to make the leap from in-group/out-group conflicts “then and there” to talk about racism “here and now.”  Perhaps modern cultural or religious conflict are closer analogues than modern racial issues.  If so, talking about race in Biblically-informed ways requires an extra step, maybe even one that would put such talk outside of what could formally be preached from the text and might be better reserved for other forums.

Beware, preachers!  If there’s distance between Biblical issues and race as we experience it in these United States, bringing up the topic of race in context of Biblical teaching could be forcing the Bible to speak to issues it doesn’t.  Then talking about “race” and “racism” becomes a mere inflammatory political move.  Then making the Bible speak to such issues can become a divisive misuse of the scriptures.

All that is the risk of assuming.

So far, I’ve laid out a pair of problems with my earlier-in-life assumption about the Bible speaking to racial issues.  To sum up: the Bible may still speak to such issues, but more precise hermeneutics than assuming would be required.  It would be somewhat easier if there were a more direct Biblical example of addressing racism.

But how about Jews and Gentiles?  Is the division between them cultural, based on religious adherence to Torah or Jewish rabbinic teachings and practices, and / or is there a racial ingredient, in the sense that the division between Jew and Gentile weaponized genetic variation?

Consider.  In Matthew 3, John the Baptist is confronting some Jewish leaders who came down to ensure baptismal law and order: “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”  For John, biological ancestry, which the Jewish leaders were so ready to claim, is no credit in the context of onrushing cosmic judgment.  Jesus goes further in John 8:31-47, in which He insists that claims of ancestral descent are without value relative to obedience to God the Father.[3]

These passages and many others show that the Jewish conception of their own identity was, in fact, strongly biological.  Sure, some Gentiles chose to follow Jewish laws and became culturally welcome in synagogues, but once they were born outside God’s people, they would always be outside the family.  A few chose circumcision, but that was the exception and couldn’t change birth.  Thus, “Jew” was a racially-charged term in New Testament times.  So was “Gentile,” which, while it was broad in applying to all non-Jews, still had to do with biological origin.

Because of that, we need not risk assuming that the Bible talks about race.  When one reads of “Jews” and “Gentiles” in the Bible, we are reading, in part, about biological differences used to divide.  Race and racism were in play whenever Jews and Gentiles tried to relate.  Prejudice and privilege were at issue wherever Paul wrote that Christ was saving Gentiles along with the Jews.  Racism is not a problem that we moderns bring to or force on the text.  It’s already there.

Now we can answer the question.  Is racism a topic the Bible directly addresses?  Yes.  To hear God’s Word, or to “just preach the word” as I am so often exhorted to do, does mean talking about race.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” – Ephesians 2:11-13, NIV

[1] Geeky-just-because footnote: “Around” needs definition.  Newtonian physics, relativity theory, and versions of quantum gravity may all have different answers as to what is going around what.

[2] Calling race a “construct” denies nothing of its power in society to shape the ways we relate, nor the brute reality of racism in individuals, groups, institutions and structures.

[3] We might conclude from this that Jesus teaches we must get beyond, in the sense of trying to live apart from, race, ethnicity, culture, and other parts of our identities, and talk more simply of living God’s way or not, but these words of Jesus need to be set within the redemptive plan for all things, which includes making differences and diversity ultimately serve the glory of God (Revelation 7).  That’s for another post.