The West needs to abandon its doctrine of race. Race is an Enlightenment category that continues to separate and divide people, and the consequences run deep and continue to make their presence felt. NFL players cannot bring themselves to stand for the US national anthem, and would rather kneel to make the point that the race divide still runs deep in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In Britain, we may not have had the history of Jim Crow laws in our past, but we have been as much to blame for the same thinking that makes race such a problem in the modern world.
The concept of race is has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as modern science studied and categorised other species, and sought to do the same with humans. Writers such as Adam Smith, David Hume and Emmanuel Kant held a patronising view of more primitive human societies, and all used the term ‘race’ for the first time in its modern usage (compare and contrast with Luither and Calvin, though beware of poor modern translations in English that may include ‘race’). The early years of the colonial age threw together people of widely different cultures and languages. It was also the height of the Atlantic slave trade, an evil built on the understanding that Africans were from an inferior race.
The German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach categorised the human race into five groups, Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans and Malays, though he used some of these titles more broadly than we would use them today. Other anthropologists reshaped and developed his categories, and indeed the full development of the concept of race came later, as the agenda of the secular Enlightenment worked itself out in the development of a secular anthropology in the nineteenth century. Racism as the ‘fear of the other’ is a sin that goes back to the book of Genesis, but there is no escaping the fact that the intellectual concept of race has its roots in the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that ruled out God, elevated human reason to the exclusion of divine revelation, and set off down intellectual roads that led to several grim regimes of the twentieth century. What is worst of all is that Christians bought into these racial theories, using them to justify Apartheid in South Africa, the racial divisions of the southern United States, and the exploitation that was part of the British and other European empires.
In the past fifty years much progress has been made in trying to achieve racial integration, but notice the way we still talk about it. We assume that there are still different ‘races’, which is the root of the problem in the first place. The idea that different groups of human beings have different and unrelated origins, and can never view one another as equals, is the error that lies at the foundation of all racial tension. It stokes the ‘fear of the other’, and the lurid ‘blood and soil’ chant of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. I find the idea that the sons of white settlers who led the protests in Charlottesville could claim they have rights of ‘blood and soil’ in America is quite extraordinary. America is a settler nation, that colonised soil long inhabited by others, and where people of many nations have mingled together by all kinds of complicated bloodlines, a fact reflected in the surnames of the protest organisers: Kessler, Domigo, and Heimbach, hardly names all of one blood. America is a settler nation of very mixed ethnic origin. American society stretches the idea of race to breaking point, but no one seems ready to challenge the underlying Enlightenment assumption that drives racism: the idea of race itself.
The Bible has no concept of race. It almost never speaks about skin colour. The Bible’s priority is to emphasise the unity of the human race as made in the image of God. As Genesis 1 describes the ascending splendour of the days of creation, on days five and six, plants, birds, fish and animals are created ‘according to their kinds’ in great variety and diversity. But humanity is different. God says of all humanity, that we alone will bear his image, and that this will make us all unique and special among all his creatures, the only ones made to be like God.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
From the beginning there were no races; simply one divine origin for all humanity, giving unique divine-image-bearing dignity to every human being. It has been the Enlightenment denial of the divine creation of man and woman that lies at the root of so many of its evils. The truth of the divine image in every human being is a liberating and ennobling doctrine. It means that in all our dealings with someone from another nation, we have to see the divine image in them as much as in ourselves. A truly biblical understanding of humanity also sees the effects of the fall into sin as much in ourselves as in others. Every nation has its conspicuous sins, and we should each see our own sins most of all, rather than use other nations’ sins as a basis for hating them. As I have explained elsewhere, God’s plan for humanity was a world of nations, each defined by its own language and culture, land and history, peacefully existing alongside each other, with boundaries that are more porous than you might think.
When we come to the New Testament, the new-born church demonstrates another biblical answer to racism: cross-cultural mission. Jesus came to Israel at a time when they feared and shunned the surrounding nations, and he broke down the divides. Where there were divisions based on the food laws, he declared all foods clean. He honoured foreigners like the nations of the Decapolis, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the woman of Samaria. And he stunned his disciples by telling them to break out of their Jewish boundaries by going and making disciples of all nations. Cross-cultural mission didn’t come easily to the Jerusalem Church, or to Peter, who needed a heavenly vision to make him go to the house of Cornelius. However, as Michael Griffiths makes clear in his book Lambs Dancing with Wolves, Paul was remarkably cross-cultural and related across numerous national boundaries. On his journey to Rome, he quickly became so trusted by Julius his Roman captor that, when they stopped in Sidon, Julius allowed him to stay with his friends in the city. He was similarly well received by the local chief, Publius, when they landed on Malta. Paul was determined to be ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor 9:22) not just because he was an apostle, but because that is the outworking of the Great Commission for all Christians. Christians should not be driven by a narrow nationalism that idolises their own national identity and fears all others. Christians should rejoice in who they are, be comfortable in their own language and culture and committed to reaching their own people for Christ (see Romans 9:1-5; 10:1-4 for Paul’s own passion for his own people), but we should also be outward-looking, learning a new default setting that instinctively reaches across national and cultural boundaries and identifies with others rather than fearing them.
Above all, local churches should be outward looking, wanting to typify the multinational nature exemplified by the Church in Ephesus. It is interesting that when Paul writes to the Ephesians, he has no need to use the word ‘race’ to describe the different nationalities that mixed together in that new city church. For Paul there were really only two categories, Jew and Gentile, and again and again he wants to rejoice in the way that through the gospel those who were ‘far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (Eph. 2:17). The differences that distinguish nations are part of each person’s identity, just as much as being male or female, but none of these things divide us because we are ‘all one in Christ’ and heirs of Abraham by faith (Gal 3:28-29).
So, here are three truths that lay the axe at the root of racism: man and woman made in God’s image, Christians are to engage in cross-cultural mission, and the goal of mission is the sacred unity that is expressed when people from many nations become one local church. The Enlightenment has nothing to match these deep convictions. Biblical thinking and action is the only answer to the evil of racism.