RACE; IS IT A USEFUL WORD?
Immediately preceding this writing, in the last two days, the issue of the word “race” has come up in two different places. Should we use the word, is it Biblical, is it right to speak of “racial reconciliation?” Is the word race a biological reality, or is it a “social construct?”
I confess that when I hear such questions I immediately wonder what the motive behind the question might be. Is this being asked as a denial of the reality of “racism?” Is this an attempt to distance oneself from the struggle against racism, is it a form of self-hatred and a refusal to be considered part of a “race?” Is it an attempt to achieve an idealistic end by insisting on eschatological outcomes as present categories? Is it an academic question for intellectual precision or does it have a practical application?
In my ministry I have been challenged by people who wonder if it is correct to use the term “African-American” or any hyphenated derivative of the word “American.” Some individuals hate to be put in categories of any kind, or they may have nationalistic or patriotic feelings about sub-dividing citizens based on ethnicity or skin color.
It might be easy to simply blow such questions off as coming from ignorant racists or self-hating victims of racism, but that would not be fair or mindful that such questions can be honestly asked and wondered about. If it is possible let me suggest these ideas as a way of being helpful about these questions, if indeed they are asked in sincerity and not from obstinate or malicious ignorance.
1. We believe in the common unity of all mankind, that from one blood God made all the nations of the earth and sovereignly planned their places and times.
2. All human beings are created in, and bear, the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth.
3. God divided the people of the world into language groups and spread them across the world. We believe he did this to protect the human race from itself, and from its own self-idolatry.
4. In the course of time ethnic diversity became established through adaption to climate, sexual preference, interbreeding and genetic resistance or vulnerability to diseases. This is not evolution, there is no species change, but people groups did come to have fairly distinct generalized characteristics.
5. In the process of times some people groups reached development stages ahead of others and these development stages were used as rationalizations of supposed superiority of one group over another.
6. In the process of rationalized ethno-centric separation/superiority over/against others, combined with the ethnic divergence (especially of skin color and body type) between people groups the concept of race as a biological division of humanity was introduced through inept and immature science, practitioners of which were affected by their own ethnic prejudices.
7. The spiritual and emotional attitude of ethno-centrism, especially expressed in a concept of “over” rather than just “different,” using a manufactured concept of race created what we know as “racism,” or a sense of racial superiority.
8. Whatever we wish had not happened there are some historical and present social realities;
a. People see color if they are not blind, and they notice hair and body types, and they make emotional and social choices due to what they see.
b. Not all generalized observations of people groups are wrong or bad observations, but can too easily fall into stereotypes readily believed by our prejudices.
c. Even if there is no such biological thing as race there is an historical and sociological reality of a thing called “racism.”
d. It is not wrong to acknowledge the ethnic and cultural diversity of people, in fact it can be quite insulting to deny it as if what God had given them was something to be ignored rather than celebrated and embraced.
e. Our ethnic, historical, and genetic make-up are parts of God’s gift to us and people groups have cultural aspects which need to be understood and appreciated.
f. It is wrong not to love people, and if our ethnic, social, or cultural judgment of them leads us in anyway to diminish them or abuse them we have sinned against God.
g. All human beings are more than their ethnicity but everyone comes in a human body that comes from parents who came from some people group who came from some place; to deny this is not helpful in cultural interaction.
9. In spite of ethnic or cultural differences the Gospel of Jesus Christ enables saints to become servants of other people across cultures by taking ethnicity and culture seriously, not be denying it. This was the mission strategy of the Apostle Paul.
10. The historical reality of the use of the concept of race in this country, through racial slavery, took many different ethnic groups from Africa and coalesced them into a new ethnic group known to us as African Americans. Their native tongues were denied them and they were amalgamated into being English speakers. Their native cultural and religious practices were by and large denied to them and they were forced to invent and derive new ones, thus they have a unique culture in the world, parts of which overlap with the majority of other Americans and some of which do not. American slavery was largely based on skin color, explained as race. Other ethnic groups came here to assimilate, Africans were brought here and were denied assimilation except for functional reasons.
11. Though the Bible does not speak specifically of “racial reconciliation” it is a logical and necessary corollary of a mission and justice mandate based on the reconciliation accomplished on the cross. In the Gospel we believe the coalescing of all Gentiles into a reconciliation with the Jews was accomplished through the person and the blood of Jesus (the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile necessarily accomplished reconciliation between all sub-ethnic groups of Gentiles and all are included in the prayer of Jesus to make us “one.”)
12. Racial reconciliation is a necessary and legitimate ministry and manner of speaking due to the sinful reality of racism and its division of people. To deny the active use and history of not only the word but the wickedness of racism is to perpetuate it and to engage in nonsensical discussion.