Friday, September 13, 2019

One from Many: The Biblical View of Race

Few people follow politics closely, so those of us who do need to keep in mind that others are not necessarily noticing the things we see. Still, I feel it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore a growing problem in this country. On one fringe, white nationalists are increasing in numbers, boldness, and violence. On the other, racial identity politics (in combination with other forms) are being used as a filter for everything in American life. The former tells people like me that my skin pigmentation is somehow a mark of superiority. The latter says that I must be a racist simply because of the way I look. The tension caused by these polarizing viewpoints is not the only problem we have, but it is greatly contributing to them.

Looking at this, I thought it might be a good idea to share a perspective on race that comes from the position of biblical inerrancy. My view does not agree with secular science’s current view of the subject, which will make some people immediately dismiss it. But for those actually interested in harmony, hopefully they will see that this Christian approach is one that shares a common goal.

The Family of Man

To understand the proper Christian perspective on race, we must first turn to the earliest pages of the Bible. Adam and Eve are shown to be a special creation of God, formed deliberately and separately from any other creatures. It is not recorded for us what color they were, presumably because that detail did not matter to God. Instead, we are told that

God created man
in His own image;
He created him in the image of God;
He created them male and female. (Gen. 1:27)

So the hallmark of human existence is the fact that we are created in the image of God (both men and women equally, which also has importance for modern politics). Since we are all descended from Adam and Eve, we all share this dignity. Our species is not evolving, meaning that one version of it can become superior to another. Rather, we are equal in God’s sight.

Moving on from the creation of humanity to the beginning of the races, we turn a few more pages to Gen. 10. This passage is referred to as the “Table of Nations” because it spells out the spread of humanity over the earth after the Great Flood. It is a confusing chapter due to the large number of unusual names, but the simplest divisions follow from the three sons of Noah. Japheth’s descendants settled in Europe and Central Asia, Ham’s went to Africa, and Shem’s were in the Middle East and East Asia (and eventually were the first settlers of the Western Hemisphere, though that is not mentioned here).

Among the many shameful abuses of Scripture has been the fact that this record was incorrectly used as a justification for racial slavery in the American South. In Gen. 9:25–27, Noah pronounces the destinies of his sons and their offspring. In it, he includes curses on Canaan, one of Ham’s sons. Evil-minded ministers said that the curse was black skin and that it meant all black people were intended by God to serve whites.

This, of course, misses every point possible. The curse of Canaan had more to do with the national destiny of Israel than it did with skin color. Color, in fact, once again goes unmentioned. And above all, it misses the real purpose of the passage. For all our differences in appearance and in language (explained in Gen. 11:1–9), all human beings can trace their lineage back to the same point. We are one people. Recognizing our familial connection should cause us to have compassion for one another, not hatred.

[I may as well mention another attempted justification for slavery from Genesis while we are here. Some of the same “theologians” who came up with the notion that all black people were cursed to serve also suggested that black skin was the mark of Cain from Gen. 4:15. In truth, the Bible gives no indication that this mark was passed on to Cain’s children. Furthermore, all of his descendants were killed in the Flood. The origin of different skin colors was a function of environment, nothing more.]

The Family of God

In spite of what unites us in the depths of human history, there is no doubt that there are also many differences among the various races and nations. Those differences do not have to be ignored or downplayed. The shame of it is the way they have become a source of conflict. It is natural enough. We feel closest to the people most like us, and we have less concern for those who are further away. Universal concern is essentially impossible for humans. However, it is not for God, and He has redefined what closeness means.

Salvation has been made available through Jesus Christ, who gave His life for all people everywhere. Anyone who trusts in Him for the forgiveness of sins will receive the promise of eternal life and the presence of the Holy Spirit from that moment forward. It does not matter what they look like, where they come from, or how they sound (Col. 3:11). If it does not matter to God, then it is not supposed to matter to us. Our faith once again makes us one family, regardless of what may still distinguish us (Gal. 3:26).

Different appearances among humans are an accident. The divisions and hatreds that it causes between them are the result of sin. But even this will eventually be turned to God’s glory. Rather than being a cause of separation, the differences are being woven together like a tapestry. Humanity will be the ultimate symbol of the beauty to be found in variety. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, reminds us that we began as one. The last book, Revelation, glories in how many we will be. There, it is sung of Christ that

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9)

“Every tribe and language and people and nation” will be represented in God’s kingdom. The diversity unified in Jesus is aspirational. We know it is what He is making, and so we should seek to live it out now. The United States, founded through shared ideas rather than shared blood, is in a unique position to do so. We have not always lived up to any of our ideals, but the ideals that follow from the gospel are still worth having. We should be encouraged by the progress we have made and use it to make more, rather than wallowing in our failures.

There will not be a perfect world until God makes the new one, but He has given us a glimpse of what it will look like. It is one in which race means nothing more than showing His creativity. What we look like is not important. What we believe is what matters most. That is why I do not take pride in my whiteness or experience guilt because of it. It is not my identity. Christ is. I hope I can encourage others to see themselves the same way.

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