So our first question in our question series is
“How do we, as Christians, deal with issues of race and stereotyping?”
So, like many of our questions tend to, this question breaks down into several different questions we have to unpack. The first is going to sound silly but it actually sets the stage for all of our other answers. “What do we mean when we say race?” Our first reaction, especially being in the Southern U.S., is going to be to talk about skin color. We assume that race is 1) about physical features like skin color and 2) a product of birth and genetics.
This can cause some confusion. There is no denying that physical features are related to who your biological parents are. But when we talk about race we’re often talking about a lot of other pieces, things like language, worldview, music, food. Things we might be better to call culture. If your biological parents are Japanese you will probably look Japanese. But if you are raised by a South African couple in Ecuador your cultural background is going to be very different. And that’s going to have a much greater influence on what you think and do. Instead of race we are better off talking about questions of culture.
So as Christians we try to look to Scripture for models of living. So what does the Old Testament have to say about race and culture?
There are a couple of things to remember from the outset. Whenever the ancient Israelites were dealing with other nations and cultures there was always a strong religious element involved. They weren’t just trying to navigate differences in food or language or customs but a whole different worldview. And those views were often infectious. Ancient religions in their neighborhood often promised healthier children, better crops, more consistent sun and rain, really important things for a farmer on ancient Israel. Whether it could do those things or not, it was certainly tempting whenever you were feeling down and your neighbor was doing well. It was also a much more violent period. All these things don’t excuse the violence to other cultures we see around books like Joshua but they do make more sense of it.
We see the opposite side as well. Many of God’s laws emphasize concern for strangers, aliens and outsiders. When God gives the Exodus command it is specifically extended to include visitors and foreigners (so devious minded folk couldn’t wiggle around the law by exploiting poorer gentiles to do things for them). There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and provision for the poor and travelers. In Isaiah it goes up another notch, when the prophet gives God’s vision for the kingdom come it includes even those of other nations.
So what does the New Testament say?
Well Jesus often welcomed in those of other cultures. He spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well (which was super not-ok in Jewish culture) and shared his gospel with her. He healed a Samaritan woman’s child and a centurion’s servant (Rome was not only not-Jewish but also oppressed the entire nation of Israel). Jesus not only welcomed those who were different but went out of his way to do so, even when it offended his own people.
The apostles continue this in grand fashion. Paul himself is eventually called “the Apostle to the Gentiles” commissioned to spread God’s gospel specifically to those who didn’t share his Jewish culture and worldview. He made painful exhaustive sea and land journeys to share the gospel with those who didn’t share his culture, eventually getting jailed and finally executed for his hard work.
Along the way Paul helped lay out some of our most important thinking about race and culture. Because Christianity began with Judaism there was a real debate whether to be Christian meant first becoming Jewish. That was the way the majority of the early disciples were made, faithful Jews who saw Jesus as an extension of what they already believed. But when Greek, Roman and other Gentile believers began to enter the churches in great numbers they had to decide if they should start observing the law, especially things like the Jewish liturgical calendar (Pentecost, Passover, Festival of Booths etc.), kosher eating and circumcision. Over great resistance from some of his Jewish brothers and sisters, Paul delivered God’s distinct “No” on the topic, insisting that Gentiles could believe in Jesus without also becoming Jews. They could retain their unique culture but have it transformed and conformed to Jesus in their own unique way. This is why we have a letter like Galatians where Paul famously states:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Where it matters most God has already bridged the gap between Jew and Gentile in Jesus and neither should enforce anything extra on the other.
Church History also has an important reminder for us here.
While Paul and the leaders of the early churches stood firmly by gentiles not needing to conform their cultures to Judaism the Church throughout history seemed to forget this pretty quickly. During the colonialism and global evangelism which ran all the way from the 15th century into the mid 20th, many missionaries went into other cultures and did exactly like those missionaries to the Galatians. Rather than attempt to offer Jesus and the Gospel as broadly and cleanly as they could (which, we have to admit, is often difficult), they went full-sail the other direction and insisted that Christianity meant everything white and European. To love Jesus you need to speak English (French, Portuguese etc. depending on the missionary nation of origin) go to Europeanized schools, wear European styles of clothing, have European style markets and government and, if you can swing it, really just try and be a white European male. There were many exceptions, like Missionary Rufus Anderson who insisted on trying to separate as best as possible, Christianity from European notions, but the point stands that we run the risk of loading people up with much Southern American Baptist culture when we try and share Jesus. Its a tendency we need to get out ahead of.
So what does this mean for us?
I think our youth are smart enough to know “don’t be racist” “don’t use stereotypes” as automatic go-to’s. But clearly there are still differences happening in the world around us, some larger than others and some very damaging. We have to be aware of ways the world pushes some into negative and hurtful ways of living. If the genetic difference is negligible, cultural difference alone doesn’t do enough to explain why some groups are economically and socially disadvantaged far more often than others.
In Jesus God not only calls us to live in peace and fellowship with one another regardless of skin color or culture but also to live justly in the world around us. There are injustices that lurk beneath and in and around the way we think and talk about race. We have to look at questions of economics, education, media and government that disadvantage or even crush people around us. How can we stand up for people around us? Speak out and question systems that skew against others (I’m not going to post them here, you can find them easily enough). Call out stereotypes amongst your friends and cut out TV, movies and music that paint negative stereotypes rather than uplifting people. Look for ways to create opportunities for education and hope in communities where it is lacking.