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.
Having questions is OK. In fact you will always have questions. If you ever hit a point where you run out of questions about the important things in your life you have either achieved the perfect enlightenment of the Buddha or sustained some kind of traumatic brain injury. Questions will keep happening. The world is big and dark and broken and beautiful and strange. And God is sometimes distant, sometimes closer than we’d like, sometimes powerless, sometimes terribly powerful. So how do we answer the big questions about our faith and our lives? What sorts of resources can we turn to? What do we need to keep in mind?
There are several things that provoke these kinds of big questions. A lot of time it’s a specific conflict. Something has blown up in our face and now we have to decide how we’re going to understand it and deal with it. Sometimes its something we see in people around us. Maybe a struggle friends or family are going through. Or maybe its encountering a different worldview of another person.
In Scripture we see these sorts of questions arising all the time. Who am I? What am I called to do? How do I understand what I’m going through? Where is God in this? How do I respond to this problem? Scriptures often show people in moments of great victory and great distress, the times when these questions become live and important. In the scriptures we see these people turning to several places for answers. Most often they begin with prayer, going to God for answers and blessings on their searching. Oftentimes they go to great prophets or the priests in the temple, looking for answers from their place of worship. Later in Scripture we find them going back to earlier texts, looking for answers or comfort in the Law or the Psalms or the stories of the prophets. The disciples and the crowds asked Jesus and the early churches sent their questions to their early leaders like Peter, Paul and James and later their Bishops.
So where can we go for answers? Well Scripture is one of our first sources as people of faith. We hear our other sources in light of this first one. We look through the bible stories for others who have struggled with similar questions. We look for God’s word in controversy and conflict. We might also turn to other Christian teachings or sources of information, books, articles or even internet sources. These give us a wider variety of voices that incorporate Scripture and theology from someone else’s point of view. We often consult our own experience and reasoning, basing our new understanding off of the things that have happened to us before. We also look for previous knowledge in past teachings, sermons, bible studies, lessons. Relationship is an odd category but an important one, we should try to remember to think of these big questions in the specific, remembering that big abstract questions often have specific effects on people around us. If your answer can’t mesh with real people you know it still needs more work.
These sources all have their pro’s and con’s. Scripture is the our first source but Scripture can often be difficult to process alone, and sometimes its difficult to find relevant passages or stories. When we go to books or especially when we go to the internet, we get a wider array of answers but we run the risk of false information and bad teaching. Past lessons are only as good as our past teachers filtered through our own sometimes faulty memories. And finally our reason and experience can be skewed by prejudices, false assumptions and past hurt. Our broken sinfulness trickles through into our intuition and reasoning just as much as our behavior. This is how we arrive at something like racism, a broken damaging way of thinking about the world that is just as much intuition and reasoning as another more positive worldview.
We also have people in our lives to help us process big questions. Friends, while often having similar life experience and limitations as ourselves, know us well and are often dealing with the same types of conflicts in a fresh recent way. Our parents have more experience and the benefit of hindsight (though this can also mean they’re a little while removed from the same issues) and they also know us as well or better than our friends. Our teachers and pastors can also be a great source of help, especially when it comes down to questions of Scripture, theology and Christian teaching.
So how do we move from someone else’s answer to our own? How do I decide that I believe it and not just that I’ve been told it? There are a couple of ways. Sometimes its through a slow osmosis. We absorb the perspectives of those around us, good and bad, over time. Without a conscious filter we will often find ourselves sharing viewpoints with those around us. This can be good, like when we learn to be like a loving or holy church member we see week after week. It can also be bad when we find ourselves imitating the bad worldview of people around us. Another way I would call digestion, slowly incorporating all the things we have heard and learned and read and experienced and making them a part of us. This can be good because we thoroughly own an idea. But we also have to remember to keep an eye on a process like this so we’re not coming up with bad ideas. We also don’t always have time for the long slow road, sometimes problems are RIGHT NOW. Sometimes we intentionally reflect on a problem, sitting down and thinking and talking and reading about one specific issue a lot until we have come to a conclusion. This is helpful because it means we have consciously considered an idea thoroughly before we take it on.
Sometimes we can’t find a good enough answer. And this is ok. God doesn’t expect us to understand everything. We try our hardest to live faithfully as best we can and know that God is with us and for us and ultimately working things for our good. Job is a very long book that is essentially one long big question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And in the end he doesn’t get a simple answer but encounters God in a strange and scary and powerful way. The Psalms are full of lament were people struggle without understanding and even grow angry with God when there doesn’t seem to be answer.
And finally, changing our big answers is hard but it’s also unavoidable. We’re changing every day. We’re growing and transforming and encountering strange new things. To not change would be impossible. But our charge is to change in holy and beautiful and powerful ways, working in the presence of God to be transformed into someone more like Christ.
So if you are ready to set out a question for us to work through together you can post it here in the comments, tweet it to @ColbyHVBC or FB or text it to me. I’ll announce our first question soon and we’ll put these processes into practice, helping each other to answer big questions together.