With an increase in the surveillance of bodies socially colored black, I feel it necessary to talk about the valuation of the human body and the Church’s role in such a conversation. With some persons feeling it necessary to call the police as if a customer service agency for humans they deem damaged due the social construct of race, it is important that we not only talk about race but speak to its theological implications. Made in God’s image, it would seem like an easy one to have. The silence around the visibility of whiteness and the socially desired invisibility of those labeled and socially assigned the identity of black is dumbfounding.
Thus, I submit a second section of the paper I presented at the Baptist World Alliance in Zurich, Switzerland just a few weeks ago:
There are several familiar passages of Scripture that praise the creation of human beings, namely the Genesis account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; … So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[i] Noteworthy, the narrator does not describe any physical characteristics or distinctions, not even based on their gender differences. Unlike our hyper- body conscious society, there are no measurements, no height or weight, no mention of size, shape or any other perceived physical trait. Man and woman, animals and insects, trees and rivers, they are described the same: “very good.”
God praises the work of God’s hands and the psalmist chimes in, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know them very well.”[ii] Made in God’s image and identified in Christ, the believer’s identity has divine boundaries. Buried with Christ, our new life with Christ is not expected to resemble the old self or its nature. In Christ, we are new creatures. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[iii]
Paul’s point cannot be overstated. Even though they knew Christ “from a human point of view,” even though they knew his mother, Mary and his stepfather, Joseph, his birthplace, his siblings, his habits and human needs, they don’t know him in this way anymore. There is a change in the way that they relate and desire to know Jesus. This new creation does not require the information that the cultural, personal or social self might need.
For the new creation, it is unnecessary and dare I say, irrelevant. And it is a choice. While they have personal information about Jesus, that perspective is not helpful to the work of ministry that he has entrusted to them, to the community that they have been called to serve, to the gospel they have been charged to share with the world. They must know him and consequently, each other differently. This is not human being as usual.
While the early Church initially wrestles with cultural inclusion as recorded in Acts 15 at the Council at Jerusalem, revelations given by the Holy Spirit make the gospel’s goal clear: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between us and them. Now therefore why are putting God to test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord, Jesus, just as they will.”[iv]
The presence of the Holy Spirit makes evident those who God has saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. No physical marking of the flesh, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a distinction not made with human hands but much like the children of Israel, it is a matter of the heart. Anything more would be making salvation more difficult than it needs to be, harder than God has made it for them, the writer of Acts says.
They are identified by the Holy Spirit and found in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Galatia of their identity in Christ, which the outside world has nothing to do with it. Baptized, believers rise with Christ no longer to be identified as they have been by society: “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 or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[v] Baptized into Christ, there is a depth of identity to which all others will not survive. This is more than an immersion; it is a death, a burial with Christ to rise to new life in him.
Theologian William Willimon makes a fine point in this regard,
What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?
In baptism, the text becomes Scripture for us, canon, laid on us as a new story that illumines our stories. In baptism, we are adopted into the people who answer to this story and are held accountable to its description of reality… Scripture suggests that authority has shifted from ourselves to Scripture’s use of us… Baptism asserts that we meet and speak under an identity that challenges and endangers all other identities.[vi]
If we profess Christ as Savior and Lord, then there is no longer black or white, red or yellow, brown or beige people. There is no longer immigrants and strangers, marginalized and centered, minority and majority, privilege and oppressed people; we are now one in Christ Jesus. Like Paul, we are to count as loss all that brought us gain so that we might know Christ.[vii] Accepting race and its socially constructed identities ensures that we “boast in the flesh” and maintains our confidence in it.[viii] But, baptism erases the lines and destroys our boxes. T.B. Maston asserts, “God is not a racial, national or denominational deity… so there is no racial discrimination in God’s family.”[ix]
When we accept the transformative power of baptism, the social construct of race will lose its grip on our skin and slip away.
Because we cannot serve God and race.[x] When we are baptized, we must die to our racialized selves, drowning out the voices of culturally justifiable hatred, prejudice and supremacy. Race cannot go down with us and come up in Christ Jesus— because race has no resurrection power. If we are baptized and remain people of color, then we may need to stay under the water a little longer.
The point is made again to the community of believers at Colossae: “…seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”[xi]
How then does the Church in North America continue to speak of God and God’s people in color- coded terms, to speak of people of color and people of God interchangeably? Because we cannot credit two creators. Why does the Church in North America continue to employ the social distinction of race though we identify ourselves as people who are “led by the Spirit”? How does the use of the social construct and its progeny, namely prejudice, stereotype and white privilege, survive baptism and continue to participate in our life with Christ and with other believers in community? How does race help us to sing God praises for our creation and the creation of our neighbor?
Known for having all the answers, the Church in North America and communities of faith across the world must begin to question its long- standing relationship with race.
[i] Genesis 1.26, 27, 31a, NRSV
[ii] Psalm 139.14, NRSV
[iii] Second Corinthians 5.16-17, NRSV
[iv] Acts 15.8-11, NRSV
[v] Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV
[vi] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7,
[vii] Philippians 3.8
[viii] Philippians 3.2
[ix] T. B. Maston, The Bible and Race: A Careful Examination of Biblical Teachings on Human Relations, (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959), 24-25.
[x] Matthew 6.24
[xi] Colossians 3.9-11, NRSV