Tag Archives: race and the Bible

Race cannot save you

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It’s not in the Bible, not a part of the creation narrative in Genesis, not stuck in between the serpent’s teeth or on the tip of its tongue.  This is not the devil’s work but ours.   We must take full credit.  It’s not even historical fiction but a modern day lie.

Not B.C. but way A.D.

Race didn’t come with Adam and Eve’s knowledge of good and evil or the Ten Commandments Moses receives in Exodus.  It was not a tree or on one in the Garden of Eden.  Race, its categories and prejudicial policies for human behavior and interaction weren’t etched in stone by the Divine finger.  Its stereotypes were not packed in one of the bags of the Israelites, who were on their way to the Promised Land.  Search them all.  Race is not there.

Race was never a law, Levitical or otherwise.  There is no saying, “We are as guilty as skin.”  It wasn’t joined with the priesthood, used in the selection of God’s chosen people, their prophets or kings.  Their physical appearance was not apart of the criteria.  The social colorings of skin didn’t make the list.  No skin- sins here.

There were no race wars or hierarchies or systems at work.  Race was not in their vocabulary.  It was not how they saw themselves or others, including their enemies.  They saw color but not as we did; they did not attribute such power to flesh and certainly didn’t believe that they could rule persons based on the color of it.

Race wasn’t the inspiration for anything in the Bible.  It wasn’t a muse and is not listed on the extended worship track also known as the Psalms.  They did not worship a colored God, beige, brown, black, red, yellow or white.  Race had nothing to do with the Israelites’ relationship with God.

It wasn’t apart of the prophets’ pronouncements and judgments.  Through “forty and two generations,” race is not passed down.  It begat nothing in the Old Testament or the new one.  Jesus spends no time talking about his physical appearance– because it makes no difference though we create images to our liking.

Don’t believe me?  Take noted biblical scholar Cain Hope Felder’s word for it.  He writes in Race, Racism and the Biblical Narratives:

In antiquity, we do not have any elaborate definitions of or theories about race. … Ancient authors of biblical text did not have color conscious (awareness of certain physiological differences). … In fact, the Bible contains no narratives in which the original intent was to negate the full humanity of black people or view blacks in an unfavorable way. Such negative attitudes about black people and persons of direct African descent are entirely post- biblical.”  He cites Dr. Cornel West, American philosopher, political activist and public theologian who writes, “The very category of ‘race’—denoting primarily skin color—was first employed as a means of classifying human bodies by Francois Bernier, a French physician, in 1684.  The first authoritative racial division of humankind is found in the influential Natural System (1735) of the preeminent naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.”[1]

It’s not in the kingdom/ kin- dom of God.  It didn’t slip past Peter or scale the pearly gates. Race won’t make it in.  Race cannot save you.

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[1]Cain Hope Felder, Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 2.

Felder is citing Dr. Cornel West’s book Prophetic Fragments,(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 100.

Doing justice to our bodies: How race wrongs us (Part Two)

See the source imageWith 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.

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[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

Questioning Race during Advent

IMG_0103.JPGChrist has come! This first Sunday of Advent reminds us that power was found in a cradle– not a crown.  Like persons in Jesus’s day, we are guilty of looking for him in the wrong places and among the wrong people.  As outlined in his stories, Jesus came to rearrange and change the order of things, beginning with himself.

The first will be last (Matthew 20.16). The greatest will be the servant (Matthew 23.11). Love your enemies (Matthew 5.44).  God becomes a human being.  A virgin will give birth to God.

In order to bring salvation to the world, God runs to a woman’s womb– not for office. God is with her.

Creator God becomes “Infant God” as described by Francois Mauriac in his book The Son of Man. So, how is it that the Divine is capable of such humility and we are not?  The only supreme power, God did not need skin, the social coloring of it or a cultural affiliation, because it is not needed for the image of a God.

The Word became flesh; the transformative power then rests with the Word and not the flesh.

God did more than meet us where we are; in Christ, God became one of us.  So, how is it that we are so different?  God is divine and yet, without obstacle in maintaining a relationship with us. Still, we cannot seem to get around race.

If God is with us all, then why do we use race against “them”?  Jesus came as the Savior of the world so what about us allows for self- segregation? Coming in the flesh to save us, why do we continue to deny the humanity of our sisters and brothers who can only be human?

God is with us, looking on and listening in as we make some people invisible and unheard of. Why do we do that despite the fact that Christ has come?

 

One Flesh

“Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds and another for fish.”

~ First Corinthians 15.39, NRSV

Paul begins chapter fifteen by reminding the members of the church at Corinth of how Christ fulfills Scripture and of the many times and number of people that Christ revealed himself to after the resurrection.  There are many witnesses and while they include Jesus’ inner circle, it also includes many others.  And Paul is one of them.

This former door- to- door persecutor of the Church is among those that Christ appears to.  It’s important to note and to make this distinction because Paul was not a friend of Jesus– to say the least.  Jesus doesn’t just appear to his “favorites,” to those he chose, to those who walked with him or that believed in him.  But, he came to one who was trying to destroy the Church and to erase the gospel, one member at a time.  It is for the Corinthian church a reminder of what their belief is based on– rooted in Scripture and tied to its fulfillment in Christ: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (vs. 12-14). 

Paul is addressing questions as to how the resurrection will happen when he writes this wisdom on the kinds of flesh: “Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds and another for fish.”  This truth concerning resurrection leads to another that is worth believing and repeating.  There is only one flesh for human beings.

Yes, we make look different and we may not all dress alike.  Yes, there are different shades of skin.  Some skin has hair and some does not.  But, there is only one kind of flesh for human beings.  Now, if you want to claim otherwise, then you can also claim to be another creature, an animal, a bird or a fish, perhaps.

We use the Bible for many things but as the source of our Christian identity, that is life beyond the flesh, there is seldom a word.  But, the apostle Paul, says clearly that race’s categories don’t matter.  There is only one flesh and it is not colored- colored.  There is only one flesh and prejudice and stereotypes will not determine its resurrection.  No, we will rise from the dead because of what Christ has done– not according to the imagined kinds of flesh that we wear.

Race was not a social category in the ancient world of the Bible.

“The ancient world did not make skin color the focus of irrational sentiments or the basis for uncritical evaluation. …(T)he ancient world did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish skin color as an obstacle to integration in society; and ancient society was one that ‘for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man.'”

“In spite of the association of blackness with ill omens, demons, the devil and sin, there is in the extant records no stereotyped image of Ethiopians as the personification of demons or the devil, no fixed concept of blacks as evil or unworthy of conversion. … The early Christians did not alter the classical color symbolism or the teachings of the church to fit a preconceived notion of blacks as inferior, to rationalize the enslavement of blacks or to sanction segregated worship.  In sum, in the early church blacks found equality in both theory and practice.”

~ Frank M. Snowden, Jr., Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983), 63 & 107-108.