Dear USMB family,
In some ways it’s really hard to do a “biblical study” on racism.
Sure, the Bible directs us to be “impartial” and reminds us that Christ will unite all peoples, but it’s not as easy to extrapolate from those broad themes and apply them to the specific problems and divisions of race. How we enact that impartiality and unity depends a lot on what racism even is? That’s where some of the difficulty in biblical interpretation/application begins.
The Bible never actually talks about race. The Bible doesn’t even have a word for “race.” There’s no “biblical definition of racism” that informs some “biblical perspective” on this contemporary topic (as much as we wish there was and it did).
The concepts of “race” and “racism” didn’t exist when the Bible was written. The few times English translations use the word “race” (Acts 7:19 and 1 Peter 2:9 NRSV or Rom 9:3 NIV), they’re translating the Biblical words “genos” or “ethne,” but even these biblical words aren’t really equivalents of their 21st-century derivatives like “genetics” or “ethnicity.”
Biblical “ethne” is more than modern “genetics”
The biblical words “genos” and “ethne” both relate more to “family descent” than “genetics.”
We may think that “family descent” is a great reflection of “genetics” …until we realize that, in the Bible, one’s genos includes adopted children! That’s why being adopted into God’s family (Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) is such a huge deal theologically. When anyone is adopted in the Bible their genos actually changes (like our genos become God’s genos)!
But that biblical concept of genos obviously doesn’t match our modern concept of genetics. Yes, adopted children are “family,” but their “genetics” don’t change when they’re adopted. Likewise, our genetics don’t change when God adopts us (even though our genos does). The same thing happens with one’s ethne in the Bible.
Passages like Ephesians 2:11-22, teach us that Jews and Non-Jews become one, united “ethne” in Christ. That means one’s ethne is changeable too. But how does that correspond to the 21st century concept of one’s “ethnic identity?” I don’t think our “ethnic identity” changes when we become Christian (but our “ethne identity” does). The difference is that the Biblical word “ethne” doesn’t equate to our contemporary concept of “ethnicity.”
So, the Bible never actually talks about “race.” The terms ethne and genos don’t refer to what we’re talking about when we talk about “race.” They couldn’t. The concept of “race” originated in the 17th century when anthropologists and philosophers began referring to people in terms of their geographic origins and phenotypical traits (like skin pigmentation). That’s why even the King James Version never uses the word “race.” It couldn’t. “Race” wasn’t a concept or term that existed when the KJV was written in 1611.
We’d be abusing the Bible if we were to misconstrue passages like Eph. 2:11-22 to hammer our points about modern concepts like ethnicities, genetics, and, especially, race. BUT… good news! The Bible does have wisdom for us as we discuss racism. We just have to work harder to interpret the Bible when we want to discern its guidance regarding topics that didn’t exist when God inspired its composition. (By the way, “race” isn’t the only topic that requires this kind of hard work: social media use, dating, voting… none of those topics are part of the Bible’s context either).
So, what does that hard work look like?
Context, context, context
Good biblical interpretation navigates three different contexts: the literary and historical contexts of the Bible, and the contemporary context of the interpreter. The literary context is the world in the Biblical stories themselves. The historical context involves the influences of the time when God inspired the author to write – which affected things like which language the Bible was written in and what those Biblical words meant at the time.
For instance, it really matters what the word “agape” meant when John wrote his Gospel (that’s historical context), and it really matters when in the story Jesus asks Peter whether Peter “agapes” him 3 times (that’s literary context, FYI: it’s John 21). It also matters how we translate “agape” into English today (that’s the contemporary context).
The influences of our contemporary context therefore make a huge impact on our Biblical interpretation. When we want to study the Biblical perspective on racism Biblical our discussion is confined to the influences of race within our contemporary context – since “race” wasn’t part of the Bible’s historical or literary contexts. To engage in that kind of analysis and discussion there are two things to keep in mind:
1) It is not only useful but essential for good Biblical study to engage how our contemporary context influences our interpretation!
2) To do so, we’ll have to engage with concepts and terminology that, obviously, aren’t in the Bible.
After all, we’re engaging contemporary issues. By definition, they’re not part of the Bible’s historical context, so engaging them requires post-biblical language and concepts. We can’t discern the Bible’s guidance regarding social media use or nuclear weapons without spending some time understanding what those contemporary issues are.
A biblical approach to the topic of “racism,” therefore, has to explore the influence of “race” on our contemporary context. And, since race is a contemporary issue, we’re going to have to be gracious that the discussion will inevitably involve some post-biblical concepts and terms.
A partial take on impartiality in James 2
Here’s what that tri-contextual approach to biblical interpretation might looks like on the issue of racism:
Is James 2:9 really a biblical stance on the contemporary topic of racism when it says “… if you show partiality, you commit sin”?
Seems like an easy “yes,” at first, but we’d need to know a few things to actually figure that out. What does “partiality” mean in James’ historical context and is it “close enough” to our contemporary understanding of “racism” in? To know that, we’d have to engage contemporary understandings of “race” and “racism,” right? For that kind of exploration it’d be really helpful to have an expert, like Dina González-Piña or Darren Duerksen, help us with contemporary terms and concepts of racism.
Another question to ask of James 2:9 is: “What counts as partiality?”
It sure seems like treating someone unfairly because of their skin color qualifies as partiality. But, what about how our society zones neighborhoods, supplies/maintains utility services, plans infrastructure projects, etc.? Could those decisions also involve partiality? Could race somehow be involved in those decisions, even if subtly, implicitly, and/or unconsciously?
If I don’t know and never thought about it before, then I need a friend like Dina or Darren again to help me think through whether there might be more levels of racism and partiality of which I need to be aware. Perhaps James 2:1-9 also applies in my community’s zoning commission meetings.
Wouldn’t it be irresponsible, even sinful, of me to avoid these questions just because the answers might be “yes”?
“Lord, is it I?”
Finally, all you’ve read thus far has been presented by a Caucasian man, educated almost entirely by Caucasians (who, themselves, were educated almost entirely by Caucasian men). Surely it’s appropriate to ask whether it is at all possible that there might be something Caucasians have missed due, at least in part, to the influences of the contemporary contexts in which they were all socialized.
Is there any possibility that being Caucasian — educated and influenced almost entirely by Caucasians — might give me some biblical blind spots? (Remember, no Caucasians were involved in the writing of the Bible.) My ability to correctly interpret and apply the Bible may be woefully incomplete if I have a blind spot influenced by the centuries-long, complex societal developments associated with my “race.”
It’s biblically responsible to explore that possibility. Humility, integrity and maturity demand that I be open to the possibility that I might have a speck in my eye. (My close friend, Mike Rea; my former pastor, Mark Isaac; my denominational leader, Terry Hunt; and my brother-in-Christ Saji Oommen, help remind me of that.)
Are you — who are so upset at the Jan/Feb CL issue — really proposing that it is inappropriate and unfaithful to pose those questions and encourage their exploration?
Consider the alternative if there isn’t any possibility my Caucasian socialization has missed something:
The alternative proposal is that 16th-21st century, Caucasian hearts and minds already figured it all out without the ongoing, engagement of diverse others, and … even more troubling… that they even could.
I gotta tell you … I can absolutely see how someone might call that kind of thinking “racist.”
Thank you, CL editors and authors
With all that in mind, I’d like to express my deep appreciation to the CL editor, Connie Faber, and all the contributing authors who gave attention to the influences of race/racism in the Jan/Feb CL issue.
It’s a beautiful gift to engage with how the contemporary issues of race and racism influence our Christian witness, community AND, by extension, our biblical interpretation. We’re better Christians when we engage in discussions of how race/racism influence us … it makes us better biblical interpreters too.
As I said at the start, in some ways, it’s really hard to do a Biblical study on “racism”…
…unless that study focuses on how racism influences the contemporary context of our Biblical interpretation.
In that case, the start of a good, faithful and mature biblical study on racism probably looks a lot like the Jan/Feb issue of the Christian Leader. Hopefully, with the help of our full family, this is just the start.
Your “co-genitor” in Christ,
Toronto, Ontario (formerly of Hillsboro, Kansas, and Fresno, California)
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.