Race and ethnicity have always been hot topics for as long as people have been around, and remain so today in a great many parts of the world. In the church too these issues are often present, if only in the fact that many Western churches remain almost entirely mono-cultural and mono-racial even when they are located in culturally diverse neighbourhoods.
How should the church approach the issue of race? Is it something that the Bible has much to say about? Is it something that we should even talk about? Does it do more harm than good to talk about ethnicity when it doesn’t really matter?
In my experience the first response of many Christians to the issue of race is to point to Galatians 3:28 (or similar verses) that state
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
There we have it. This is what the Bible says about race – we are all one in Christ Jesus and race really doesn’t matter.
My problem with this is that while it is true, to simply give this answer doesn’t reflect anything of the incredible paradigm shift and the years of intense debate and struggle within the church that allowed Paul to make this statement. “All races are equal before God” is ultimately the right answer, but if we jump to the conclusion without walking through the thousands of years of history that led up to this point we will end up with a very weak theology of race and ethnicity that is likely to be grossly inadequate as we face similar issues today. (My guess is that many times this simplistic view is presented by majority ethnic groups who are in dominant positions in society, and so see the issue as an irrelevance and a distraction rather than the daily struggle for opportunity, identity and even survival).
If we read the Bible we find that race has been an issue ever since God commanded humanity to go and fill the earth, with the result (despite man’s best efforts to disobey) being the formation of distinct peoples, cultures, languages and races. Out of this diversity God called one man, Abraham, promising that Abraham’s descendants would be God’s chosen people, and that through them all nations would be blessed.
The rest of the Old Testament follows the story of this people, Israel, as they live amongst very different peoples in the ancient near east. The accounts that make up the Old Testament are not written in a vacuum, but concern Israel’s life and witness amongst other nations with very different ideas about life and about god(s).
Jesus is then born into this race, and although he gives clues as to the universal nature of his vocation, it is far from clear how the other nations fit into what God is doing. As the New Testament church is born, probably the biggest issue that they have to face is how Gentiles – people from outside of Israel – can and should relate to the Jewish church. Should they be circumcised as the Jews have always been? Should they follow the food laws? Are they called and chosen by God in the same way? Do they have the same status before God or are they in some sense second-class Christians?
As we read the book of Acts and the letters in the New Testament these issues keep arising again and again. After much debate the council at Jerusalem decides that Gentiles are part of God’s plan purely through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and don’t have to follow the Jewish laws and customs. Paul then emphatically reiterates the opportunity for all nations to come to God purely through Jesus (without adopting foreign customs or traditions) in his letter to the Galatians, climaxing in the verse we read above.
Once the church has accepted that Gentiles can be part of the church without becoming Jewish, the issue of unity between Jews and Gentiles is then a very hot topic. The Jews, despite a mixed history, had always been God’s people, the light to the nations, the vehicle through which God’s blessing to the world would come. The Gentiles were always outsiders who could be right with God (as several Old Testament characters illustrate) but were in many ways still very much dependent on God’s chosen people. How these two groups with such different perspectives, cultures, histories and religious customs, not to mention a great deal of historical animosity, could now come together as part of the same church is a (or even the) huge question of the New Testament (as we see for example in the book of Ephesians).
As we read the Bible on its own terms I think we will see the issue of race and ethnicity being addressed on almost every page. For 21st century Christians to skip to the answer “all races are equal before God” without seeing how the theme develops throughout the whole Bible will lead both to a significantly deficient understanding of what large parts of the Bible are saying, and a wholly inadequate theology of race and ethnicity with which to live and work in our own multi-racial and multi-cultural settings.