Is Racial Reconciliation Biblical?

racial.jpgA good friend emailed me with this question yesterday:

Is it accurate to apply the texts involving Gentile-Jew relationships of the 1st century to White-Black (or white-anything for that matter) relationships today? Are the principles the same?

This was my (too lengthy) response:

“It’s a great question.  I so appreciate your “Can you get this from that text?” caution.  I admire men who seriously ask that question.

And I’ve heard this concern from seminary profs and commentaries.  I distinctly remember, for example, an NT professor I had warning the class not to preach ‘racial reconciliation’ sermons from Ephesians 2:11-22, because in his mind that’s not what that text is about.  And, on the one hand, I think I understand some of his concerns:

First of all, the text is directed to specific people groups in a specific time and place, and principles that apply to 1st century Jews and Gentiles, as you’ve alluded to, don’t necessarily apply to 21st century white-black (or “white-anything”) issues.

Second, the situation behind Ephesians 2 (and other “Jew-Gentile reconciliation texts”) isn’t really parallel to our situation in some significant ways.  Most notably, while the Jews were a distinct group of people, the Gentiles were really not.  Gentiles are just everyone who’s not a Jew, so that includes a thousand other races.

Third, I know that some scholars would say that while the Jew-Gentile issue was a religious issue, ‘our’ issues are race-based issues, so the situations really are not parallel.

Fourth, it’s a valid observation that texts like Eph. 2:11-22 really aren’t about racial reconciliation.  Ephesians 2 is mainly explaining how non-Jews, who formerly were outside of God’s family, have now been brought in to God’s family through the work of Christ.  This text explains the implications, for Gentiles, of vv. 8-10—that salvation is by grace through faith, not by obedience to the Jewish Mosaic law.  Similarly, a lot of racial reconciliation sermons get preached from Colossians 3:11 because that verse isolated seems to be saying that there are no longer significant distinctions between races, but in context it’s obvious that what Paul is getting at is that race no longer makes any difference whatsoever in terms of access to God through Christ.

So, I think these things are where my professor’s cautions were coming from.  But, even with these things in mind I think there are still very good reasons to preach racial reconciliation from these texts. Because (1) everything in the Bible is contextual.  That doesn’t mean we cannot reapply them in our context (otherwise we could make use of nothing in the Bible!). It just means we need to do it with care and wisdom, carefully discerning where the contexts allow reapplication and where they do not;

(2) I don’t think the fact that the Gentiles were not, technically, a race really matters because the fact is that the Jews viewed them as a distinct race.  In the Jewish mind there were Jews and Gentiles, and that’s it.  The Jews hated the Gentiles as a category of people, and in that way their racism is quite similar to racial issues in our country.

(3) The Jew-Gentile issue was not nearly so simple that is could be categorized as a “religious” issue.  The hatred between them, even if it had ‘religious’ roots dating back to the Exile or to Egypt, by the time of Paul had become very multifaceted and complex.  Jews didn’t hate Gentiles (or vice-versa) merely because they ‘believed the wrong things.’  They hated them because they were different (in all sorts of ways).  The sinful human inclination to hate and ostracize those who are different is the same sinful impulse that exists in people today.

And, (4) just because these texts aren’t about racial reconciliation, per se, doesn’t mean they have nothing to say about racial reconciliation.  Ephesians 2:16 clearly says that the result of reconciling Jews and Gentiles to God through one savior was that the hostility between them was killed.  I would think that this principle, if it were owned and embraced by races in the U.S., would still hold.  If white and black people (or whoever) were truly and deeply to grasp the fact that God has embraced both of us only by unmerited kindness, hostility would be killed just the same.  The fact that racism still exists in segments of the church merely demonstrates that segments of the church do not truly grasp the gospel.

My apologies for the novel, brother.  I was thinking this through as I wrote.



7 thoughts on “Is Racial Reconciliation Biblical?”

  1. It’s also very interesting to know that there really is no such thing as race. What I mean is this: there is no race gene you can point to and say, “Ah, this one’s black.” Race is a social construction that evolves into something mythical we use to understand ourselves in distinction from others. Those thigns are very powerful, and I am all for being sensitive in how people understand their racial identities. However, in Christ, those identities are not things that have value in the kingdom of God.

  2. To be honest, it’s for the reasons that Adam above stated that I get leery of people using the verses you mentioned for “Racial reconciliation sermons” (well, generally any verses from the Bible). Perhaps I just have the benefit of growing up in a more educated and integrated society than existed a generation or two ago, but I don’t understanding how the message that we were all created in God’s image, are saved through faith alone, and are to love our neighbors (in the broadest sense) as ourselves gets lost just because someone sees a person with a different skin color. (That and by no means is the US the only country in the world to have racial conflicts).

  3. Jesse,

    I agree with you to an extent: Racial reconciliation is something I have had to learn to be concerned about because I grew up in an environment where it just wasn’t much of an issue.

    But I think when you say “just because someone sees a person with a different skin color” you’re missing the real issue. As Adam said, “Race is a social construction that evolves into something mythical we use to understand ourselves in distinction from others.” What comes along with that social construction is a set of assumptions about what that person is like because of their skin color (i.e. stereotypes). So, it’s not the color that people hate, it’s the things they assume are true about a person because they’re of a certain color.

    Sometimes the stereotypes are true and even funny (i.e. Stuff White People Like). And sometimes, of course, it’s awful. In college I lived next to a guy who was pretty vocal about hating Mexicans. I had a long conversation with him once about why he hated them and he had a long list things that he hated (which I won’t mention). He went on and on… “I hate them because they’re X. I hate them because they’re Y. I hate them because they’re Z.”

    What I kept asking him was, “But, wait… you don’t hate Mexicans, right? You hate people who are X, Y, and Z. And there are people in every culture who are X, Y, and Z, right?” He couldn’t understand the distinction I was making.

    So, one of the driving forces behind racism, I think, is the fact that we take characteristics we don’t like (whether our dislike is valid or not) and assume that everyone of a certain color has those characteristics.

  4. Speaking of SWPL, their bit this week on Conan is hilarious. “Now, the biggest and most important thing to remember is to never, under any circumstances bring up a Conan O’Brien sketch or joke that has taken place in the last three years. You will be met with only blank stares. For you see, while white people will fiercely support Conan O’Brien in any public forum, they always fail to support him in the only way that actually helps – by watching his show.”

    I don’t think stereotypes in and of themselves are bad… we all have stereotypes and preconceived ideas (prejudices, if you will, in the best sense of the word); some are just PC (SWPL) and some are not. When used properly and honestly, they keep us alive and out of trouble. What is bad is when we use them to malign an entire people group (or a member of said group). For example, if you own a store in some tough neighborhood that’s populated primarily by a minority group, and youth within that minority group that wear certain things and walk certain ways tend to be prone to violence, it is ridiculous to not be on your toes when a local young “punk” walks in to browse your aisles and not let your guard down when some elderly woman walks in. Where racism takes such stereotypes a step further (and too far) is to then throw that kid out of the store just because he looks the part of your stereotype.

    What Christians need to stand against is the politically-correct pretense that just getting rid of so-called “racist” language or stereotypes will rid the world of racism, or the idea that stereotypes=racism (or the idea that prejudice is a one-way street). That’s what I loved so much about the movie Gran Torino (besides just a great story). Clint Eastwood’s character never once changed his language, but the meaning and feelings behind his words changed drastically. I know several liberal co-workers who couldn’t stand the movie because they couldn’t get past his supposedly racist banter. The heart is the issue, not certain words. You can never once use a politically-incorrect stereotype of a minority, but you could still hate or look down on them. Ridding the earth of racial stereotypes is like a moral salve for the soul… it makes us feel good, but it merely covers up the festering wound underneath.

  5. I was using skin color as an example. It’s seeing that person with a different skin color walking by (or hearing their accent on the phone) that triggers that set of stereotypes and assumptions to come to mind. I’m not saying I’ve never had those stereotypes come to mind myself either, by the way. Unlike your college neighbor (and I’ve met those people too) just because I’ve heard the stereotypes I don’t feel the need to believe them or even start making up my own.

    But you could say the same thing about other white people. You could see what appears to be a typical white Scandinavian Minnesotan and once he opens his mouth you figure out he’s from out in the country somewhere in the South near the Appalachians. I would have a whole lot more in common with the black man from Minneapolis in the cubicle next to me, despite our differences in skin color.

  6. At my North Park University(a liberal Covenant Church ), we have been learning about “racial reconciliation”, like in America the majority of people in prisons are black (or so they say). They are there because cops are planting evidence on them and arresting them. They say at my college it is racism. I know I live in a fallen world and that cops have planted evidence but I really question if its the main reason black people are in jail.

    In Chicago there there are certain parts of down that are pretty dangerous ( gangs, drugs, people getting killed). It just so happens the people that live there are not white. I am being taught that calling these dangerous areas unsafe is actually being ” racist”.

    In my college cafeteria in the past people have chosen to sit with there friends. It just so happens there is a group of Mexicans at one table, blacks at another, and lets say a white group. I am being taught that this self segregation is also racism.

    Awhile ago I guess there was a movement where people said they were color blind and did not see race but saw a person as someone made in the image of God. I thought this a decent idea but I am clearly wrong. I am being told that being color blind is denying a person of whatever race the right and respect of there culture. This too is racism and I am so confused.

    I’m trying to have a open mind but a lot of what I am being taught doesn’t sound Biblical or rationally correct. It would be nice to hear anyone’s thoughts or advice.

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