The killing of George Floyd, a black American Christian, by a white police officer, has sparked both protests and riots in America, protesting against continued racism in Western democracies—and the protests have come to the UK as well. Church leaders have been fairly prominent in joining their voices with wider protests, not only on racism but on specific issues arising from the foment of controversy that followed, including Donald Trump apparently getting police to clear peaceful protesters with ‘tear gas’ and ‘rubber bullets’ in order to hold up a Bible as a claim to the rightness of his actions (something he has done before). (To see how quickly every aspect of media coverage now gets mired in claim and counter-claim, have a look at the evidence of what happened here.)
What do Christians have that they can bring to these tumultuous events? For the most part, it seemed to me that the comments by UK church leaders echoed what others had said—expressing solidarity with those who suffer from the dehumanising effect of racism, longing for justice, and seeking reform. These are vital things to say, but for the most part, focussing on issues of social justice, they offered little that was distinctively Christian, and had little theological content. (By contrast, read some of the statements from bishops of ACNA, and break-away Anglican Church of North America, here and here.)
It might be argued that if you are communicating for a general, rather than church, audience, you need to avoid theological language in order to be heard. Yet including reference to ‘God’, ‘creation’, ‘Jesus’, ‘change’ and ‘hope’ hardly high-level theology. And there are several problems with simply echoing the concerns expressed more widely. As one of my black Christian friends commented tersely about the statement from one national church leader: ‘Too little. Too late. Too trite.’
A key danger here is making simplistic observations in what quickly has become a complex situation. The image of a white police officer using lethal force on a black man evokes a long history, particularly in America, of white abuse of black people. But this incident didn’t happen in the South, where the worst racial abuses took place in the past. Neither did the police officer concerned have a record of racial prejudice—rather, in his 20 years’ service, he had clocked up 19 serious complaints about use of excessive force. And within the police more widely, black officers are just as likely to use excessive force against black citizens as white officers are. So the issue of colour here is entangled with issue of police violence within a wider culture of violence. (And if you don’t think the dynamic of the protests is complex, just read this analysis of the involvement of both the Alt-Left and the Alt-Right.)
Yet even those outside the church expect church leaders to say something distinctively Christian—else, they ask, what is the point of having them? Matthew Parris made this point nearly 20 years ago, as a gay atheist, on the Church’s counter-cultural teaching about sexuality, and the historian Tom Holland recently called for church leaders to offer a distinctive voice on current issues—in this case the pandemic, but it applies to issue of race as well:
Rather than speaking with the voice of prophecy, rather than explaining to a grieving and anxious people how the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life, rather than proclaiming the miracles and mysteries that they uniquely exist to proclaim, church leaders seem to have opted instead to talk like middle managers.
And of course church leaders are always speaking to their flock, as well as to the nation, and so it is no defence to claim that they are speaking to the wider public when their sheep also need feeding.
So what do we have to say, from Scripture and theology, about the issue of ‘race’? First, I need to say that I will mostly avoid using the term ‘race’ itself, since it actually has little or no basis in biology, but clumps together a variety of issues around culture, country, language and skin colour, and the modern emergence of the term was rooted in classifications from the colonial era in the 18th century. The language of ‘race’ is, ironically, rather racist!
There are a number of key texts and moves within the scriptural narrative which contribute to the forming of a biblical theology of humanity, and in particular what we should make of the variety of human ethnic, cultural and national identities. The foundational text comes in the summary statement of the creation of humanity in Gen 1.26–27:
God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
This texts offers a radical vision of the common status of all humanity, whether male or female, and from whatever culture, ethnicity or national identity. And it is striking in his contrast with the differentiation and hierarchicalism of other anthropologies, from in the ancient world and in the modern contexts (including assumptions about national exceptionalism). If all people are created in the image of God, then all have rights and dignity, and any differentiation between people groups must be limited and pragmatic, rather than all-embracing and fundamental.
So it is not surprising that it is to this text that the ACNA bishops first turn in response to the death of George Floyd:
George Floyd was made in the image of God and as such is a person of utmost value. This is not true because a few Anglican bishops issue a letter. This conviction arises from our reading of Scripture…
What happened to George is an affront to God because George’s status as an image bearer was not respected. He was treated in a way that denied his basic humanity. Our lament is real…
The gospel reveals that all are equally created, sinful and equally in need of the saving work of Christ. The racism we lament is not just interpersonal. It exists in the implicit and explicit customs and attitudes that do disproportionate harm to ethnic minorities in our country. In other words, too often racial bias has been combined with political power to create inequalities that still need to be eradicated.
However, to form our understanding of a biblical theology of human ethic diversity, we need to see how this foundational vision plays out, not least because of the biblical narrative focussing on a distinct ethnic and then national group—the Israelites.
A second key text comes in Genesis 9 and 10, the story of the offspring of Noah, and how they settled the whole earth. These texts have been used in the past to justify both national and racial segregation, because of the delineation of tribes by their geographical locations, and racial inequality, because of a misreading of the ‘curse of Ham‘. But in their narrative context, as part of the founding mythology of human origins before we change narrative gear to learn of Abraham in Gen 12, they are saying something rather different. The diversity of human cultures and nations actually stem from a common source and ancestor, just as Genesis earlier depicted all humanity having its origin in the one couple, Adam and Eve. In other words, visible difference disguises our common ancestry.
Critical within this narrative is the phrase ‘These are the sons of … by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations’ which comes in Gen 10.20 and Gen 10.31, since this four-fold phrase is picked up at the end of the biblical narrative in the Book of Revelation, to make a particular point about ethnic and cultural diversity within the people of God.
The apparent ethnic privilege of the Israelites (later ‘the Jews’) as God’s chosen people sits in some tension with this universal vision of human identity and origin. Yet the biblical narrative is clear that this does not indicate the superiority of this ethnic group; you don’t have to read very far into the account to see the failures and errors of God’s people, and their inability to live up to his call! This is made explicit in Deut 7.7–8:
The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
In other words, if there is anything distinctive about Israel, it is not due to their nature, but due to the mysterious choice of God as a way of demonstrating his love and power. And the vision of Isaiah is that, one day, all nations will be drawn to this revelation of God’s nature and purpose. In fact the prophets, especially Jeremiah, repeatedly warn the people of Israel against the presumption of their own special status before God, and even the special status of God’s dwelling place in the temple (Jer 7.4).
And this tension, between the special call of Israel and God’s universal creation of all peoples, finds pointed articulation at key points in the narrative. At the end of Nehemiah, in its account of the first resettling of the land after the initial return from exile, the final episode for which Nehemiah wants to be remembered with favour before God is his driving away of the foreign wives, to maintain the ethnic purity of the Israelites (Neh 13.23–29). When I preached on this a few years ago, the lesson I drew was that even good leaders can make bad decisions! For this text sits in contradiction with the story of Ruth and Boaz, a story set in the period of Judges, but viewed by most scholars (because of its style and language) of being written down during the return from exile, that is, at the same time as the account of Nehemiah. And it highlights the fact that the very line of David, the ideal king, actually includes mixed ethnic identity. This idea is reflected in the inclusion of a number of ‘outsiders’ in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.
This tension between the special status of the Jews as God’s people, and God’s ultimate goal of salvation being offered to all, is evident in the gospels. In Matthew, for example, Jesus emphasises that he has come ‘for the lost sheep of the House of Israel’, and so prohibits his disciples, sent on a mission to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed, from speaking to any others (Matt 10.5–6). And yet, in the same gospel, Jesus brings healing to the household of what appears to be a foreign soldier (though the word translated ‘centurion’ can be used rather loosely) and then predicts that ‘many will come from the East and the West’ to join the promised feast ‘at the table of Abraham’ (Matt 8.11). In other words, the distinctive promise to the ethnic people, the Jews, will be made available to people from every nation—so it is actually no surprise when the narrative of the gospel reaches its climax and completion in Jesus sending his disciples ‘to all nations’ to induct them into the life of the kingdom (Matt 28.19)
Episodes on the way, like Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (in Matt 15 and Mark 7) is not, as set out in popular and rather ignorant exegesis, about a foreign woman exposing Jesus’ narrow and racist prejudices, but a sophisticated exchange between two theological sparring partners, which points to the reality that the good news of the Jewish Messiah will in the end become good news to people of every ethnicity.
We see a similar dynamic in Jesus’ challenging declaration to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4.22) and therefore not from the Samaritans. And yet he says that to a woman who not only embraces this salvation in terms of a believing acceptance of the claims of Jesus, but then goes on to become a model disciple as she tells others of her experience, and then brings them to see Jesus for themselves, just at the first disciples did in John 1. Salvation might be from the Jews, but it is for the world, regardless of ethnic identity.
All this is explicitly worked out in the developing story of the growth of the early church, and particular through the spilling over of the gracious presence of God beyond the ethnic boundaries of Israel in the gentile mission. One of my favourite verses in Acts comes at a key turning point in the narrative:
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul (Acts 13.1).
Luke does his theology through narrative, and he has chosen to highlight the leadership of the church in Antioch for a particular reason. By mentioning a Jew, a black African, a Roman, someone from the court of the compromised leader Herod, and a Pharisees, Luke is pointing us to the essential ethnic, social and cultural diversity of this church, most likely reflecting the mixed make-up of the city itself. And it is in this context that the Spirit is at work, that Paul and Barnabas are called, and that there is a breakthrough to the next stage of the mission of God as the Word spreads west through Turkey and soon across into Europe proper. As a white Western Christian, I need to remember that I am only incorporated into the grace of God because of the ethnic diversity of the gospel!
The central nature of ethnic diversity to the people of God is, finally, at the heart of the Book of Revelation. In Rev 7, the Israel of God, counted out as a disciplined army of priestly warriors, turns out to be ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’. This fourfold phrase combines the four-fold phrase that we noted from Gen 10.20 and 10.31 with the language in Ex 19.5 that Israel will be God’s ‘treasured possession out of every nation’. But in the new covenant in Jesus, instead of being ‘out of every nation’ in the sense of separated as a distinct ethnic group, we are now ‘out of every nation’ in the sense of being drawn from every ethnic group. Ethnic inclusion and diversity is the hallmark of God’s redeemed people in Jesus.
And this leads to the final vision of Rev 21, where there is the repeated tension between open welcome and distinctive purity, and where the ‘kings of the earth’ bring their splendour into the city, and ‘the nations (ethne, from which we get our word ‘ethnic’) will walk by its light’ (Rev 21.24). The holy people of God include and offer blessing to people from every ethnic identity.
Racial equality is a matter of humanity and justice, and we need to commit to reforms in society to make this a reality. But for Christians, it is much more than that. The ethnic diversity of God’s people, both globally and locally, joined together in a common faith in God, made known to us in Jesus and made real to us by his Spirit, is a central sign of God’s gracious love and costly reconciliation effected by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. It is something that is essential to our identity and practice as the people of God.
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