The Church of England Evangelical Council has this morning released a fascinating new video, One, on the theological and practical issues around racism. It involves five Anglican evangelicals from different ethnic and national backgrounds reflecting together, talking about Scripture and theology, and sharing their own different experiences.
It is not surprising that much of the conversation involves reflection on the vision in Scripture of God’s people as diverse and multi-ethnic, beginning with the creation of all humanity in the image of God, and following the long narrative arc to the depiction in the Book of Revelation of people from ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ redeemed by the blood of the lamb and gathered around the throne, praising God (Rev 7.9). There are important points along the way, including the practical example of Acts 6, where the early leaders of the Jesus movement has to confront the issues of structural discrimination between those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and the repeated need to learn the lessons of the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God. See below for a fuller account of this.
But the discussion also involves reflection on the need for specific practical responses, recognising not just institutional and systemic expressions of racism, but also personal collusion and responsibility, in the form both of specific attitudes and actions and also a complicit silence. Racist attitudes are not the sole preserve of white people in relation to other ethnicities, but something that is a feature of all human life in all cultures. The call of the Letter of James to repent of the sin of treating people differently according to their status and identity is one we must all heed.
The discussion also explores some of the practical responses that we can make in our local churches, and the video as a whole is offering as a resource that churches might use as a starting point for their own reflections. It is complemented by two short but moving interviews with two of the group, Jason Roach and Esther Prior, in which they share their own experiences of racism. There are supporting resources available on the CEEC website here for use in the local church.
It is clear that, for evangelicals, racism is a gospel issue—the good news of Jesus challenges us to address this, but also offers us the resources that we need, personal and institutional, to do so.
As I have noted previously, 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.
But 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.