Toward a Christian View of “Race”
(printed in the Messiah Messenger church newsletter, September 2016)
I was catching a flight to Milwaukee for our LCMS national convention this summer the morning after the 5 police officers were shot in Dallas. I remember watching the news with a mixture of feelings – anger, disgust, concern for the world my children are inheriting. But I also wished there was something I could do in what seems like an increasingly polarized and conflicted society. And all the more so, as a Christian.
Many of us who have been around for awhile have watched, sometimes with a feeling of helplessness, as our society has grappled with questions of racism and all the connected issues. There is the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There were riots in the 90's after the Rodney King incident. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s saw all sorts of tensions (this, of course, before my time!) But these are questions our American culture has been dealing with, or in some cases avoiding, since our very founding. The bloodiest war in our history – the Civil War - is also part of the story. Whole books have been written, and perhaps libraries could be filled with analyses and opinions and accounts of the matter.
Some thought electing our first black president might make things better. But it's seemed to have little effect. Some argue “education is the key!” and that we must train our children and young adults in proper attitudes and approaches. Others have established a whole new vocabulary for dealing with these issues with terms unfamiliar to previous generations (i.e. “trigger words” and “coded language”). Some appeal to the teachings of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Proposed solutions abound.
I, for one, have no illusions of solving these problems or answering every tough question in a monthly church newsletter article! Nor is it my proper place to comment on the secular or political aspects of these questions on which Christians of good conscience may surely in some cases disagree.
But what does seem pertinent, especially in these times, is to review some of the basic teachings of Holy Scripture which may bear on this topic. How does a Christian view the topic of race, or racism? Does God's Word give us a foundation on which to build, as we seek to navigate our world, fulfill our vocations, and love our neighbors? I believe so. So let's take a crack at it!
Genesis tells the story
The foundation for our Christian understanding of who we human beings are is found in the book of Genesis. Where on the 6th day, God made man from the dust, and the woman from his rib. For us, these events are not mythology but true stories of God's loving creation. He establishes us as who we are. He gives us our very being. And to understand our nature and place in this world is to understand what He tells us about our origins. Genesis lays the foundation.
What happens when we reject God's account of how it all began? Nothing good. Confusion and perversion can only follow when we buy into theories of origin that are at odds with God's Word. Removing the Creator from the equation removes the dignity of His creation, as we will see a little farther down the page.
Yet even secular science can still get it right, or at least come close. For instance, various studies have pointed to a common origin for all “modern humans” in a “genetic Eve”. And science also tells us that the differences between “races” are not a matter of different or incompatible DNA, but mostly of only outward appearance.
Christians ought to be clear in our own minds what Scripture teaches, and take the conclusions of secular science under advisement, but never as judge of Scripture or as something that could disprove what God has said. We should find our understanding of who we are, first and foremost, from the One who made us and still sustains us. To that end...
The Image of God
Holy Scripture shows that we humans (and all of us, of every tribe, race and people) are descended from Adam. We are heirs to Adam's heritage. That includes a sinful fallen nature, with which we struggle every day, but which drowns and dies in baptism as the New Adam arises in Christ.
But Genesis also teaches that man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). While we've lost the original holiness and righteousness because of our fall into sin, man is still the crown of God's creation. Man is still given stewardship (dominion) of the Earth. And mankind is still of great value to our Creator. The dignity inherent in being created in the image of God is a dignity common to all people. It is thus forbidden by God to kill a man – for even in our fallen condition – this image of God in some sense remains: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6)
Furthermore, there is a unity of the human race. We have all this in common – being made in God's image, and suffering the same consequences of the fall into sin. These qualities cut across all distinctions of people.
Sin Divides. Babel much?
There was a time when the nations were united. Though, it was in sinful pride that they worked together to make a name for themselves, building a tower into the heavens. God was displeased. Partly in judgment, and partly to (mercifully) limit the extent of their ability to band together for evil purposes – God confused their languages and dispersed the nations.
Here is, in Genesis 11, the origin of the “races”. The various tribes, nations and languages are all here only because of sin. Sin divided us, as a human race, from our Creator. But it also brings divisions amongst us, between groups of people, small and large.
But this was not the design from the beginning! And it won't be the picture at the end.
A Multitude in White Robes
Revelation 7 pictures for us the church in glory – a multitude that no one can count – from EVERY tribe, nation and people. There, the unity that was intended by our creator is realized. There, the divisions that sin brought are healed. There and then we will see a perfect reunion not only with our loved ones, but with all the company of heaven.
We also got a taste of this on the Day of Pentecost, when 50 days after Jesus' resurrection the Holy Spirit caused the Disciples to proclaim the Gospel in various languages. Thus, what was lost at Babel was being healed, if only in a preliminary way, by the Gospel. The church is established as the New Israel – incorporating all nations. In Christ, by His Spirit, we have unity, and we have a future.
Peter and Paul
Paul's writings also have something to say to the question. Paul makes it clear that when it comes to the Gospel, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) In Christ these distinctions are wiped away – for when it comes to salvation, God see us all the same. Equally dead in sin. Equally alive in Christ.
St. Peter also confesses, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)
Who is my Neighbor?
And yes, even Jesus weighs in. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were different people, with no love lost between them. But Jesus uses this particular example to show just how strong Christian love can be, to overcome even the fiercest of human divisions. After all, Jesus is the prototype of the Good Samaritan – one who is completely “other” from us, but becomes completely one of us, to save us, restore and renew us. To reconcile us to the Father in himself, and therefore also to one another.
This informs how we treat those of a different race, nation, or people. We see them as our neighbor. Especially for other Christians, who are not only neighbors but also brothers and sisters in Christ. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
These basics from Scripture won't dissolve all the problems of racism. Even if everyone was to suddenly embrace Christianity and believe in Jesus, troubles would remain with us as long as the sinful flesh is still kicking. The world is fallen, and passing away. The happy ending only truly comes at the end, when Jesus Christ makes all things new. We long for that day! Still, while we wait, we are given this time and called to live and serve.
We recognize our Father's intentions for those He has created. We see the dignity inherent in all who bear His image. We confess the divisions among us are a result of sin. All this can help frame our thinking. We know the universal call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the love He has shown us is the same love He has for all people. This helps us see others as Christ would see them. Therefore we seek to best love the neighbor God has set before us, no matter what tribe or nation or people or language. And this is a good place to start.