It is difficult to imagine a more contentious topic than race in today’s society. Being American by birth, it is difficult for me to read any news without seeing troubling stories of my homeland being constantly plagued by racial tension. Violence, protests, police brutality, blaming, shaming, and disorder—all in the name of what?
Race is difficult not just because it is so emotive, but even more so because it is so ambiguous and problematic as a concept.
Race is difficult not just because it is so emotive, but even more so because it is so ambiguous and problematic as a concept. What is race? At its core, race is a means of classifying people on superficial characteristics. David VanDrunen observes:
To speak of race implies that the peoples of the world can be categorised into a handful of distinct groups based primarily upon shared physical features associated with particular geographical regions—features such as skin colour, hair texture, or the shape of eyes, nose, or mouth. Saying even this much provokes serious questions about the validity of ‘race.’
So, at the heart of the concept is a poor way of thinking about humanity, a means of categorising people based on appearances. What difference does it actually make that someone’s skin is lighter or darker than someone else’s? Can we really say that all “white” people are the same? Does skin colour (or any other biological feature) necessarily mean that the people categorised as similar based on appearances actually think or identify the same?
Race: Unreal but Real
But just because we can show the concept of race is bogus, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a thing—at least something we know in our experience—distinguishing, categorising, and treating people differently because of their physical features is a real problem in our world.
Christians find themselves scrambling to respond well in the face of racial injustice. Much of the difficulty about discernment in the face of these cultural tensions is the ways these issues continue to divide Christians. By splitting society based on colour, we import these categories into the church and respond along skin-colour lines. So, how can a white-skinned Christian speak thoughtfully, considerately, and with credibility into an issue that’s historically been perpetrated by similar looking people? How can a dark-skinned Christian speak thoughtfully, charitably, and with credibility when the agenda is so largely set by a corpus that is external to the church (though, of course, still a church issue)? But how can we not speak?
Many Christians are eager, or at least feel pressure, to join the woke crowd … But in doing so they unknowingly allow that movement to set the agenda
When it comes to speaking, many Christians are eager, or at least feel pressure, to join the woke crowd. These Christians rightly see the problems in society and want to publicly denounce racial injustice along with those declaring “Black Lives Matter.” But in doing so they unknowingly allow that movement to set the agenda for justice—side-lining God’s Word that offers an even better way forward in combating injustice.
Recently, I was rebuked in my own quest to be woke. Like the time I tried to evangelise a smoker by lighting a cigarette, I tried to persuade my non-white friend that I was up-with-the-times on race. In a conversation with my friend of Asian descent, I told him that I was excited by the prospect of a “brown-skinned man” taking a significant position of leadership, as opposed to the long history of white leadership in the role. I thought my friend would agree. Instead he said, “I’m not so sure that’s important. What would be best is if the right man got the job—irrespective of the colour of his skin.”
We need theological clarity in order to avoid the many mishaps that have come as a result of the naiveté of wokeness and its approach to systemic issues. Naïve is not used here in a derogatory manner, but rather to warn that joining a trendy cultural campaign without real understanding is bound to be misguided. Again, Christians are right to decry racism! But we need to see the problem framed theologically and entrust our action for change to the wisdom of God’s Word.
I want to show better categories of thinking about the peoples of the world. I want to demonstrate that God’s solution to our racism is the church: the real basis for unity is grounded in our union with the human Jesus Christ.
The Inclusive Gospel
One of the most wonderful aspects of the gospel is that, while it is an exclusive message—Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father unless through him (John 14:6)—it is also beautifully inclusive of all peoples. This does not mean that all people will be saved, but instead that God desires all nations to come to Him as the one true God. As Paul writes to Timothy, God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) because in fact there is only one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
It is worth taking time to unpack that last statement. Paul wants Timothy to be clear that because there is only one God, He is the God for all. In other words, there is no other who supplies life, sustenance, or salvation. Our God is not a tribal deity. He is not just a God of the minority interest party. He is the Lord over all. We can recall Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians, when writing about his prayers:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. (3:14-15).
Paul wants Timothy to see that because there is only one humanity, the work of one man Jesus Christ can be applied for all.
Furthermore, there is only “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 ESV, emphasis mine). Notice the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. Paul wants Timothy to see that because there is only one humanity, the work of one man Jesus Christ can be applied to all. Because we have a common heritage as children of Adam (together under the curse of sin) we need a new Adam to deliver us. The clearest picture we have against racism or race of any kind is the Lord Jesus.
In the face of racial injustice, the world has pursued its own solutions: combatting racial division by focussing on race; chanting “Black Lives Matter.” And Black lives do matter! But we must also be careful not to propagate the problem in our solution. Much better, is the solution that Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped for: that we don’t judge people on the basis of the colour of their skin, but on the content of their character.
Christians can lead a better way in the midst of real tensions today by recognising the dignity of all human beings, as they are shown value in the death of the man Christ Jesus. And, in knowing Christ, we can begin to model what real peace looks like in our churches as we live with one another—different ethnicities brought together by the peace secured at the cross.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16, ESV)