The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 12, Race/Ethnicity
[Editorial Note: This is the twelfth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
WE AFFIRM God made all people from one man. Though people often can be distinguished by different ethnicities and nationalities, they are ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption. "Race" is not a biblical category, but rather a social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority. All that is good, honest, just, and beautiful in various ethnic backgrounds and experiences can be celebrated as the fruit of God's grace. All sinful actions and their results (including evils perpetrated between and upon ethnic groups by others) are to be confessed as sinful, repented of, and repudiated.
WE DENY that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ. We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed. We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person's feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.
In 1 Samuel 16:6-7, we read, "When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, 'Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.' But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.'"
This section of scripture explains the problem too many of us have. We look at the outward appearance of others and pre-judge them. We will use appearance, or height, or wealth or any of the wrong things with which to evaluate others. And this is not surprising when you consider that Samuel made the same mistake with Saul and was about to do so again with Eliab, the son of Jesse.
Because of the institution of slavery in America, race and ethnicity have been the focus of many tensions in our society. What are race and ethnicity? Are these important concepts, or should we focus our attention on other things? How should we as followers of Jesus Christ view these things? Many believers will point to Genesis 10 as if this is the origin of race and ethnicity. Nonetheless, the Bible does not explicitly state this to be the case. Rather, this is something that many read into the text.
So what is race? This is a question that many people just take for granted. They assume that race is color and differentiation of the human species. Merriam Webster defines race as "A: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock. Or B: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits or characteristics."1 These definitions are all fine, well and good, but most people assume that there is something more to the subject.
In any case, numerous scientists will tell you that the whole idea of race is a myth. According to Megan Gannon, a writer for Scientific American, "Racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out."2 Michael Yudell, a professor of public health at Drexel University explains,
"It's a concept we think is too crude to provide useful information, it's a concept that has social meaning that interferes in the scientific understanding of human genetic diversity and it's a concept that we are not the first to call upon moving away from."3
This point is made even stronger by Svante Paabo, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany,
What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded."4
Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the Race Issue of National Geographic:
Over the past few decades, genetic research has revealed two truths about people. The first is that all humans are closely related- more closely related than all chimps, even though there are many more humans around today. Everyone has the same collection of genes, but with the exception of identical twins, everyone has slightly different versions of some of them. Studies of this genetic diversity have allowed Scientists to reconstruct a kind of family tree of human populations. That has revealed the second deep truth: In a very real sense, all people alive today are Africans.5
The science of race is getting louder and clearer all of the time. Race is at best an overblown social construct that has been harmful to our society. It is a concept that is best forgotten.
On the other hand, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word ethnic as "of or relating to large groups of people classed around common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background."6 Unfortunately, we find the use of that pesky term "race," once again. The term "race" can muddy up the concept of ethnicity. While race might not be a thing, ethnicity definitely is.
Regardless of what these terms mean, we as followers of Jesus Christ have to remember that all people are made after the image of God. As such, regardless of what their ethnicity might be, we should treat all equally. All too often, we forget what Galatians 3: 27-28 tells us "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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." In other words, ethnicities should not matter to the Christ follower. James 2:1 reminds us to "show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul also taught us to "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves."7 If we did these things, there would be a lot fewer problems in the Church and perhaps society at large.
Still, we fail to treat others as we should. Why? Because, sin makes us weak and even worse, it makes us stupid. Consequently, we show favoritism or we show contempt for people, based on their ethnicity. With the concept of race comes the concept of racism and the belief that some are better than others. The Social Justice Movement among Evangelicals today places a great deal of attention on race and have created the concept of "wokeness" to emphasize that all should be cognizant of the problems of race. To be sure, there are disparities in this fallen world that we live in. Until Christ returns and does away with sin, we will continue to struggle with scarcity and racism and the other effects of the "Fall." We need to remember that "God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those that love him."8 Perhaps, rather than bring others to "wokeness," we should remind everyone that we are all made after the image of God. When pastors fully teach what this means, their church members should strive for justice and righteousness everywhere they serve.
1. Merriam- Webster.com November 29, 2018.
2. Gannon, Megan. "Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue." Scientific American.com (February 5, 2016).
5. Kolbert, Elizabeth National Geographic "That there is No Scientific Basis for Race- it's a Made up Label." Nationalgeographic.com (November 29, 2018.
6. Merriam-Webster.com November 29, 2018.
7. Phillipians 2:3.
8. James 2: 5.
Craig Vincent Mitchell is the assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers and Charts of Christian Ethics.