Race and Faith

The following are some items from the Address by South African Allan Boesak, cleric and anti-apartheid activist, at the 1981 World Alliance of Reformed Churches.  I am just picking up a few bits and pieces of it. 1477025

First of all, racism is an ideology of racial domination that incorporates beliefs in a particular race’s cultural and/or inherent biological inferiority. It uses such beliefs to justify and prescribe unequal treatment  of that group. In other words, racism is not merely attitudinal, it is structural. It is not merely a vague feeling of racial superiority, it is a system of domination, with structures of domination– social, political, and economic.   …

Secondly, racism has not always been with us. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that has become an essential part of an historical process of cultural, economic, political and psychological domination. … I note this to make the point that racism cannot be understood in individual, personal terms only. It must be understood in its historical perspective and in its structural manifestations.

But, thirdly, however important these observations may be, the Christian must say more. Racism is sin. It denies the creatureliness of others. It denies the truth that all human beings are made in the image of the Father of Jesus Christ. As a result, it not only denies the unity of all humankind, it also refuses to acknowledge that being in the image of God means having ‘dominion over all the earth.’   …  The whole story of Genesis I and II is an attempt to give expression to this creaturely relatedness to God. …

Racism is a form of idolatry in which the dominant group assumes for itself a status higher than the other, and through its political, military, and economic power seeks to play God in the lives of others.

…Racism has brought dehumanization, … destroyed the human-beingness of those who are called to be the children of God.   …

Most of all, racism denies the liberating, humanizing, reconciling work of Christ, the Promised One who has taken on human form, thereby reaffirming human worth in the sight of God. Through his life as a human being he has given flesh and blood to the words of the psalmist concerning the life of God’s weak and needy people:  “From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” (Ps. 72:14)

…Racism has not only contaminated human society, it has also defiled the body of Christ. And Christians and the Church have provided the moral and theological justification for racism and human degradation.

As noted before, this is but a small section of the address by Allan Boesak. Not only did I quote only parts of it, but I removed all references to “white,” “black,” apartheid, and South Africa. This is not to hide its context, but recognize on a larger scale the fact that the concern is supracultural.

I presently live in the Philippines, a nation in which racism is not huge (compared to some places) but its effects are still felt indirectly. Much of the problems show itself in post-colonial mindset where the prejudices of the colonizers are still embedded deep even after independence. Looking further afield, one sees it more strongly. Just across the water is Malaysia, a country whose tourist board pumps out commercials emphasizing its multicultural peace and harmony, while the government maintains laws to ensure the power of the Malay to the detriment of the other “minority” groups. And of course, Malaysia is not alone… Myanmar has a similar situation with the Burmese as compared to the minority groups. And they are not the worst examples in the world. In the United States, systematic racism is officially opposed (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) but classism is actively promoted. If you doubt this, check the rhetoric of politicians who will freely admit that they intend to make decisions or promote laws to help “the middle class.”

But there is a difference between class (as well as caste) and race. Class and Caste exist, while race really does not. Now you might be tempted to suggest the opposite. After all, class and caste are human constructs that have not objective reality… but since they are, normally, recognized as human constructs, they exist to the level they are recognized to exist. But what about race? We often think of race as being objective, based on appearance. As such, it seems objective… real. But it is not.

Race draws from the “racial science” of the colonial and enslaving ages.   It draws from the theory of biological evolution. A race is a sub-group within a species that has sizable differences from others within the species, and is, in fact, believed probably enroute to being a whole new species. In the 1800s and early 1900s a lot of effort was made to link intelligence, moral intelligence, and behavioral characteristics to this thing called race. The move has ultimately been a failure. There are reasons for this:

  1.  There is no real agreement on how many races there are. At one time, people spoke of Caucasoid (“white”), Negroid (“black”), and Mongoloid (“yellow”). In the early 1900s there were five races commonly, “white, black, yellow, brown, and red.” Of course, the color designations made no real sense (except maybe brown). In Germany, of course, Jews were identified as a separate race, as well as the “Aryans.” In more recent times, some have created a very different list of five races based on the “out of Africa” theory of human development and dispersal.
  2. The differences between so called races are less than skin deep. Race has classically been determined by color of skin, color of eyes, and color and texture of hair. However, ultimately, color relates primarily to melanin… and melanin is distributed across mankind over a spectral range, not distinct groupings. Below the skin, the differences are very slight and only of statistical value. Race (from an evolutionary viewpoint) exists due to partial genetic incompatibility across races or a lack of interest in breeding across race. However, no such situation exists with humans. There is no genetic incompatibility, and any issues regarding “interracial” interest appears to be culturally driven, rather than innate.

Ultimately, racism should not exist in the church.

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body— whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free– and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.”  -I Cor. 12:12-14

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”    -Gal. 3:26-28

The church should not perpetuate, support, or allow divisiveness or power structures based on “race”, class/caste, or gender. It should model unity, and act subversively within the broader society to challenge its biased power structures.

In missions circles, for the sake of contextualization and pragmatism with regard to evangelism methodology, there has been a greater focus on separating people based on culture, class, caste, and social setting. It can be argued whether this focus on diversity has a negative effect on the unity of the church or not. But I hope that pragmatism and contextualization has not reached a point that division based on “race” can be used to justified. Frankly, I hope that culture, class, caste and social setting take on a less theologized role. Culture should be respected and uniformity is not a Christian virtue… but we also need to be trained for the Kingdom of God where diversity NEVER negates the true unity that all have in Christ.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s