So, what is race?

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, April 1, 2009, at 6:03 pm

In reflecting on the race question raised in President Obama's last press conference, I was left pondering what does "race" mean. We use the term as if there is one clear definition. I'm not sure I know anymore.

Christianity, of course, has a complex history of both embracing and rejecting cultural norms for demarcating between groups of people according to race. While the Scriptures plainly teach that all human persons are of one human race as image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:26), Christians, have not always held this position consistently.

Race, however, is a sociological construct. For centuries human societies have created arbitrary divisions based on physical differences that the church has not been immune from adopting. Biologically, human beings have the same genetic constitution. What distinguish human characteristics are various combinations of genes expressing themselves on particular chromosomes-hardly enough to justify physical differences as a basis for distinguishing people groups.

While it is true that genetic differentiation has occurred in human history there is no justifiable basis, biblical or scientific, to categorize human beings according to physical characteristics. Although there is no valid typology of human races, Christians have embraced the arbitrary categorizations and at times perverted the Scriptures in the process.

The Gospel brings individuals from all people groups together for a common mission. The effects of the Fall that turn people against each other and segregate on the basis of physical characteristics will remain---in violation of God's shalom---without the work of the Church as she spreads the Gospel.

In the end, I'm still left with the question of what will define race in the future and what role it plays in making any good distinctions between people.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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