Beyond the American black and white racial divide

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, at 2:37 pm

Due to the current racial climate in the United States, discussions of race generally focus on issues related to African-Americans and Anglos. But the biblical world had a broader understanding of race, classifying groups of people for reasons apart from perceived, fixed biological realities. Race in the Bible was flexible and generally not based on skin color. For example, Genesis 11:6 identifies the human race as one people. Ezra 9:2 describes Israel as a holy race. Paul states in Galatians 1:14 that he advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries of his people (his race). In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter says that Christians are a chosen race.

Furthermore, numerous passages in the New Testament affirm that God’s Son came to this world as Jesus, a Jewish man, to create a reconciled community of different kinds (races) of people in Christ (Luke 1:5-4:15). In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1-2 in a synagogue, which emphasizes that God’s Spirit-anointed prophet would come to preach, as the gospel, liberty to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind for the purpose of setting free those who are oppressed, and He boldly affirms that He is that promised one. Jesus supports this claim throughout Luke by ministering to different kinds (races) of people. He ministered to socially marginalized people—demonically possessed (Luke 4:31-37), sick people (Luke 4:38-41, 5:12-26), the poor (Luke 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22; 19:8), the sexually immoral (Luke 7:36-50)—and to socially elite people, including  a Roman centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10) and a tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). And He summoned all people to repent and to become part of one reconciled community devoted to Him (Luke 1:39-2:32, 5:27, 9:57-62, 13:1-35, 14:25-33; Matthew 5-7).

There is much racial reconciliation work occurring these days in Christian circles focusing on resolving the tensions between African-Americans and Anglos, and reconciling this division should be part of the American church’s mission. Yet, reconciling blacks and whites is only one application of Jesus’ vision for racial reconciliation. The New Testament emphasizes that Jesus unifies all people (Jews and Gentiles) and all things in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:8). This unification focuses on the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into fellow partners and fellow heirs of the promises of God in Jesus Christ through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). To do racial reconciliation, to the extent to which the New Testament demands and Jesus expects, requires powerful and privileged Christians to love and to identify with any marginalized group of people, and vice versa. And the elite must be especially willing to share their power and privilege with powerless and underprivileged Christians in contextually appropriate ways, which is exactly what Jesus did for us (Philippians 2:5-8). 

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a former WORLD contributor.

Read more from this writer