****Editor’s note: I gave this 30 minute talk in Buffalo, NY. at the Nickel City Forum. It is not meant to be the last word on the topic. Time precluded a more extensive discussion of all the issues surrounding race and the bible.
Since we find ourselves in upstate New York, some seventy five miles from the burial place of that great Black theologian, author, and abolitionist Frederick Douglas, it seems fitting to begin with a quote from him that will orient us toward our topic: Does the Bible support racism or dismantle it? This quote appears in the apendix of his classic work The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave. In his biography, he lodges a sustained criticism of Christianity as he encountered it in America. To ward off the potential misunderstanding of his critique was of Christianity proper he says:
I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion…What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.
Douglas, then, makes the distinction between the reprehensible practices of the American Christians of his day and the religion of Christianity that he discerned from reading the biblical text. In this paper, then, I follow the lead of Douglas. You will be disappointed if you where expecting some apologia for Christianity as it was practiced by many (but not all) white believers during slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the present day. I like Douglas discern the “widest possible difference.”
But I also want to say this, Christianity is wider and deeper than the last two hundred years of America history. It was firmly planted in Africa before the first European ever set foot on this continent. It has its own history in the East and the West that is full both of triumph and disaster. Let’s not be myopic. We are not the center of the story and the validity of Christianity does not rise and fall with the actions of one people in one country. God has a purpose that spans the centuries and, in the end, he will bring his purposes to pass.
Finally, to press the point home the history of Christianity in this country is more than the history of White Christianity. There is a story to be told about the faith of people of color who have been here from the beginning. Therefore I take it as read that American Christianity is a mixed thing with its own record of triumphs and failures for which we will have to give an account.
But if a religion is to be taken seriously as a thing to be analyzed, we have to be able to look at what it says about itself, especially in a religion like Christianity that believes that God in his providence has gifted us with an inspired text. So then, does the Bible encode racism or does it dismantle it?
I will be arguing that the Bible dismantles racism. This argument will proceed as follows. First, I will provide a brief definition of racism and white supremacy (because lets be real that the real subject at hand). Then I will look at five critical moments in Scripture that to my mind make racism and Christianity incompatible: (1) creation; (2) the call of Abraham; (3) the description of David’s son in the Psalter; (4) the ministry of Jesus; and finally (5) Revelation’s depiction of the people of God. I will conclude with a challenge to believers and nonbelievers to take this data seriously in their account of what it means to be a Christian.
Racism and White Supremacy
First, what is racism? Surprisingly, there is quite a lot of debate about who can and cannot be a racist. Part of this arises from the link between racism and power. For some to be properly racist you must have the social, economic, and political capital to have your racism impact the lives of people on a local or national scale. In this understanding, since minorities lack widespread political and social power, they cannot be racists. According to this view, it does not matter that some black people have biases against white people, we lack the power to oppress. Therefore, we cannot be “racist.” I understand this view and what it is trying to articulate. Blacks have largely been disenfranchised in this country, and tarring us with the charge of racism seems a bit much. Nonetheless, there is something of a geneological link between the race hatred of the white supremacist and those who attribute inherent evils to white people based upon the color of their skin. The political and social outcome of such a belief might be different, but they arise out of similar assessments of individuals based on the color of their skin. So for our purposes racism will refer to:
The belief that some races are inherently superior (physically,intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them.
The dominate form of racism in America, and the one that has done the most damage to the church, is white supremacy. The Oxford English dictionary defines white supremacy as:
The belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.
The real question behind the questions about race and the Bible is: does the Bible support white supremacy? The rest of this talk will argue that the narrative of the Bible, taken as a whole, counters white supremacy
Creation and the image of God
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Christian anthropology acknowledges the importance of the creation story in Gen 1–2, especially what it says about the creation of man and woman. It reads:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
The apostle Paul, centuries later, comments on the creation account. He says,
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26–27)
These texts are important for two reasons. Genesis affirms that man and woman equally share in the image of God. Paul makes it clear that all people derive from our first parents (adam then eve) and therefore all share in the image of God. There is no sense in the Bible, then, that one particular race uniquely reflects God in the world. No, all men and women share in that image. Therefore, any theology that argues that one race is superior to another is sub-Christian at best. The Jewish and later Christian doctrine of the image of God reveals the lie of racial hierarchy. To quote Douglas then, between white supremacy and Christian anthropology, I posit “the widest possible difference.”
The Fall, the Call of Abraham, and the Testimony of Israel
Although the Bible speaks of our original equality, it also speaks a second word. The Christian Scriptures teach us that humanity rebelled against God and turned our back on him in a variety of different ways. This piece of theology may seem far from issues of race and justice, but it is not. Just as we all share in the image of God, we all share in humanity’s brokenness. The Christian believes that we are all glorious messes who partly reflect God in our desire to create, to love, to forgive, and to pursue justice. But our selfishness, our participation in injustice, our inability to love and forgive and to follow God as we ought reveals our brokenness. For the Christian, then, no one race stands above the other because we all need the transforming love of God to make us whole. The story of Bible from Genesis 3 forward is the story of a God who longs to bring healing to all of humanity because we all need it.
This bring us to the story of Abraham. Time prevents me from saving very much about him, except that he is remembered as the father of the Jewish people, the central characters in the OT story. Therefore, knowing about Abraham’s mission will go a long way towards answering our question of whether the Bible encodes white supremacy. Here is the account of God’s appearance to Abraham:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3)
This text is important because God tells Abraham to leave his family, culture, and all that he knows with the express purpose of being a blessing to the families of the earth. Therefore, at the center of the vocation of the people of God is the fact that they are to be God’s means of bringing blessings to the various families and ethnic groups of the world. The Bible does center on one race; it looks to the redemption of all ethnicities.
Even the chosen people are not special because of their ethnicity or some kind of inherent virtue. God tells them again and again that it is not because of their righteous that they are being blessed (Deut 9:6), but because of his mercy. So if the chosen people are not inherently more virtuous than other nations, then issues of white supremacy have no place in the church.
One more word about Abraham and Israel before we move on. Israel as a nation was never one “pure” ethnic group. Two of the twelve tribes came into being as the result of an interracial marriage. Joseph, while he was in Egypt, marries an Egyptian woman who gives birth to two sons: Ephraim and Manessah. Towards the end of his father Jacob’s life brings his two multi-ethnic boys to meet his father. Joseph’s father looks at these sons and sees them as the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham that he would bless many nations. Therefore, he adopts them into the family. African blood flows into Israel at the beginning. The tribes of Israel, then, were always multi-ethnic (Gen 48:1–7).
So where are we? I have thus far made two interlocking arguments. First, the Bible teaches that we all share in the image of God. It also teaches us that all people are in different ways in rebellion against him. Nonetheless, God in his mercy choose a people who would bless the ethnic groups and families of the world. This vocation outward speaks of God’s love for all people. This chosen people, was itself multi-ethnic from the start. Thus, God chose a racially diverse group of people to bring blessings to the nations of the world. To me this sounds like the opposite of White Supremacy.
David’s Greater Son and the Hope for a Better Future
If I can beg your patience with one more Old Testament passage, we will pause very briefly to discuss David’s future son. Given that the OT story looks to bring blessings to the world, one might be tempted to wonder how this could come about? Is the blessing to come through one race dominating the other? Did God order history so that white Christians would dominate their supposed lesser brothers and sisters?
Psalm 72 makes it clear that king David’s greater son will be the means by which God brings his blessings to the world. This blessing comes through his establishment of a society rooted in justice and compassion. Listen to this prayer that David prays for his son:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. (Psalms 72:1–2, 4)
Then in a direct echo of the Abrahamic story Psalm 72:17 says may all the nations be blessed in him. Therefore, this Psalm looks to a coming king whose just and compassionate rule over the world will bless the nations and bring about God’s purposes in creation. In other words, the Psalm 72 looks to a king and a multi-ethnic kingdom.
Jesus, the Son of God David’s Greater Son
And now we arrive at the person of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus is this greater son of David and Abraham (Matt 1:1; Rom 1:3-4). He is Israel’s long expected king who finally brings justice to the nations. Paul quoting the Psalter says of Christ, “in him the Gentile hope (Rom 15:12).”
As God become man Christ is God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness in the flesh. A discussion on his life is beyond the scope of our time together, but can I simply ask you to read the gospels and ask yourself if you encounter white supremacy. Instead of finding white supremacy, we find Jesus showing tremendous compassion to those who are normally excluded from polite society. He was and is the friend of sinners who invites them into a transforming relationship with himself.
In the Gospels we see Jesus giving his life for the sins of the world. The very nature of the universal offer of forgiveness speaks of our equal need for that forgiveness. That is why when we read Paul’s letters we hear him ask again and again: Where is the boasting (Rom 3:27; 1 Cor 1:29–31)? On what grounds can anyone of boast before God about any of our accomplishment in education, finance, relationships, fame or ethnicity?
To speak plainly, then, white supremacy is a denial of the cross of Christ as the basis of our boast before God. It is a denial of the kingdom of God, because we have one chosen ruler and that rule is built on a foundation of sacrificial love not domination. The church’s greatest weapon against white supremacy is a robust doctrine of the atonement, the kingship of Christ, and his kingdom that equalizes all of us at the foot of the cross.
At the end, a New Beginning:
As my final argument against racial supremacy, I ask that we consider how the Bible ends. The book of Revelation does not recount a triumphant race leading its lesser brothers and sisters into the kingdom. Instead all of us are gathered round the throne of the lamb:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9–10)
The Bible ends with the very diversity of creation manifesting the expansive love of God who invites all people to join together in giving thanks for what he has done.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a few questions. First, if the Bible is as expansive as I say it is, how could the church get it so disasterously wrong at times? Human sin. Greed and lust and the desire for power do strange things and allows us to justify the unjustifiable. Christians have sometimes fallen prey to these desires and besmirched the name of the one who saved us. Second, many people have fallen away from the church because of its failings. That is a tragedy and I am not trying to wish it away, but the failure of humans does not wipe away the love of God. There is a Christianity community that longs to welcome you home. Do not give up on us just yet. Finally, the church has to recognize that the very nature of the gospel unites us to people of every tribe, tongue, and nation under one king. What better witness to the world could there be than for our churches to reflect now the multi-colored kingdom that will exist when the king returns and God will be all and all? Such a commitment to that vision church would turn our congregations upside down, but that is another talk for another day.
 racism. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/racism (accessed: October 9, 2017).
 White supremacy https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/white_supremacy (accessed: October 9, 2017)