Sunday, 5 October 2014

Racism: In the Bible, In the Church, In Me?

Have you ever heard people speak of seeing something the Bible for the first time? They’ve read the Scriptures countless times, and then suddenly see something new as if it were the first time they’ve read that portion of the Bible. I’m sure we all have, and I’m sure it’s also happened to most of us at one time or another.

The other day, it happened to me … again.

I was reading Paul’s familiar passage on divisions in the church. You know the one in which he writes,
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul,” another, “I follow Apollos,” another, “I follow Cephas,” still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; NIV)
Up until now, I always thought of this as theological divisions in the church, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve often used that passage to justify my distain for our seemingly incestuous love for denominationalism in the church. However, as I read in between these lines, I wonder if there wasn’t something deeper and more sinister than simply theological division going on in Corinth.

What could be worse than theological division? Racism, and especially when it’s subtly done in the body of Christ. As bad as theological division is, in my opinion racism in the church is worse because it’s usually loveless. In their book, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes,” authors Richards and O’Brien write,
We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18:24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians. (p.66)
This is not just a one-off of possible biblical racism. 

There are many other examples of biblical racism. Remember the story of Rebekah? That beloved wife of Isaac also had racist tendencies. One day she said to her husband, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46; NIV). Does that not seem racist to you? She was “disgusted” by the Hittite race! What was it that so offended her by the Hittites? The Bible doesn’t say, but clearly it was something that was enough for her to be repulsed by the notion of interracial marriage as an option for her favourite son, Jacob.

Other biblical characters also had problems with interracial marriage. Moses’ siblings were no exception. “Miraim and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite” (Numbers 12:1; NIV). Whatever the problem was, it was an issue based upon race. (As an aside, the irony here is that the Mosaic Law, the one named after Moses himself, spoke against interracial marriage, as in the Deuteronomy 7:3 command to "not intermarry with them." Hmm, what are we to make of that?).

Just as in the years immediately following the Second World War there were still plenty of prejudices against the German and Soviet people, perhaps in those days immediately following the Exodus there were also prejudices against Cushites because of their connection to Egypt, and by default, the oppression of slavery that was no doubt still very much in the minds of most Jews. Furthermore, Cushites were a dark-skinned people who came from the southern Nile river area of Africa. At the risk of conjecturing, perhaps the bottom line was simply that Miriam and Aaron were racists; they were upset that Moses married a black woman, and one that perhaps also somehow reminded them of those difficult years as slaves of Pharaoh.

There are several other Old Testament examples that we could look at as well, such as Naomi’s kinsman redeemer’s refusal to purchase her family’s property because it would mean that Ruth, a Moabite (a foreigner) would become part of the deal (Ruth 4:6). It’s interesting that on that note, the racist kinsman redeemer fades out of the story, and righteous Boaz enters the story, who ultimately is memorialized as the great-grandfather of Israel’s much loved king, David.

It all begs the question, Does God have any use for the racist?

The New Testament also had other questionable racist characters with their hate speech, such as Nathanael’s racial slur, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Granted, his slur was more regionally based, but as often happens, when we make disparaging remarks against a region, indirectly we also do so against the people who call that region home.

Think back in your own life and homeland of one geographical area that was often the brunt end of coarse joking and slurs. Growing up in central and western Canada, two regions quickly come to mind that we often joked about (I'm not going to mention them here). Some of our friends in other countries most likely did not get the negative racist connection, but as locals we got the gist of it quite clearly. Likewise, you and I in our modern world don’t have a negative understanding of Nazareth in Galilee, but the folks in first century Israel sure did. Nathanael, despite being called by Jesus, was to that point, a racist.

The good news is that Jesus still calls racists today.

One really doesn’t have to look too far back in modern church history to see similar examples of religious tension based upon ethnicity. White and Black only churches were once commonplace in the not too distant past of American segregation. Sometimes that prejudice even erupted with deadly violence, such as the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Though that era is thankfully over, and though anyone of us, regardless of our race, can today worship wherever and with whomever we wish, church division based upon obvious ethnicity can still be found. Pockets of such pseudo-Christians remain here and there. As horrible as it sounds, we have to call it what it is … Racism.

What strikes me as interesting, in a sad kind of way, is that we who profess to follow Christ, often do so in such unloving ways. Racism is hatred, pure and simple, despite our attempts to mask it over and justify ourselves in it by some twisted fashion. We don’t call it hatred, but what else would you call ethnic divisions other than making distinctions, us versus them, which in turn limits any genuine expression of loving one another? How do you genuinely love someone that, despite any pleasantries that you may otherwise utter, you still hold off at arm’s length because they’re from a different ethnicity than you? “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Romans 3:22), we love to quote, but do we really believe that? Hmm, I wonder sometimes.

The Racism Riddle

The fact is that our world, both in antiquity and today, is made up of ethnically diverse people with a plethora of rich cultures, customs and languages. I’m sure God created us all this way on purpose, and I cannot help but think that, perhaps one of the reasons that He did so, was to teach us to love one another, just as He loves us.

Going back to Rebekah, Nathanael and the other biblical examples, perhaps I was a little harsh. After all, we could say that the Jewish people as a whole were racist and that God even condoned it by virtue of the fact that they were called the “Chosen People." Perhaps Paul’s appeal (1 Corinthians 1:10-12) had more to do with his attempt to change that racist mindset that the Jewish people were known for, which may make sense when we consider that he was the apostle to the Gentiles.

Perhaps I’m still missing something else here. It is possible that I’ve inadvertently used my modern lens to view biblical racism in a much more negative light than the people of that time period did. After all, if God is a God of love (1 John 4:16), and if it’s true that He doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6), then it logically follows that the form of racism that He condoned was also still infused with His love.

Maybe ethnicity in God’s eyes is little more than the simple “testing of your faith” (James 1:3). Maybe what will ultimately separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the degree of racism that remains in us, for if God so loved them, and we in turn hate them through our racism, then there’s obviously a problem. Maybe the real proof of our profession of love toward God really does first lie in the way we love, or fail to love, our fellow man (1 John 4:20-21). At the risk of over simplifying the problems, maybe all of our global woes and conflicts throughout history are directly related to the fact that we still haven’t learnt what it means to love one another, despite all our differences.

An old children's song comes to mind that I'm sure many of us remember:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
It’s easy to love little children, or at least most of them. However little children turn into adults, and for many of us, that’s where things begin to get messy. The fact is, though, Jesus loves them still, warts and all. My question is, dare we not do likewise, and especially given that God has called us to do exactly that? Something to think about. Peace.

Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD, Flickr Creative Commons
Jesus Loves the Little Children: written by C. Herbert Woolston

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