Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bible & Race

Last week I observed that human beings are incredibly tribal. By this I mean that all of us experience and express unity and diversity in a multitude of ways. Our tribalism is pervasive. In fact, it’s hard to imagine an area of life where we are non-tribalistic. 

Let’s briefly consider a few manifestations of our tribalism.  

First, there’s entertainment: Trekkies vs. Star Wars fans (Warsies?); Team Jacob vs. Team Edward; Lavern vs. Shirley—that sort of thing. Then we have sports (also entertaining): my team vs. your team, etc. Of course we have competing criminal enterprises and gangs—Republicans vs. Democrats—for example.  

Naturally, the supernatural divides us and so we have innumerable religious tribes from world religions to denominations to sects to cults. Then we have the likes of Ford vs. Chevy; Fox News vs. Obama news; labor vs. management; rich vs. not as rich; urban vs. rural; and so on.  

Obviously, humans are tribal by nature. So is it any wonder that we experience and express unity and diversity in regards to race? 

Since we are tribal by nature, and since—in the foreseeable future—races are here to stay; the tensions which result from our unity and diversity will remain. But can we do better? Can we ease the tensions between the races? 

The Bible gives us authoritative, but very general, principles which can, at the very least, serve as a framework from within which we can have the much needed, honest conversation about race. 

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . .” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him . . . (Genesis 1:26a, 27a). 

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings (Acts 17:26). 

The first biblical principle for our framework is that all human beings are the image bearers of God. This means we are of equal worth and dignity. Our lives have value and sanctity. Having more or less pigmentation does not correlate into being more or less the image bearer of God.  

Those who deny this truth can only exacerbate the race problem (e.g., Louis Farrakhan’s racist “white devils” rhetoric.) Unless we keep all men as God’s image fairly in view, racial tensions will not, indeed cannot, diminish. 

The second principle is biblical unity. The basis for human unity (the human race) is two-fold: We have one Creator who made us from one blood; one God, one man. Racists, like Farrakhan, tend to downplay or outright deny our true, biblical unity. What good comes of this? 

The third principle is biblical diversity. Here we are not speaking of the “human race” but of “races” or “ethnicities.” Many today—on the opposite end of the spectrum from those above—tend to downplay or outright deny our true, biblical diversity.  

They offer such platitudes as, “There no such thing as ‘races.’ There’s only the human race.” While this sounds noble, it goes against scripture and plain reason.  

Let’s apply this illogic to God’s work in nature, shall we? Premise 1: Eagles are birds. Premise 2: Cardinals are birds. Conclusion: Eagles are Cardinals. 

Isn’t the categorical mistake obvious? 

We need not resort to irrationality for any of God’s works in animals or in humans. We need not deny the “human race” to affirm the existence of various races or ethnicities. (We are simply using the terms “race” and “races” differently, according to disparate categories.)  

The races are all human but they are not all the same. 

Thomas Sowell agrees. He writes: “Race is not entirely in the eye of the beholder, but it is a social concept with a biological basis” (Intellectuals and Race, p. 1). The Bible is not ignorant of, in fact it is very much aware of, racial differences and the Apostle Paul teaches that these differences are “made from one blood” by God.
Though the Bible does not tell us when or how the races of man emerged, it is nevertheless my contention that God—not mindless, purposeless natural processes—is ultimately responsible for (immediately and/or by use of means) biological human diversity. 

So how do we—the fallen and sinful image bearers of God—affirm our unity and diversity with lessened hate and hostility? 

I think the answer comes in applying God’s law and gospel to our social ills.  

No more blame games. No more “repentance” for the sins other people committed. No more “suffering” for the crimes other people endured. Enough is enough. 

If we would have a conversation about race within the context of scripture, we must speak of each individual person as being a responsible moral agent; with God’s law to judge and guide, and His Son to heal and forgive.  

There’s no other way forward.


  1. I agree that we should re-engage with the Biblical concept of race, which is more based on genealogy or descent rather than its consequent, for some races at any rate, of slightly different natures, abilities and temperaments. In Europe the races - Germans, French, Poles and so on - would seem, at times, to have little basis in biological and temperamental differences but they are still races in the Biblical and Ancient sense; and in the medieval and modern sense too. Having said that I think some of the ancient Roman historians did refer to the diverse populations of Britannia in terms of their differing appearances. They certainly noticed the "red-headed" jock even then!

  2. Thank you for reading and your thoughtful comments. Surely the Bible can direct us as we grapple with racial issues here in America.

    Blessings to you and yours.