July 17, 2013

Thabiti on the myth of race

by Jesse Johnson

thabiti preachingFive years ago at the Together for the Gospel Conference, Thabiti Anyabwile delivered a message on the myth of racial categories. Essentially it was an appeal for Christians to stop viewing race as a valid category, and to see that the entire concept of race is inextricably joined to the theory of evolution and an affront to the teaching of the Bible.

He argued that there is no biological basis for race, and that forcing humans into racial categories only leads to harm.

It was a powerful message for me, and one that I’ve thought about ever since. Anyabwile pointed out that race is problematic. He asked in what category should you put a person who speaks with a Jamaican accent, lives in Grand Cayman, and yet has white skin? Treating her like she is from Montana or Macedonia certainly misses the mark, but so does calling her Caymanian, black, or Jamaican…and then you come to find out she was born in Honduras.  For many people, culture doesn’t allow a coherent racial structure, and the pursuit of race as a category is simply “misplaced, wrongheaded, and inadequate.”

I grew up in New Mexico, where a certain segment of the population takes pride in tracing their family roots back to the 1500’s, one hundred years before Plymouth Rock. There is a segment of the population that claims Spanish descent, but would reject the label Hispanic because it would imply something less than a pure Spanish ancestry. In fact, the label Hispanic itself is problematic, because what does that mean? Is it a cultural term? In Albuquerque—not at all unlike how Anyabwile describes the Caribbean—people with the last name Johnson and the last name Martinez eat the same food and speak the same language. In fact, my Spanish is better than the most of my Hispanic friends. So in what sense is Hispanic helpful?

thabitiWhy does this matter? Well, he gave a few reasons. First, race is ostensibly rooted in biology, while culture is not. But second, race is also rooted in junk science, inspired by evolution, and used to classify and divide people in a way that undermines scripture. This should be self-evident, but allow this point: if a white person marries a Hispanic person, how many generations until the offspring are no longer considered Hispanic (or white)? At some point, the label out lives its usefulness, and reveals that there was actually no real biological basis behind it to begin with.

Besides the absurdity of it, the concept of race is an affront to numerous areas of theology. Anyabwile gave a few: it rejects unity in Adam, unity in Christ, unity in the church, and unity in glory around the throne. There are differences in skin color, eye color, and hair color—yet how comical is it to see those differences as means to classify someone biologically, when you understand that we all came from Adam and Eve anyway. Using race as a category, Anyabwile said, undercuts “our biological and genealogical solidarity with our first parents, Adam and Eve.”

underestimatedUsing race as a category not only undercuts our unity in Adam, but Anyabwile urged us to see that it “leads to the abuse of people and the abuse of Scripture.”  Why? “Because once we accept race as a premise, it’s a short walk to racism.” In fact, Anyabwile said, the concept of race often comes from ethnologists and theologians who were trying to find excuses to justify slavery and forbid intermarriage. If you have an evolutionary framework and you allow racial categories, you almost by necessity need to have a hierarchy of races—which of course is heretical and flatly against the teaching of scripture.

But as a pastor, the most helpful part of his sermon was when he showed how it is profitable to critique culture, but not helpful to critique race. Using the concept of race makes it impossible to show how elements of a culture are flatly against scripture, because in effect you are saying that elements of a persons’ culture are both biological and biblical. That is not a helpful, biblical, or fruitful conversation. Yet when you realize that race is fabricated and unhelpful, Anyabwile said, you can then be freed to look critically at culture. While racial categories are harmful and false, the concepts of culture and ethnicity are “fluid constructs that include language, nationality or citizenship,” as well as “cultural patterns and even religion” that are helpful to view our world through a biblical lens. Those categories allow you to “raise up hip-hop culture, Scottish culture, and grunge in Seattle, for example, and discuss them meaningfully, while lowering the risk of appearing to attack people by divorcing them from race.”

Seeing race as connected to culture causes some churches to try to bring in sinful elements of the culture in an attempt to appeal to people of a certain race, Anyabwile said. But not only does this never work, the truth is, churches are called to have their own culture that is distinct from the culture of the world. If cities are multi-cultural, if the gospel transcends culture, and race is viewed as a helpful category, then a church will always be segmented by race. But if race is jettisoned, then the church is freed to build a transformed culture, rooted in love, where people have more in common with Christ than with others who look like they do in some arbitrarily chosen external way. That kind of unity, Anyabwile said, is not possible in “coffee houses, Rotary clubs, political parties, even pastoral fraternals” but only inside of a church, where people live their lives linked to each other because of their unity in Christ.

church segregation

Finally, Anyabwile pointed out how the concept of race has led to churches that focus on externals (like music, dress, and other superficial things with no connection to either Adam or Jesus), and the result is that churches easily become segregated on Sundays. People want to find a church to worship at with people who look like they do (in the arbitrary ways that race is defined), and the result is they don’t see the ways that they look like others in the image of Christ. When that happens, the divisive nature of race as a category wins, while unity in Christ and the transcendent nature of the gospel is undercut. Anyabwile asked, “Doesn’t Christ’s blood create a deeper unity than our genes?”

The truth is, race as a category has already worn out its welcome. Already in the United States, many families are made of marriages of mixed “race” (however that’s defined), and it won’t be long before that likely becomes the norm—especially among Christians. Meanwhile adoptions cross national (and “racial”) lines. What racial category do you put a child in who has mixed-race parents? What if one of the parents is Hispanic and the other is a white Jamaican barber born in Honduras?

The whole racial system is so obviously absurd that those with discernment should cease using it, apart even from any theological reasons. But Anyabwile offers the theological reasons, and shows that racial categories should be abandoned. The whole racial system is an affront to the image of God, undercuts solidarity with Adam, overlooks union with Christ, and limits the bonds of love in the church. Anybabwile is right, and persuasively argues that Christians should refrain from using those categories in the formulation of our world view.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.