The killing of George Floyd, a black American, by a white police officer, has become the lightning rod for protests and demonstrations around the world.
Church leaders in the UK have responded by voicing support for social justice, but seem to have little else to say that is distinctively Christian.
But what is a distinctively Christian view of race? Or, to put it better (since the concept of ‘race’ is itself bound up in colonial-era thinking), what is a distinctively Christian view of ethnic, cultural and national diversity?
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”
God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.
This text is foundational. It ‘offers a radical vision of the common status of all humanity, whether male or female, and from whatever culture, ethnicity or national identity…If all people are created in the image of God, then all have rights and dignity, and any differentiation between people groups must be limited and pragmatic, rather than all-embracing and fundamental.’
These chapters tell how Noah’s offspring spread around the world. The fact that the tribes are identified by their geographical location has been used to justify national and racial segregation, but the fundamental point is that the diversity of human ethnicities stem a single source; that we all share a common ancestry.
Note the phrase in Gen 10:20 and Gen 10:31 – ‘These are the sons of…according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, and by their nations.’ This phrase is returned to at the end of the book of Revelation, in a celebration of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the people of God.
7:7 It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the LORD favored and chose you—for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. 7:8 Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the LORD brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
To be sure, the Israelites (later the Jews) found themselves in a privileged position as God’s chosen people. But this privilege was in no way connected with any superiority on their part, as the above passage shows. Moreover, the biblical text does not shrink from ‘calling out’ their own weaknesses and failures. They brought their own status before God into serious jeopardy (Jer 7:4).
Then again, the prophets continually looked forward to the day when the Lord would be known and worshipped by all nations, to a day when ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isa 11:9).
Notwithstanding the apparent ‘counter-testimony’ of passages such as Nehemiah 13:23-29, the narrative highlights at key points how God is fulfilling this purpose. The story of Ruth and Boaz, for example, highlights the fact that the line of David himself was of mixed ethnicity.
Echoing the point made in the book of Ruth about David’s lineage, Matthew’s Gospel records of a number of ‘outsiders’ in the genealogy of Jesus.
In fact, the Gospels witness to the same tension that was found in the Old Testament: a tension between God’s purposes for his chosen people and those for the entire world. On the one hand, Jesus declared that he was sent ‘only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’ (Mt 10:5f). On the other hand, he heals the servant of a (Gentile) centurion, adding that ‘many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 8:5-13). He applauds the faith of a Syrophoenician woman (Mt 15; Mk 7). To the woman at the well (Jn 4:22) he says that ‘salvation is from the Jews’; but it becomes clear that it is for the world, when she goes home and tells her neighbours about him. After his death and resurrection, Jesus sends his disciples to ‘all nations’ with the gospel (Mt 28:19).
The risen Jesus himself sets the trajectory of the gospel: ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
A key turning comes at Acts 13:1 – ‘Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul.’ Here is ‘a Jew, a black African, a Roman, someone from the court of the compromised leader Herod, and a Pharisee’. And it is in this context that Paul and Barnabas are called to spearhead the next phase of gospel outreach across Europe.
These themes come to their climax in Rev 7, where God’s people have been drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language.’ The very wording is drawn from Gen 10:20 and Gen 10:31, and also from Ex 19:5, where the people of God will be his ‘treasured possession out of every nation’.
And so, finally, we reach Rev 21:24-27, with its dual emphasis on diversity and purity in the new Jerusalem: ‘The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their grandeur into it. Its gates will never be closed during the day (and there will be no night there). They will bring the grandeur and the wealth of the nations into it, but nothing ritually unclean will ever enter into it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or practices falsehood, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’
Ian Paul (on whose article the above is based) concludes:
‘Racial equality is a matter of humanity and justice, and we need to commit to reforms in society to make this a reality. But for Christians, it is much more than that. The ethnic diversity of God’s people, both globally and locally, joined together in a common faith in God, made known to us in Jesus and made real to us by his Spirit, is a central sign of God’s gracious love and costly reconciliation effected by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. It is something that is essential to our identity and practice as the people of God.’