Updated: Sep 24, 2020
This blog post is based on a workshop presented by Esther on campus in August 2020.
Currently around us we have social media campaigns, political arguments, rallies, and news reports all focussed on the issue of race and whose lives matter. When it’s a question that we see on every corner, how is a person meant to process it all and understand how to respond? It can be hard to sift through what is being sensationalised and what is being downplayed. How do we discern what is real and what is a political ploy? How do we know what is true? Thankfully God has given Christian’s His Word in the Bible to show us how we see and understand the world around us and help us to shape our answer to questions like this.
The Bible plots out human history how God has been at work and we can see this through four broad categories: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. So now let us trace the idea of ‘race’ throughout the Bible using this framework. Part 2 will answer the question, “How Should a Christian Respond?”
The Bible starts out with the creation account in Genesis [Genesis 1:26-28]. God creates people and we are told the following things: they are made in God’s image and likeness, they are made both male and female, they are blessed by God and, they are given a role and purpose within the rest of God’s creation. Things we are not told: what they physically looked like, what race they were.
The key things that we are meant to see from the account of humanity’s origin is that: we are God’s creation, made different from other living creatures because we’re in His image therefore our identify, value and worth are found in God Himself. Countless places in the Bible (E.g., Romans 2:11, Deuteronomy 10:17, Acts 10:34) teach that God does not show partiality or favouritism.
We see throughout the Bible that God’s intention for people is to be in perfect relationship with both Himself and each other, God’s intention for humanity is not tied to any particular race, indeed from the beginning nothing about race is mentioned. People are not defined by the colour of their skin, place of birth or any other difference. Identity is found in God Himself, He is the one whose image we are made in, He created us, and designed the role in which we are made for. There is no place for racism or any other prejudice against another in God’s world under His plan.
Genesis 3 shows us that things don’t last long in the way that God initially created them. Sin enters into the world through humanity’s disobedience to God, thinking that we don’t need God and trying to put ourselves in His position, and there are relational consequences to this. Humanity’s relationship with God is disjointed. Their relationship with each other is also damaged, and blame is thrown around as humans experience power struggles and imbalance.
Yet as humanity goes on they still did not learn from these consequences Genesis 11:1-9 recounts the story of Babel in where the people tried once again to make themselves look big and impressive by building a tower all the way up to heaven. And again, God sees this and knows that humanity cannot continue in this way and He will not allow them to succeed in further fracturing his good design. We are shown that God establishes difference amongst people, and that people end up scattered across the whole earth. This is another consequence of our disobedience.
Yet never is it mentioned that the value of human life changes because of this brokenness or of these differences. Never is one race elevated as “more godly” than the others. All humans share the same starting point, and still share the same dignity that they were created in God’s image with a role in His creation. Yet human sinfulness perverts how we value one another and how we see ourselves.
The Bible shows plenty of examples of humanity’s broken relationships leading to racial prejudice developing. Even God’s chosen people the Israelites seem to forget many times that the purpose of them being set apart from the other nations was not because they were better than the rest or God’s favourite, but rather because from them all other nations would see and know God. This forgetfulness of their true purpose and sinful selfishness meant they systematically built into their national identity a segregation from others that should not have been there.
In Acts 10 we see that even Peter, one of Jesus 12 disciples, still had a somewhat warped understanding of how God viewed those outside of His own nation. God gently but directly challenged Peter’s own disillusionments with race, by showing that the laws of segregation they had built up were not actually part of God’s intent.
Sin leads to oppression based on race, fear of people different from one’s self, refusal of compassion and systematic exclusion based on race- along with the horrific actions these attitudes lead to. When sin entered the world humanity stopped finding their identity in God, people stopped seeing others as valuable because they were made in God’s image and likeness. The selfish desire to replace God has permeated its way throughout all of history and is still present now. It is what has enabled the Bible to be used wrongly to justify all kinds of evil. I am grieved when I think of countless examples of how the Bible has been wrongly used to condone violence against racial minorities. Racism, racial bias and elitism of today are all results of the same sin that crept in way back at the start of time. Now all people are living under the effects of sin, with a shaky identity from a distorted view of self.
The Bible shows how God continues to work throughout time to redeem what was broken through sin by dealing with sin. We have already seen that God chose one nation to work his plan through. And yet the purpose of that race being picked by God to be specially His is from the start not because God has a preference for one people group over another, it is so that ALL the people of earth can be blessed by them. In choosing one people group to enact His plan to deal with sin, God is able to bring redemption to all people everywhere.
God’s choosing of His people is not because of anything they are or have done, but utterly because of who God is (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God teaches this chosen people group how to live and how to treat the people in other nations. They are told not to intermarry with those from nations outside of the faith, not because the people of these other nations were lesser in any way, but in order to preserve that distinction from those around them that would enable them to point the rest of the world to God, and to prevent them from turning to follow the false gods of other nations (Deut 7:4). They are instructed in their interactions with foreigners, to not mistreat or oppress them but rather to treat them as their own people (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33-34).
Even the temple, the place where God’s presence dwelt among His people, had space for people of the other nations to come before God (1 Kings 8:41-43). Isaiah 56:3-8 shows that the nations of the world are included in God’s plan from the beginning, and He has always made provision for how they are to participate in the life of His people, in relationship with Him like Israel.
And so, we can read on in the Bible how God’s plan unfolded and sin’s hold is destroyed. God’s Son, Jesus stepped in to take the punishment and full consequence of sin in place of every person throughout all time. Sin’s punishment is death, and so Jesus was able to take each person’s place and die to pay the penalty of our disobedience. The Bible shows that 3 days after death He was raised to life again conquering death too. Through that price being paid the way for a restored relationship between people and God was opened up. So when someone accepts this gift that God has offered in Jesus of forgiveness and redemption, their identity is no longer found in whatever they make it of their own, but in who Jesus is.
This redemption that is found in Jesus affects every part of our lives and the Bible shows that Christians, those that have accepted Jesus as the one who saved them from their sin, have a renewed identity in Christ — our value once again can be recognised as not coming from racial background, cultural identity, or anything else, but in the fact that we are made and loved by God. So we are restored in our relationship with God, and Jesus’ redemption means there is also a restoration of people’s relationships with one another.
We see this affirmed in the Bible in Galatians 3:26-29:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Paul, the writer of Galatians is writing to new Christians who were struggling to accept that following Jesus didn’t mean that everyone now had to become a Jew, but rather God’s chosen nation had fulfilled their purpose to bring forgiveness and salvation to all nations. Paul shows them that because they are now all in Jesus what matters isn’t their differences or distinctions because they are all the same in Jesus. Their identity and value is tied up in who Jesus is, the other things don’t matter.
This doesn’t mean that these differences of distinctions are gone, but simply they are not what we should be defining ourselves by. The Bible acknowledges that humanity will remain diverse, and in doing so it indicates that these differences amongst people are not something that we should ignore, but instead point to the goodness of God who loves all people. Revelation 7:9-10 gives a picture of what it is like in heaven, face to face with God, and the unity in diversity that will be a joy to us then.
The Bible shows us the end of the story — sin and all its effects are defeated. The Bible shows us that the concerns we have now regarding oppression and injustice are already defeated, God is victorious, we are simply waiting on history playing out until God’s kingdom is fully established. The Bible shows that we are on an unstoppable trajectory towards justice and true unity in God’s kingdom.
So what does the Bible say about race? It says that from the start all people were included in God’s redemptive work and plan, that God does not see one race as better than another, but all are equal in value, worth and dignity because He has created them. It says that sin has corrupted what was made good. Sin entering the world has caused imbalances in relationships, power struggles and divisions, fear and pride, all of which lead to racial prejudice, oppression and discord amongst those that are different from each other. We are also shown however that because of God’s redemptive work through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are on a trajectory of restoration. Sin is defeated and one day all people will come under God’s rule and reign again. The restoration of people’s identity will take place, no longer will one’s identity be defined by what they make it, be that race or any other area, but rather identity will be defined by who God is and who He has created people to be. The Bible says that race is not what matters, who we are in Christ is what matters.