America’s Racial Legacy
There is an undeniable reality of systemic racism that has left a lasting stain upon the history of America.
Most of America’s founding fathers owned and defended the necessity for the ownership of slaves by essentially promoting the ideology that the Indo-European was vastly superior to other people groups, specifically the African. The development of European imperialism and subsequent colonization of African states began the breeding ground for a racist sociology that would dominate the West to the present-day.
Among the various developments that led to the mistreatment of the African people were citations of biblical texts, primarily from the Old Testament, used as justification to defend their perceived racial superiority.
For example, the “curse of Ham myth” perpetuated the idea that in Genesis 9:20-27 Noah pronounces a curse on his son Ham (the father of the Canaanites). From the perspective of European imperialism this meant that Asia identified as Shem, Africa as Ham, and Europe to Japheth. Therefore, as Reggie Williams summarizes,
“The racialization of continents corresponds with this curse-of-Ham narrative in which people of color—typically of African descent—were destined to be subjugated, and the role of Japheth was that of the blessed one to whom Ham’s descendants were subjected.”Reggie Williams
This type of theological reasoning within European imperialism justified the physical enslavement of the African people which perpetuated the sociological assumptions that white Europeans were superior to the black African.
America was founded upon these same sociological assumptions. Yet as the 19th century saw the abolishment of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the United States, it also presupposed that white Americans would similarly adopt an ideology that saw African-Americans as equal citizens with equal rights.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
After the emancipation of slavery, cultural racism in America did not lessen. In what is known as the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, approximately 5,000 black men and women were lynched, largely at the hands of white Christians, often at the approval of white Protestant clergy. James Cone explains,
“The claim that whites had the right to control the black population through lynching and other extralegal forms of mob violence was grounded in the religious belief that America is a white nation called by God to bear witness to the superiority of ‘white over black.’”James Cone
While the “lynching era” ended in the early 1940’s, lynchings did not seize entirely. Brutality against African Americans continued well through the 1960’s. Furthermore, while the Civil Rights era brought dramatic improvements to the rights of African Americans, the racism which existed prior has continued lurking throughout America ever since.
The point of the aforementioned is not to give an exhaustive summary of American racism, but to give a slight glimpse into the ideology which generated American racism in the past and to show how it was largely cultivated from the Bible and defended therein. As American Christians enter into the third decade of the 2000’s, we must begin to take much more seriously the plight of our black brothers and sisters as they continue to experience racial inequalities. As a white middle-class male in my late-30’s I cannot identify with their grievances. As far as I can tell, I have had every advantage to succeed in this country without any interference. I acknowledge that this is largely due to my race.
While I would rather identify primarily as a follower of Jesus, I cannot help but acknowledge how my experiences and cultural conditions have contributed to the way I view the world in addition to the way I read the Bible. Thus, since I am actively committed to the theological and ethical commands of the Bible, it is necessary that I begin to empathize and discern how the concept of reconciliation applies to the continuous racial tensions within our country, regardless of anything I may wish to impose upon the biblical text. But this cannot be done in isolation. Sound textual and cultural exegesis must be worked through in community, specifically with others who bring different experiences to the discussion.
Racism in Ephesus
Racism is not merely an American problem, the early church also wrestled with racism. The Apostle Paul engaged with the racial conflict within the first century church of Ephesus, where two primary groups of people: Jews and Gentiles, considered themselves racially and morally superior to the other.
For Paul this was a gospel issue!
The racial divide in Ephesus did not accurately represent the gospel by which these people were now supposed to be united.
In Ephesians 2:11-21, Paul clarifies exactly what it meant for them to be a Jesus-shaped community. He begins in 2:11 with the particle “therefore” indicating that everything which proceeded this section of his letter provides the base for what is to come. The central feature of the earlier section is 2:8,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”Ephesians 2:8
With v. 8 in mind, Paul is reminding this community in vv. 11-12 that they were “formally…called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision.” The salvation which the church of Ephesus has obtained by faith has no racial or cultural make-up to it. Rather now they belong solely to God in Christ. Identity markers like ‘circumcised’ (Jewish) or ‘uncircumcised’ (Gentile) are merely diverse markers of a united body, not attributes used to determine superiority. For Paul, this understanding of diversity within the community only makes sense in light of the peace of Christ through the cross. He clarifies in vv. 14-16:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”Ephesians 2:14-16
This is not a minor point. These two groups had a deep division, disdain, and hatred for each other that was cultivated within them from their birth. Could you imagine Paul walking into a white Southern church in 1866 insisting that the black folks of the church participate in corporate worship, even celebrating in the Eucharist alongside the white congregants? We only need a minimal view of post-Civil War history to know how impossible this would have been. Paul probably would have been killed for such a suggestion.
Some may argue that this situation between Jew and Gentile was not that extreme. Some might suggest that it was even worse. The outcome needs to be the same either way: reconciliation through the cross.
Notice how Paul describes the character of Jesus and the result of the cross on behalf of these two groups becoming one in vv. 14-18:
- Jesus is our peace (v. 14)
- Jesus destroyed the dividing wall between two opposing groups (v. 14)
- Jesus is creating a new humanity (v. 15)
- Jesus is reconciling and making peace between these two opposing groups (v. 15)
- Jesus is putting to death the hostility of the two opposing groups (v. 16)
- Jesus gives the two opposing groups access to the same Father by the same Spirit (v. 18)
If the church has its immediate attention fixated on the cross of Jesus, the reconciliatory nature of the cross becomes embodied, resulting in the “peace” of Jesus. As Karl Barth stated,
“To say Christ—that is to speak of peace. To speak of peace—that is to speak of Christ!”Karl Barth
To be ‘the church’ means to be a distinct people (or new humanity) reconciled to one another under the banner of unity by the cross of Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). To deny this united effort of Christ for the benefit of his church is to publicly declare to the world that we do not belong to Christ. Whether the church recognizes it or not, the world is looking to see how we respond. It is time for the church to pursue honest action in the area of biblical shalom; justice in restoring unity among various races and ethnicities. This aspect of shalom is the directive from Jesus to pursue justice in all areas of life (Matt. 23:23), and in America this means racial reconciliation.
I know that many white Americans are either ignorant of our racist past (as I was for many years), or refuse to acknowledge its lingering effects. There is a false perception of that by acknowledging these realities is a presumption of guilt. Instead, there is a move away from a pessimistic past toward a more optimistic future. This is often done with smoke screen tactics where the narrative of today is presented as much healthier than the past. This typically results in arguments where I some will boast that the church is already unified, and that acts toward racial reconciliation are over blown.
This rhetoric gets at the heart of the issue for me personally. It is easy for me as a white male in America to ignore the plight and suffering of my black friends. Therefore, when I listen to their complaints of mistreatment I really only have one of two choices to make. I can impose a colonialist ideology upon them that ignores their suffering and require them to adapt to my cultural experiences, or I can shut up and listen and learn. I am opting the latter. Why?
In Ephesians 2:19, Paul states,
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”Ephesians 2:19
Sadly, many African Americans do not feel like “fellow citizens” in most of our churches in America. Rather, there is an overwhelming posture against such a community, instead continuing to identify as “foreigners and strangers.” If a minority culture within the church are verbalizing feelings of inferiority, it is incumbent upon the dominant culture within that church to listen and tend to these grievances, learning to identify as a “fellow citizen.” The objective is not the oppressed to identify with the strong, the burden must always be an identification of the powerful with the oppressed. Instead, as is often the case, the response from many white American Christians is one of defensiveness than attentiveness.
What is missed by those who cannot empathize with those who experience racial oppression is one of theological significance. The cross was the representation of humility, betrayal, and hatred. James Cone suggests that for black Christians experiencing systemic racism and oppression,
“The cross represented the depth of God’s love for suffering humanity, and an answer to the deadly cycle of violence and hatred. ‘The most astounding fact about Christ’s crucifixion is that it…[is] the supreme revelation of God’s love.”James Cone
The dominant white culture in America often theorizes but misses this picture. In turn, white Christians risk abandoning the peace of the cross of Christ by siding with the violence of Pilate. It is of critical importance that the church, consisting of both black and white Christians, build communities of reconciliation and understanding. By removing postures of defensiveness, the church will build a culture bridge of attentiveness. Instead of being the organization which sponsored systemic racism in America, the church becomes a political colony which “put to death its hostility” opting instead for unity where all people, regardless of racial and cultural distinction will “become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22).
This I believe will only begin when white Christians learn to listen attentively with our black sisters and brothers by rejecting the power we have been led to believe we deserve.
 Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance Baylor: University Press, 2014), 46.
 James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 7.
 Karl Barth, Ephesians, 1:295.
 Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 85.