Race and/or the Christian Identity?

So, I’m [insert ethnicity here]. Does God even care? Should I care?

During the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election, it became clear that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be the frontrunners of the Democratic Party’s primary election. Black American voter turnout was expected to be high, as their constituency prepared to flood the polls and make history for their race. Political commentators and analysts knew this primary would present a unique conflict to black women in particular: should they vote for Obama, in light of their race, or should they vote for Hillary, because of their gender? Many women weighed the candidates’ respective political experience, their approval ratings within their parties and across the aisle, and the potential personal gain, but ultimately, Barack Obama won the nomination.[1] One must not remove the agency of black voters by claiming they all used race as their primary heuristic; however, we cannot deny that when there is intersectionality of identity, one must take precedence.

Christians in a postmodern world are constantly faced with culture’s fickle definitions of identity: how it is formed, who decides its significance, and when it can or cannot be imposed. Whether it is a truth we are told to create, or a joy we are pressured to follow, the biblical worldview challenges these ideologies by asserting that the Christian is crucified with Christ. In response, it is no longer they who live, but Christ who lives in them.[2] How then do we navigate other facets of our identity, such as our race? Does it play a role, or is our God simply colorblind? Our racial identities are an immutable, intrinsic, and profound aspect of who we are. Ultimately, our identity is irrevocably connected to things in which God delights, whether that be family structure, language-background, art, forms of leisure, etc. All of these components of our identity are wonderful, but were solely intended to be fingers pointing back to a Good Creator.

In the beginning, God created the earth and the fullness thereof; however, only humankind was created sacredly and intentionally in his image. Despite their sin and consequential separation from God, the first presentation of the Gospel promises a Mediator between a fallen creation and their Creator.[3] The Lord laid this responsibility upon Israel through his unconditional covenant with Abraham and the institution of circumcision; as a result, the Jews’ superintendence rested in his divine choice, not their ethnicity: “I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.”[4] Throughout God’s Old Testament dealings with Israel, he used the Hebrews’ procreation—proof of his divine blessing—to build his nation, all the while preparing the world for the Mediator, Jesus Christ, who would forever reconcile his people back to himself.

In the covenant of the Jewish Law, ethnicity was an identity that the Israelites could not ignore, as this facet of their identity was a physical manifestation of a spiritual relationship with Yahweh. Within the Jewish Law, God manifests his desire for racial reconciliation. Israel was commanded to love, not oppress, the strangers in their midst, as they themselves were once strangers in Egypt. These “strangers” were also permitted to partake in Israelite ordinances by making sacrifices, “for as you [Israel] are, so shall the stranger be before the LORD.”[5] But rather than taking joy in God’s grace and lack of partiality, the Israelites turned to sinful extremes: intermarrying with idol-worshipping neighboring tribes, priding in their xenophobia, and ostracizing the poor, sick, and orphaned.

God’s prohibition of interracial marriage was never to maintain ethnic purity but to preserve spiritual purity.[6] Many of the tribes surrounding Israel were vicious, inexplicably wicked people; they slaughtered the infant and pregnant during war and worshipped gods who demanded the burnt sacrifices of children.[7] But, God’s beautiful plan for a perfect savior born of a broken people took precedence over the race of Israel. Within the line of Jesus are men and women whose race represented little more than hurt, shame, and ostracization. Ruth, the wife of a Israelite man and the first of four women mentioned in the lineage of Christ, was of the tribe of Moab, a people-group founded through incest who practiced the aforementioned atrocities.[8]

In Ruth’s day, followers of God were primarily evidenced by their ethnicity. Hundreds of years later, that reality changed when Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, perfectly fulfilled the Law which human strength alone could not fulfill. With his vicarious death and resurrection, he “crushed the dividing wall of hostility” between the Jews and Gentiles–or non-Israelites–providing the pathway for reconciliation between God and humankind, and those of any race.[9]

Christians are therefore now identified by their oneness, which is this unity in reconciliation, and not by their sameness, which is what is seen: ethnicity, lingua franca, or name. However, as Christians are commanded to be holy—or literally, set apart as God is—they are set apart by what is seen: their love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.[10] And yet, the Gospel of John tells us of the hope we have of eternal racial reconciliation. There will be a day when all tribes, tongues, and nations will be worshipping before the throne of the God who reconciles.[11] So if God not only sees but also values our race, how then do we reconcile this identity with an identity in Christ?

Firstly, it is important to remember that the Christian identity—Christian literally meaning “little Christ”—cannot come with qualifiers. If one is “kind of, sort of” a little Christ, we should ask if they are a little Christ at all. In the same way, we should ask ourselves this question: if a Christian makes their standing before Christ contingent on their ethnicity, do they truly treasure the Lord the way a little Christ should? Or conversely, if their identity in Christ cannot be separated from their race, how can they be worshiping the God of the Bible, who is the God of all tribes, tongues, and nations? As a Christian, regardless of the color of your skin or content of your culture, your citizenship is in heaven. Plainly put, you cannot “sometimes” be a citizen of a place, or put off citizenship when it inconveniences you. Our Christian citizenship always comes first because it is our eternal identity.

When little-Christs live out their eternal identity, they let the world catch a glimpse of what the “big” Christ looks like. From the very beginning, race has only been a vehicle through which the character of God is amplified. By letting our ethnicity be the primary identity which defines us, we actually turn to idolatry  by worshipping the created and not the Creator. We effectively tell God that a color, a culture, and a history are more powerful than he. The opposite is true. The Christian does not share the hope of the Gospel because God needs some more Chinese people, but because that is how incredibly powerful the Gospel is. Nor does he or she love others for the sake of social justice— though social justice is important—but because the love of Christ compels us. They do not strive to vindicate the wrongs against their race for vengeance’s sake—vengeance is the Lord’s, and he is perfectly just—but seek justice as we walk humbly with him.[12]

By making our identity in Christ preeminent, we showcase that Christ is preeminent. God cannot and will not be secondary or qualified by anything else. He alone has the power to redeem the brokenness that comes with every ethnicity, whether that be centuries of draconian colonization and systemic racial oppression, hypocritical discrimination, manipulation of history for personal gain, or, even worse, manipulation of Scripture for vain ambition or condemnation. It is not unity or awareness alone which will alleviate racism—interpersonal and systemic—like the world tells us. Rather, true and eternal racial reconciliation can only be a physical manifestation of a spiritual condition. When we submit our racial identity to Christ, we confound the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, as they will identify what is seen, and glorify our Father in Heaven.[13]

All Christians share a place in the intersectionality of faith and race, but these identities need not be subject to an “either-or” debate. God is the furthest one could be from colorblind, yet he sees race without the prejudice and pain that we do. If we want access to the untainted beauty of diversity, true remedy to racism, and perfect motivation to social justice, we must always be conscious of this reality: the God of every tribe, tongue, and nation sees those who follow him first and foremost as his children—their colors and cultures augment their precious uniqueness and his awesome creativity.

 

1 Randi Kaye, “Gender or race: Black women voters face tough choices in S.C.” CNN, January 22, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/ POLITICS/01/21/blackwomen.voters/.

2 Galatians 2:20 (NKJV)

3 Genesis 3:15 (NKJV); Genesis 12 (NKJV); Genesis 17 (NKJV)

4 Leviticus 20:24 (NIV)

5 Numbers 15:14-15 (NIV)

6 I Kings 11:2 (NKJV)

7 II Kings 3:26-27; 8:12; 15:16 (NKJV)

8 Genesis 19:30-37 (NKJV); Matthew 1:5 (NKJV)

9 Ephesians 2:11-18 (NKJV)

10 Galatians 6:22-23 (NKJV); John 13:34-35 (NKJV)

11 Revelation 7:9-10 (NKJV)

12 Romans 12:17-21 (NKJV); Micah 6:8 (NKJV)

13 Matthew 5:16 (NKJV

 

Abi Bernard is a junior from Grand Rapids, Michigan studying history and government. She is originally from Haiti, dabbles in photography, and could beat you at trivia any day of the week—maybe.

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