What Did Jesus Say About Ethnocentrism?

The events in Charlottesville [in summer 2017] around a planned white nationalist protest called “Unite the Right” have raised the ugly specter of racism again in a country which has been steadily growing ever more diverse. Given that white evangelical Christians famously voted in droves for the same president that the white nationalists cite as inspiration,[1] one naturally wonders: Should we also allow ourselves to be united to such a cause?

The answer, for Christians who follow Jesus, is a resounding no.

To be quite honest, even as a Christian, I didn’t always realize this. Looking back now, I would say that for much of my life, I had a general impression that the Bible was against slavery or hatred of any kind, but that racism was not specifically called out. It wasn’t until I read John Piper’s Bloodlines as a part of a book study at my church several months ago that I became aware of this thread of messages woven throughout the Bible and specifically, the gospels.

Accordingly, then, much of the credit for this article comes from that book, particularly chapter 7, which I’d highly recommend if you want to dive into this subject in more detail. My focus here is limited to Jesus’s words and deeds as recorded in the gospels, but Piper deals very thoroughly with how the rest of the Bible[2] and Christian theology also condemn racism, answering many of the related questions (like “What about commands against intermarriage?”[3]) that you might have on these topics.

For brevity, I’ll also focus on only one component of racism, called ethnocentrism: the belief that one’s own ethnic culture is superior and/or favored by God. This seems to be the opinion of white nationalists who want the United States to be an “ethnostate,” chanting slogans like “You will not replace us!” But while that’s the most obvious exhibition of these sentiments in recent times, I don’t expect this is an opinion unique to this time, or, in fact, to white Americans.

We’ll start the story at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, when he preaches in his hometown of Nazareth, where Jesus is famously rejected. Growing up in church, I was often given various explanations for this rejection, like, “Wouldn’t it be weird if someone you knew growing up suddenly claimed to be the Messiah? You wouldn’t believe him, would you?” But that’s actually not why they rejected Jesus at all. Read carefully:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16-30, ESV) [4]

To sum up, Jesus first claims to be the Messiah, and they admire him, even while remembering him among them as a child. Then he explains that his message and healing powers are also meant for foreigners, and they fly off the handle. Despite what we might have imagined, their rejection has nothing to do with lack of belief and everything to do with privilege. Their appeal for healing is not to his mercy, but to his heritage. And Jesus explicitly rejects it, risking his own reputation and even his life to proclaim that God is not tribal.

He delivers this message by raising two stories of prophets in the Old Testament showing God repeatedly choosing to lift up and act through the ethnic and political foreigner. Why bring this up in Nazareth? Well, they were probably expecting some kickback, some special status as the ancestral home of the Messiah. But Jesus’s kingdom is not embedded or constrained by the ethnic and geographical landscape of the day, then or now. His message and calling is universal, going out of the way to include those of different races and nations.

It doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to heal a Roman centurion’s servant [5] (Matthew 8:5-13) — keep in mind that the Romans were the mortal enemies of the Jews — and a Syrophoenician’s daughter [6] (Mark 7:26), praising both for their faith. When he wants to illustrate for his audience what loving your neighbor looks like, he picks a Samaritan as his hero (the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37).

What makes Jesus angry? In Mark 11:15-19, he sees merchants ripping off foreigners in the outer court of the temple: “And he was teaching and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’” [8] This outer court wasn’t even meant for the Jews; it was for foreigners. The idea of denying or even slightly inhibiting a foreigner’s access to God is revolting to Jesus.

At his final address to his disciples, Jesus gives them this mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV) [9]. His final words carry forward what had been his mission all along, that the Christian movement would not be confined to or bestow benefits on any one ethnic or political population.

When I first realized how foundational this message was upon reading this chapter, it surprised me. Explicitly baked into Christianity from the beginning is a conviction that ethnic and political barriers are wrong. This is why you see Christians fervently trying to evangelize in the far corners of the earth. It’s why Christians have been on the front lines of ending slavery and of racial reconciliation, why there were clergy counter-protesting [10] in Charlottesville, and why evangelical leaders have nearly universally condemned the rally. [11]

Christians, when it comes to some, or perhaps even most, matters in the public square, there is room for debate about the best way for us to respond to the calling of Christ. But ethnocentrism, most prominently expressed today in white nationalism, is not one such matter. Jesus and the rest of the authority of Scripture are clear: You cannot be ethnocentric and a follower of Christ at the same time.

 

1 As Pew famously reported, exit polls showed 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, while 15% voted for Hillary Clinton. Of course, the vast majority did so for reasons other than ethnocentrism, but those are not my focus.

2 For instance, while the Old Testament is focused on Israel, God’s intent is clear from the Abrahamic covenant onwards that through Israel He would ultimately bless all the nations (see e.g. Genesis 22:18), a promise that Christians understand as coming to fruition in Jesus.

3 As Piper explains in Chapter 15, all such Old Testament commands concern interfaith rather than interracial marriage. Moreover, God expresses his will quite clearly when Miriam complains about Moses’ black wife in Numbers 12, ironically giving her leprosy.

4 Luke 4:16-30, ESV 5 Matthew 8:6-13

6 Mark 7:26. Although Jesus is initially reluctant, citing his calling first to Israel, he does heal her daughter. While there is definitely some debate on this subject, it definitely seems to me like an instance of Jesus testing the woman’s faith rather than expressing a timeless truth about his mission.

7 The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37
8 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 56 here, the greater context of which reads, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (ESV)

9 Matthew 28:19-20, ESV

10 Sojourners, Clergy Came to Charlottesville, Aug. 14, 2017.

11 See Christianity Today: Evangelical Advisers Condemn Charlottesville Rally More Than Trump, Aug. 13, 2017.l

 

Sam is an Applied Math graduate student at MIT studying machine learning theory. He blogs regularly about a variety of topics at thechristianrationalist.com.

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