When Culture Becomes Theology: Interracial Marriage in the American Church
The body of Christ has played an unfortunate role in stigmatizing interracial marriage in the United States. Interracial unions were common in the early days of American settlement when European men intermarried with Native American women and with freed people of African descent. But as America developed a slavery-based economy, many pastors began to preach that slavery was ordained and blessed by God.White supremacy and “racial purity” were justified by stereotyping interracial unions as sexually perverted and sinful—especially for “good” white Christians. Interracial marriages between whites and Native Americans or blacks were eventually banned, slave marriages were not recognized, and Native American marriages were typically viewed as barbaric rituals. Many Christian slave owners justified adultery and exploitation of black and multiracial women by referencing Abraham and Hagar. Race-based slavery corrupted white churches, dividing them into pro-slavery groups (e.g., Southern Baptists) and anti-slavery groups (e.g., Quakers). In the 1850s a pastor from New York named Josiah Priest taught congregations that the very thought of interracial sex was disgusting and sinful. He hypothesized that if the abhorrent idea crossed the mind of a white person, it was followed with an ice-cold chill of the soul, that chill being the voice of God. Apparently many Christian slave owners chose to ignore this chill when sexually abusing their female slaves; the chill must have been unique to the soul of Priest.
Despite interracial marriage becoming legal decades ago, there are still contemporary cases in which American churches continue to believe Christian tradition forbids interracial unions. In 2011 a Kentucky church banned an engaged white-Zimbabwean couple from attending their services despite the fact that the white woman had been a long-term member. Bob Jones University, a Christian college with notable alumni such as evangelist Billy Graham and Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series, had a school policy banning interracial dating up until 2000. In 2013, a pastor in Carter County, Tennessee preached that he believes that “coloreds” and whites should not mix. I myself have been called sexual slurs or “disgusting” for my current and past interracial relationships by Sunday school companions (the same friends who will cry over poor black children in Africa but not shed a tear for the poor black children downtown), and a white friend of mine was once slapped across the face while on the phone with her black boyfriend by her best friend (the daughter of a minister) to force the phone call to end “because (my friend) should have ‘known better’ than to keep speaking to ‘that black guy.’”
These “biblical” condemnations of interracial marriage are simply false and not, well, biblical. Interracial marriage, especially evidenced by the black-white example in the United States, has been an unfortunate case of culture twisting and replacing theology. There are multiple examples of interracial and interethnic marriages in the Bible that were ordained and blessed by God, and Christians who continue to claim that interracial marriage is wrong are blatantly denying that each person is created in the image of God and are equal in value (Gen 1:27, Rom 10:12, Gal 3:28). They are choosing to ignore multiple instances of God-given interracial marriages in the Bible, including those in Jesus’ family tree, in addition to stagnating the spiritual growth of too many American congregations when we are called to be one with people of all backgrounds (Mt 28:19, Mal 2:10, Jn 13:34).
Matthew lists four women with Gentile associations in Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s widow. This is extremely interesting for two reasons: first, Jewish genealogies were a source of pride to many Jews in order to prove their racial purity, and second, genealogies traditionally only listed men. We can only infer that by drawing attention to not only Gentiles in Jesus’ family tree, but women with Gentile associations, that it is important for us to know that Christ was a product of multiple interethnic marriages Himself. Joseph was rewarded by God with his Egyptian wife Asenath (Gen 41), Esther brought forth life-saving ethnic reconciliation through her marriage to Persian king Xerxes, Song of Solomon (the book of the Bible that solely celebrates marital sex) portrays Solomon with his dark-skinned wife, and when Miriam spoke poorly of her brother Moses for marrying an African woman, God poetically struck her skin with leprosy—turning her skin white with rotting flesh, allowing Miriam to physically feel how unclean whiteness could be in addition to being viewed as a social outcast due to her skin (Num 12).
Here are common questions that Christian interracial couples face:
1) What about the children?
Whenever someone asks me this, I think of a quote by Lee Chanult from his book, Mixed Messages:
“What white people are saying with that statement is that they think racial prejudice is awful, especially when it affects children, and they sure are glad their kids are white!”
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of loving Christian parents to teach their children that their identity is primarily that of Christ; every other label is secondary. Parents need to teach their children that regardless of the surrounding culture’s messages, they are beautifully and wonderfully made and created in the image of God (Jer 1:5, Ps 139:14). But ultimately, the Bible teaches that children will endure immense scorn and experience social rejection just for being Christians! Yet, I have never had a person close to me look at me with tears down their face and ask me gravely if I have thought of the ramifications of raising my children in church, because the Bible says that my children will be hated if they follow Christ (Jn 15:18-19, Jn 16:33).
2) Marriage is hard enough without the interracial stress; why not just find someone among your “own people”?
The Bible never promises us easy marriages. Marriage takes work, commitment and sacrificial love, no matter what the racial combination. The only reason an interracial relationship is more difficult is because of the racial sin of society, not because of the sin of the people in the union. No Christian has the right to tell another Christian to mold their personal decisions accordingly because a sinful society does not tolerate their biblical actions. As Christ-followers, we are to endure scorn as Jesus did and support our fellow believers with love and acceptance (2 Tim 3:12).
As far as your “own people” goes, as a Christian “your people” are any and every Christian on earth. Inter-cultural differences may be a hurdle in some instances, but if both partners are willing and following God’s guidance, differences can be celebrated and worked through (1 Cor 12:13). This concern usually comes from a misinterpreted understanding of Deuteronomy 7:1-4, in which God commands the Israelites not to intermarry with the nations around them. This command was to protect the Israelites from idolatry and the pain of unequally yoked marriage–not to prevent races from mixing.
3) What if my family disapproves?
This question is usually asked with Exodus 20:12 in mind. Honoring your parents and obeying them are not synonymous. Honoring your parents means that their opinion is important, but ultimately we are not biblically bound as adults to obey them in all things. Despite this fact, Christians should respond to disapproving family members with unconditional love, patience, and forgiveness. Even though you may not be “obeying” your parents by dating outside your race, you still can “honor” them by respecting them and being kind to them. Jesus himself did not listen to his family while in Capernaum (Mk 3:20-34). Mary was well-intentioned and was a strong believer (Lk 1:28), but Jesus ultimately knew that He needed to respectfully and lovingly disobey her in order to fulfill God’s will for Him in that moment.
In conclusion, I am not saying that in order to be a good Christian you must be part of an interracial relationship, but what I am saying is that that you have the biblical freedom to do so. When entering an interracial relationship, prepare to be tested in ways you could not have predicted. Be sure that you are in the relationship for the right reasons—not to rebel, or to prove a point, etc., and be comforted that in when choosing a mate, there should only be two qualifications: 1.) Does this person love Jesus? and 2.) Does this person love me in a biblical way? (1 Cor 13).
Ultimately, it is impossible for Christians to promote unity in Christ while simultaneously prohibiting fellowship and marriage based on ethnicity. Scripture does prohibit certain types of sexual unions (such as extramarital) but both testaments portray godly interracial unions, some of which were used to heal historical wounds in communities. If ethnic reconciliation is to take place within the American church, then increased interethnic social relationships including marriage are a must. White American Christians cannot afford to suffer from historical amnesia any longer; racism is sin that must be confessed, renounced and repented (Acts 3:19). The Southern Baptist Convention has been an admirable example of this: in 1995 the denomination rejected past racist beliefs and issued an apology to their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Since then they continue celebrate diversity and now have minority leadership. No matter what the culture around us is, Christians are supposed to be not of the world, but living radically for Christ, even if our actions or beliefs are condemned or ignored by others. As long as Christians continue to misinterpret biblical teachings concerning interracial marriages, interethnic reconciliation within the American church will be stunted.
Julie Coates ’15 lives in Quincy House and studies Government and Studio Art. She plans to dedicate her life to creativity and advocacy.
Billy Graham, Bob Jones University, freedom, Josiah Priest, Lee Chanult, love, marriage, race, racism, Tim LaHaye