With the conversation of race in America looming large among Christians, considerable debate has arisen about how we ought to engage in activism, whom we should and shouldn’t partner with, and which causes we should support and pursue.
In the midst of that debate, a large swath of Christian leaders have warned us about the dangers of wokeness and Critical Race Theory, urging us to “just preach the gospel.”
To be sure, CRT has become something of an evangelical boogeyman, an excuse for many Christians not to engage in the hard work of racial justice and equity. But I also hold the belief that the bible speaks wisdom and truth into every aspect of life. As such, it has plenty to say about how we should think about issues of systemic racism.
While we don’t often notice it, the bible talks about race a lot. Many of the stories and passages of scripture that we easily call to mind actually have deeply racial overtones. But since we aren’t embedded in the culture of the people to whom the bible was originally written, we often miss it.
References to race relations, feelings of supremacy among the majority culture, and rebukes of unjust power dynamics are baked into many of the stories we tell our children.
While there are numerous instances through scripture where this occurs, I thought it would be helpful to call out a handful of specific times we see it–particularly in passages of scripture that most long-time Christians know well.
Here are 4 specific times where God powerfully subverted racism in the bible.
1. God subverted racism when he sent Jonah to preach in Nineveh.
We all know the story of Jonah. If you grew up in Sunday school, it’s one of the first bible stories you ever learned–partly because it makes for the best coloring sheet material. But if you’ve revisited the Old Testament book of Jonah as an adult, you quickly realized that it’s kind of a bizarre story.
Jonah was a prophet. It was his job to preach repentance toward God, so that people could avoid judgment. But when God sends Jonah to Nineveh to do his job, he runs the other way. It’s only after a 3-day all expenses paid spiritual retreat inside the belly of a fish that Jonah relents and actually goes to Nineveh.
And after Jonah preaches to the people, they repent. The entire city turns from their wicked ways and gives honor to the one true God. As a prophet, you would think that Jonah would be elated. But he wasn’t.
You see, Jonah didn’t run from Nineveh because he was afraid that they wouldn’t listen. He wasn’t worried that he would be persecuted for preaching there. He didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites because he knew that if they repented and turned to God, God would heap grace and blessing on them. And he wanted nothing less than for the foreign Ninevites to get the same gracious treatment from God that Israel did.
In fact, Jonah was so upset about the good fortune of the Ninevites that he said, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).
While God had chosen Israel to fulfill a specific purpose in his plan of redemption, he used Jonah to rebuke the idea of Israelite supremacy.
God loves the people groups that the majority culture doesn’t care about. God loves the people that the majority culture would rather see dead, gone, or marginalized. And he’s willing to have a giant fish hand deliver reluctant prophets to their city gates in order to show them (and us) how much he loves them.While God had chosen Israel to fulfill a specific purpose in his plan of redemption, he used Jonah to rebuke the idea of Israelite supremacy. Click To Tweet
2. God subverted racism when he included Gentile women as important figures in Jesus’ lineage.
When the Messiah came, it was important to the Jewish people that he could prove his kingly lineage. So it’s no surprise that both Matthew and Luke spill a considerable amount of ink on Jesus’ genealogical records.
In biblical genealogical records, the author doesn’t necessarily mention every name. That’s because the point of the genealogy isn’t administrative but theological. And as Matthew writes to a deeply Jewish audience, you would expect for him to highlight only the names of those who had the highest Jewish pedigree.
But that’s not what he does. Among his list of names, he includes four non-Jewish people. And not only were they not Jewish, they were women.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba were all women who came from outside the nation of Israel, and who had been oppressed or marginalized in some way.
- Judah tried to abandon his daughter-in-law Tamar after her husband died, which would essentially condemn her to a life of destitution.
- Rahab was formerly a prostitute, which was likely the result of some form of oppression.
- Ruth was a poor Moabite who would glean crops just to survive.
- Bathsheba, whom Matthew only refers to as “Uriah’s wife,” was taken as one of King David’s wives after David murdered her husband.
Long before modern debates about intersectionality, God saw fit to take marginalized and oppressed women who were born outside of his chosen nation and make them part of the tapestry of Jesus’ messianic lineage. This speaks so loudly to God’s specific desire to dismantle unjust systems of power as part and parcel of ushering in his heavenly kingdom.God saw fit to take marginalized and oppressed women who were born outside of his chosen nation and make them part of the tapestry of Jesus' messianic lineage. Click To Tweet
3. Jesus subverted racism when he made a Samaritan the hero of a parable.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is another well-worn bible story. But we don’t often pause to realize that for Jesus’ Jewish audience, “good Samaritan” was a contradiction in terms. The fact that Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of his parable in contrast to the cowardice of respected Jewish religious leaders helps us understand why the Pharisees wanted so badly to kill him.
As the story goes, a man was traveling from one city to another when he was attacked by a band of robbers. They beat him within an inch of his life and took everything, including the shirt on his back.
As he lay on the ground incapacitated, both a Jewish priest and a Levite passed him by. They were likely both on their way to the temple in Jerusalem to perform official duties, and they would be rendered unclean if they came into contact with this man and he ended up being dead or had died in their presence. If that happened, they wouldn’t be able to perform their temple duties. So they thought it best to avoid the situation.
But then along came a Samaritan. Samaritans were only partly Jewish. Their lineage was mixed with those of the surrounding nations. They had also mixed their religious practices with those people groups through the generations. To the Jewish mind, Samaritans were half-blood heretics. But because the Samaritan wasn’t preoccupied with cleanliness laws, he stopped to help this man, saving his life.
In this story, Jesus is pointing out how their own cultural supremacy was keeping even the most faithful Jews from practicing love, compassion, and mercy. Because they were so fixated on maintaining their culture, they neglected the suffering of others. That’s a prophetic word for us today.The parable of the Good Samaritan is a well-worn bible story. But we don't often pause to realize that for Jesus' Jewish audience, 'good Samaritan' was a contradiction in terms. Click To Tweet
4. Jesus subverted racism when he gave his Church a multiethnic, multiracial mission.
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he commanded his followers to go into all the nations and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). In the Greek, the term Jesus uses is ta ethnas, which literally translates to “the nations” or “all the different people groups.”
But eight years later, that still wasn’t really happening. As the Church continued to grow and expand for the better part of the next decade, it never left the confines of the Jewish people. So Jesus himself intervened to force the issue.
Jesus appeared to the apostle Peter in a vision and showed him a spread of foods that the Jews considered unclean. And he told Peter to eat and enjoy, encouraging him that God had declared it clean. At the same time, Jesus was calling to a Roman man named Cornelius, telling him to seek Peter out.
Once the two men met and Peter preached the message of Jesus to him, Peter witnessed Cornelius and his men receive the Holy Spirit with power. It was at this moment that Peter realized that Jesus was serious about the ta ethnas part of his great commission.
Yet it wasn’t for another ten years (almost two decades after Jesus’ ascension) that the Church leaders met in Jerusalem to codify the inclusion of non-Jewish Christians into the Church community.
The Church has always seemed slow to capture a vision for what Jesus meant when he called for a Church of the nations. But as we wade into the uncomfortable waters of questioning our assumptions about the superiority of majority culture, we tap into a vision for the Christian movement that’s grander than we ever could have imagined.The Church has always seemed slow to capture a vision for what Jesus meant when he called for a Church of the nations. Click To Tweet
All are one in Christ Jesus.
Too often, church leaders are quick to quote Paul’s words in Galatians in order to advocate for a color-blind view on race that denies the existence and ongoing effects of systemic racism.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
But Paul wasn’t saying that these distinctions about who we are as individuals and groups magically disappear when we come to faith, or that we won’t have to grapple with the long standing power imbalances that arise from them.
Quite the opposite.
Distinctions of race, ethnicity, and gender are important. In fact, they’re God ordained. As we see and celebrate our differences, we more fully understand the God in whose image we are created. We just can’t allow structures that privilege one of those groups above others to persist.
If we’re attentive, we see that God consistently challenges assumptions of superiority throughout the course of the biblical narrative. As we seek to be faithful to the new kingdom that Jesus has ushered in, may we be equally consistent about dismantling systems of inequality in our own time.
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you enjoyed this article, these books might be useful resources to you.
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- White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill
- The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
- Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler
- White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us by Daniel Hill