A Christian Perspective on Race and Racism
Something that the Christian faith has in common with mainstream Western culture is an opposition to racial prejudice.
In many ways, of course, Christian and majority Western values are completely at odds. On issues like abortion and homosexuality, for example, Christians today have to swim against the tide of popular opinion. And it is surely true that, in general, Christian and Western values are moving further and further apart.
But on racism we side with the majority Western outlook. We reject any form of hatred or discrimination based on people’s ethnicity.
TWO KINDS OF RACISM
It is too simplistic to think of racism as a single thing that always involves the same sort of attitude. We can actually distinguish between two common kinds of racism. First, there is hating someone because of their race. And second, there is looking down on someone as inferior because of their race.
The first kind of racism, hating or despising someone because they belong to a certain race, is obviously an evil thing. God is love (1 John 4:8), and human beings have been created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). So for us to hate each other is to act in opposition to God’s created order.
It should be obvious too that hatred can lead to all sorts of hostile actions that harm the people who are hated. For another reason, then, hating people of a certain race is a bad thing.
The second kind of racism, looking down on people of a certain race as inferior, is also wrong. There is no reason whatever to think that in God’s sight any ethnic group is superior to another.
The New Testament makes it clear that even ethnic Jews, the people God chose in times gone by, are not superior to Gentiles. In the first century, many Jews believed that they were superior human beings to all other people. However, in Romans 2:1-29 Paul sharply criticizes this thinking. Similarly, in Acts 10:34-35 Peter says that God shows no partiality towards people of any nation, and he is certainly including the Jewish people in this.
If even Jews are not granted an ethnic superiority, it makes little sense to think that any Gentile ethnic groups should be granted this.
Just as importantly, there is no biblical passage which teaches that any Gentile races are superior to others. And in the absence of support for this idea, it should be firmly rejected.
THE TWO KINDS OF RACISM DON’T ALWAYS GO TOGETHER
Although many racists are guilty of both sorts of racism, there are many who are guilty of only one of them.
Some of those who hate people of a certain race don’t look down on them as inferior. In fact, sometimes the hatred is actually caused by jealousy that is due to subconsciously viewing people of the hated race as superior.
On the other hand, many of those who look down on people of a certain race as inferior don’t hate them at all. In fact, racists of this kind can often be loving and caring towards those they regard as inferior.
This sort of attitude was common in the time of the British Empire, for example. Many British people in positions of authority in various parts of the world were genuinely concerned for the well-being of the indigenous population. They went out of their way to help them if needed. But there was still often a sense that the “natives” were inferior human beings, and that white people, especially British white people, were superior to the rest.
Watching historical documentaries of the period gives a strong impression that this type of racial prejudice was common at the time, and not just among the British but among most Caucasians too.
Paradoxically, racism that involves looking down on people as inferior doesn’t only occur when one person regards another as inferior. There are occasions when people actually regard themselves as inferior, i.e., are racist towards themselves!
I have a good Ugandan Christian friend who is a leader in a church in Uganda, and he has told me that some people there have this attitude. Because European countries colonized much of Africa, including Uganda, subconsciously some Africans tend to regard white people as superior, and my friend has had to correct this mistaken thinking.
IT IS NOT RACIST TO REFER TO PEOPLE’S ETHNICITY
Having said a little about the types of racism that exist, it is worth saying a few words too about what racism is not.
To begin with, it should be obvious that it is not racist to refer to a person’s ethnic group. Yet people often clearly feel very uncomfortable doing this.
For example, I have witnessed the following sort of situation:
A group of men, comprising several white men and one black man, are doing something. For some (good) reason, someone at a distance wants to refer to the black man. By far the easiest way to single him out is to refer to his race and say something like, “You see the black guy over there?” However, the person chooses instead to refer to what the man is wearing as a way to distinguish him from the other men in the group, even though this is a much more difficult way to point him out.
If you think about it, this is actually quite a strange way to behave. Those who will not mention the fact that a person is black almost make it seem as if they think that being black is something to be ashamed of.
I am sure that the vast majority of those who avoid speaking about ethnicity don’t in fact think in this way. Instead, they are afraid that the people listening might think there is something inappropriate about referring to someone’s racial group.
Regardless of the precise reasons for refusing to mention ethnicity, however, it is a shame that anyone feels there is something wrong with referring to people’s races in non-critical ways. This attitude doesn’t make sense.
IT IS NOT RACIST TO FIND CERTAIN RACES LESS ATTRACTIVE
Second, it is not racist to find people of the opposite sex, who belong to certain races, less attractive than those of other races.
Just as there is nothing wrong, for example, with being more attracted to short people rather than tall people or vice versa, so there is nothing wrong with finding people of a certain ethnicity more or less attractive than others. Racism involves hating people or looking down on them as inferior. It has nothing to do with sexual attraction.
This is an area where Western society is really quite confused about what racism really is. It is clear that modern Westerners tend to be very uncomfortable saying that they find people of one race more attractive than people of another.
For example, if you ever see an interview of a single, Western man who is looking for a woman, and he is asked what sort of woman he is attracted to, the list of features that he gives will almost certainly not include ethnicity. If he were to say that he finds women of a certain race relatively unattractive, he would surely be accused by many of being racist. This, however, would be very unfair.
This brings us to mixed-race marriages.
I can remember a brief conversation I had a few years ago with a Christian who was opposed to mixed-race marriages. He said that God had created distinct races, and that people should therefore aim to preserve the distinctions by not having mixed-race children.
Although there are far fewer Christians holding this view than there used to be, a number still believe this.
In the case of the man I spoke too, it has to be said that there was nothing remotely racist about what he said. In no way did he hate or look down on anyone because of their ethnicity. He was simply concerned that people fall in line with God’s creation.
Nevertheless, I am sure that his view was mistaken. The Bible doesn’t speak against mixed-race marriages per se, and at times it implies that they meet with God’s approval.
The Old Testament
It is true that in the Old Testament we sometimes find Jews being forbidden to marry Gentiles (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Ezra 9:1-10:44). But the big concern with Jews marrying Gentiles in Old Testament times seems to have been a moral rather than an ethnic one. There was a grave danger that these Gentiles would lead Jews to worship false gods (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 1 Kings 11:1-8).
Even in the Old Testament, however, we find examples of Jews in mixed-race marriages that seem to be approved by God.
Numbers 12:1-8 is a relevant passage. In 12:1 we are told:
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
There is a debate about the identity of the Cushite woman in this verse. It is possible that she was from Ethiopia. However, in view of verses like Habakkuk 3:7, which links Midian and Cushan, many scholars think she was from Midian or a region close to Midian. If so, the reference may be to Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah (Exodus 2:21 etc.).
Regardless of whether the Cushite woman was from Midian or from a region near Midian or from Ethiopia, she was not an ethnic Jew. So Moses’ marriage with her was a mixed-race one.
We are told in v. 1 that Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of his marriage to the Cushite woman. The most natural interpretation is that they were critical of him marrying a woman of this race.
In verses 5-8 God rebukes Miriam and Aaron for their attitude to Moses.
It is true that God’s rebuke seems to be at least mostly because they were assuming more importance than they should have, not specifically because they had criticized Moses’ mixed-race marriage.
Nevertheless, we should note that there is not the slightest hint in this passage that Moses’ marriage was displeasing to God. In fact, in v. 7 Moses is described as “faithful in all my house,” which fits very poorly with the idea that he had done anything wrong in marrying the Cushite woman.
Numbers 12:1-8, then, stands as a good piece of biblical evidence that mixed-race marriages are not in themselves displeasing to God.
The book of Ruth is another strong piece of evidence for this. It tells of how the Jew Boaz married Ruth, a woman of Moab, and that their child, Obed, became David’s grandfather.
The book of Ruth views this mixed-race marriage entirely positively.
The New Testament
Given that even in the Old Testament there are examples of mixed-race marriages involving Jews that seem clearly to be acceptable to God, it is no surprise that the New Testament nowhere suggests that people should marry only those in their own racial group.
What is more, 1 Corinthians 7:39 seems to imply that Christians may marry people of any race. In this verse Paul says:
“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
Paul’s words most naturally imply that matters of ethnicity are irrelevant when a widow is contemplating remarriage.
Mixed-race marriages are morally acceptable
In view of biblical passages like the ones I have mentioned, and in the absence of passages that teach otherwise, we should have no hesitation in saying that mixed-race marriages are not morally wrong.
Of course, there might sometimes be specific challenges involved in a mixed-race marriage, just as there might be, for example, in a marriage where the man and woman are of different nationalities or of very different ages. But marrying someone of a different race or having children with someone of a different race are absolutely fine in themselves.
Everyone is mixed race to some degree
It is worth noting too that, strictly speaking, every person alive today is of mixed race.
DNA analysis of ancestry is very popular these days. And results always seem to show that a person has a mixture of ethnic groups in their ancestry. At most, people’s ethnic make-up is mostly from a certain racial group. But, to my knowledge at least, it is never exclusively from one group.
And this, of course, means that, strictly speaking, every marriage today is a mixed-race marriage and every child is a mixed-race child.
RACE IS VERY UNIMPORTANT
When all is said and done, in a Christian perspective ethnicity is a very unimportant thing. What is vastly more important is the state of our relationship with God. Whether or not we are one of His saved children is what counts.
I do think that the Bible teaches that God still has unfinished business with ethnic Israel. If that is correct, in some sense the Jewish race still has great significance in God’s sight. But this is in no way because Jews are superior human beings to the rest of us.
APOLOGETICS AND EVANGELISM
In present-day Western culture, as I have mentioned, most people are opposed to racial prejudice. Christians side fully with this view, and we should make the most of this similarity in our apologetics and evangelism.
In Acts 17 we find Paul stressing similarities between the Christian faith and the views of the people he is evangelizing. He speaks in a way that consciously echoes Stoic philosophy (Acts 17:28) and he quotes a pagan poet approvingly (also Acts 17:28), all for the purpose of “bridge-building” with those he intends to share the gospel with.
Of course, we should never build bridges with people by compromising on our values. There are plenty of differences between Western culture and the Christian faith, and we must always stand firm for what is right. Many people are hostile to our faith because of things they dislike in it or because of what they would have to give up if they were to become a Christian, and we mustn’t water down the truth to get more people on side.
Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense for Western Christians to follow Paul’s example by emphasizing the ways in which we side with Western society.
Mainstream Westerners hate racism. So do we, and we should make sure that everyone knows it. Doing this should in some cases make the Christian faith seem that little bit less distant from people and make the gospel that little bit less of a stumbling block. For some people, it might make the difference between a decision to accept Jesus as Lord and a decision not to.
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