A Biblical Theology of Race

Just finished a provocative, insightful book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, by Dr. J. Daniel Hays.

I am aware that some of my Christian brothers and sisters believe the Bible doesn’t address race, except maybe to say “all men are created equal” (which the Bible DOESN”T explicitly say). Some Bible readers know that somewhere (Galatians 3:28) the Bible says something about “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Studious Christians have learned that the Bible was (and still is) used to defend slavery, racism, apartheid, and all the rights of the racially privileged, just as faithful Christians have employed the Bible in fighting against those atrocities.

But Dr. Hays aims for something more ambitious than these tidbits of Bible and race. First, I must say (and this, too will offend some of my white brothers and sisters) that Dr. Hays is a white, conservative (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), evangelical professor (Pruet School of Christian Studies dean, and professor of Old Testament) at a southern Christian university (Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia Arkansas). I mention his credentials in hopes that his arguments won’t be dismissed as biased, which is too easily done when the speaker is African American or some bleeding heart liberal atheist/agnostic.

This Dr. Hays makes the case that race issues permeate the Bible. While the Bible may be less than direct on these issues, it provides as much to draw from as it does for the proclamation of Four Spiritual Laws or Five propositional Points. Hays traces the biblical record from Genesis to Revelation and uncovers what just might be the heart of God on race. As a starting point he reveals the hidden racial nuances in those passages that we tend to graze over in the “begats,” the names of peoples, and the tables of nations. But his primary point is that race is not a peripheral issue in the Bible. For Hays, race issues are at the heart of the biblical story, at the heart of the mission of God, at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Over the course of the next few days I hope to share Hays work by way of excerpt. I’ll begin with parts of his introduction and proceed with his chapter summaries (altered by adding in Scripture references from the meat of the chapters). I would love to hear responses to his words.

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Even White Guys!

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

sotomayor-with-pres-and-veep Just to set the record straight, the Creator did not begin with a generic white male and then decide to get really creative and diversify. Even if you conclude that God created a male first (and not simply a human), that male was not a generic white American man.

But the architects of the American experience WERE a bunch of white males (even though the nation was built on the backs of an extremely diverse populace), and, until 1967, ALL of our Supreme Court justices were white males (you knew that, right?).

In 2001, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina, and now a Supreme Court justice, gave a speech to a Hispanic law group in which she explicated and defended the obvious: judges bring their experiences and backgrounds into the courtroom. One line out of the 8 pages (12-pt type, Times Roman) has made the rounds in the blogosphere.

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Once again a single line is taken out of context. One need only read or hear the whole speech to get the truth of it. But to be fair to her critics, this one line is ill-crafted. I don’t believe the judge meant precisely what she said (this was a speech, not a law brief).

Still, the real problem with the statement is that it begins the same place her critics begin: with the presumption that white males have no relevant backgrounds and experiences that they bring into the courtroom. Sotomayor thinks that’s a bad thing; her critics think it’s a good thing.

The issue her critics present is that the judge admits to bringing her background and experiences into the courtroom. I can almost imagine the bathroom meetings “What’s worse is she seems downright proud about bringing her experiences into the courtroom! This is what’s wrong with having a woman or a non-white on the court: they insist on bringing that non-white non-male stuff with them. Why can’t they be generic like all of the tried and true white male judges of yore? Damn the Sixties! Now we have black people, women, and brown people all wanting a piece of the pie.”

Don’t worry, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Richard Land, WSJ and all you other complainers; white men are still allowed to bring their background and experience to the bench too, as they have done virtually exclusively for over 200 years. But somehow we’ve pretended that the white males are devoid of background and experience. And they pretend that they argue purely the law. They delude themselves.

BTW, Justice Sotomayor doesn’t bring only her Latina experience and background. She brings the Sonia Sotomayor experience and background. Still with her confirmation, the court reflects a bit more of the actual diversity of the American people than it ever has. And despite her ascent to the bench, white males with their background and experiences still maintain a massive dominance on the Supreme Court.

We must begin to acknowledge: there is no such thing as a generic justice, a generic American, or a generic person. And whether we acknowledge it or not, our backgrounds and experiences go with us wherever we go, for good or ill.

Time to Grow Up, America!

A fiery preacher’s most provocative turns of phrase are stitched together and aired on YouTube video, as “proof” of anti-American sentiment.

Voters in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, vote on a measure to make English the only language permissible for official business (except in emergency situations).

A Supreme Court nominee admits that she brings her complete life experiences into the courtroom.

A Harvard professor is arrested in his own home after committing no crime

The President of the US prepares a speech to encourage children to work hard in school, and school boards around the country refuse to allow the airing of the speech.

A hip-hop artist interrupts the acceptance speech of a young country artist, claiming that a particular R&B artist should have gotten the award.

Thousands of protesters spew venom and vitriol at town halls around the nation.

At a televised Presidential address to a joint session of Congress, a US Congressman breaches decorum, shouting, “You lie!” at the President.

Along with general controversy, these incidents share another commonality. In each case someone—whether a local citizen or a prominent national figure—has pointed to a racial element.

That we have come a long way in racial America is patently indisputable. That racism and other racial problems persist is equally indisputable.

For some, this is not only where we stand, but where we intend to remain. Surely there are those, especially in the age of Obama who discount any political criticism by crying racism. It’s a handy weapon or shield for supporters of this President.

But President Obama’s detractors are at least as adept in use of the same weapon and shield. Too often any mention of a racial element in a situation is met with the accusation “They just see race around every corner!” It’s an easy way to delegitimize any valid racial elements.

But now is the time to listen.

Now is the time for Obama supporters to grow up and accept legitimate criticism as adults do. Now is the time to listen, argue, agree and move on, without race-deflection. I am confident that this can be done.

The greater challenge rests on those who refuse to see the dangerous racial element in a situation unless it slaps them in the face. But now is the time for them too. With more than 1000 days left when the President of the US will present his face daily as a black man, now is the time for us all to confront the deep racial thoughts and feelings. Now is the time to ask some questions:

What violence has this phenomenon done to my 10, 20, 50, or 70 years of experiencing US Presidents? If it makes no difference on the surface, is it possible that it makes a difference deep down. And does it then affect my racial perception and reactions in my everyday interactions?

Often, for “colorblind” people, race begins to matter if “those other people” are gonna marry one of us, or be given a position that I think I deserved, or are put in a place of power over me, or if their presence does damage to my long-held beliefs.

Now is the time to call those beliefs out of ourselves, if we are to go forward on race and grow up as a nation.

A Way Forward on Race

Reasons that discussions of race often go nowhere:

1. Some people are afraid the conversation will end with somebody being called a racist.

2. Some people believe that the conversations SHOULD end with someone being called a racist.

3. Some people believe that every mention of the racial element in a particular situation MEANS that you’re calling someone a racist.

4. Some people believe that racism should never be called out.

5. Some people believe “Racism only matters if I can see it.”

6. Some people (even those who think racism is real and really ugly) believe that racism only matters if you can prove it.

7. Some people believe that any mention of unprovable racism adds more to the problem than does staying silent about it.

8. Some people believe that race problems will only be solved if “those other people” would

  • a. stop their racist ways
  • b. stop calling racism out
  • c. stop mentioning race
  • d. grow thicker skin
  • e. pretend they are not in the skin they are in

9. Some people believe that other people will turn any possible controversial incident into a racial incident.

10. Some people believe that because of 9 above, they can dismiss any charges of a racial factor in an incident.

The Truth:

We can talk about race without only talking about racism.

We need to talk about racism. That racism talk can be productive at the beginning of the conversation (rarely, when sparked by an incident) or in the middle of the conversation (preferable), but should NEVER be the end of the conversation.

While race issues come with a host of possibilities of misunderstanding and over-reaction, the ability to perceive race problems rests with those who HAVE to deal with race on a daily basis, more than with those who do not.

In order for us to grow beyond our race problems in conversation, we have to be able to talk through stories and feelings even more than through logic, observation, objectivism and proposition.

We will never achieve total healing of race relations in this life, but if we are willing to bravely and humbly enter the conversation we can get substantial healing and we will all be the better for it.