The Common Good

Attacking Our Mental Programming on Race

I'll tell you up front -- I'm going to talk about race. I know some are tired of hearing about it, and I think that's mainly because we've been hearing about it in the same ways for so long.

There's surely no dearth of conversation about race among Christians. Web sites, blogs, church initiatives, parachurch programs, forums, symposia, conferences, retreats, speeches, books, magazine articles, and everything in between are singing the same song: We have a race problem in the church. And it's not a "problem" in the same way that dwindling attendance or a string of boring sermons is a problem. It's a blight, a stain, and a hindrance to others coming to Christ, and to current disciples growing in their knowledge of and obedience to Christ. So the subject does warrant discussion; we just need to deal with the real problem and stop trying to address only the outward symptoms.

The Bible shows us that people's behavior is a result of what's in their heart and mind. So rather than keep trying to only manage our behavior, we need to first roll up our sleeves and seriously examine what we think and believe about race. For example, what does the fact that we still have church congregations that are predominantly one ethnic group say about what we believe about the kingdom of God, our fellow sojourners, and Jesus Christ himself? These are some possibilities:

  • Our comfort is more important than our witness to the watching world.
  • The outward characteristics of a person are the appropriate determinants of how we should view and interact with them.
  • Ethnic considerations supersede spiritual realities and obligations.
  • Our worship and our relationships with fellow believers are separate and not interrelated.

There's one belief in particular that bears special emphasis. Christians, along with the rest of the world, are stubbornly holding on to the concept of race as a legitimate label by which to categorize people. Race, as we understand and accept it, is a social illusion.

Ken Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis apologetics ministry, explains in his Answers to the 4 Big Questions! booklet that if we take two people from anywhere in the world, the basic genetic differences between them would be around 0.2 percent, even if they come from the same ethnic group. And genetic markers that determine what we call racial characteristics like skin color, eye color, etc., "account for only .012 percent of human biological variation."

In other words, the things we use to determine who we marry, where we go to church, where we live, who we hire, who we vote for, where our kids go to school, what kind of music plays on our Christian radio stations, and practically everything else, stems from a minuscule part of our biological makeup. We are not nearly as different as we insist on believing.

Our behavior as Christians shows emphatically that we believe in the concept of race, and its attendant perceived differences. But scientists, biologists, and a very few Christian sociologists and apologists tell us that it's not race that separates us. "The criteria that people use for race are based entirely on external features that we are programmed to recognize," said Douglas Wallace, a professor of molecular genetics at Emory University, in a 1998 ABC News report.

Years and years of social programming have taught us to respond and give sway to skin color, hair texture, nose width, lip thickness, and other racial characteristics. But the Bible stands in stark contrast to our belief system. Nowhere in the Bible do we find a word that we translate as "race," unless we consider the words translated "humanity" or "humankind." Rather, the Word speaks of nations or people groups. In a clear and stunning statement, it even says in no uncertain terms that we all come from the same ancestry:

From one man He created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries" (Acts 17:26, NLT).

Do we as Christians really believe this? What are the practical implications of this truth? At the very minimum, it means that we are all one race, not multiple races. We need to educate one another with this fact, and teach one another how to live according to it.

So if it's not really race that determines our differences, what is it? Even secular sources acknowledge the answer. "What the facts show is that there are differences among us, but they stem from culture, not race," said Professor Wallace in that ABC report. Differences in language, socialization customs, dress, food, and family dynamics have conditioned us to focus on how we are unlike one another. But these are all temporal distinctions. The kingdom of God is intended to be transcendent, with its own culture of language, socialization, symbols, and family dynamics.

Why haven't we internalized the kingdom culture? We must first commit ourselves to internalizing at a heart and faith level what the Word of God teaches us about our origins and our priorities. Other Christians are our family, our brothers and sisters. That's the truth. In fact, if my blood brother is not a Christian, then the law of the Kingdom says he is less my family than someone who is regenerated into the family of God by the blood of Christ. It is that blood that joins us together in a new society, a new culture.

Let's attack our mental programming and see what lies are lodged there. Let's change our terminology and see each other differently. I'll get the ball rolling: I have an older brother, Chris Rice, who is a member of the Caucasoid people group. He is a gifted student of reconciliation and a prophetic voice of our Dad's to our family on how we should be relating to each other. I encourage you to read his article "The Future is Mestizo." I'm sure once you get to know more about him, you'll love him with our Lord's love as I do.

Your turn.

portrait-chandra-white-cummingsChandra White-Cummings is a columnist for UrbanFaith and director of the Black Life Issues & Action Network, in Dayton, Ohio, a nonprofit program that works to educate, empower, and engage the African American community concerning issues that impact Black women, children, and families. She blogs at Life As We Know It. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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