As there has been much discussion over the topic of Racial Reconciliation in recent months, I thought I might do my best to clarify what is and isn’t being said by RR advocates such as myself. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone pressing the case, but I hope to at least clarify some of the terms, phrases, and assumptions being debated. This might constitute a lengthy series, but if it proves to be beneficial to any interested in this discussion, I will indeed continue—hopefully at least two topics per week. Topics will include “race,” “white privilege,” “color-blind,” “institutional racism,” and more. Feedback is welcome.
1. “Race” and the Bible
Many argue that the concept of race is unbiblical and is nowhere to be found in the Scripture. While I understand the intent of this claim, specifically to reject any basis for “scientific racism,” I think there is a complex of concepts in the Scripture which nevertheless capture what well-meaning English speakers mean by “race.” We find throughout the Scripture similar concepts of “kind,” “kindred,” “tribe,” “nation,” etc., attributed to men, and not just as Old Testament categories, as is commonly thought.
The passage most cited to prove the “no such thing as race” claim is Acts 17:26:
And he made from one man every nation (éthnos) of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.
From this it is concluded that there is only one race, the “Human Race,” but I am not sure that this passage excludes anything except the claim that there are races of men who have come into existence independently. The Greek simply reads that God made from “one” (henos)—viz., one man—all the éthnos of men. It further refers to God determined the “boundaries” or “limits” of their times and habitation, which is mustered by evil Kinists to support their own racists claims. Scientific racism is not the only racism.
The key word in this passage, éthnos, has been variously translated as “race,” “people,” “nation,” or often even “Gentile.” The root ethō has to do with common customs and/or culture. Indeed, the most common translation is “nation.” This is clearly the meaning in John 11:48:
If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation (ethnos).
There is a more general sense of the noun in other places, for example, Romans 4:18 where Paul restates the Old Testament promise to Abraham:
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations (ethnōn), as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” (See also Gal. 3:18)
Besides these uses, “Gentile” is the next most common. What we must see here is that éthnos certainly includes nationhood, but is not exactly what moderns understand by the word “nation”; that is, it is not necessarily denoting a state institution, or a republic, or the like, but rather the people sharing in such national life, loosely bound by history, culture, and custom. This should be clear given that Gentiles certainly did not all share one common national institution. (For more, see HERE.)
Much closer to our modern use of “race” is the Greek noun genos. Genos comes from the word ginomai, denoting birth or origin, and thus has to do with solidarity of people groups by common progeneration. As an example, we read of Pharaoh in Stephen’s speech that,
He dealt shrewdly with our race (genos) and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. (Acts 7:19)
This word is commonly used in the New Testament when referring to the Jews or Hebrews as common “race” of people. But we see the same applied to other people groups as well. E.g., Mark 7:26:
Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth (genei). And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Again, Acts 4:36:
Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native (genai) of Cyprus.
That is, Barnabas was Cypriot by genai, though he was a Levite. We also read that Aquila, though a religious Jew, was a “native” (genei) of Pontus, and Apollos a “native” (genei) of Alexandria (Acts 18:2, 24).
And more generally, we read in our Lord’s Parable of the Net, the following:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind (genous).” (Matt. 13:47)
This word genos, with its various cognates, is also translated “kind,” “kindred,” “offspring,” “family,” “stock,” and even “nation,” showing some real semantic overlap with éthnos. There are in the Scripture genos of fish, genos of spirits, genos of tongues, genos of individuals, and genos of people groups. (For more, see HERE.)
Finally, we have the notion of “tribe” (phulé) used throughout the Scripture. Not only are the tribes of Israel denoted by this term, but “all the tribes of the earth” (Matt. 24:30) are denoted by the same in the New Testament. This word comes from the root phýō, that is, “to generate.” It, similar to genos, has to do with an intra-commonality of lineal descent. (For more, see HERE.)
We find this word phulé in this most glorious of eschatological passages:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation (ethnous), from all tribes (phylōn) and peoples (laōn) and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10)
Here we do not see the ultimate elimination of phulé or éthnos; rather, we see every ethnous, phylon, and laōn, all worshipping before the throne as one in Christ. (Laōn makes for another good example, but we must move on.) As we read in the recent PCA Ad Interim Report on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation,
[A]ll humanity has in common the image of God. And yet, what diversity springs from the fountainhead! As Adam and Eve fulfill the creation mandate—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28)—and as that creation mandate is restated to Noah and his sons (Gen. 9:1, 7), the diversity found in the table of nations (Gen. 10) is the result: “their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (10:5, 20, 31). This diversity was not a mistake, mishap, or miscalculation. Rather, diversity was by divine design. Indeed, man did not create diversity, but God did.
Thus, Jesus calls His Church to go and “make disciples of all nations (ethne)” (Matt. 28:19-20) that they might worship together before the Throne. This is true and God ordained diversity in perfect unity, as one “chosen race (genos), a royal priesthood, a holy nation (ethnos), a people (laos) for God’s own possession” in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:9).
But of course, neither éthnos, genos, or phulé are fixed biological categories, though there are certainly common biological underpinnings, for example, common lineage and thereby common phenotypical properties. Christ Himself is said to be the Seed of Abraham, the “root and genos of David” (Rev. 22:16), and was born of Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2, 5), yet He is clearly not the bearer of some biologically fixed Hebrew genetic pool. We see in His genealogy that He was also the offspring (genos) of Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabitess, and Bathsheba a Hittite’s wife.
The Samaritans are also a good example. In 721 B.C., when the Israelites were taken into captivity, the poor were left behind in the Land and were intermingled with Assyrian transplants. But by the time of Christ’s coming, this once intermingling of Hebrew and Syrian people, with their syncretistic YHWY worship, represented a specific people—a specific genos and ethnos. Not only were they seen as a different people by the Jews, they were kept separate and were despised by Israelites; they were an unclean people who “had no dealings with the Jews” (Jn. 4:19). (Which is what makes the story of the Good Samaritan so powerful.)
How had a formerly mixed group of Jews and Assyrians become a relatively stable class or genos of people, the “Samaritans”? Because, as sociologists have come to demonstrate about “race,” éthnos, genos, and phulé are socially constructed categories.
A “social construct” is,
A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.
The fact that, e.g., genos like “race” is a socially constructed reality, rather than a fixed biological reality, leads many to presume that things like genos and race are therefore unreal, “fake,” or even “imaginary.” This, of course, does not follow. Socially constructed realities are just that—real—in as much as they have very definite meanings to human lives, play significant roles in human history, define and regulate human relations, and are as much a part of the furniture of our reality as are rocks and houses. What distinguishes them from other realities is that they are not fixed—they can come into existence and pass away—and are entirely dependent upon the value and meaning in the minds of humans living together in society, with its collective history, norms, and values. The lack of definitive physical basis does not render socially constructed realities unreal. Most would give their lives for their nation, spend countless hours each week laboring for money, and sign legal documents and wear rings on their fingers in marriage—not to mention speak specific socially constructed languages. These are indeed very real, yet socially constructed, realities.
And there is nothing particularly pernicious about the social construction of race as such, any more than there is in the construction of genos, ethnos, or phulé. The insidiousness of the concept comes when a society, consciously or unconsciously, constructs racial distinctions for the very purpose of division, systematic subjugation, and permanent caste systems. And this brings us to our next post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. ‘Race’ and the Racialized Society”.