26 Jul 2020
What does the Bible say about Race?
Passage Acts 17
Speaker Chris Haley
A Baptist pastor once said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
That Baptist pastor was Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and he was talking about racial injustice in America in the 1960s. I am conscious as we come to this topic of Race this morning that whilst being a Baptist and a pastor, I am not Martin Luther King. I have no experience of racism against myself, though I have seen it against others. I have not struggled to overcome obstacles like some people have had to in their lives, I’m aware I am in that less oppressed category of white male. But my goal this morning is not to share my opinion on the matter, but what the Bible says about this topic
I want us to look at it in three parts. Firstly what the Bible says about races in general. Secondly what the Bible says about slavery and civil rights- linked with much of the discussion going on at the moment. Then finally what the Bible has to say about Colonialism and Culture again very much at the fore of what is being discussed at the moment in the UK and beyond
Family and Foundations
The Bible asserts that there is only one race- the human race. Whatever you think about how historical the Genesis account it, it presents us with a human race that is one big family. What I mean is this: there are not separate accounts of different races being created. We were not made on different days or in different ways. It was not that Africans were made one way and Europeans another. It was not that Asians have one origin and Aborigines another. The passage we had read to us said this “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth,” (Acts 17:26 ESV) One origin, all of us are presented as one big family. A very dysfunctional family! But one family nonetheless!
And this is a more radical idea than you think. The scientific community was once split on human origins. Most agreed in one origin for the whole human race, but a significant fringe argued for various origins. Famous atheists like Voltaire and David Hume believed that Africans and Europeans were not the same species. Voltaire believed Africans were less evolved and needed time to evolve before they could be treated as equals! Similar ideas influenced ideologies such as fascism which taught that some ‘races’ were superior or more evolved than others. Instead of emphasising the unity of the human race, they set the different parts of the family at war
If all racial diversity came from one origin though it means we need to rethink characters such as Adam and Eve, Noah and his family, it won’t do to present them as white. Again whether you think of them as literal or not they are presented as the fountainheads of the whole race. It’s not that white was the original and other colours are somehow a deviation from this. Equally black was not the original, meaning that white people are somehow further evolved. All of us are one family where everyone is on an equal footing before God. All of us are presented as being in the image of God, with inherent dignity and value.
That’s why I’m happy to say that ‘all lives matter’ and that ‘black lives matter’, and I can see why we need to be able to say both. The creed we said early not only had statements that all genuine Christians could affirm, it also had statements that non-genuine ones couldn’t- and those phrases were put in specifically to show them up. I’ve never met a person who couldn’t say ‘all lives matter’, but there are places, especially in the US where this all started where if you pushed people you would find they believe black lives don’t matter in the same way that white lives do. They would not publicly affirm ‘black lives matter’. So that is the phrase that matters. For the record the movement itself has some strange ideas, they’ve been widely reported in the media. But the phase ‘black lives matter’ is important and it is not saying that they matter to the exclusion of white lives.
In fact the Bible never makes one group or one part of the human race as superior. Israel is singled out as a nation, but God is clear that they are not superior to the nations around them. There’s no master race in the Bible, the Bible is at pains to show we are all alike under sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 6:23 ESV). We all share the same problem, sin, our internal and external rebellion against God, and we all need the same solution- Jesus. The fact we all need Jesus unites us. That’s why the apostle Paul can write in Colossians. “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11 ESV)
And that’s what we see played out in the NT, people of all colours coming to Jesus. On the day of Pentecost there are people from all over the world who turn to Jesus. Acts says “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2 9-11a ESV) were there. The church was, and still is, one of the few places on Earth you can see people groups and nationalities who would normally hate each other, loving one another and caring for one another.
Then of course there’s the fact that Jesus and the Disciples weren’t white. I’m not claiming they were black, but they were Jewish, they would have looked middle-eastern. Some of the earliest disciples were almost certainly black. “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” (Acts 13:1 ESV) Niger is the Latin word for black or dark, so that was probably what he was. Here we see him in a teaching position in one of the early churches. There’s also the man from Ethiopia that God sends Philip to go meet in Acts 7. The early disciples were a racially diverse bunch
That’s not to say that people haven’t tried to use the Bible to justify racism, in the same way people have tried to use science to justify racism. It seems that we’re very good at trying to justify our behaviour with whatever is popular at the time. At the time the height of the slave trade it was popular to refer to the ‘Curse of Ham’. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons. He was cursed by Noah, so the theory goes, thereby condemning all his descendants, Africans, to slavery. Except if you actually read the story it’s not Ham that’s cursed, but his son Canaan. Canaan his only son who doesn’t settle in Africa! This is what it actually says in Genesis: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” (Gen 9:25 ESV) And that makes far more sense in the story line of the Bible, given that Canaan would become the nation so abominable that God would send the Israelites to subdue it! It’s not the curse of Ham, it’s the curse of Canaan. It’s no justification for slavery. It’s predicting something that happened three and half thousand years ago.
But this does raise the slavery issue and if we’re going to talk about race, we need to talk about our history with this.
Slavery and Civil Rights
The Bible assumes, but undermines slavery. There are rules governing the treatment of slaves in the law of Moses in Old Testament and in the letters in the New Testament.
Firstly I want to say though…
It assumes slavery, but not the slave trade
The slave trade was in place from the 16th to the 19th century. It consisted of kidnapping black people from Africa, or buying them from others who had kidnapped them, transporting them in squalid conditions to America, and then selling them, mainly to plantation owners to work the fields there. Far from encouraging the slave trade though the Bible actually has laws in it that would have forbidden that practice. And breaking that law was punishable by the death penalty. “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:16 ESV)
I have no doubt that Christians were involved in the slave trade, buying slaves for their plantations, but if they did so it is on their own heads, they can’t blame the Bible, the Bible is clear that the slave trade was unacceptable!
It assumes slavery, but very different from the world around it
Slavery in all forms is awful, but some are worse than others. If you were an Israelite there was only one way you could become a slave: debt. Whilst the Bible commands believers to give open-handedly it foresees situations where people will not have enough money to feed their families. The solution, the world over, was to sell yourself or your family into slavery. You’d lose your freedom, but you’d hopefully gain a roof over your head and some food.
But this was a very different slavery from what you might imagine. The law required you be treated the same as hired workers. After six years you would be freed, unless you chose to stay with your master. Once every 50 years there was the year of Jubilee and regardless of how long you had worked for your master, you would be freed. When they were released their master was required to give them things to start a new life. The whole context of the law was that they had just escaped slavery in Egypt themselves. You could be born into slavery, but presumably the six year rule applied. So you wouldn’t be a slave for very long!
If you were a non-Israelite you could also become as slave if you were conquered. For conquered peoples it seems to be mercy. The other option was death. Indeed, Israel only continues to exist because this is policy of most nations. When Assyria and Babylon attack Israel they carry them off as slaves rather than destroying them outright. There were no prisoner of war camps in those days, it was slavery or death, but even then there were protections: Permanently injured slaves had to be set free (Exodus 21:26-27). Slaves who ran away from oppressive masters were not to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). The law also gave slaves a day of rest every week, the same as everyone else (Exodus 20:10, Deuteronomy 5:14).
It assumes slavery because it has existed in nearly every age in nearly every place
The New Testament letters are written to people who aren’t in high positions. It is written to real people with real help on how to live out the Gospel. Many of the early Christians were from economically poor positions, many were domestic slaves facing real issues about how to live as a Christian as a slave. It would be all well and good if these letters were addressed to the Roman Emperor commanding him to abolish slavery, but Christians were not in positions of influence at this point. They would be in a few generations time, and it’s not coincidence that the western world once dominated by slavery sees it essentially abolished across the Roman world in only a few centuries. Europeans no longer enslaved each other and slave labour all but ceased across Europe with the influence of the Gospel, and by God’s grace it’s never returned even though it was such a crucial part of Greek and Roman culture. Where people were in a position of influence however the NT sought to undermine slavery.
It undermines slavery by turning slaves into siblings
There’s a book called Philemon in the New Testament, only a page long. It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon, a slave owner, sent to him along with his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul writes this to his owner: “For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would me.” (Philemon 1:15-17 CSB) Paul doesn’t want him to take Onesimus back as a slave, but as a brother. No longer a slave, a beloved brother. And with one short letter Paul undermines a whole institution, and as we’ve seen it turned the Roman world on its head.
It undermines slavery and it was Bible-believing Christians who first got their head round it
This is an area where as British Evangelical Christians we can hold our heads high! It was evangelicals in the UK along with some other Christian groups who led the campaign for the end of slavery and the slave trade in the 1800s . William Wilberforce is famous the world over for his role in ending the slave trade. He was MP for Hull and at points MP for a constituency called ‘Yorkshire’. And he was part of a group known as the Clapham sect who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and other causes like prison reform and debt relief. He was a friend of John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace, and they campaigned vigorously for an end to slavery, an opinion that was incredibly unpopular at the time! Especially among the rich and powerful who were making money off the back of the trade in slaves. Indeed those statues we’ve seen torn down recently were some of those people! Rich, influential and powerful!
William Wilberforce worked for 16 years to get his bill passed in parliament abolishing the slave trade, overcoming some powerful opposition. He then pushed for freedom for all slaves, but would not live to see it. The bill was passed for slavery to be abolished in the British Empire one month after Wilberforce died in 1833. We, as evangelicals, fought this, we changed public opinion and we won. O for more men and women like William Wilberforce with a heart for the downtrodden and oppressed! So far from the Bible encouraging slavery, the Bible undermines slavery. And it’s because of the Bible and men and women like William Wilberforce, that it is no longer with us as it once was.
The last matter I want to look at to finish this tour through the Bible and history is colonialism.
Culture and Colonialism
There is a stream of thought that the Bible encourages colonial imperialism. Where one culture sees itself as superior to the others and so seeks to impose that culture on other cultures. It’s not exactly race, but it is linked with the issues that surround it. In many people’s minds this is bound up with the missionary movement. Christians going to other countries and telling them about Jesus. Missionaries exporting British Culture as well as, or instead of, the good news about Jesus. Without straying too much into politics I want to say that I think it’s true that western nations did engage in colonial imperialism, but again it’s not due to the Bible.
If the Bible preached colonialism imperialism then surely we’d be wearing sandals, wearing clothes from the first century and speaking Greek and Hebrew. The amazing thing about the Bible’s message is that it’s trans-cultural. It doesn’t impose a culture, it transforms a culture, but not in a way that destroys it. Let me put it this way, many other religions tend to be monocultural. Many forms of Islam for example will expect you to learn 7th century Arabic, dress according standards of modesty in 7th century Arabia and follow practices from that place and time. Those forms of Islam doesn’t adapt to the culture, they expect you to adopt their culture.
It’s hard to pick one passage from the Bible to show this- as the whole point is diversity. But if you consider how that passage we had read to us before compares to this when Paul is talking to another group: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.” (Acts 13:16-17 ESV) The sermon carries on, but can you already see how the different context has changed the style
There are different practices among early believers too. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5-6 ESV) Some were doing one thing, others were doing something else, Paul says, love one another. They didn’t have to abandon their culture to come to Christ. Some things would have to change, but the message of the Gospel transcended their culture. I think it’s wonderful that across the world churches look and sound different. That a church in India sings different songs to a church in Ipswich. That at a church in Kenya they dress differently from a church in Kensington
Pioneers of this were people like Hudson Taylor, another great Yorkshire Christian from Barnsley. He went to China as a missionary in 1853, but instead of trying to teach them English, he learnt various dialects of Chinese. Instead of trying to teach them how to dress, he dressed like them. Instead of imposing a culture on them he tried to show them Jesus was for all cultures! There were some parts he couldn’t go along with, but as a whole he worked within Chinese culture.
And we need to make sure we don’t forget that as Christians. We should be careful not to let ourselves get to distant from the culture around us, and we shouldn’t expect people who come in to conform to our Christian subculture. Instead when people come in from other backgrounds we need to model how Christ is transcultural. We shouldn’t expect them to ditch their culture and become like ‘us’. We shouldn’t be guilty of guilty of Christian colonialism at a local level
So the Bible is against racism in all forms, the Bible only recognises one race, the human race. The Bible undermines slavery, and it’s because of people who took the Bible’s message seriously that we no longer have the slave trade. The Bible is for all cultures. The Bible has been translated into more languages than any other book. Is present in more cultures than any other book. Jesus is for all cultures. He transcends culture.
Now I may not be Martin Luther King, but I do have a dream. A dream that understanding our identity as one big family would help us treat one another the same. A dream that we as a church would care about these things as William Wilberforce did. A dream that we as a church would see ourselves as missionaries like Hudson Taylor living in and amongst people not like ourselves so that we might witness to Jesus. Near the end of that speech, Martin Luther says “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Let’s pray that that would be true.