CC Issue 09 / Theology / Faith

Identity beyond Race






Well, I’m back in school, and somehow, I’ve ended up with three completely separate academic projects that deal with “Race”. Needless to say it has been on my mind, and since I’m not capable of multitasking, it will be on the Checkerboard too.

Race is both a loaded term and one that feels very natural. Many of us can check the box(es) on the census without too much fuss (though interestingly,  the “race/ethnicity” categories on each edition change). So why do some people argue that race doesn’t exist? If they’re right, what are we supposed to do with the lived realities of it? And what could God’s heart be in this? I promise no answers, just a quick exploration if you’re up for it, starting with some history…

In the 1800’s, the term “race” came into fashion as the concept of the “nation” rose in Europe. As political-states consolidated their colonial rights and their national identity, they found classifying people into races pretty useful. Of course, “race” wasn’t a new idea. As far back in written history as you can go, there was “difference” whenever one group encountered another, but now these differences were being used more insidiously. The emerging scientific method was being applied to more than just the stripes and shapes of beetle varieties. Human beings were placed into “sub-species”, based on shape, color, location, and then scientifically “correlated” with intellect, temperament, capacity, etc. Categories like Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid became more than an articulated difference; they became a way of determining relative worth.

Today, genetic scientists and social theorists categorically deny the existence of race. For example, genetically, there is tiny variation between one human and the next, which doesn’t justify classifying us into more specific categories. On the grounds that belief in Race has created incredible trauma and violence, some theorists want to banish the term altogether.

But there’s this “lived reality” to race that you can’t simply remove. Even if somehow we eradicated the word, it wouldn’t revolutionize how we interact with each other.  “Race” is scanning the world and making categories for same-same or different in whatever ways we can. Sometimes that’s done based on the inescapable skin-deep differences, but sometimes lines of difference are drawn because of dialect, beliefs, cultural norms, or slight physical traits like the heights of foreheads. Finding commonality is deeply linked to our desire to know where we come from and who we belong to.

There’s a destabilizing effect, then, to moving “beyond” race, because it removes the constancy of our roots. It questions the very purpose of our appearance and the likeness we have with others. It’s a healthy probing though because without destabilizing a notion like “race” we risk constantly assuming categories on one another.

Which brings me to John 1. A few nights ago, while vaguely thinking about these ideas, I was surprised when I read this part of the Gospels that seriously undermines “race”:

“Yet all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12)

It’s shocking since the legacy of Abraham *is* descent. The Old Testament illustrates how a hereditary legacy can become entangled with a pretty modern notion of race determining what you are worth. Instead of each generation figuring out its identity in relation to God, the history of the Israelites shows many times where they passively assume it or ignore it. Instead of engaging in the language, culture, traditions, and faith they are born into, they become complacent in their inheritance as children of God.

In the Book of Hosea, there is this radical allegory where God wants to demonstrate His relationship at that point with Israel by asking Hosea to name of his first son Lo-Ammi, not my people. In this, and in John, I see God’s deep desire for family and the importance of ancestors and descendants. These relationships are the basis for teaching values and learning important lessons. But He also doesn’t rely on these “blood-lines” to determine holiness.

Through the great mediation of Jesus, we see in John that “natural descent” is made absolutely irrelevant. For me, this doesn’t exactly change our cultural problem with race, but what it shows me is “He got there first”! Once again, while we struggle with fitting together these fragments of identity, we see that He already has a much more transcendent wholeness in mind.

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