The Myth of Race

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This article was published in The Banner, March 2003, pp. 38-40.

Christians are not immune from racism. For example, [on the day of] his ordination ceremony, a Black pastor of a white Toronto congregation was mistaken for the janitor! A visiting elder assumed that the only black man in a white church must be the janitor. This is a subtle and even unconscious form of racism.

Even the most intelligent people fall prey to racism. The noted theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper believed that “the highest form of religion, i.e., Calvinist Christianity, and the highest kind of human being on the creaturely scale, i.e., the white race [and not the blacks] belonged naturally together” (Infected Christianity, p. 93). Kuyper actually called the “life of the colored races [in] Africa [as] a far lower form of existence” (Calvinism: Six Stone Lectures, New York: Revell, 1899, p. 34).

Racism is a sin that needs to be rooted out of the church. But so far there has been very little theological analysis of racism. Most Christians rely on sociological and psychological studies. Though helpful, such studies do not sufficiently address racism as a spiritual sin. If racism is a sin, what exactly is the source of this sin? Why does it have such a strong grip on people? Is the cure simply a matter of ‘sensitivity training’? Are affirmative-action policies adequate? Or, to ask a question directly affecting us Reformed Christians, how did Abraham Kuyper’s philosophy contribute to South Africa’s apartheid?

I suggest that racism’s roots are twofold: (1) the myth of race and its structural embodiment, and (2) the three idolatries of distorted identities, duality and security. Given those roots, I’d like to propose some ways the church can resist racism.

The Myth of Race

Race is a term used to describe people who share biologically transmitted traits that are defined as socially significant (God’s Diverse and Unified Family, p.9). It may surprise you to know that race is a myth. Race is a myth as in a lie, a fiction, but it is also myth as in a story that explains something in the world, an ideology.

Although race is commonly believed to be a scientific fact, there is actually no scientific evidence to support the categorization of humanity into biological races. Scientists have calculated that the average genetic difference between two randomly chosen individuals is 0.2 percent of all the genes (quoted in No Partiality, p. 121). But the physical traits we use to distinguish one race from another, like skin color, eye color, and nose width, are determined by about 0.01 percent of our genes and they adapt rapidly to various environmental factors. Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation in Rockville, Maryland, concluded that there is only one race – the human race (quoted in Check All That Apply, p.167-168).

The physical racial traits only have social significance because we give them significance. We have been accustomed to think that these physical differences amount to some moral and social difference – such as intelligence, goodness, beauty, or honesty. How did this myth become a public, common-sense ‘truth’?

Before the 17th century, ethnicity, rather than race, was the term used to describe different groups of people. An ethnic group is a group of people who share a common history, geography, language, religious tradition and way of life that are transmitted from generation to generation (No Partiality, p.162). Ethnicity comes from the Greek word, ethnos, translated as nations in the Bible (Acts 17:26). Ethnicity, therefore, is a cultural phenomenon and not a biological one like race.

It is possible for people to change their ethnicity. A Dutch family whose ancient ancestors originated from Germany would identify itself as ethnically Dutch, not German. But the concept of race does not allow for such change. Anyone born of white and black parents is still regarded as racially black. Your race is biologically fixed, and so are the divisions between the races.

With race and its biologically fixed differences, it is easy for Christians to start thinking that God ordained these differences in creation. And thus we conclude that God also ordained the social and moral differences that we link to these physical traits. Therefore, the fixed, biological basis of race lends itself to prejudice and racism in a way that ethnicity does not.

Today we tend to merge together race and ethnicity. Of course, ethnocentrism – the tendency to assume that one’s own ethnic values are everyone’s or to believe that they should be – is also a social evil. But ethnocentrism is not based on skin color or physical traits.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European scientists and anthropologists began to classify human beings according to races. In classifying, they were also creating a hierarchy among humanity – with the white European on top. The increase in European imperialism partly motivated this drive for finding a scientific justification for European superiority. It was in the 19th century, however, with the rise of Darwinian evolutionism and Romantic philosophy’s emphasis on the volk (the people or nation), that the concept of race became a full-blown ideology or mythology. And this ideology still has our culture in its grip, as evidenced by the public acceptance of race as fact.

Structural Racism

Why does this ideology have such a strong grip on us? Because it is not merely an individual’s belief or behavior passed on to families and friends. It is structural, affecting whole societies. In structural racism, a racist ideology is embodied in the policies, practices and norms of social institutions and organizations. And the racist mythology embodied in the educational, political, legal, economic, cultural and religious institutions shapes a whole community of people. Racism is not taught; rather, we are caught in the myth of race.

What is this racist mythology? It is influenced by 19th-century Romanticism, which believed that each nation or people (volk) have a distinctive “folk-spirit” and that it is the divine duty of each people to develop their civilization and culture in accordance to that spirit. The German thinker Johann-Gottlieb Fichte, especially, taught this. When merged with the concept of race, this idea gave rise to racism. Each race has its own unique ‘folk-spirit’ and thus, along with their biological differences, the races have inherent spiritual and moral differences. It is only a small step to then think that some races are spiritually and morally superior because of their “folk-spirit.”

Structural racism, therefore, embodies this belief that humanity is divided into biologically fixed races that also spiritually and/or morally differ from each other. South Africa’s apartheid, of course, was an extreme example of structural racism. But we see structural racism in North America too. Why, for instance, do we often fill out forms that ask us to identify our race? Why has that become important in identifying ourselves? Why are our authoritative leaders in any field still predominantly white (and male)? Why do the media identify black criminals and Asian criminals while calling a criminal who is white as simply “a criminal”? For that matter, why do we call all-black churches “black churches” and all-Korean churches “Korean churches” but all-white churches simply “churches”? Why are predominantly black or Asian or Hispanic neighborhoods often called ghettos or ethnic enclaves while all-white neighborhoods are not? Why is a group of black kids or Asian kids a “gang” while a group of white kids is just “hanging out”? We live in a socio-cultural world of race in which “white” is normative. We are held captive by structural racism.

The Idols of Racism

Some Christian scholars identify racism as idolatry. I believe there are three idols working closely together in the sin of racism.

1. The idol of race: distorted identity. Race has become a primary means of finding our identities. I am white. I am black. I am Asian. It helps us answer the question, Who am I? Ethnicity serves the same function. There’s nothing wrong with that except when it takes over our true source of identity. Our ultimate identity is in Christ; we are God’s children, made in God’s image. When race takes over that central identity, it becomes an idol. Our racial differences become more important than our Christian unity.

2. The idol of dualism: distorted duality. The biblical duality, or antithesis, is the conflict between good and evil. But often we identify good and evil with opposing categories. For instance, good = rational, male, white, Christian, and church; while evil = irrational, female, Arab, non-Christian, and society. The biblical duality, however, draws the line through every individual category. There are good and evil men and women. There are good and evil whites and Arabs. Both good and evil are within us, within the church, within society, and within rationality.

When we start seeing the world through the glasses of dualism, we unconsciously divide humanity into two camps: us and them. Since we will always identify ourselves as good, those who differ from us, those who are not part of our community, we cast as evil or (spiritually) inferior. This superiority complex reinforces our worship of race. It makes us feel good about ourselves, but it also reinforces either a fear of the other races or a patronizing pity of them.

3. The idol of power: distorted security. Let’s face it, we like to be in control. We hate being vulnerable. Being vulnerable makes us insecure; we are at risk. So we exercise power, authority and control to provide ourselves with a sense of security. Our culture, therefore, loves science and technology because they help us control nature, giving us a sense of mastery and security. We exercise power in our relationships too. We hate being vulnerable to others. But security that comes from power is a false security because power as an idol will ultimately turn against us. Too much control of nature has led us to an environmental crisis. Too much control in a relationship will destroy it.

Therefore, once we identify ourselves primarily by our race, and once we start to fear another race, then we will try to regain a sense of safety by using power to attack the other race, by “putting them in their place”. For instance, racial stereotypes provide an intellectual and emotional way of gaining control over someone from another race whose difference threatens us. Or, on the other extreme, we pity other races as less capable, needing our help, and we patronize them in ways that really only maintain our superiority. The Afrikaner’s apartheid system exemplifies this.

Our true security and assurance, however, do not come from exercising power to attack or patronize others, but from surrendering ourselves to God’s love. By trusting God, by submitting to God, we find our security and assurance. Our security does not lie in our own hands, but in God’s. Instead of exercising power, we need to exercise love –turning power into a servant of love.

Resisting Racism

If we fail to recognize that race is a myth we have created, if we fail to see the reality of structural racism, and if we overlook the idolatries in racism, our resistance to racism will be inadequate. To resist racism merely through education and politics is not enough. We need to have spiritual weapons as well. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Prayer. How often have we prayed for this, privately or publicly?
  2. Recognize that our true identity is in Christ, not in race. All other identities complement, not usurp, our Christian identity.
  3. Be clear about the biblical duality or antithesis and deny dualism.
  4. Resist the temptation of power and embrace the vulnerability of love, which is ultimately more powerful.
  5. Preach against racism from Scripture. Scripture has more to say about racism, or more properly, ethnocentrism, than we may realize. Old Testament scholar Steven L. McKenzie’s book All God’s Children is a good resource that deals with practically every biblical passage related to racism.
  6. Say ‘No’ to ‘Race’. We must renounce the myth of race. Perhaps, we should try to stop using the word ‘race’ and use ‘ethnicity’ instead, unless in the context of anti-racism.
  7. As the Christian Reformed Church, let’s look at ourselves honestly – our attitudes, our pride in the Dutch culture, our present church structures, our church history, our theology, our biblical interpretations. How have we been influenced by structural racism? What are we to make of Abraham Kuyper’s racist remarks in his lectures on Calvinism and of Romanticism’s influence, especially the concept of volk, on Kuyper (see Infected Christianity, pages 92-95)?

Obviously, more needs to be done. I hope that this article will fuel a discussion and promote a process whereby racism will be erased from God’s church, a church that began as a multi-cultural and multi-lingual community (see Acts 2).

Reading to Root Out Racism

All God’s Children: A Biblical Critique of Racism by Steven L. McKenzie (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) – an excellent readable survey of the Bible on race and ethnic relations.

Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person by Sundee Tucker Frazier (InterVarsity Press, 2002) – so far the only Christian book for biracial and multiracial persons, who often face racism from both sides.

God’s Diverse and Unified Family; a study committee report to Synod 1996 (Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1996) – this booklet is an excellent starting point for a biblical framework on racism.

Infected Christianity: A Study of Modern Racism by Alan Davies (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988) – a scholarly analysis of racism in Christianity, including a chapter on the Afrikaners.

No Partiality: The Idolatry of Race and the New Humanity by Douglas R. Sharp (InterVarsity Press, 2002) – the most comprehensive scholarly Christian work on racism.

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