The Inveterate Incoherency of Race

Here is the problem, at root.  We talk about race – but what do we mean when we say that?  If that question sounds familiar, it should!  Before we can address the issue, we need to define the issue.  So first, what is meant by race, but secondly, from whence do we get it? Thirdly, is our discussion of it consistent with the rest of our doctrine?  You typically already know the answer to this once you’ve answered the first two questions – but it is good to answer it clearly, so that you face it clearly.

As already mentioned, before we even enter into a discussion of the topic, the necessity of definition intrudes.  What is meant by “race”?  Do we mean genetic, or phenotypical classifications? Do we mean general groups of people as segregated by a common history, nation, or physical area?  What, exactly, do we mean by this?  For instance, I would be considered “White”.  I, however, am made up of a veritable melting pot of genetics.  I have Portugese and German from both sides of my family, Welsh, English, and Amerindian – just from the ancestors I know about!  Added to that, several branches of my family are fairly recent immigrants, and know next to nothing about their genetic heritage.  Essentially, my “whiteness” is composed of a decent sample of of the typical “racial” variations on the planet.  The ideas of “white” or “black” are notoriously fluid.  Most physical anthropologists that I have read, along with what seems to be most geneticists and biologists in general, given the samples I have knowledge of, seem to agree that race should no longer be considered a biological category, but instead relegated to a sociological or philosophical phenomenon.

Race, as it is discussed today, is such an ill-defined, hazy concept that we can’t help but call it incoherent.  It is this very inchoate status that mystifies me.  How could something with such a tenuous basis be so exceedingly inveterate?  It is just as easy to respond by asking why synergistic theology persists so tenaciously, is it not?  Even while the proponents of that perspective insist that they really don’t consider something in themselves to be the basis of salvation, the very position demands that it be the case. So too, those who persist in their belief in “race” loudly decry any sense of superiority inherent in their membership in a particular race.  The idea of synergism is typically rooted in the preservation of libertarian free will, no?  Well, consider this.  The very idea of race seems to be not only relatively modern, but to be a justification of the right of one “race” to be considered superior over another, as a rule.  The reasons for this supposed superiority vary as wildly as the definition of race – and are usually as self-serving.  Additionally, the idea of race has a dismal, and downright miserable track record of failure in human relationships and society. Oddly, it is just as often those on the most dismal side of such failures that insist on retaining those artificial categorizations!  It reminds one of Molinism – where the insistence on libertarian free will (because Romanism simply could not abide the doctrines of Reformed theology) is so strongly emphasized that the resultant system utterly destroyed the very thing it seeks to preserve, by unintended consequence.  Rome dropped the attempt for a reason.  If the intent is to truly reemphasize human equality in the imago dei – why would you retain categories that in most cases sought to utter destroy that equality of shared image in the first place?

Compare the muddled discussion of race to that of ethnicity.  Unlike race, you can speak of ethnicity, as a rule, in stricter terms. It remains somewhat fluid, but it is not only more specific than race, but is defined along positive, not negative lines.  As Thabiti Anabwhile points out[1] ethnicity, unlike race, speaks of observable distinctives, such as lineage, nationality, language, culture, and religion.  These are social distinctives.  In his article, he speaks of two church members who are Jamaican natives.  They share the same general ethnicity –  nation, culture, speech patterns, and religion – but one would be considered white, the other black!   I can give a similar example from my own experience.  I am from southern Arizona.  I grew up in a culture steeped in Hispanic cultural influence, a bilingual constituency.  My siblings, who are all quite a bit younger than I am, spent their formative years chiefly in the South. They moved there late enough that the accent was already formed, for the most part, but in most other ways, they are more typically Southern than I am. I am the only one who considers Tucson my home town, thinks Spanish being spoken around me is normative.  Culturally, the South, while an adopted home, is not “home”, to me.  My mom is from the Midwest.  Both places I have already mentioned, to her, are not quite “home” in the same way.  My father, however, grew up in Phoenix.  Culturally, we are probably the most alike.  The United States, of course, is such a melting pot, that we are all “American” in ethnicity, broadly speaking.  Because of the various sub-cultures, or sub-ethnicities in the country, however, I always find that I am most familiar, or most “at home” in the Southwest.  I am currently in El Paso Texas, as I write this.  West Texas, as a rule, is far closer to the Southwestern ethnic category than it is to the Southern.  As a result, I feel like I am closer to home.  It has its own distinctives, as most cities do, but it “feels like home.”  With Midwestern influence, being married to a Southerner, and being from the Southwest, the Northwest and the Northeast are places I find most foreign to me, generally.  I spent a lot of time in large cities, growing up. The size of the Northeastern cities don’t bother me – the cramped feel to them does!  Western cities tend to be sprawling, and planned to a much greater extent.  It probably also doesn’t help that most of my experience in them has been while driving a rather large vehicle, which does not play well in enclosed areas!  After saying all that, note that we, as Americans, have a bit of trouble with “ethnicity,” due to the oddities of our social model, and the high percentage of immigrants. My father and I, in some respects, belong to a different “ethnicity” than the rest of the family’s members, at least to some extent.  My mother, additionally, has her own, which shows up quite clearly when we spend time with her parents, or her siblings.  In another sense, however, we have mostly shared experience, mostly shared habits, and formative influences. So, ethnicity, despite the marked advantage it has over race, still has a particular fluidity.

Despite that fluidity, however, ethnicity has a distinct advantage over race in a rather significant way.  When the united people of God are spoken of, as a whole, there is a particular set of characteristics used to describe their diversity.  Tribe, tongue, people, and nation.  This pattern is found in both Revelation 5 and 7.  The various commentaries stress different elements, but generally, they seem to accord fairly closely with our previous definition of “ethnicity.”  While remaining somewhat fluid, it incorporates all the same elements – those of lineage, nationality, culture, and language.  Religion, of course, is a given!  To me, it seems to hearken back to a common discussion we have on this site. Unity, and diversity.  They are all united in the same body, and united to Christ – yet are from all of the diversities of human ethnicity.  It also hearkens back, at least somewhat, to the federalism of Romans 5.  In Adam, all fell, all die, and were scattered at Babel.  In Christ, Babel is redeemed, and God’s diversification has been melded with unification.

To sum up our discussion, race, as we both know and use it, is an insuperable incoherency.  Strangely, however, it is also is showing a tendency to linger.  Biblically, we are members of one race – the human race.  We don’t need “racial reconciliation” – unless we are talking about the ministry of reconciliation that Scripture says we are given – [2] namely, the Gospel.  Race, as it is spoken of, is a chimera.  Ethnicity, as properly defined, is an interesting diversity in God’s creation.  Some aspects of ethnicity – cultural and religious, especially, are often problematic and harmful diversities.  Any aspect of ethnicity can and will be used illicitly for purposes of “making us to differ.”  Despite these obvious truths, it behooves us to refuse to consider race as a legitimate descriptor.  If it truly as I have described it, are we not told to avoid myths and genealogies? [3] The mythology of race does nothing good, while propagating falsehood, gives rise to speculation, and fails to further the administration of God by faith. Examine your presuppositions.  Take a good hard look at your own assumptions. They matter. They matter a great deal.

  1. [1]This is an excellent article, and says far more, far better than I could. – http://www.9marks.org/journal/many-ethnicities-one-race
  2. [2]2 Cor. 5:18-19
  3. [3] 1 Tim 1:4

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