The Meaning and Significance of Race

Session 4 – Part 2

Racial Harmony

Here we are at session four in our seminar on racial harmony, and I hope it’s being recorded because all the people that want to hear this aren’t able to be here tonight and I want feedback from them. All humans are of one origin by divine design. This is the meaning and significance of race, part two.

The Significance of Humanity and Race

Now, let me tell you what happened at the end of part one that caused me to do this for part two. When I was done two weeks ago or so, you remember I argued that biologically race is negligible. It’s just not significant. I gave you statistics about how the difference in chromosomal makeup within a race is bigger than between races typically. So if you’re looking for a liver transplant or something, it’s just as likely that you’ll find a better one in a different race than in your own race because there’s nothing about race that would make it more likely that it would be a better liver. I was pointing out those kinds of things last time.

I was making a big deal out of the fact that being human is vastly more important than being any color. I used the analogy that if you’re white or black or red or brown or some shade in between, that would be like a little millimeter down at the IDS Tower. If you’re human, that would be like the height of the IDS Tower all the way into the sky. In other words, being human is infinitely more significant, I think, than being any particular race. I stressed that last time and I still believe that.

The Experience of Minorities

However, what the group that cares so much about these issues and whom I’m leaning on pretty heavily to give me helpful feedback said at the end of that was, “Well there are two problems with the way you said it tonight. Number one, when a majority culture person like you talks like that, the way it is often heard by minorities is, what’s the big deal? You’re saying, ‘So what’s the big deal?’ The white majority culture in America will hear that emphasis last week, and think, ‘Come on. We’re all human. What’s the big deal? Just relax, minorities, and be human.’ And they hear that as, ‘Relax and be white. Be like us. We don’t have any problem living in this culture, so why do you have a problem living in this culture?’”

Do you see how naïve that can tend to be and sound? If you’re the dominant majority — say, in a church like this — you walk in and you look around and say, “Whoa, there’s not a lot of color here.” So you can just start to feel like this is normal and this is just the way it is. So you can think, “What’s the issue?” But if you’re sitting there and you look around and there aren’t as many people like you, you’re aware of that. You’re aware of that. You live with that consciousness and you walk through life like that.

When you start being treated differently because you are not of the majority culture or color, then for you, it’s always an issue. It’s always there. Whether you want it to be or not, it’s there. It’s just presented to you. You’re not bent out of shape by it and trying to make it an issue. It’s just there. It’s presented to you as an issue day after day because there are little things that let minorities know day after day that they’re not of the majority culture. So that was one response. Some said, “John, you gave a little proviso that you knew it might be heard that way, but it wasn’t enough.” That’s response number one.

Blood-Bought Diversity

The second one felt more substantial. That one is sort of culturally sensitizing to me, and that’s good for me to hear. This one is more substantial. The Sunday before that Wednesday night, which was two weeks ago, I had preached on Martin Luther King Sunday and said from Revelation 5:9, diversity is so important that God paid for it with the blood of his Son.

You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (ethnē) . . . (Revelation 5:9).

I drove with all my might that Sunday morning that, to God, this thing is really important, that he would pour out the blood of his own Son to make sure his bride is manifold in color and culture. So the question was how I fit two weeks ago on Wednesday together with that. That seemed to elevate the importance of diversity and race. They said, “Two weeks ago on Wednesday night, it seemed like you said that it’s small and there’s no significance to it. Humanity is important, but racial differences aren’t significant. So put those two together.” That is a good question. That’s what tonight is designed to do. So this is part two. How do you put together Wednesday night’s session three and Sunday morning, Martin Luther King Day? That’s our agenda.

Maintaining the Relative Insignificance of Biological Differences

The first five points were last time, now we are moving to number six. When I do this on a weekend sometime, it’ll hang together a lot better than it is when you have to take so much time in between. Does the biological triviality of the differences between races mean that race is insignificant? That’s the question I’m posing coming off of the feedback I got last time. Here are a couple of responses to that.

Minorities tend to hear the assertion of racial triviality and biological triviality as an excuse for the majority to say, “What’s the big deal? There’s no problem. Just be human. Stop making an issue of race,” which translated means, “Relax and be like us.” That’s what I heard last time. I think we need to hear that. So I want to avoid that.

His second response created the issue, moreover, that Revelation 5:9 implies that racial diversity is significant to God:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation . . . (Revelation 5:9).

That’s just a restatement of the problem that I just articulated. That verse teaches that Christ died in order that there would be all the colors, languages, and cultures represented in the blood-bought bride of Christ. This elevates the significance of race in God’s purposes and our relationships. Here’s the question: “Is there then a contradiction between saying that racial differences are biologically trivial and that they are theologically and socially significant?” That’s the way I would clarify the question and you can already hear part of the solution, I think, in the way the question is posed. Race is biologically trivial — I think that’s still true — and it is theologically and socially significant. Is that a contradiction? Did I contradict myself? No, I hope. I try not to. Both are true and there are reasons for stressing both.

The Full Humanity of All Races

So now what are those reasons? Why would we want to stress both of those? Here are reasons to stress the biologically insignificance of race. First, it is important to maintain the biological insignificance of race in order to preserve the full humanity of all races and the infinite significance of being human created in the image of God without reference to physical or cultural distinctives. Being human is infinitely more important than white or black or yellow or red or brown or any shade in between. I admit now, it is risky to say this in view of the warning that I’ve already talked about, but the risk of not saying it is greater because I think a bigger issue globally is human rights, not white, black, yellow, red, or brown rights.

In other words, we need to be able to say to somebody hauling away Jews to gas chambers, “It’s inhuman.” Forget about it. Let’s talk about people created in the image of God here. Let’s not think about the relative importance of Jewishness in God’s colorful makeup. That would be an argument. It would be a valid argument to say, “Don’t try to snuff out Jewish people. They belong in the kingdom.” But the first argument is that they’re people. They’re not cats or dogs or foxes that you want to get off your field. I want to preserve that argument. I want to be able to say that with power everywhere I go — that people are people, human.

I know that when my little daughter grows up and starts asking the hard questions about her identity, all kinds of relational issues are going to emerge in this transracial family. But I’m going to say over and over and over and over again to her, “You are a human being created in the image of God, designed by God with absolutely unique purposes and don’t you ever forget it.” Then we’ll talk about the big cultural issues, but first, that issue is going to be number one. That’s my first reason for stressing the biological insignificance. Because if you start to creep in with the biological significance of race, then you start to build a ground for mega prejudices and mega abuses which I think leads me to number two.

The Legitimacy of Interracial Marriage

The second response to reasons to stress biological insignificance is that it is important to maintain the biological insignificance of race in order to preserve the legitimacy of interracial marriage. Now, you might say, “Well, is it legitimate?” I’m going to deal with that. I’m tipping my hand right now where I am coming from and where I’m going. It’s not a new thing to me. You might think, “You adopted a black daughter so you have to believe in that.” Look, that issue was dealt with a long time ago and then it was dealt with again. I’ll bring you this sometime and read you parts of it. I was 22 to 25 in seminary, so we’re talking about 30 years ago. I was in a class with Lewis Smedes on ethics. Lewis Smedes was a good teacher. That’s what I wrote my paper about, interracial marriage. Thirty years ago, this was a big issue for me because I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. That was a really close issue and I heard all the arguing.

I had a relative who is dead now, who said, in her southern drawl, “You’ve never seen the bluebirds and the redbirds mate, and you never seen the blackbirds and the white birds mate. So you would never see a white and a black marry.” I grew up with that. That was just in the air. So this is a huge issue. Bethlehem is going to face this issue big time, because there are all these kids growing up in this church who are kids of color. So we have to nail this one down. We have to nail it down in principle. Then we have to nail it down in our gut. Those are not exactly the same.

One way to guard against arguing against interracial marriage is to make sure that you don’t elevate biological distinctions. Two weeks ago when I was lingering over that, that was no mistake. I want to minimize the biological differences between the races and that’s one of the reasons.

Undermining Justifications for Slavery and Segregation

The third reason it is important to maintain the biological insignificance of race is to provide part of the hedge against the efforts of some to justify slavery or segregation or other inequities, say, like some kind of medical testing. If someone said, “Do you need a guinea pig?” People could think, “Well, let’s get some lesser humans, so it won’t be so bad if it goes poorly here and they die.” You want to guard against that with any price.

One way would be to say biologically that we’re not talking about different species here of any sort. Ken gave me some of these quotes here just to show you the kind of thing historically that we’re dealing with. Here’s David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes in general of all the other species of men to be naturally inferior to whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complexion than white nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation, no ingenious manufacturers among them, no arts, no sciences. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.

That’s pretty offensive. Slavery and other things would be rooted then in a claim to nature having done something biologically where there is now an intrinsically inferior group. Immanuel Kant said:

The negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish.

He’s one of the most influential philosophers that’s ever lived. He continues:

The difference between the two races is thus a substantial one. It appears to be just as great in respect of the faculties of the mind as color.

So those are my three reasons for why I want to stress the biological insignificance of racial differences before I go on to give you reasons for maintaining the theological and social significance of race. I’ve just talked about the insignificance of biological differences.

Questions and Answers

Now, I’m going to talk about the significance of the theological and social differences in race. Is there any feedback or questions about what I just said?

Why would we speak about the relative insignificance of racial differences to humanity when there are so many other things we hold as dear that are insignificant in relation to humanity? Shouldn’t we like and embrace those differences?

Well that does follow from my sermon the other Sunday and I realize now as you ask it I don’t know if that’s in my outline here. So let’s go back to the drawing board. Talk to us about what you would like to see. Tell me what you have in mind. I have certain things in my mind when you say that and realize I just drew a blank as I was getting ready. This is so good and so helpful to me. I have so many blind spots, it’s unbelievable. Let’s just talk for a minute about what I need to change in what I just said. How do I say what I just said? Because it doesn’t seem like now with what you’ve just said that I can just add that as another point.

I think there is a relative significance in humanity over racial differences, but why do we emphasize it here when we don’t emphasize it in other places?

So relatively speaking, the triviality may still stand in terms of being over humanity, regarding whether you have any particular kind of hair or not compared to whether you’re human. Everything in me says that is insignificant, but you’re pointing out, “Yes, but everything is insignificant about life compared to humanity.” We could say seeing is insignificant compared to that, and yet how we cherish our sight, or something like that. I don’t know though. Maybe I shouldn’t talk in terms of biological insignificance. Maybe I need a new way to say it. Does anybody want to make a suggestion in order to help that?

Shouldn’t we just get beyond this and appreciate each other for who we are?

I think you’re articulating the very tension with the phrases “get beyond” and “appreciate each other.” What I have coming clear in my mind right now is that there are two ways to move to the beyond of natural relationships where you don’t make a barrier out of a difference. One would be to not think about the difference at all and treat it as though it is nothing and it’s not there, and the other that Tim is putting his finger on is to like it, not ignore it but see it, taste it, and like it. He’s saying we should like color differences, hair differences, facial shape differences, and vocal sound differences. There’s a quality to a black voice that’s different.

Isn’t one danger in that focus on racial differences is that we might not glorify God as we ought, because we’re so focused on the differences?

But Melvin, are you sure? In other words, take the word focus. If we focus on it, you say we might not glorify God, but one of my arguments coming here was to maintain the theological and social significance. I think I am going to include some biological traits here because I think one of the reasons you look the way you do, different from me, is for the glory of God. If that’s not seen and appreciated, God gets less glory. That’s implicit in one of my arguments. This is very, very helpful. I’ve got it written down.

One of the things that was said triggers a clarification I need to make here. I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly, but the way I’m constructing this seminar is from natural arguments to redemptive arguments. In other words, I haven’t even come to Ephesians 2 regarding that issue and the work of Christ. He just pointed out, “Count others better than yourself.” Well that’s built on the incarnation in Philippians 2:3–8. The effect of redemption, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the commands to love one another are going to affect our relations to each other.

Maintaining the Theological and Social Significance of Race

Let me give you the rest of what I have here and then we can talk a little more if there’s time. Next time I do this, I’m going to have it clarified and there’ll be a section on why the biological differences, though trivial, are significant and should be appreciated, or something like that. Here are reasons for the social and theological significance. I think I have five of these reasons.

Against Smothering Minority Cultures

First, it is important to maintain the theological and social significance of race because minimizing this significance will de facto function to smother minority identity with majority culture. In other words, without this balance, the insignificance of race biologically would in reality mean the insignificance only of minority race and culture. Majority races and cultures do not feel that their race and culture is significant precisely because they take it so much for granted as the norm. If they were put in a position of a minority, their own race and culture would not seem so insignificant. So we must maintain the theological and social significance of race for the sake of dealing justly and wisely with the present-day realities of inequity and injustice. That’s not a new thing. I’ve said that already, but I wanted to give it as the first reason for why thinking of the significance of race theologically and socially is important.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity Exists

Second, it is important to maintain the theological and social significance of race because in God’s wise providence, racial and ethnic diversity has come into being and is embraced and not erased. I think those two facts need to go together lest anybody argue, “Well it came into being by accident,” or, “It came into being by sin,” or, “It came into being by judgment,” or whatever, and therefore it shouldn’t be valued for that reason. But I think when you realize that it came into being providentially by God’s design and is embraced and not erased by God’s redeeming purposes in the death of Jesus (according to Revelation 5:9), then the significance of it rises. So it’s created by God, brought about by him, and it is embraced by Christ in his redeeming work.

In the coming weeks, I will address something about the curse of Ham and that sort of argument. That’s what I was writing my paper on 30 years ago. I’ll be back to that.

The Multiethnic Glory of God’s Redemptive Work

Third, it is important to maintain the theological and social significance of race because there is a beauty and power of praise to God that comes from unity in diversity that is greater than that which comes from unity alone. Psalm 96:3–4 connects the evangelizing of all peoples with the quality of praise that God deserves. Notice the argument here:

Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
     he is to be feared above all gods.

Notice that the word for the extraordinary greatness of the praise which the Lord should receive is the ground and impetus of our mission to all the nations and all the ethnic groups. In other words, there’s something about God’s worth that will not be displayed fully if there isn’t an ingathering of diversity from all the rest.

When you think about that, the analogy that came to my mind is simply this choir that sings here. If they sing only unison, that’s pretty, but when they break into parts and the rich, deep sound of the basses reverberate, and the high, smooth notes of the soprano tend to break a glass, and the altos come in with this strong, feminine lower sound, and the tenors come with a strong, higher male sound, there’s something more there than unison that reflects the beauty of what’s being sung about. So if you were to ask, “Why did God do so much diversity in the world?” that’s one way you could answer it.

Creation Bursting with Variety

You could point not just to race. God has lavished this world with incredible diversity. Take fish, take dogs, take horses, or take whatever. There is so much diversity. Or take any one race. Is it not amazing you can fingerprint people and out of six billion tell who’s who? I mean, who attends to fingerprints? They have this new iris of the eye thing where you can take a picture of the iris of the eye and because of those little shapes in your iris you can be identified. If you get up close and look at yourself in the mirror, you can see these little shapes in the iris of your eye. They can take a picture of those and they are unique among all the six billion people. So you can type people according to the iris of their eye. Or just walk through an airport. Given all these people, the statistical likelihood that two of them are going to look just alike is very high, but you can’t find them.

Twins are born. I grew up with Joel and Carol. Those are two guys that I grew up with who were twins. Everybody at first glance said they’re absolutely alike. Having lived with them and grown up with them, I could tell them apart backwards, frontwards, sideways, and top-down. There were differences on every hand in those twins once you just looked at them long enough. Diversity is just incredible.

Now, why did God do it that way? He could do a cookie-cutter and he could do cloning, but he didn’t. God doesn’t clone humans. Every one of them is unique, different. So I think if you take the big picture of humanity in terms of ethnic groups, there’s a reason for that. And it is because there’s more beauty of God reflected when those pieces fit together than when they’re treated as nonexistent or insignificant.

The Glory and Fame of Jesus Christ

Fourth, it is important to maintain the theological and social significance of race because the fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty (Jesus Christ, for example) increases in proportion to the diversity of those who recognize its beauty. This is a little different, this argument. It sounds like it might be the same, but it’s not. It’s not the same argument. Now, the work of art here is Jesus. If a work of art is regarded as great among a small and like-minded group of people but not by anyone else, the art is probably not truly great. Its qualities are such that it does not appeal to the deep universals of our hearts, but only to provincial biases. But if a work of art continues to win more and more admirers not only across decades and centuries, but also across many racial and ethnic groups, then its greatness is irresistibly manifested.

Let me stop there just to see if you get what I’m saying. If you are a person or if there’s a work of art, whatever analogy you like to use and there’s a little group of people and they say, “Oh, isn’t that great,” and it’s at the Walker and it’s hanging on the wall and there’s a little cluster of people that love to go down there and look at this donut hanging on the wall with a nail through it, or something, you might say, “Really? I hadn’t noticed.” In fact, almost nobody notices. It’s just a little teeny clique of artists who think that’s great, and they will die and go out of existence and it will not be viewed as great anymore. But some artwork is just hanging around century after century after century. What is it? What is it with the Mona Lisa? I mean is that just kind of something that’s put over on us? What is it with Rembrandt?

What is it with music that keeps lasting? Most of the music we sing will be here today, gone tomorrow, and there’s a place for some folk music that’s here today and gone tomorrow, but there ought to be some greatness that is here today and tomorrow and the next day until Jesus comes. Jesus is like that. The more time goes by, the more diversity gets attracted to Jesus. There’s something that he’s appealing to deep down beneath surface differences.

So I think it’s important that that be seen by how many people get attracted to him from different groups, and we need to emphasize that. Thus, when Paul says, “Praise the Lord, all nations, and let all the peoples praise him” (Romans 15:11), he is saying that there’s something about God that is so universally praiseworthy, and so profoundly beautiful, and so comprehensively worthy, and so deeply satisfying that God will find passionate admirers in every diverse racial and ethnic people group in the world.

The Manifold Testimony of Christ’s Surpassing Greatness

I was at Moody this morning. An Indian student stood up, and she was dressed, I guess, in national garb of some kind. She prayed in front of these 3,500 people there where I was going to preach in just a few minutes. It was a very beautiful, articulate prayer. The president stepped forward and did a little interview with her, and as she articulated her deep, intelligent, strong, passionate love for my Christ, he felt so big — more than if just an American girl had done that or another guy had done that. She’s Indian, she’s female, and she’s intelligently, articulately saying my Christ is great to her, and I’m saying that makes him feel more great to me. The fact that she could experience that in India and out of her background makes me feel like he’s really great. He’s really great. If you just walk through person after person from culture after culture saying the greatness of Jesus, then you say, “Hmm, I think I might be getting the significance of this theologically.”

His true greatness will be manifest in the breadth of the diversity of those who perceive and cherish his beauty. His excellence will be shown to be higher and deeper than the parochial preferences that make us happy most of the time. His appeal will be to the deepest, highest, largest capacities of the human soul. Thus, the diversity of the source of admiration will testify to his incomparable glory.

Christ’s Devoted Following from a Diverse Group of People

Fifth, it is important to maintain the theological and social significance of race because the strength and wisdom and love of a leader, Jesus Christ, is magnified in proportion to the diversity of those he can inspire to follow him with joy. If you can only lead a small, uniform group of people, your leadership qualities are not as great as if you can win a following from a large group of very diverse people.

I’m going to give you a biblical background for that. In other words, I’m putting another twist on the same kind of argument. The aesthetic thing is not the same as the leadership thing. This is a dangerous analogy to use, but I’m the upfront person here so I’ll risk it anyway. I would be seen as a more effective, gifted, and charismatic leader if I could lead red, yellow, black, and white somewhere together than if I could only lead white people somewhere together. They’d say, “Well he’s an effective white leader,” and that would be nice.

Or someone might say, “Lots of blacks are effective black leaders,” and so on. But when a man or a woman can blow a trumpet of truth and have following in their train like Martin Luther King did, for example, then you say, “Hmm, what is it? There’s something unusual here.” Now, that’s the way Jesus is. There’s something unusual about this person. When he gets trumpeted for all he’s worth and he stands forth from his word and says, “Follow me,” and people of every shade in the world follow him, then his leadership, power, and wisdom really shines. That’s my point here on this last one.

Paul’s understanding of what is happening in his missionary work among the nations is that Christ is demonstrating his greatness in winning the obedience from the peoples. Look at Romans 15:18. He says:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles (ethnē) to obedience — by word and deed . . .

Christ is doing this, not Paul. It is not Paul’s missionary expertise that is being magnified as more and more diverse peoples choose to follow Christ; it is the greatness of Christ. He is showing himself superior to all other leaders.

The last phrase of Psalm 96:3 shows the leadership competition that is going on in world missions and right here:

Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
     he is to be feared above all gods.

There are competitors in other words to Jesus in the world. There are other gods from other religions with their gods. We should declare the glory of God among the nations because in this way he will show his superiority over other gods that make pretentious claims to lead the peoples. The more diverse the people groups who forsake their gods to follow the true God, the true Christ, the more visible is Christ’s superiority over all his competitors.

Questions and Answers

Now, I’m almost hesitant to say it, but I must say it. Take two minutes and tell me what I left out in this one. What comes to your mind now that would help me make this better the next time I do this?

Wouldn’t it be right for us to say that the diversity of the peoples is a parable of the infinite richness of the diversity in the Godhead?

Surely that is a biblical thing to say. The heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), and he could have said lots of other things like, “The fish are telling the glory of God,” and, “Humans are telling the glory of God.” Being created in the image of God in various colors and shapes and sizes and so on is telling the glory of God. I’m sure that’s true. And when those of varied human dimensions can find unity in him in worship, then you have something to say to the world about God.

That’s what this whole thing is about in my mind. The whole thing is about, at the small level of personal relationship, at the corporate level of gatherings and worship, and at the manifest level where the world is watching in social dimensions, if the church could pull this off better than we do in terms of the diversity coming together in unity under Jesus and under the Father, he would get more glory. That, to me, is why I’m driven by this. Is there anything else before we close?

Do you think there’s any significance to the fact that God chose a semitic people first, which were neither white nor black but somewhere in the middle?

Yeah, good point. They were neither. It’s probably not an accident that there was a Semitic people chosen in Abraham who, when you try to type them, have their own peculiar features, and then there’s a shading there that’s neither white nor black. I’m a little hesitant about portraits of Jesus at all and there’s an argument about whether that’s breaking the First Commandment. Don’t make any graven images. Don’t have pictures of Jesus in your house. The reason I’m not a stickler on that is because Jesus became incarnate, and therefore, we know he had a face. God, the Father, didn’t have a face except insofar as he and the Son are one. Jesus had a face, so even though we don’t know what it looked like, I think renderings of it to show various things are okay. And if we’re going to do that, they should be really diverse.

I think they should be really diverse because if you look in on that famous one with the long hair and kind of the idyllic face and the blue eyes, that’s absolutely absurd. I think there should probably be black portrayals of Jesus, white portrayals of Jesus, and Chinese portrayals of Jesus. Everybody knows that they’re not accurate. They all know. There isn’t one that’s accurate. That’s why it’s legitimate to do lots of inaccurate ones, because you just say we all know that we don’t know what he looked like. So what we want to say with our inaccurate Jesus is something true about Jesus, namely that he’s there for everybody.