Monday, October 10, 2005

The Bible and Racism

Our church's Adult Sunday school class has been studying Ruth, and I have been using David Atkinson's excellent commentary in the Bible Speaks Today series, as a guide to my preparation. Although filled with all sorts of useful information, Atkinson's book is rife with little theological excurses, from a Reformed perspective, which are thought-provoking and so well written they make this study a must-have for the pastor's shelf.

I mention this because the topic of race comes into play whenever one studies Ruth, for she was a Moabitess, a foreigner, a pagan, and lived her early life outside of the covenant of Israel with Jehovah. Since I have chosen to post on racial matters lately, I thought it would be of interest to discuss race from an ancient Israelite perspective. Atkinson quotes John Austin Baker's comment from an article entitled, "Racism and the Bible": "When we turn to the Bible for guidance and wisdom in our problems about race, the first and most important thing we have to say is that the Bible has nothing whatever to say to us" (italics mine).

Atkinson then adds, "What he means by this rather bald statement is that "race" in our terms is not a concept of which the writers of the Bible have any idea (emphasis mine). The distinctions, indeed antagonisms, of the ancient world were not about race in our sense of ethnic or colour distinctions; they were about culture and tradition and religion. The only kind of discrimination of which we find in the Old Testament is cultural and religious, not ethnic. In fact the Deuteronomic prohibition about intermarriage...was not a concern about race but about religion" (p.67).

There can be, then, no biblical basis for racial discrimination. There is in the Bible, one people of God, who are so designated because they have been graced by faith in the Lord. This "catholic" image of humanity is beautifully depicted in Acts 2:5-11. "Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem...Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphyllia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs..." A similar vision is found in Revelation 7:9, "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands."

There are two points I would like to draw from this. First, when we speak of race, we are using a modern designation that has no biblical foundation, and one that is physiologically, the least distinctive thing which separates human beings. Race is merely a phenotypical bagatelle - something ephemeral and of no real consequence in the estimation of a person's worth.

Second, if the Bible knows nothing about race as we currently define it, then there are surely other areas of life and knowledge which are similarly absent; ideas which are modern discoveries or presuppositions, and therefore inappropriate hermenuetical principles to impose upon the sacred text. I would cite biology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, and geology as areas in which the Bible has nothing to say to us, as these subjects do not fall within its purview or authority. There are other sociological areas for which one could make the same statement, but I would prefer readers work those out for themselves.


Blogger Steve said...

Good stuff, Scott.

I agree in general.

2 thoughts:

1. What about Noah's children and the curse on Ham? I'm not trying to trap you here, I honestly don't know. Is that meant to be racial in future generations?

2. I agree geology (to pick one) is like an open book of God's by which he tells us about himself. But I disagree that geology is not under Scripture's authority in any place where Scripture might touch upon it. Maybe that's a moot point, though, IF we agree that Scripture DOESN'T touch on geology...

11:47 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I think for me it comes down to what Scripture "intends to teach," to use an old saw. I find it frees me up from tangled knots both liberals and conservatives use to score points against each other.

The Ham passage (sounds funny, doesn't it? ;) ), is one fraught with a lot of baggage from the pro-slavery theologians of the ante-bellum period (some sadly, Reformed), so I get queasy with that one. As I think about it, I would initially doubt it applies to race, but I will look into it.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Hiya Ars, pop over to my site - in particular my post on a Moratorium for Humanity @ I think this is the real message in all that is happening. Do you think we could do it?

Blessings and bliss

12:45 AM  
Blogger homo unius libri said...

'Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude
following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.'

– Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard Professor and outspoken evolutionist

9:24 AM  

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