In my previous post, we saw how in Genesis 3 human beings disobeyed God and now sin and selfishness has been our reality ever since. Things in our world are not as they ought to be.
Sin, death, disease, racism, anger and immorality taint our world and our history.
We’ve seen the terrible effects of racism all over the world and tragically in our own country under Apartheid. For example,
- The Population Registration Act that required that every South African to be classified into a race group.
- The Group Areas Act that divided urban areas into “group areas” that was restricted to certain race groups.
- The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act which made public premises, vehicles and services to be segregated by race.
- The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act which forbade marriages between white people and people of other “races”.
- And a host of other formal legislation and informal bias that was designed to prop up and favour people from one people group.
The Bible does not use the word “racism”, but it uses the words “pride”, “partiality” and “favouritism”, all of which is sin.
“Race” as a category is artificial, unscientific and unbiblical. “Race” is usually used to alienate, oppress and dominate people.
The Bible does not use the word “race” either, but the term “nations”, referring to various people or ethnic groups with their own culture, traditions and dialect.
Ethnic groups in the Old Testament
The first use of the concept is in Genesis 10, summarized in v32:
These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.Genesis 10:32
The emphasis here is that all peoples and nations of the world have a common origin: Adam via Noah. We are distant cousins.
In the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, we see how people groups dispersed.
The Tower of Babel was a monument to humans’ glory rather than God’s. The result is that God confused their language so they could not understand each other. Their unity broke down and they scattered and filled the earth – as per God’s original intention.
God’s judgment reflected the alienating consequences of sin.
Because of the new languages and geographic barriers, people groups no longer mixed freely. Different cultures and ethnic groups developed, with certain features becoming dominant within each group.
Adaptation, not evolution.
All part of God’s good purpose for his world.
But, sadly, always tainted with sin: the desire to idolize my own culture as superior and alienate other peoples and cultures.
Israel and the nations
In Genesis 12:1-3, God makes a promise to Abraham to bless his descendants and to ultimately bless (restore a right relationship) people from all the nations of the world.
God did that and is doing that through Jesus – who is a descendant of Abraham.
Abraham’s descendants are known as the Israelites and the Old Testament tracks their history.
The Israelites end up as slaves in Egypt and God calls Moses to lead them to the Promised Land.
Exodus 12:38 is a very interesting verse:
A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.Exodus 12:38
A “mixed multitude” left Israel with Moses for the Promised Land. Earliest Israel was not an ethnic community only, but a theological community – those from various people groups in Egypt who came to see the God of Israel as the One True God.
The mixed multitude very probably included people from the land of Cush, which is modern day Sudan and Ethiopia.
We know this because history tells us there were many Cushite’s in Egypt at the time and Numbers 12:1 tells us that Moses married a Cushite woman.
Moses, the great hero of the Old Testament, had a black African wife.
By the way, the Bible is never against inter-cultural marriage, but against inter-religious Marriage.
As Israel entered the Promised Land, Rahab a Gentile from a different ethnic group becomes part of Israel.
King David had Uriah the Hittite (and other Hittites) servings as one of his trusted army officers.
In King David’s army there were Cushite soldiers. (cf. 2 Samuel 18:21)
Jeremiah was a courageous prophet. He fell into the disfavour of the king and ended up being thrown into a pit.
So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch (better translated “officer”) who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern… Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king…Jeremiah 38:6-8
Ebed-Melech from Ethiopia, one of the King’s officers, was the only one brave enough to approach the king, intercede on Jeremiah’s behalf and secure his release.
A black African man rescued Jeremiah and is one of the few people in Jerusalem at the time to trust the Lord. (cf. Jeremiah 39:15-18)
The Old Testament story is not mono-ethnic.
Listen to what the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the future:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks…Isaiah 2:2-4
This was a re-statement of God’s the promise to Abraham to bless the nations.
The prophet Zephaniah echoed this great international hope:
“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Cush (Sub-Saharan Africa) my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
shall bring my offering.
“On that day….Zephaniah 3:9-10
The Old Testament shows us that God cannot be tied to a single ethnic group.
God is not Caucasian, European, American or African.
God is God of all the peoples of the world and his purpose has always been multi-ethnic.
Churches divided along ethnic lines, economic lines or cultural lines go against God’s intention.
Ethnic groups in the New Testament
The New Testament starts with the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.
Are you aware that Jesus was a descendant from ethnically-mixed, cross-cultural marriages?
- Tamar and Rahab were both Canaanites.
- Ruth was a Moabitess.
- The ethnicity of Bathsheba is unknown, but she was married to Uriah the Hittite, a Gentile.
You may have grown up thinking Jesus was a European? Contrary to most children’s Bibles, Jesus was not a Swedish-looking, blue-eyed white guy. He was typical Middle-Eastern man with dark skin.
In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his followers to go to all the nations of the world.
In the books of Acts, we see the gospel breaking cultural barriers and people from various ethnic groups becoming brothers and sisters in Christ.
In Acts 2, at Pentecost, the Spirit descends and the Apostles start speaking in different, unlearnt, foreign languages to “people from every nation under heaven” (v5).
The reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel.
God was and is re-uniting the nations and people groups in Jesus.
In Acts 8 the gospel goes to Samaria.
The Jews hated the Samaritans. They viewed them as sell-outs, half-breeds and worse than Gentile dogs.
But God showed the apostles, who were largely converted Jews, that Samaritans can be equally part of the people of God.
There isn’t one church for converted Jews and another for converted Samaritans. There is one church for all God’s people.
In Acts 8 the gospel also comes to an Ethiopian.
One of the first converts to Christianity was a black African.
The gospel came to Africa before it went to Europe. Christianity is not the white man’s religion, as often portrayed.
In Acts 10 the gospel goes to Gentiles.
By the last chapter of Acts, the gospel has gone to Rome, a melting pot of cultures and people groups.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
What does this mean?
It means that all believers from whatever ethnic group, gender or economic reality have equal status before God.
No race, nation, class or gender has preferred status before God.
This was a radical notion in Paul’s day and possibly in our day as well. Ephesians 2 is another great chapter in the Bible on racial-reconciliation.
According to Ephesians 2:11-22, the death of Jesus for people of all ethnic groups has removed all ethnic and cultural barriers between God’s people.
If Jesus did not make any ethnic distinctions for whom he shed his blood for, why would the people of God make ethnic distinctions about who we fellowship with and love and care for?
Brothers and sisters
Not only are we distant cousins in Adam, but Christians from various ethnic backgrounds are brothers and sisters in Christ.
As Christians, our unity in biology in Adam and our theological unity in Christ, must take preference over our culture and ethnicity.
I have more in common with a Christian in Nigeria than I have with an extended family member, of my same ethnic group, but who is not a Christian.
In the last book of the Bible, in Revelation 7, we catch a glimpse of New Creation.
It will be the final fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes (symbolizing a right relationship with God i.e. blessing), with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”Revelation 7:9-10
The Apostle John was given a vision of the future and he saw all God’s people gathered around God’s throne.
He saw Nigerians, people from the D.R.C., South Africans, Zulu speakers, Afrikaans speakers, Swedes, Mexicans – and even a few Australians!
The peoples of the earth will one day be brought together in the worship of God.
Notice though that we don’t lose our ethnicity in New Creation. We don’t all become one nation with one language.
We keep our beautiful diversity in wonderful unity, as the people of God.
Ethnic groups in the church
There is no place in the church of Christ or among the people of God for sinful racial or ethnic prejudice.
There should not be a black church, a white church, or an Indian church, but one church celebrating diversity in unity in Jesus.
Our churches should be a small foretaste of New Creation.
The only thing that should be separated by colour is the laundry.
The Power of Racism
However, racism and racial prejudice is very powerful.
Peter had to be rebuked.
We as God’s people may harbour ethnic prejudice. We too may need to be rebuked and corrected from time to time.
How dare we harbour prejudice against a fellow human being created in the image of God or a brother or sister in Christ for whom Christ loved enough to die for?
Racism and racial prejudice is very powerful.
Structural, ethnic prejudice even crept into the early church.
You can read about it in Acts 6, where the Greek-speaking widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
The early church dealt quickly, wisely and lovingly with that ethnic favouritism and they put in place a new structure.
God’s people are to love justice and fairness.
God’s people are to hate oppression, ethnic prejudice and favouritism.
At times we may need to change structures that are biased and unjust.
For example, under Apartheid for many years the structure favoured and privileged white people.
The structure has in many ways been removed, but the privilege of the many years of the structure is still with us.
Generally-speaking, white people (like me) have started the race with a head-start compared to people of colour.
BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) has been an attempt to level the playing fields. However, with BEE we are still categorizing people according to “race” – the very thing we want to get away from.
So it gets complicated.
We as God’s people must acknowledge the racism and structural racism of the past.
We must recognize how powerful racism and structural racism is and how it has hurt, dehumanized, traumatized and devastated millions of people in our country – and the legacy still lives on.
And we must do all that we can in our spheres of influence to work for justice, care, love, dignity, respect, a living wage, good sanitation, proper housing, good education, good governance, safety and hope for all of God’s image-bearers.
Racism and racial prejudice is very powerful.
But the gospel of Jesus is even more powerful and it produces love, racial-reconciliation and a concern for justice and fairness for all.
Merciful Lord, have mercy on South Africa
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo
Yizwa imithandazo yethu