It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)
Just as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has—for all its potential faults, both real and imagined—reoriented modern New Testament scholarship away from shoehorning 1st century Jew/gentile conflicts into the interpretive paradigm of 16th century Catholic/Reformation conflicts, so I’d suggest a new perspective on Christian antiracism is needed to reorient modern antiracists away from shoehorning 17th to 21st century racial “conflicts” into the interpretive paradigm of 1st century Jew/Gentile conflicts. Though NPP scholars were seeking to rid New Testament hermeneutics of a much later distorting imposition, I’m suggesting many Christian antiracists are unintentionally doing the reverse, viz., distorting our understanding of modern racism by the imposition of very unlike circumstances recorded in the New Testament.
By treating New Testament (NT) religious, cultural, and national controversies as paradigmatic examples of how to combat racism as Christians, we necessarily risk reducing antiracism to a set of Biblical texts which merely address narrow aspects of modern racism, like personal prejudice, bigotry, and religious/national segregation. We (myself included, of course) point to how Jesus treated the stranger and the gentile, to the woman at the well, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the unequal distribution to Hellenist widows, Paul’s confrontation of Peter, Peter’s repentance before Cornelius, “there is no Jew, no gentile,” and many similar passages as paradigmatic antiracist texts. Then, realizing we’ve left out much of the actual American experience and practice of racism, we attempt to bootstrap these paradigmatic passages with secular antiracist scholarship, including history, sociology, and legal theory, hoping to avoid the tensions produced by this ad hoc marriage.
But even more importantly, in my estimation, this 1st century to 21st century racial hermeneutic nearly always manifests as a reduction of the concept of “race” to that of “ethnicity,” usually by centering the NT éthnos as a uniquely Biblical human-group category, thereby emptying race of its socio-historical and political significance. As a result, Ethnicity Theory, a creation of 20th century sociologists, invariably becomes the most fitting modern antiracist correlate to the 1st century religious, cultural, and national conflicts recorded in the NT. The melting pot, assimilationism, multiculturalism, and ultimately the “tangle of pathologies” approach thereby supplants racial justice in Christian antiracist consciousness.
The new perspective I’m proposing—though containing nothing new in the particulars, nor anything of my own creation—would reorient Christian antiracism toward understanding “race” and “racism” more in line with the abolitionist and Civil Rights tradition, as a unique socio-historical development with a locatable past, a traceable trajectory, and an identifiable present complex of social meanings, ideas, institutions, and systems. Racism would then become subject to the full panoply of NT ethics rather than only subject to a set of somewhat alien paradigmatic texts that may or may not “fit.” And to be clear, this is no different than how we Biblically address other unique historical developments, e.g., capitalism, communism, industrialism, colonialism, nationalisms, imperialism, postmodernism, the sexual revolution, internet pornography, etc.
To conclude this short introduction, I will briefly list eight problems I see with the current Jew/gentile “ethnicity” approach and/or advantages of the new perspective approach, promising to discuss each more fully in the coming posts.
1. There simply is no Old or New Testament correlate to 17th to 21st century “race” and “racism.” Race is a historical construction of relatively late human origin, which has consistently been understood in the abolitionist and Civil Rights tradition as an illicit human hierarchy created to justify various historical forms of exploitation, control, and separation. Racism has also consistently been understood in this tradition as “the myth of inferior peoples” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) symptomatic of exploitative social systems, including the associated circumstantial subordination, harm, and disparity. There simply is no close parallel in the Scripture. There is of course both exploitation and prejudice in the Scripture, but nothing like a human hierarchy constructed along an ever-shifting “color line” to justify exploitation.
2. “Ethnicity” is a modern creation that neither corresponds to the NT éthnos nor accurately explains modern racism. Ethnicity Theory was developed in the 20th century as an attempt to use U.S. intra-European immigrant relations to understand and address “race relations” following the collapse of biological theories of race. Not only did this project prove inadequate by the 1960s, it devolved into “color-blindness” and victim blaming and is central to modern conservative politics.
3. Reducing “race” to éthnos and granting it Biblical primacy illegitimately reduces and distorts the rich NT vocabulary and conceptual field of people-groups. It is easily discoverable that the NT uses a complex of different terms to discuss people-groups, including genos, phulé, and laos in addition to éthnos. In fact, genos is probably the closest to our conception of race, though none of these quite fit our unique historical context.
4. Shoehorning racism into NT religious and cultural controversies tends to reduce our understanding of modern racism to mere attitudes, personal prejudices, and bigotry. On the other hand, when we understand racism as an historically created system of hierarchy and exploitation, we can see its full implications and reach. We, of course, do not thereby lose our understanding of racist individual attitudes, but rather see them as part of a larger complex of ideas, institutions, and systems. On the new perspective, we are freed to apply the example of NT Jew/gentile conflicts to the aspects of racism to which they correspond, rather than using them to illegitimately structure our understanding of the whole.
5. The Jew/gentile “ethnicity” approach treats racism as a monolith. Race, as an historically contingent artifact, was constructed to serve different social needs for differing social purposes at different times and in different places throughout history. Therefore, not all “races” were historically constructed along the same lines, nor imbued with the same set of characteristics, nor are these constructions particularly stable through time. Shoehorning racism into a 1st century historical conflict limits our ability to understand the unique experiences of differing people-groups and the unique ways in which they have historically suffered racism.
6. With the new perspective, racism can be treated as distinct from other forms of bigotry. Collapsing the historical uniqueness of race and racism into other categories which center personal prejudice and bigotry invariably treats the problem of racism as structurally identical to classism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and intra-racial ethnic conflicts. If racism is shoehorned into one attitudinal model, race, though mutually constructed along with other socially imposed identities, cannot be treated as a distinct historical manifestation with its own inner logics.
7. Far from denying the sufficiency of Scripture, a new perspective on Christian antiracism suggests that the whole of Biblical theology and ethics can speak directly to racism. Avarice, greed, exploitation, oppression, unjust wages, slavery, hatred, murder, adultery, rape, lust, corrupt systems, principalities and powers, as well as prejudice and partiality are all addressed in Scripture and are all likewise components of our unique historical manifestation of race and racism. The Jew/gentile “ethnicity” perspective, on the other hand, requires us to either make our actual practice and experience of racism fit with our chosen set of paradigmatic texts or to deem such practices and experiences unrelated to “racism.”
8. Last, the Jew/gentile “ethnicity” approach engenders an undue symmetry when addressing racism. The historical fact of the matter is, neither Africans nor Native Americans, for example, created a global system of racial hierarchy and subordination. Those who would ultimately call themselves “White” in fact did. Forcing NT religious, cultural, and national categories upon 17th to 21st century racism obscures our historical era’s central racializing force: White supremacy. Ethnicity Theory, based as it is on intra-European immigrant relations, treats the problem of “racism” as symmetrical, each “side” just needing to learn to get a long, assimilate, melt into the idealistic American pot, and demonstrate their merit to receive a piece of the economic pie.