Racial conversations have a frustrating repetitiveness. Whenever another racially charged incident happens we regurgitate the same conversations. We speak of individual responsibility and systemic ills. We speak of our nation’s “original sin” of slavery and its lasting effects. We speak of the insensitivity of “others” whoever they may be. Elements of these conversations have validity; we can’t ignore such issues. But perhaps it’s time to re-frame the dialogue about race.
Current convention excludes talking about faith and religion in the public square. But it’s not as if people can divorce themselves from their deepest intellectual and spiritual beliefs in the name of tolerance. In reality, all of us have faith commitments, whether to a formal, organized religion our our own set of moral standards. We should never force people to convert to our religion, but reasoning from one’s spiritual beliefs should be permitted.
Christian spirituality has a vocabulary for the racial issues we face today. The Bible gives us explicit categories for defining “otherness” and elaborates principles about interacting lovingly with our neighbors. The following are a few ways we should reframe the dialogue about race.
The Image of God
A foundational Christian belief is that all human beings are made in the image of God. This comes from the first chapter in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:28). As God’s image bearers, men and women are unique in all creation. We alone have the capacity to reason, worship, and love. We alone have the mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. We alone are the creatures of whom God said, “And behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). As God’s special masterpiece in creation, then, all human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth.
The image of God reframes the dialogue about race by showing us a transcendent foundation for the equality of all people. No longer is the discussion about skin color or any other distinctive like language, gender, or culture. According to God, if you are human then you deserve justice. The image of God in humankind is the foundation for all efforts toward racial understanding.
The Doctrine of the Church
Christians should reframe the dialogue about race by talking about the doctrine of the church. In theological jargon, this is called ecclesiology. The church is the only community of which Christ said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). As God’s own people, the church is a community like no other. It is comprised of all kinds of people who are united by the Holy Spirit. This is a bond stronger than even blood relations within a family (Mark 3:35). The church is an irruption of the heavenly bonds of fellowship on earth.
The book of Ephesians speaks eloquently about the church.
I [the Apostle Paul] therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.—Ephesians 4:1-6
The church demonstrates supernatural unity through the believers’ common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We stand as the incarnate testimony of God’s power to bring all kinds of people together in a humble, gentle, patient, and loving body. The church demonstrates how Black and White people, males and females, powerful and powerless can come together in deep, healing relationships. Talking about the community of God in biblical terms reframes racial dialogue by demonstrating unity in the midst of diversity.
Justice for the Poor
Many of the social ills we lament are endemic to the culture of poverty. While race and poverty in America cannot be treated in isolation, they are distinct. Speaking of the conflict between races in purely racial terms misses the economic dimensions of the issue. Christians miss a trove of divine wisdom when we ignore the extensive biblical texts addressing poverty.
The Bible often makes reference to caring for the poor. Leviticus 19:9-10 tells landowners to leave some of the crops at the margins of their property as gleanings for the materially bereft. Verse 13 tells employers to pay their hired workers in a timely manner so they don’t cause undue stress. In the New Testament, the people of God were known for their sacrificial giving in service of the poorer members. Acts 4:34-35 says, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Scripture gives explicit instruction about how to care for those who lack material resources. Reframing racial conversations to address the poor will have the corollary effect of reducing other forms of social injustice.
The Value of Biblical Categories
The terms above do not exhaust the Bible’s resources for discussing race. They are simply some of the most relevant categories for the issues we face today. But reframing the dialogue about race in biblical terms isn’t a matter of using new vocabulary to make the same arguments. By using the Bible’s terms we are compelled to unearth the Bible’s answers to our most pressing questions. Believers must be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). Our ways of thinking must be deeply shaped after God’s pattern of thought as given in His word. We must think God’s thoughts after Him when it comes to the topic of race. Only when we use the Bible’s categories will we discover the Bible’s answers to move from racial dialogue to racial justice.