Racism and nationalism: The biblical teaching

Any manifestation of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, tribalism, or casteism is unacceptable, not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also from a biblical perspective.

Racism and nationalism remain crucial challenges in our contemporary world. Unfortunately, these problems also affect the church and nullify its privilege of being the salt of the earth. This essay addresses the problem of racism and nationalism from a biblical perspective, and offers some principles to deal with these challenges.

How are race and nation usually defined? One source defines race as a “group or category of persons connected by common origin.”1 Another says that the concept of race might include some physical differences that may distinguish one group of people from another, but clarifies that current scientific knowledge has established “that the diversities recognized in human beings are not founded on a biological definition of race.”2 In fact, this affirmation finds clear corroboration in the fact that “all human groups share the same type of blood, are inter-fertile and can receive and donate organs across so-called racial boundaries.”3 As used in this essay, race and ethnicity4 are virtually synonymous, and the latter, in terms of ancient people, could be minimally defined “as group identity.”5

Similarly, the concept of nation has been defined as a “large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.”6 From these two concepts derive the terms “racism” and “nationalism.” Racism “actually designates two very different things. On the one hand, it is a matter of behavior, usually a manifestation of hatred or contempt for individuals who have well-defined physical characteristics different from their own; on the other hand, it is a matter of ideology, a doctrine concerning human races.”7 Nationalism, in turn, can be defined as “a sense of collective solidarity within identified geographical and cultural boundaries,”8 although oftentimes it may develop into an exclusivist ideology, insofar as it postulates the superiority of one nation or people group over others. For our purposes, nationalism, racism, and even tribalism are taken to be elements of a single problem: the difficulty of humans to accept the ethnic or cultural “other.”

Our approach to this topic is divided into four sections: race and nation in the Bible, theological reflection on ethnic diversity, biblical responses to racism and nationalism, and a conclusion.

Race and nation in the Bible

One should be careful not to impose contemporary concerns upon the Scriptures. Modern notions of racism or nationalism are foreign to biblical writers; nevertheless, nationalism or racism in the sense of some cultures viewing themselves as superior was certainly an issue in biblical times. For Greeks, foreigners unfamiliar with Greek language and culture were barbarians; for Jews, non-Jews were Gentiles.9 In addition, common terms used in the Old Testament to convey the idea of race or ethnicity are gôy (555 times) and ’am (1866 times). In spite of considerable overlap, gôy designates nations and people as political and social entities, whereas ‘am stresses kinship and more often refers to Israel as God’s people.10 The New Testament uses ethnos (164 times) and laos (143 times) to denote people or nations. In actual usage, however, ethnos refers more to the nations, Gentiles, unbelievers, and even to non-Israelite Christian Gentiles,11 whereas laos tends to designate the people of God,12 much like ’am in the Old Testament. Two other terms may also be noted. One is phyl˜e (31 times), which means race or tribe and may refer to the 12 tribes of Israel (historically, or metaphorically of Christians) or to the tribes of the earth, in the sense of peoples and nations.13 The other is genos (21 times), which conveys the notion of family and country, among others, and therefore may have ethnic connotations.

Having looked at some linguistic data, we turn to the so-called table of nations (Genesis 10), which provides an overview of peoples and ethnic groups at the early stages of world history. Close examination of this table indicates that the variety of nations and peoples forms the backdrop for subsequent promises that the nations of the earth would be blessed.14 The desirability of a diversity of ethnic groups and nations appears to have been implied in the mandate to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:2). This may partially explain why the builders of Babel met with God’s judgment (Genesis 11:1-9): they resisted God’s mandate to fill the earth. By confusing their language and scattering them over the face of the earth, God brought about the diversity of families, nations, and ethnic groups that eventually filled the earth. Subsequently, God called Abraham to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

An interesting aspect of God’s inclusive and sovereign plan for the entire world should also be mentioned: God apportioned land not only to Israel, but also to other nations. He gave land possessions to Esau (Deuteronomy 2:5), the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:9), and the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:19). Amos says that the Lord acted in the interest of other nations in ways that resemble the Exodus event: He brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir (Amos 9:7). Deuteronomy 32:8 further reiterates, “When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the children of Israel.” Classical prophets envisioned a time when the nations would come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord and learn His laws (e.g., Jeremiah 50:5; Zechariah 8:21-23; 14:16-21).

Admittedly, the Old Testament also contains oracles of judgment against the nations. However, such messages imply no trace of ethnic or racial prejudice. In fact, Israel and Judah often receive the harshest judgments (see, for example, Amos 7:8, 15; 8:2). Nations are not judged because of their ethnic or racial “otherness,” but on the basis of loyalty to God’s eternal covenant.15 Nowhere in the Bible do national, racial, or ethnic identities receive a negative evaluation. The election of Abraham and his descendants to become God’s special people does not happen in detriment to the nations, as noted above. Against all odds (Deuteronomy 7:7; 26:5), Abraham, and later Israel, received the mission of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Theological reflection on ethnic diversity

Thus, the Bible mentions not only races, nations, and ethnic groups, but also portrays God as actively involved on behalf of nations and families as the plan of salvation unfolds. In fact, the biblical text offers principles and guidelines for facing the challenges posed by racism and nationalism.

First, the foundational principle that out of one couple God made humanity. On the grounds of Creation, there is no place for superiority of one group over another, since the “doctrine of creation affirms the unity as well as the dignity of all humanity.”16 Over and above the variety and diversity of human cultures, societies, races, and nationalities stands the fact that all are created in the image of God. Ultimately, “there are not multiple human races, but just one human race.”17

Second, the Fall has not only affected the relationship between God and humans, but has also driven a wedge between human beings (Romans 3:23; 1:20-26). As different people groups become more and more alienated from God, they develop worldviews that result in racism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism – the natural consequences of which are oppression and destruction of the “other.” Instead of admiring the beautiful tapestry of cultural and ethnic diversity, some place themselves and their culture as the standard according to which others are to be measured. Claims such as this underlie the racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism that have so badly damaged God’s people at distinct moments in history.

Third, God’s eschatological promises include the nations. Isaiah and Amos picture the nations (gôy) and peoples (‘ammîm) flowing to Jerusalem to learn God’s ways (Isaiah 2:1-4; Amos 2:1, 2). Isaiah also envisions a day when an altar will be erected in the land of Egypt, and the Egyptians will serve the Lord (Isaiah 19:19-22). Further, Isaiah announces that Egypt, Assyria, and Israel will be one, and applies to both Egypt and Assyria covenantal language previously reserved for Israel.18 Egypt is called “my people” (‘amî – Isaiah 10:24; 43:6, 7; Hosea 1:10; 2:23; Jeremiah 11:4) and Assyria, the “work of my hand” (ma’seh yaday – Isaiah 60:21; 64:8; Psalms 119:73; 138:8). Isaiah 56:6 promises incorporation of the foreigner (nekar) into the covenant community.

The New Testament likewise presents the gospel being preached to all nations (ethnos) of the earth (Matthew 13:10; 24:14; 28:19; Luke 24:47). Although the nations may also become hostile and reject the message of salvation (Revelation 11:18; 14:8; 17:15; 18:3), yet out of them come people for God’s kingdom. In the eschatological consummation, all nations are represented among the saints (Romans 1:5, 6; Revelation 15:4; 21:24) and walk in the light emanating from God and the Lamb (Revelation 21:24).

Fourth, the Bible recognizes and affirms the diversity of races and nations that populate the earth (Genesis 10:1-32; Deuteronomy 32:8), and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost reaffirms God’s plan for all peoples, languages, and cultures (Acts 2). Individual ethnic, national, or tribal identities give a sense of kinship and community, helping humans meet their need for security and belonging. This kind of diversity also fosters human creativity and stimulates human enrichment.19

Fifth, nations and ethnic groups are not absolute entities. Important and useful as they may be in the current state of the world, the aforementioned entities “are historical communities and not part of the original created order. They are therefore provisional and contingent communities that can lay no claim to any ultimate human loyalty.”20 Furthermore, racial and national entities – as meaningful as they appear to be – bear the consequences of sin. Awareness of this reality should move one to challenge nationalism, tribalism, racism, and all kinds of ethnic idolatry. The Bible clearly subordinates any status based on race or nationality to the absolute Lordship of Jesus. In Christ, all barriers erected by sin are demolished: “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” (Galatians 3:28).21

Sixth, God does not condone or tolerate racial or ethnic prejudices. An episode that seems to reflect ethnic prejudice appears in the case of Aaron and Miriam against Moses “because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Numbers 12:1, ESV). The ethnic identity of Moses’ wife had become a problem for Miriam and Aaron. It may have been only a pretext to raise the real issue, which was their ambition to share Moses’ leadership (not an unusual situation: an interested party raises an ethnic excuse in order to achieve a dubious goal). As a response, God struck Miriam with leprosy and she became “as white as snow” (Numbers 12:10). The point is clear: God is no respecter of persons, nationalities, or ethnic identities.

Seventh, God shows no partiality. Such an obvious statement may not have been so obvious then, nor was it fully understood by the early church. Peter had to receive a vision in order to understand that God does not discriminate against people on the basis of ethnicity. Peter’s opening words to Cornelius’ household were: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). Interestingly, the verb “perceive” denotes a process; that is, Peter appears to admit that he had not come to a full and absolute understanding, but he was still in the process of grasping such a deep and foundational truth.

Subsequently, in Acts, Christian leaders had to convene a council to discuss the situation of converted Gentiles. After Bible study and prayer, they embraced the Gentile converts without forcing them to be circumcised and keep the whole ceremonial law (Acts 15). We notice that – in spite of the vision given to Peter and the decision of the Jerusalem Council – the problems did not disappear. Paul had to deal constantly with factions and divisions inside the church, some of which may have been prompted by ethnic or nationalistic prejudices. Even Peter appears later on to fall back into his previous prejudices (Galatians 2:11, 12). Some New Testament letters – such as Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians22 underscore that Jews and Gentiles are equal members of the body of Christ, indicating that issues of ethnicity remained a challenge for the early church.

Biblical responses to racism and nationalism

In light of the above, we should note that serious distortions of biblical perception of race and nationality occur when identification with one’s own nation, country, tribe, or ethnic group results in hostility toward other groups. Miroslav Volf labels such hostility “exclusion” and categorizes three main ways in which this exclusion occurs: elimination, domination, or abandonment.23 How should we deal with this problem of exclusion? Three ways are before us.

Benevolence. The Scriptures replace elimination with benevolence. The command to “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31) certainly transcends tribal and national boundaries and includes the tribal, ethnic, or national other. Elisha, for example, did not consider the Syrian commander an enemy to be eliminated, but a neighbor who needed healing (2 Kings 5:9-19). Proverbs makes a similar point: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22). Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20, 21). Benevolence “eliminates” the enemy by turning him or her into a friend.

Service. Instead of domination, the Scriptures recommend service. Legislation in favor of the foreigner reads: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger [g˜er] nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). God invokes Israel’s experience in Egypt as motivation for keeping the law. Since the oppressed may become the oppressor, God reminds His people of their former status so that they would exercise solidarity toward the foreigner. Among the nations of the ancient Near East, Israel was unique in having laws that demanded the protection of foreigners (g˜erîm).24 At a time when the Jewish people groaned under Roman oppression, Jesus taught that “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38).

Solidarity. The abandonment of the ethnic other must be replaced with solidarity. At the dedication of the temple, Solomon prays that God would hear the prayer of the foreigner (1 Kings 8:41, 43), which indicates that the Temple cult would include foreigners – not exclude them, as happened later. In this connection, the parable of the Good Samaritan may be instructive, since it portrays a “classic example of racism.”25 As the story unfolds, the Jewish victim abandoned by the road is denied help first by a priest and then by a Levite. In the end, it is the Samaritan – the ethnic other – that brings healing to the suffering victim. This parable, in contrast to some other parables, portrays an example, a model, either to be rejected or emulated. Ironically, the positive model is not given by the priest or the Levite – functionaries of the Temple – but by a Samaritan who embodied God’s way of dealing with the ethnic other (Luke 10:29-37).

As we relate to our ethnic neighbors, the Scriptures compel us to exemplify an attitude of acceptance, service, and solidarity. This, of course, is easier said than done. Ethnic cleansing and race-related conflicts have left a stain of blood on the 20th century (and on human history, for that matter). Horrendous acts perpetrated by one ethnic entity against another may still hurt, as the loss of people, cultures, and properties may still linger in the collective memory of nations or tribes; we should not minimize the depth of such suffering. We should remember, however, that grace and forgiveness remain the only viable options for permanent healing and restoration.

Conclusion

The Bible affirms the diversity of races and nations, along with the conviction that all races, ethnic groups, and nations are one and the same human family. Upon this theological foundation, the Bible erects its perception of nations and ethnic groups and relativizes tribal and national distinctions. Above these human loyalties stands the absolute loyalty we owe to the Creator God, who demands that we love our foreign sister or brother. Therefore, any manifestation of racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, tribalism, or casteism is unacceptable, not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also from a biblical or theological perspective.

Only a worldview shaped by the Scriptures can provide the solid foundation to approach race, ethnicity, and nationality on a practical basis. As the Bible makes clear from the “beginning,” Creation provides the foundation on which to base our relationship with our foreign neighbors. In addition, the Scriptures reveal that sin has distorted our perception of the other. Racism and related forms of prejudice have infected human nature and can only be eradicated by the blood of Jesus. In Him “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Elias Brasil de Souza is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. E-mail: souzae@gc.adventist.org.

This article is a slightly shortened and edited version of an article that appeared in the BRI newsletter. Used by permission.

REFERENCES

  1. Ernest Cashmore, Michael Banton, and Heribert Adam, Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1994), 294.
  2. Robert Miles, “Nationalism” in Guido Bolaffi, Raffaele Bracalenti, Peter Braham and Sandro Gindro, eds. Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity and Culture (London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 240.
  3. J. Andrew Kirk, “Race, Class, Caste and the Bible,” Themelios 10:2 (1985):7.
  4. Due to the use of the word “race” with a biological sense in eugenics and in racist ideologies, scholars have tended to abandon this word in favor of the term “ethnicity,” in which culture, not biology, was the primary category to distinguish groups of people. Eric D. Barreto, “Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16” (Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 2010), 38-41.
  5. Ann E. Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300-1100 B.C.E. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 8.
  6. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  7. Tzvetan Todorov, “Race and Racism,” in Les Back and John Solomos, eds. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), 64-70
  8. Cashmore, Banton, and Adam, 254.
  9. Dennis L. Okholm, The Gospel in Black and White: Theological Resources for Racial Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 118.
  10. Duane L. Christensen, “Nations,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:1037.
  11. William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 276.
  12. Ibid. 586.
  13. N. Hillyer, “Tribe,” Colin Brown, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 871.
  14. J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2003), 56-60. Cf. Frank Crüsemann, “Human Solidarity and Ethnic Identity: Israel’s Self-Definition in the Genealogical System of Genesis,” in Mark G. Brett, ed. Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 197-214.
  15. Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” in Mark G. Brett, ed. Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 147. See also Reinaldo W. Siqueira, “The Presence of the Covenant Motif in Amos 1:2-2:16” (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1996).
  16. Keith Ferdinando, “The Ethnic Enemy – No Greek or Jew … Barbarian, Scythian: The Gospel and Ethnic Difference,” Themelios 2 (September 2008) 33:57.
  17. Ibid. 10.
  18. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), 381.
  19. Ferdinando, 58.
  20. William Storrar, “‘Vertigo’ or ‘Imago’? Nations in the Divine Economy,” Themelios 3 (April 1996) 21:4.
  21. This sweeping statement does not obliterate gender functions and distinctions (male and female) established at Creation; rather, it affirms God’s restoration of Creation through the saving work of Jesus. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), 259.
  22. See John M.G. Barclay, “‘Neither Jew Nor Greek’: Multiculturalism and the New Perspective on Paul,” in Brett, 197-214.
  23. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1996), 75. See the useful summary in Ferdinando, 59.
  24. See R.J.D. Knauth, “Alien, Foreign Resident,” in T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 24-33.
  25. David Benner and Peter Hill, eds. Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 896