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Jan15MonWe must challenge and overcome racism wherever it exists. January 15, 2018 by Colonel Richard Munn
In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, General Bramwell Booth, son of the Founders and second international leader of The Salvation Army, embarked on a daring countercultural initiative to raise substantial funds for the defeated German people, who were suffering from harsh international sanctions.
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British Salvationists had lost their fathers, husbands and sons by the thousands in the “war to end all wars.” And yet, here was General Bramwell seeking money for a compassionate cause. He travelled to Berlin and was greeted with great national affection. In the cauldron of that context he made the statement: “Every land is my fatherland, for all lands are my Father’s.”
Either instinctively, or by precise calculation, Bramwell embodied the ministry of reconciliation, the commission of Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The phrase is renowned: panta ta ethne, all people groups.
The matter is currently at the forefront of our thinking, when it seems that rabid ethnic nationalism is inexorably on the rise.
Pervasive and Complex
Let us not be naive or sanctimonious; racial prejudice is inherently present in us all, to some degree. So, like any primal sin, it must be intentionally countered and rigorously fought.
• Racism is pervasive and complex, described as racial prejudice plus power.
• Racism may be hidden, yet embedded in institutional life.
• Racism can be present even though people avoid using direct racist terminology.
• Racism can be invisible to the dominant ethnicity, yet plainly evident to the disempowered ethnicity.
• Racism can be so entrenched in institutions and culture that people unintentionally and unwittingly perpetuate racial division.
In addition, however, racism can also be overt, systematic and cruel. While ethnic hostilities, rivalries and atrocities are too numerous to adequately list, they are epitomized by the African slave trade, the Nazi supremacist movement, the Holocaust, South African apartheid, the Indian untouchable castes, the Japanese-Korean-Chinese conflicts, the Rwandan genocide, the treatment of Indigenous people in North America and Australia, and the abuse of trafficked workers in oil-rich Saudi nations.
The Human Race
It is important to note that the category of “race” has no scientific basis. Genetically and biologically, Anglo-Saxons, Asians, Africans, Latinos, etc., are identical. The idea of different races is a social construction, one created a century ago in the dubious science of eugenics. In contrast, the Bible refers to people groups, distinguished by language, culture and geographic boundaries. We can affirm: the only race is the human one.
The distinguishing characteristic of humans is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. This divine likeness is unique among the created order and comes from the “breath of God” in us (see Genesis 2:7). In multi-ethnic Athens, Paul asserts the unity of the human race: “From one person God made all nations who live on earth” (Acts 17:26 CEV).
At the heart of racism is the original sin of idolatry. Rather than seeing the spiritual image of God in each other, we are drawn to a physical image. It is a short line from this racial idolatry to racial pride, the belief that the people with my physical features are inherently superior to people with different physical features. This is exemplified in the egregious “curse of Ham” (see Genesis 9), constructed to justify the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and North Americans.
And yet, early in Scripture, we read of tribal conflict, long-standing rivalries, cultural subjugation and, indeed, ethnic cleansing. This is especially complex when intertwined with the story of the people of Israel, the ethnicity central to the salvation story. The People of Israel Beginning with the people known as Hebrews, God’s “treasured possession,” to the fact that Jesus was born and crucified a Jew, Scripture records the unique role embodied by the people of Israel. God choosing to act in history includes the reality that Hebrew culture, history, names, literature, cuisine, indeed, the very soil and geographic boundaries of Israel, are forever synonymous with the salvation story.
We can see how readily this selection could be interpreted as a divine affirmation of ethnic superiority. This includes a voice within Judaism as well as misappropriation by other people self-identifying as the “new Israel” to sanction racist ideology—North American slave owners and Afrikaners in South Africa. This is heinous misinterpretation.
Rather, Scripture records that the people of Israel were chosen because of their insignificance (see Deutoronomy 7:7), that the people fleeing the Egyptians were in fact ethnically mixed (see Exodus 12:38) and that covenant fidelity is to be the guiding principle of this special relationship (see Exodus 19:5). God says bluntly, “Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” (Amos 9:7).
Jew and Gentile
The Jewish-Gentile relationship is present early, where God says to Abraham, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus exemplifies this grace in his interactions with the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman. A central figure in his teaching is the “good Samaritan,” described as a “neighbour” (see Luke 10).
Panta ta ethne is then powerfully reinforced with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost when “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” each hear the wonders of God declared by the Galileans in their own native tongue—15 distinct ethnicities and regions are listed (see Acts 2).
The issue is so real and earthy that the tension between Jews and Gentiles continues as a major theme in the New Testament. A deep biblical principle emerges: Jews do not cease to be Jews; Gentiles do not cease to be Gentiles. Ethnic differences, however, are to be no barrier to fellowship in Christ.
This is not easily realized. Paul—a Jew and Roman citizen called to serve Gentiles—later has to convince the Jerusalem Council of the validity of his Gentile converts (see Acts 15). He prevails, and this ethnic inclusiveness becomes formally sanctioned, one of the most significant decisions in all of Scripture. Without it, Christianity would have undoubtedly remained an obscure Jewish sect.
The template is set for resolution—a panta ta ethne vision of the kingdom of heaven.
Citizens of Heaven
The scattering of the nations (see Genesis 10) and the Abrahamic promise (see Genesis 12) represent a theme that permeates all of Scripture—the global, multi-ethnic reconciliation plan of God. It is quite certain that in a mysterious way we shall retain our ethnic identities in heaven. The Revelation image is one where John sees a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne” (Revelation 7:9). This is the consummation of history and continues the same unity Paul exhorts in his epistles; as such it provides a model for us to strive toward now.
Given our broken human tendency toward national mistrust and tribal conflict, this biblical view of ethnic unity stands sharply distinct. Followers of Jesus Christ now find essential unity in him, rather than in culture and ethnicity. Such a way of thinking and relating is a powerful force for good.
Racism negatively affects everyone.
The recipients experience fundamental rejection and disempowerment.
Perpetrators function from fear and ignorance and experience the natural self-loathing that comes from spreading hatred.
Wider society experiences hostilities and reduced productivity.
Oppressed people groups invariably experience poor health and housing services, reduced life expectancy, lower employment opportunities, lower high school graduation rates, increased homelessness and more incidents of violence.
The Salvation Army, not unaware of internal susceptibilities, desires to make and encourage efforts to challenge and overcome racism wherever it exists. This is for individual Salvationists, to respect ethnic and racial diversity; and for the worldwide Army, seeking to influence broader societies.
Thank you, Bramwell. Every land is our fatherland, for all lands are our Father’s.
Colonel Richard Munn is the secretary for ethics and theology in the U.S.A. Eastern Territory.
Feature photo: © freshidea/stock.Adobe.com