Race plays a significant role within the scripture. Throughout the Hebrew testament the Hebrew people, from the time of Abraham, well, actually Adam, establish a genetic lineage that the people can trace their ancestry back to Abraham. It is interesting because even those who were outside the faith, when they adopted the Hebrew God were found to have and be connected back to Abraham in some way. Racial purity for the Hebrew people was central for many reasons.
First, it had to do with safety and survival. That is a logical given. You know and can trust people that are kin. Well, at least even if you cannot trust them outright you know their tendencies!
The second, and more important in a religious context, is that there was a belief that when one dies their soul remains alive as long as they are remembered, but once they die those who have died cease to exist. This is a little different than our understanding of heaven and an afterlife, but this ancestor worship places a lot of importance on being able to know and trace one’s genealogy.
The third, though you could probably point to a myriad of other reasons, is related to the first and that is the purity within the faith. This is that by keeping a racial purity the people could keep a spiritual purity. We see this in the New Testament when the Samaritan people are highlighted. The Samaritans are considered to be unclean, because while having a connected history to the Hebrews, they did not follow the same traditions, and most likely were mixed racially.
So racial purity was taught and followed by the Hebrew people, and it was ingrained into their understanding of themselves, God, and their role as a chosen people. The problem, though, was that this racially pure group, according to Christ, was focused in the wrong ways more on keeping the laws and fighting for isolation and purity, over accepting the world they were in and focusing on God.
Toward the end of Romans, Paul reminds his communities that with the coming of Christ also came the abolishment of the separation of one community over another and the subsequent ability of one community to claim superiority over another is antithetical to the witness of Christ. This was a real problem for the early church because the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians often did not accept each other equally. In fact, there were tons of fights about the issue, which we see played out within the letters of the New Testament.
Often we do not think about this, especially within the American “melting pot.” But when we think about it, and look around our communities, we often see how we place a great emphasis on ethnicity and the separation thereof. Moreover, we often see how individual groups, whether ethnic, religious, social, or economic, use a position of power over the rest of the community. The problem is that while we can think of reasons why this might be good, often those reasons are far more about our own survival or even salvation than they are about God and our faithful priorities. While this does not mean that we ignore or discount someone’s group, it is important that we name it, learn about it, and work to see how we can overcome the barriers that get in the way of being a faithful community.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen