Understanding biblical colorblindness

November 25th, 2014

“Go, you swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth…” (Isaiah 18:2)

When I’ve taught Isaiah’s oracle concerning the Ethiopian Empire in college classes or church, students are often struck by what it doesn’t say: It says nothing about skin color. The thing that set the Ethiopians apart, in the minds of the prophet’s contemporaries in 700 BCE, was the fact that they were tall and had no facial hair—not that they were black.

While many white Christians express a desire for “colorblindness,” the concept itself is problematic. In a country where racism touches every aspect of our lives, it’s difficult to imagine what real “colorblindness” means.

For thousands of years, Judah was a major crossroads for three continents. Trade routes from Asia and Africa and Europe crisscrossed the fertile crescent. They would not have thought of people as “black” or “brown” or “white,” because there were multiple ethnic groups that could be described that way. To identify someone by skin color would have been wildly inaccurate; it was just one more physical characteristic, and had little to do with language, custom or tradition. To them, our modern racial distinctions about skin color would have been as irrelevant as talking about people with large thumbs, or bald people.

On a recent trip to Bath, England, I had the privilege of seeing the remains of a mummified man from Syria from the first century. When he died in Bath, among Romans and Celts, he was a trader in the far north of the Roman Empire, thousands of miles away from his ancestral home. His displacement reminded me that the ancient world was as diverse as ours — perhaps more so.

Yet how they categorized the world, dividing it into tribes and people groups, seems alien to us Americans of the 21st century, who focus almost entirely on the amount of melanin in our skin. Plow through the Bible and you will be hard-pressed to identify any references to skin color except for a few ambiguous ones (like Song of Songs 1:6). White skin was generally associated with disease (Numbers 12:10).

There are certainly references to multiple ethnicities and people groups, languages and customs. Uriah is a Hittite (2 Samuel 11:3), Simon is from Niger (Acts 13:1), Ruth is a Moabite (Ruth 1:22), and even seasoned Bible scholars and historians have a hard time keeping the Elamites, Cherethites, Perizzites and Hivites straight. The authors of the Bible were very aware of ethnic differences. The word we generally translate as “nations” is the Greek “ethnoi,” which is where we get the word “ethnic.”

But “race” is a modern invention, what sociologists describe as a “social construction.” (Author Toni Morrison recently told Steven Colbert that we are all one race: the human race). In spite of the centuries of pseudoscience and bad scholarship that created the concept of race (primarily to justify slavery and other forms of oppression), there is no biological (or theological) basis for race. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real — our perception of reality is filtered through it, and it’s impossible to shake off centuries of our American history of oppression and become truly “colorblind.” In fact, holding up being “colorblind” or “post-racial” as an ideal simply perpetuates racism. The idea that we are on the cusp of a “post-racial” society, especially among the rising generation, is still wishful thinking. Some say instead we should aim to become “color-wise.”

It’s no secret that white Christians are often afraid to talk about race. Well-meaning Christians sometimes assert that if we all just love each other and individually do what Jesus asked us to do, society will sort itself out and we can eliminate racism without ever talking about it — as if systemic injustice and inequality would evaporate all by themselves.

Of course, many Christians recognize the Eurocentric portrayals of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white Jesus in paintings and movies as being historically wrong. But what strikes me about the Isaiah passage is just how easy it is to read over it without being aware that the Bible is confronting me with my own privilege and assumptions. How many times have I read this scripture without being conscious of how the bankrupt idea of race informs my own worldview? How often do I plunge into the Bible, reading this alien text, without considering how different its authors’ worlds were from my own?

I do think good Bible reading has a role to play in overcoming racism and injustice. When we step into the world of the biblical authors, we begin to feel how alien their culture is to ours, and ours to theirs. And across time, we can hear God’s call to become a different kind of society — neither ancient nor modern, theirs nor ours, but God’s way of living to which God has been calling us for thousands of years. When we read about a God who shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6), we don’t mean a God who treats all people generically the same, but one who is deeply involved in history and the struggle to right historic wrongs, to reconcile and make peace even when it hurts.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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