'Racism Is Much Worse Than We Ever Thought,' Theologian Claims in Discussion About the Gospel's Definition of 'Race'

Not many Christians know what they're talking about when they discuss racial reconciliation and their reliance on the modern social construct of "race," as opposed to the Bible's approach to the term, which leads to an "incomplete Gospel" and underestimation of the pervasiveness of racism, according to a New Testament scholar.

Expand | Collapse
(Photo: www.sbts.edu)Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

"I think when we in the Christian community, when you listen to a lot of folks talk about ... when they actually talk about racial reconciliation, I'm not convinced that many know what they're talking about," said Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "There's a sense of confusion about what race is, in terms of the modern social construction of race and how race functioned in the biblical word."

He suggested that the "typical evangelical Protestant Christian" thinks the Gospel is limited to how one becomes a Christian. "And I'd be the first to say, 'Certainly, that's the foundation of what we find in the New Testament.' How does one become right with God, trusting Christ by faith, believe that God offered Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and He raised Him up from the dead. But the Gospel is not only that. It is that, but it's more," Williams insisted.

In the professor's view, if Christians are going to seriously take on the work of racial reconciliation in their churches, communities and organizations, then they must know how to "offer biblical responses to that question or to that issue." That means "we've got to understand what the Bible means by 'race,' what we mean by 'race' in a modern construct, and thirdly, we must also understand what the Gospel actually is."

As Williams explained it in a recent television interview, the category of "race" existed in the ancient world of the Bible and general society as a means of identifying oneself based on geography, politics, religion or dialect, and not by skin color.

"We have a lot of examples where a person identified as part of the Greek race because he spoke Greek. In terms of the Bible, you have the categories of 'Jew' and 'Gentile' and there are all sorts of different kinds of Gentiles, which would be non-Jews. But those Gentile people were not classified based on their skin color. Whereas in the modern construct of race, race is actually a category that derives from racist assumptions about classes of people," Williams explained, before touching on the evolutionary theories of 18th century British biologist Charles Darwin.

Christians should consider the full scale of "otherness" in their efforts to embrace diversity, instead of simply focusing on skin color, he suggested.

If the Gospel, that is the good news of atonement through Jesus Christ, is to inform matters of racial reconciliation, then Christians must acknowledge "that all kinds of 'others' regardless of their ethno-racial identity, regardless of their skin color need to be reconciled to God and to each other …," Williams said.

"So in my view, we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back if we have a multi-racial church but no poor people. We shouldn't pat ourselves on the back if we welcome people who are a different skin color but they have the same educational status. We should seek to be reconciling to all kinds of others, i.e. races, regardless of their race in terms of skin color, and regardless of their economic background, regardless of their education. So for me, 'race' is the big category that includes all kinds of other people; so therefore, racism is really much worse than we ever thought."

"So when you actually look at what Jesus does and what he preaches in the New Testament, he is about the business of unifying all people in Christ into this new community of people and that unification takes place by people relating to God rightly, and then reconciling to each other rightly through the Gospel," Williams added.

The SBTS professor and author of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology referenced Luke 4:14-21, which tells of how Jesus entered a synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah about the promised prophet preaching the Gospel to the poor, to the oppressed, and bringing about their liberation.

"When you look at Jesus then in Luke's Gospel after chapter four, he is going to all kinds of people — the social elite, the marginalized, leprous people, people who are healthy, people who are rich, who are poor. … And he's calling them to repent of their sins and he's recreating them into this new community of a new race of people filled with many different races. That, I would argue, is the Gospel. Not only how we get into the believing community, but how do we relate to each other once we are in," Williams said.

Williams went on to explain his view that some churches neglect to address racial reconciliation because they do not understand it as a Gospel issue.

Jesus, a Jew, came to save Jewish and Gentile people, he said. "He came to save people, not an idea but actual people, and He's calling these people into a new community of God by faith in him. So therefore then, if you do not practice horizontal reconciliation, I would argue that you have an incomplete Gospel."

Watch Williams remarks in full at KET.org.