Race: A Brief History of its Origin, Failure and Alternative

(system) #1

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/guest/race-a-brief-history-of-its-origin-failure-and-alternative

(Christy Hemphill) #2

Thanks for this informative and inspiring article.

I think that it is so important to go back and recover the social justice heritage of evangelicals and hold out these heroes to our children instead of buying into the narrative that social justice work is some kind of liberal replacement for real faith and salvation. I have been so inspired reading about people like Hannah More, William Wilberforce, the Booths, the Wesleys, and others from the beginning of the abolitionist movements with my children. I’ve also been challenged to find non-white, non-Western Christian role models to hold out to my kids as heroes, and this has also been really rewarding. When we learn about people like Festo Kivengere, Immaculé Ilibagiza, Laura López of Guazapa, or Satoko Kitahara, it reminds us that God works all over the world, through all kinds of people, to break down the dividing walls of hostility and unite his children.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #3

If you ever put together an annotated reading list, please post it!!

(Jay Johnson) #5

Hear! Hear! And I would add George Mueller and Charles Dickens to the list, both of whom opened the eyes of Victorian England to its pitiful treatment of orphans, many of whom were sent to “live” in adult prisons simply because there was nowhere else to house them.

Back to the article: I appreciated the fact that he started with his own upbringing in racially-charged Chicago. I have my own baggage to carry in that regard, growing up in an almost all-white environment with a father who was a spiritual giant in my eyes, but who had a giant blind spot when it came to race. He died when I was just a young man, so I was left to work out this huge contradiction in his character in my own mind over the years. By the time that my own children were born, I had long ago decided that they would never hear the N-word come out of my mouth, nor any of the evil bigotry to which I was exposed as a child. Perhaps this is how generational change begins.

(Christy Hemphill) #6

Yes, me too. Because Swedish Baptist south siders are my people. :grin: My mom went to Harlan High and my dad went to Harper and my maiden name is Larson. My mom was in high school in 1964, right in the middle of all sorts of drama. But I am proud of the fact that however reticent my grandparents’ generation may have been towards desegregation, my parents’ generation pushed for change. Swedish Baptist General Conference, which became BGC, which is now Converge has been very effective at supporting minority pastors and planting churches in urban areas among diverse ethnic communities. And when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s (at a BCG church), one of the teaching pastors and the women’s ministry director at my predominantly white church were both African-American. It impacts white children to have spiritual leaders who are not white. Our Good Friday service was always a joint service with other BGC churches from the city, where all the pastors were black. Change might have come hard and there is still lots of work to do, but change happened.

(Thanh Chung) #8

I remember reading China and the Church: Chinoiserie in Global Context last year. The book doesn’t really talk about the concept of “race” much, but it discusses the evolution of European artistic depictions of Chinese people. According to the author, the Chinese were depicted by European artists as “white” and “normal”, not “yellow” and distorted, before the 18th century, before the Qing Empire kicked out the Christian missionaries and cut off most contact with the European powers.

I suspect the change of European artistic depictions occurred when the concept of “race” was becoming more in vogue during the 18th century. Would anyone agree with this? I always find it really absurd that Europeans perceived the skin color of East Asians as “yellow”. I find it odder that Europeans did not have that strange idea initially but then later perceived them as “yellow-skinned”.

(Christy Hemphill) #9

I wonder if in the States there was correlation between the change you speak of and the influx of Chinese immigrants building the railroads. Immigration often seems to be an impetus for redefining racial categories.

Before that time period, China was an exotic place, but a place that produced technological marvels and fine arts that could not be duplicated.

(Dave Unander ) #10

I’m pleased the essay has been helpful!

As per reading lists, a tremendous book I believe may be neglected in our times, is Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom”. (The BioLogos staff picked his photo for the header of this essay, not me, but I was very happy with their choice!) He was a very gifted writer (and apparently also a very gifted speaker). It is a long book, but hard to put down once started. I value reading the lives of Christians from places and times and experiences different from my own. In Douglass’ case, he never knew his father, b/c he was a white man who had, it is implied, forced himself on his mother. His mother was sold to another plantation when he was a very little boy. He describes firsthand, atrocities he observed growing up, that really put the torch to some of the sentimentality one sometimes hears about an idyllic Christian America in some golden past.

The key turning point in his life, was when two Christian men, one white and one black, led him to faith in Christ. The presence of Christ in his life changed everything, including galvanizing him to first, learn to read, and, then step-by-step, to escape slavery and later become a leading spokesman for abolition, as his calling from God. He’s usually just one of the faces on the wall of classrooms for Black History Month. To read his own words about his life, his convictions, and how they unfolded, is gripping. I wish more Americans of all ethnic backgrounds would rediscover his work. Until I read his autobiography, I had no idea what a Christian giant he was, much more than only a political activist. The two were inseparable in who he was, and the fight for abolition flowed from his faith and transformed life thru Jesus Christ. Later in his life, he was also active in working for women to get the vote.

(Ken Cukrowski) #11

A couple of thoughts:

  1. Could we say that race, much like gender (vs. sex), is a social construct, and it would be much more helpful to talk in terms of ethnicity? That is, to divide people based on skin color (for instance) is as arbitrary as categorizing humans based on height or hair color?

  2. Theologically, it seems like Genesis 1:26-28 would be foundational (i.e., all humanity is created in God’s image and thus worthy of respect), as well as other passages like Galatians 3:28 (our identity in Christ is not based on ethnicity) and 5:6 and 6:15 (where ethnicity is described as an adiaphoron), not to mention Eph 2:11-21 (where Christ’s work is described as unifying humanity and breaking down the dividing wall of hostility based on ethnicity).

Thus, based on the activity of God in creation and Christ in redemption, one finds a solid basis for unity among humanity and no basis for divisions or hostility with regards to race/ethnicity.

(Christy Hemphill) #12

I think it is more helpful to talk in terms of culture or ethnicity. Especially since historically, racial categories were more or less imposed on people, but ethnic or cultural categories are self-selected. We can choose which culture or ethnicity we choose to identify with.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #13

Evolution as a struggle for existence, however, was quickly claimed as justification for the subjugation of all peoples under fitter Europeans.

from the essay.

Id it still scientific to say that “evolution is a struggle for existence,” even though this claim has never been scientifically verified. Science through Spencer and Darwin have given us Survival of the Fittest, which has been used or misused in many ways.

I really do not see much good of doing away with the concept of superior races, if science allows Survival of the Fittest to stand as the scientific definition of Natural Selection.

If BioLogos really wants to make a significant contribution to the rejection of racist views, it should point out that the struggle for survival found in the phrase Survival of the Fittest is false science and condemned by the Christian faith. For documentation see my book, Darwin’s Myth: Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life.

(John Dalton) #14

Are they always though? It seems to me they can be as arbitrary as race and regarded as equally inflexible, in many contexts.


My comment really presents as a question which takes the whole discussion of “race” back way much further. Decades ago when I studied physical anthropology at university, we were led to believe that the branch of evolution which led to humans passed through the Neanderthals which eventually developed into Modern Man. As I understand it, with more evidence emerging, it seems that various branches broke off at different times, but these various branches converged so as to be able to interbreed. As a consequence, people like me who have ancestry going back to northern Europe, typically have around 2-4% of Neanderthal DNA. The Denisovan line may have more surprises, and perhaps there are more hominin lines still waiting to be discovered.

It occurred to me that if Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) began their journey out of Africa in small bands, then those small bands might reproduce their way to extinction for genetic reasons. If this is the case, (and that is the unknown in my thinking), then philosophically speaking, it was the embracing of human differences which led to the survival of the human race. Furthermore, if this interbreeding of convergent human form was essential for the survival of the human race, then this aspect of evolution gives evidence of the providence of God in human evolution. But is this idea that the AMHs needed a wider gene pool for survival, valid?

A final note: In talking, most people don’t realise that the name “Neanderthal” is German for Neander Tal, - in German, Neander Valley. The valley was so named after church pastor and hymn writer, Joachin Neander, who gained inspiration from the location. It seems it is continuing to inspire. “Praise my soul the King of Heaven”!

(Christy Hemphill) #16

Maybe you could give an example of what you are thinking.

I have an ethnically Swedish and Dutch heritage, but whether I choose to identify with that is largely up to me. I would not normally identify myself as Swedish-American, or Dutch-American, just American, and no one is going to impose that ethnic/cultural identity on me. I have relatives for whom the Swedish part or the Dutch part is still a really important part of who they are and how they self-identify. My biracial cousin whose Nigerian father has been out of the picture for a long time chooses to identify with African-American culture through dress, speech patterns, entertainment choices, etc., even though that is not the culture of his mother or his African father. Maybe to a certain extent membership in that cultural group has been imposed on him, but he also made choices to embrace it in his teen years when he intentionally changed the way he talked and looked. Prince Henry’s fiancee made different choices of cultural identification as a biracial woman and I think most people see her as simply “American.” My cousin and Meghan Markle and my youngest brother all have similar skin color, so obviously there is more going on than people looking at your skin tone and telling you who you are.

(Christy Hemphill) #17

The “concept of superior races” does not apply to humans. That has been pointed out repeatedly in these articles. Back in the day, “races” meant species, and there is only one human species.

(John Dalton) #18

I think in an American context that’s true, and certainly others, and maybe that’s all that’s important for this thread. As extreme counter-examples, I’m thinking of things like the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, Yugoslavia, and European Antisemitism in the 20th century. In different places today, I think opinions about the issue would lie on a spectrum between those two extremes.

(Christy Hemphill) #19

Those are contexts where culture/ethnicity was used to promote genocide. Race constructs often have ethnic components. All it shows is that people can be prejudiced based on lots of factors. Most religious conflict has an ethnic basis because religion is a big part of ethnic identities. (Like in Burma right now with the Rohinga). I think maybe it is hard to tease apart our ideas of race and ethnicity.

(John Dalton) #20

This is true. I think underlying attitudes would have to exist to be exploited to that extent, however. It could be interesting to look into it a bit. Those are indeed extreme examples, but I’m not sure most places have as pliable a scheme as is more common in the US.

Maybe both are subsets of broader tribal-type thinking and inclinations.

(Christy Hemphill) #21

What I think is interesting is the effect of globalization, immigration, and inter-marriage on the concept of ethnicity. Some groups/individuals become very bi-cultural, maintaining certain practices and allegiances for generations even as they fully embrace a wider “mainstream culture” as well. Other groups/individuals put aside most of the practices and markers that would identify them “ethnically” but maybe the identity is still important in some ways on a psychological or social level even if it is not important in shaping their culture. It is important to my sister-in-law to identify as Latina because her father was Mexican (he died when she was young in a car accident), even though she looks like her Italian-American mother, can’t speak Spanish, took my brother’s Swedish last name, and doesn’t seem to regularly participate in anything that one associates with Latino culture. Maybe that is why it is all the more important to let people define their identities instead of trying to invent some kind of “objective” categories based on nationality or geography or whatever.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #22


Your response to my post is not responsive.