The Problem of "Race" when it comes to Religion

The category of “race” is becoming more and more problematic as it becomes more and more outdated–soon, one hopes, it will be nothing more than a relic of history, a way we used to talk about and categorize people that no longer serves any constructive purpose.  While there may be some advantages to the category, biologically–tracking certain gene mutations, for example, or propensities to disease–these are far outweighed by the ways in which “race” is used by dominate populations to marginalize and oppress minority and/or vulnerable populations.  [And, thanks to intermarriage and migration, one wonders how long the category of race is going to be viable biologically, either.]

This issue of race is particularly relevant for Christians, as Western Christianity continues to have a tendency to conflate race and religion in ways that further persecute religious minorities.  This article from The Daily Beast points to how that happened just last week, with the bombing in Boston:

The author notes the contention around whether or not the brothers can/should be described as “white” [noting ironically that, coming from the Caucasus region, it’s pretty hard to argue that they are not “Caucasian”]. In a country still very much in the grip of racism, whiteness is still conflated with “goodness,” and when someone does something terrible, white America wants to point the finger at someone else, an “outsider,” an “other.” And, what has happened along with that process is that “whiteness” also has been conflated with “Christian,” such that any religious minority that is viewed as threatening also is deemed “non-white.”  This is especially true in the case of Islam.  Beinart writes, “Because in public conversation in America today, “Islam” is a racial term. Being Muslim doesn’t just mean not being Christian or Jewish. It means not being white.”  

I would argue that at least as much, if not more than anyone else, Christians should resist this stereotyping, and stand up for greater inclusion and equality among those who are different, especially those who are persecuted because of their faith.  When Jesus tells his disciples to love as he has loved [Sunday’s Gospel text], he isn’t endorsing an insider’s view of loving those who look and act like we do.  Instead, he is commanding the disciples to love the enemy, love the hated, love the different, love the “other,” just like he did, over and over in his ministry–especially when that “other” is vulnerable and/or vilified.  And that means being willing to be vilified ourselves.  Whether we like it or not, at least part of the Gospel message for Sunday morning is love for the Tsarnaev brothers–not because we approve of what they did, or because we think they are right–but because they were created in God’s image, and because God loves them.  And surely sharing that love is at least part of what it means to follow Jesus.

One thought on “The Problem of "Race" when it comes to Religion

  1. Not only is it a relevant question for Christians, but Willie Jennings argues, very effectively in my judgment, that Christianity created the notion of race as we understand it in the north American context. His book “The Christian Imagination” is powerful, and won the AAR award a couple of years ago.


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