In Today’s Conversation, Leith Anderson and Walter Kim discuss race and the Bible.

We talk about race a lot in the United States. Whether it’s the growing population of Asian Americans, trends in Latino immigration, or racial unrest in metropolitan cities, race plays a major role in the American experience. As evangelicals, we want to start with the Bible.

In this podcast, you’ll hear from a respected pastor and theologian on:

  • What — if anything — the Bible says about race;
  • How the Tower of Babel and Pentecost relate to diversity;
  • The racial situation among first century Christians; and
  • How Christians today ought to respond to racism and racialization.

Read a Portion of the Transcript

Leith: Events of the last couple of years in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, and other places in our country have exposed long-standing injustices and misunderstandings between those in black and white communities and have brought the issue of race to the forefront of many discussions. As evangelicals we want to start with the Bible. What does the Bible have to say about race? That’s the focus of our conversation today, so thanks for joining us, Walter. First, let’s just get right to a basic question — making sure we’re on the same page. What are we talking about when we use the wordrace”? What does that mean?

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Walter: Well, it depends who you ask. If you ask a biologist or sociologist, they would give different answers, but I think functionally when most people consider the issue of race, they associate it with perceptions of physical or genetic characteristics. Characteristics like skin color or facial features, black or white skin tone, Latino or Asian facial features. And it’s this particular access and definition of race that is probably most present on the consciousness of people as they raise this issue to address.

Leith: And I’m assuming that most people notice. I’m sensing that in some cultures this is a bigger deal than it is in others. I had sort of an embarrassing moment recently. I was at a conference with an African American friend, and the topic was race. And a few months later, we were talking about one of the speakers there. And the race of the speaker came up, and I said the person was Caucasian. My friend said the speaker was African American. I looked it up, and I was wrong and he was right. So is our culture more or less addressing and sensitive to this than others in history and around the world?

Walter: I think this really gets at the issue of categorization. As humans we have a finite ability to organize all the information that comes through our senses, and so of course we’re going to try to come up with ways of categorizing the information. And when it comes to people, one of the ways we attempt to categorize is by the features that we see with our eyes and associate with a certain set of meanings — a person’s origin or value or so-forth. This really isn’t a problem just for North Americans; this is really a function of being human —the need to categorize. The real question is: Are the categories that we use appropriate, or can they be misused? And this is where we in America have gotten ourselves into a very complex and challenging situation.

Leith: Let’s tie that back to the Bible. Does the word “race” even appear in the Bible?

Walter: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. The Bible is completely comfortable with this notion of categorization. In fact if you go to the Old Testament in Genesis Chapter 10, categories are in fact used to divide humans. And so you have these table of nations. So you read about the sons of Japheth. “And from these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each within its own language.” The categories that exist — at least in this passage — are territories (geographical categories), nation (political category), clan (familial category), language (linguistic category). But what we notice is that there is no racial category — at least racial in the terms that we use today. Even in the New Testament, this also exists — when we look at the new heavens and the new earth, this redeemed existence of humanity. If there’s ever occasion to obliterate categories, you would think heaven would be that occasion. That we’re all fully sanctified. We’re all made in the image of Christ. But even in that setting, there is categorization. And so we read in Revelation Chapter 5: “And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals because you were slain and with your blood you purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on earth.’” You see there in Revelation 5, the same kinds of categories in Genesis 10 – geographical, political, familial, linguistic. But there again, you also see there are no racial categories. Again, at least in terms of how we understand race. So the Bible definitely has human categorization, but it uses categories that are not quite the categories that we use in North America.

Leith: And yet you mention Japheth and you mention Genesis 10, and that very chapter became the basis for an interpretation of the Bible by slave owners when they would talk about Ham and claim that to be a biblical justification for race-based slavery. So the Bible has been used in this matter some different ways.

Walter: That’s right. And it’s unfortunate, but it is the reality, once again, of our human existence that we often take our own perceptions and the grids of our values — our assumptions, our presuppositions — both ones that are good and generous, but also ones that are tainted deeply by sin. And we read God’s word through these lenses. Again, lenses that in part are filled with grace and charity, but also lenses that are tainted in such a fashion that we are predisposed to find in Scripture affirmation of our own prejudice. This is why we need a diverse community to provide a sort of check and balance system in how we approach Scripture.

Leith: Just to be clear — you are the specialist in the Old Testament, especially Old Testament languages — what these slave owners did was — as I understand it — totally unjustified, and this is simply something that was not in the Bible that they read back in about Ham, is that correct?

Walter: That is correct.

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