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Crossing the Divide: The Fiction of Race Post-Babel
“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed time and the boundaries of their dwellings…” Acts 17:26
Readers, I’d like to submit to you that race is an opportunistic fiction. It is a story that European men composed for the purpose of justifying the enslavement of African peoples. It is a novel written on the epidermis of every person, causing melanin to serve as the text we are all forced to read. Race is a socially constructed system of categorization based on superficial biological determinants for the purpose of economic classification. I was not born black. I was born human. Society looked at me and deemed my physical features as belonging to the race called “black.” But Race is no less a fiction than Peter Pan and his lost boys. Welcome to Neverland because Race is not real. What is real is the daily-lived experiences we have depending on the racial categorization that society has determined we belong to. Racism is real. Racism is the systematic oppression of a particular group of people based on their nationality or the color of their skin. Racism is more than name-calling. It’s more than looks of disdain. Racism is more than unwanted followers in your shadow as you shop. Racism is the lived experience of the socially-deemed inferior that oftentimes ends in a death sentence. Race is the fiction that maintains Racism’s reality.
In the book of Genesis we read that God made Man (humanity) in Their image – male and female. Made from the dust of the ground, there is no Scripture in the Bible that speaks to the physical appearance of the first man and woman. All we know is that they were formed from the soil that surrounded the rivers Pishon, Gidhon, Hiddekel, and the Euphrates. This indicates that the first man and woman lived around what we would consider to be the Middle East: Northeast Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Such knowledge still does not guarantee that they possessed the phenotypical characteristics of those who currently reside in such parts of the world. The complexion of Adam and Eve remains a mystery to us today and I believe it is the absence of such knowledge that enables us to read their characters instead of their colors. In the same way an unnamed character in a novel is a device an author uses to encourage the reader to see anyone as that character, such erasure of race within humanity’s origin narrative also permits every reader, regardless of heritage, to identify with Adam and Eve’s creation, their Fall, their life, and their death. Because the biblical narrative inhibits us from having any knowledge of how melanin expressed itself on their epidermis, every human being can relate to Adam and Eve’s existence and their experience. At the beginning, Race was not an ingredient used to compose the holistic ontology of humanity. Such reveals that race is not needed for community, solidarity, or even the understanding of human nature. The only thing that is needed for humanity to experience community, solidarity, and the understanding of human nature is membership within the human family.
The book of Genesis goes on to tell us how the human family grew in number, but also in their distance away from God. The sin of their foreparents partnered with their own complicity caused the Antediluvians to drift further and further away from the Creator. This division sin perpetuated between humanity and God caused men and women to follow in the desires of their flesh and disregard the holy, good, and loving nature of God.
Genesis 6:5-6 in the NKJV says, 5“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” In this passage, the author shares how our thoughts, our words, and our deeds, caused the all knowing, all powerful, and ever-present God to feel like He made a mistake when He made Man. The God who we believe can and does no wrong, who makes no mistakes, here in verse 6 is regretting that He even made Man, to the point of deep grief.
As an act of cleansing, God flooded the entire Earth and aimed to restart the human race with a faithful few who were part of Noah’s family. The descendants of Noah grew and as they multiplied they inhabited the Earth. While humanity’s residence upon the Earth was expanding, they were all ultimately connected by the fact that they all shared one spoken language. This enabled them to build and create as one. At one point the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
Desiring to rise to the Heavens and elevate themselves to the place of God, these children of Noah sought to glorify their own names rather than the name of the Creator. Recognizing the power of a united language, the Bible says,“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, ‘Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” In scattering everyone all over the Earth, God created and instituted difference, diversity. This scattering did not create race.
Some scholars would have you believe that after the dispersal of people to various ends of the Earth that racial variety was thus created. While the tropical, dry, moderate, continental, and polar climates are all environments that affected the skin of the inhabitants differently, producing variations in color and melanin levels, such manifestations do not constitute the classification “Race.” Such merely reveals that when God made Man, He equipped our flesh with the ability to adapt to our environment for survival. Race, then, is man’s attempt to name variation within the human family. This need to identify difference was exponentially heightened during the European Expansion.
Between 1450 and 1750, European explorers traveled across the world “discovering” not just new lands, but new people. With the goal of economic and political conquest in mind these explorers had to validate the slaughter of an entire people, and the enslaving of another. The Irish were one of the first people groups conquered and enslaved. Being similar in appearance, these European Protestants, newly enlightened by Martin Luther’s Reformation, determined the Irish were inferior because they were Catholic.
As colonization continued and European explorers ventured into India, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, Europeans continued to conquer and enslave. But the rule was that only non-Christians could be enslaved. Once a slave converted, they were to be released. This rule proved problematic as both Irish and African slaves began to convert to Christianity. It was at this moment that Europeans found that the most lucrative difference they could capitalize on was humanity’s difference in skin color.
Orchestrating an entire economic system on the purchase and sale of black flesh, Europeans composed the language of Race and finally created a spoken language that all of humanity would use. Now at the peak of globalization, there is no place you can go in the world that does not possess a color caste. There is no country that does not operate on a system of skin-based racial categorization. The language of race is the one spoken language that all of humanity speaks, and it is the one spoken language that has allowed some to climb the tower of social privilege. But they couldn’t even keep their story straight.
Once Race was created, it changed depending on which particular group of people Europeans needed to exercise power over. As stated earlier, the Irish were not always considered White, neither were the Jews, nor the Italians. This is why I can say that Race is an opportunistic fiction. Race is an ever-changing story that those classified as “white” tell so long as it fits their economic and political needs.
Jacqueline Jones, in her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, states, “Race signifies neither a biological fact nor a primal prejudice, and it lacks the coherence of a robust political ideology; rather, it is a collection of fluid, contingent mythologies borne of (among other imperatives) fighting a war, assembling a labor force, advancing the designs of demagogues, organizing a labor union, and preserving voting and public schooling as privileges reserved for some, rather than as rights shared by all” (xi). In other words, it is the one spoken language since humanity’s dispersal that has effectively united us unto disunity.
This means that our first step to crossing the divide of Race is to disavow ourselves from the language of Race. (Let that sink in.) I’m not saying you need to turn away from your culture and heritage. Culture and heritage are the fruit of difference that God intended to birth by scattering humanity to various parts of the earth. What I am saying is that your attachment to the socially constructed classifiers “black,” “white,” “Hispanic,” etc. bases your humanity on the color scheme of your epidermis. Genesis shows us that our humanity lies not in the color of our skin, but in the colors of God’s image reflecting within.
The beauty of being human is that my being is a reflection of the very image of God. Yes, my form has had certain experiences that have shaped my worldview and my cultural heritage. But because my humanity roots my very inward parts in the nature and essence of God the experiences my flesh has had, and is attached to, are required to submit to the God who put on flesh – Jesus Christ. When we have a choice to connect and find meaning through the beautiful gift of God’s reflected image in humanity, why do we continue to choose to find our essence, our being, our significance, in a mere cell created to help protect our flesh from UV radiation?
I champion my blackness more than I champion my reflection of the image of God. I defend my blackness more than I defend my reflection of the image of God. I embrace my blackness more than I embrace my reflection of the image of God. This, my friends, is why we cannot be reconciled. This is why we struggle to cross the divide: because we continue to seek to have life and being within the lie.
So long as my identity privileges the sin language of Race, my worldview will never be able to see racial reconciliation as inherent to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ken Wytsma in his latest book The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege says, “A new commitment to abolish walls of division flows out of the incarnation, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (45).
Racial reconciliation is not a trending activity. It is a part of how we walk in discipleship with Jesus Christ. So long as we use the language of Race our attempts at reconciliation will continue to run into the wall of incompatibility. So long as my identity privileges the sin language of Race I can remain in disunity and separation with my brother and believe that I have reconciliation and unity with God. It is in rebuking the sin language of Race and replacing it with the salvation language of Reconciliation that my humanity finds its ontology in the Triune God-head. Such a realization stirs my heart toward the work of racial reconciliation because it is through this lens that a white man ceases to be my oppressor, and becomes my brother.
I leave you with this: if Cliff (my biological brother) ever deceived me, took advantage of me, or even exploited me, at the end of the day the story would still read that he was my brother.
When is the Church going to rise up and speak a language different from that of the world? When is the Church going to rise up and champion a social story that truly unites the human race? When is the Church going to rise up and show the world that our differences exist to simply reveal that God appreciates variety? When is the Church going to rise up and see whiteness and blackness for what they are – adaptations to environment passed down?
It is time we embrace that Race is not real. That Race is a fiction. Such an ideological framework will begin to transform our hearts causing us to see that the other is neither the privileged nor the lazy; the oppressor nor the oppressed. The other is not even “the other.” She who does not look like me is the sister whom God gifted me that I might know Them, God in three, through diversity.
For “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…For we are also His offspring.”
-First presented at Adventist For Social Justice 2017 and published on SpectrumMagazine.org