By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board
Those eight words are an oft-used expression these days as the nation grapples with race, racism, justice, prejudice and a myriad of other topics causing friction among people of various skin tones, especially among blacks and whites.
But the statement is true; there really is only one race. Unfortunately, the phrase is frequently delivered as a politicized retort rather than as a humble declaration deeply rooted in biblical veracity, and Christians must migrate from a political to theological perspective when stating there is only one race. Here are some fundamental questions to which we should seek answers to correctly inform the spirit of our response.
• Does the Bible say anything about race?
• How can we know for sure if there is truly only one race, the human race?
• If there is only one race, then how do we explain the eight billion different-looking people out here?
• And if there is only one race, then is it possible for racism to exist at all?
The singularity of race is established in Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
The Bible gives no indication that God created any other human race ever at any point in history. When passages throughout Scripture mention mankind (such as Psalm 8:4 – “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”), they represent a single race encompassing the totality of humanity. The human race was created by God to have unadulterated harmony with God and with each other.
However, sin entered the world by means of man’s pride. Sin birthed animosity, hatred and a sense of superiority first culminating in the dramatic murder of Abel by his brother Cain (Genesis 4). The Old Testament is replete with strife and division as people groups waged war against each other vying to dominate and subject other groups and nations. Little has changed as our contemporary world reveals struggles by one “race” to maintain or gain dominance over another.
One could argue the West is more sophisticated in how we go about exerting dominance, but evidence of that exertion is still present. We use the word “racism” to define the combination of animosity and dominance.
If it’s true that there is only one race, then who are the billions of different people we classify as different races? Aren’t they all races too? This is where words, theology, and humanism collide.
The word “race” is a sociological construct that began appearing in the 16th Century but gained application in the ideologies and theories that grew out of the work of 19th-century anthropologists. Interestingly, the definition of “race” robs from the definition of “ethnicity,” which is problematic. We unfortunately misuse the word “race” to define ethnic distinctions.
So what has all this to do with the different peoples of the world?
Well, ethnography is the study of ethnicities, and is an examination of people who share similarities of a common language, ancestry, history, society, culture, nation or social treatment within their residing areas.
Ethnography began as early as 480 BC, thousands of years before sociology and anthropology created and applied the term “race.” According to the Joshua Project, there are currently at least 13,000 ethno-linguisitic groups in the world. The Bible definitely talks about ethnicities because God is responsible for creating them.
If you recall, God severely disrupted the prideful, humanistic pursuit of humanity at the Tower of Babel by confusing its singular language and the desire of the people to “make a name for themselves” (Genesis 11:4). God then dispersed them over the face of the earth, thereby initiating many ethnicities (not races). But why? Why would God do that?
Answer: To save us from ourselves. Man’s effort to create a utopia of ethnic harmony would collapse due to a society built by sinful pride. At Babel, man tried creating unity, power and supremacy through human means. At the cross, God revealed the unifying power of the gospel nested in the supremacy and glory of Jesus Christ.
Don’t miss this next part in history’s arc. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 both state there will be some “from every tribe, tongue and nation” (Greek is the “ta ethne”) worshipping before the throne of God’s Son. And isn’t it amazing that we will all keep our ethnic distinctions in heaven!
The chasm of aggressive, divisive dissimilarity among the world’s peoples – between blacks and whites – becomes a harmonic symphony only through the heart-changing, pride-crushing power found in the gospel of Jesus Christ constructed on the preeminent foundation of God’s glory.
A corollary for the Christian: One cannot legitimately claim to be a follower of Christ and simultaneously harbor prejudice toward another member of the human race, redeemed or otherwise. Believers of all colors equally share the sweet fellowship found at the foot of the cross while sharing the task of leading others to that same holy ground regardless of their ethnicity.
Make no mistake, racism is real because there is definitely “prejudice, discrimination, and antagonism directed against people on the basis of their membership in different ethnic groups.” Unfortunately, many of God’s people still wrestle with their own racism and prejudice, which is why we must fully embrace the biblical understanding of grace, humble ourselves before God and others, rid ourselves of prejudice, reconcile with our brothers and sisters of other colors and get on with the ministry of reconciling the human race to God first (and then to each other) as Paul describes in II Corinthians and Jesus mandates through the Great Commission.
And then when we say, “There is only one race, the human race,” let’s elevate the statement to more than a verbal thunderclap delivered to quash arguments with which we disagree. Let’s let it be an anthem that trumpets the glory of God through the beauty of His design for a redeemed humanity. B&R