Today I’d like to introduce the concept of “Racial Stewardship” to the evangelical world. I touched on this last year in “4x I was glad to be Asian,” but wanted to expand.
The myth of a post-racial U.S. society has been exposed. America is an increasingly racialized society. Now say what you will about race as a social construct. The fact is that it pervades the American context. Its dominance colors the American reality. Ignoring race in the USA is impossible.
In the racialized American context, much of the discussion has been quite negative. Indeed, our racialized society has acutely revealed its own brokenness. Polarity, divisiveness, and fundamentalisms of all stripes abound in a variety of disturbing manifestations.
There is also a temptation, particularly among evangelicals, to go back to “color-blindness” or assimilationist melting pot metaphors. I’ve seen evangelicals advance a post-racial ideology on the basis of sociology and Scripture. However, I’m not convinced.
First, on the basis of sociological theory, many evangelicals argue that race is merely a social construct. Therefore, since it’s something that developed and came to be in a particular context, it can’t be universal, and if it’s not universal, then why not just ignore race and enter post-racial bliss? I’m not going to sit here and deny that race is a social construction (although I believe that that is only a partial truth). However, just because something is a social construction does not mean that it is useless and irrelevant. Sociologists believe that language is a social construction, but that doesn’t stop any of us from using it, especially for the kingdom. Ever heard of evangelism? Saying that language and race are social constructs rightly recognizes the finiteness of these concepts and their contextual nature, yet can wrongly assume that God is not behind and sovereign over them. Although imperfectly categorized by humans and sometimes used for oppressive purposes, the social concept of race finitely reflects God’s intention and design for a diversely created humanity. From before the foundation of the earth God had a vision. He saw himself being worshiped by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Secondly, and more significantly, evangelicals advance a post-racial ideology on the basis of Scripture. The admirable evangelical insistence on the universal authority of Scripture over all people regardless of race, can become misguided by such temptations. A misguided emphasis on the universal claims of Scripture can lead to the marginalization of racial concerns. Amongst more than a few evangelicals today, race is often seen negatively as nothing but a divisive social construct. After all, doesn’t Galatians 3:28 commend a post-racial ethic and a post-racial worldview to all who are united in Christ?
I don’t think that’s what Apostle Paul was getting at. There is definitely a sense of priority that must be given to our “in Christ” identity. Few passages of Scripture state this truth better than Galatians 3:28. Still, it is unlikely that Apostle Paul’s intention was to flatten Christians’ genders and races into an amorphous identity. Wasn’t it Paul who said that he became all things to all people that he might win some? Wasn’t it Paul who gave specific commands to Jews as Jews, Gentiles as Gentiles, slaves as slaves, masters as masters, men as men, and women as women? In Galatians specifically, Paul’s teaching on justification is that it is offered to people of all cultures. The Gentiles did not have to stop being Gentiles to be justified. But one might object, “Well, but didn’t the Jews have to give up an aspect of their culture? Didn’t the gospel of justification require them to cease the Jewish custom of eating separately from the Gentiles?” To this, I would argue that this Jewish separation was actually a perversion of God’s intention for Abraham’s progeny. Abraham was to be the father of many nations. The true Jewish religion would’ve anticipated an eventual unity accompanied by diversity.
Trust me. At the end of the age, when the people of God come before the throne to worship the Lamb, no one will want to wear “post-racial” lenses. No one will want to miss out on the harmonious symphony in heaven, composed of voices from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
An Alternative to Post-Racial Ideology: Racial Stewardship
Race is admittedly a tricky thing, but it need not be a burden to Christian ministry. Far from it. It’s time to stop viewing the contextual reality of race as something to avoid. Without completely ignoring the complexity of racial construction or the harm of racial ideologies, I suggest that we pause and consider how race might be stewarded positively by evangelicals on mission.
Now, what is “racial stewardship”? By this I mean the notion that one’s race is a gift from God, which must be stewarded (especially by evangelicals on mission). Race and all its baggage can and should be viewed as a resource. Even (maybe even especially) white privilege can be redeemed and treated as a resource for service. It is true that privilege may come from past-historical corporate sins. However, while there is room for being apologetic for the privilege one has received, one should not be overly apologetic to the point of ignoring how such privilege can be used for good. To steward one’s race is to manage and utilize it, just as we do with every other resource or opportunity that God affords to us. Every race enjoys a measure of privilege in a given context, as well as a measure of oppression in a given context. Therefore, racial stewardship is the stewarding of one’s privilege and oppression for the sake of others and to the glory of God.
I want to be careful with this though. I’m aware of how insensitive it could be to say to my black brothers and sisters, living in 2016 America, that they have privileges and that white people experience oppression. That statement, in and of itself, is not the prophetic, contextual, and historically situated message that America most needs to hear at the moment (imho). I am not saying that the different privileges and oppressive forces that face different racial groups are equal. I can’t compare the “black privilege” that existed at my LA Fitness’ basketball court in Philly with the “yellow privilege” that existed at my undergraduate university (UC Irvine). In this sense, it sounds absolutely foolish to even talk about “black privilege” when compared to yellow or white privilege. I do not take lightly the real suffering of those whose realities differ starkly from mine. However, I think it’s important and useful to affirm the latent truth that all races possess a measure of privilege in certain contexts, and face oppression in other contexts.
So to close part one, let me summarize the points I want to communicate through this two part series. I propose this concept of “racial stewardship” to encourage three things. 1) That we start acknowledging the reality of racial diversity. 2) That we recognize this diversity as a gift from God and as something to be managed faithfully. 3) That we shift our often victim-focused discussions of race to positive, constructive and others-centered reflection. Part two will try to work out the implications of these points.