Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Theological Basis of Ecclesial Anti-Racist Witness

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Theological Basis of Ecclesial Anti-Racist Witness

Article excerpt

Despite the efforts of the contemporary civil rights movement, churches in the US continue to be largely segregated, marked by the symbolic "fall" of racism and white supremacy. Yet these are social constructs produced by humans, not created by God. Therefore, they can be changed by human beings. Theology and ethics offer many resources for such transformation. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ indicates that God has not left "the little ones" on earth by themselves. The more racism is dismantled and white supremacy overcome, the more closely all humankind will approach the destiny desired by God. Christ's spirit, ushering in a New Self and a New Common Wealth, transforms individuals and social structures, bringing new freedom to serve common interests and removing barriers to full personhood. In the meantime, progressive-minded people can carry out anti-racism efforts in developing the church's theological witness to racial justice, and in changing organizational and systemic structures and processes.

Though the contemporary civil rights movement was a heroic effort, led primarily by black churches, 11 o'clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. How is this possible, given that Christians of all colors claim to be followers of Jesus who walked this earth? To understand this reality of the persistence and pervasiveness of racism, especially in the majority of today's churches, and to delve into how theology and ethics help motivate anti-racism work in and through the church, it is helpful to take a look at four things: a definition of racism, the history of racism during slavery, a theological and biblical basis for healthy race relations, and some practical steps to combat racism. If we are to speak about anti-racism work and its relation to theology and the church, then we need to be clear on the topic we are discussing, the history of the topic, theological resources for new race relations, and some practical suggestions.

Racism Defined

The African American philosopher Charles W. Mills points out the constructed nature of race in the following definition. Mills lays out seven criteria he uses for defining race in contemporary US society. And these elements usually overlap. He cites (1) bodily appearance (a function of biology and sociology); (2) ancestry (a function of biology and sociology); (3) self-awareness of ancestry (a function of biology and socialization); (4) public awareness of ancestry (a function of biology and socialization); (5) culture (based only on socialization); (6) experience (a function only of socialization); and (7) subjective identification (a combination of biology and socialization).1 These criteria indicated by Mills substantiate my definition of race in the United States context.

For me, race is a combination of biological phenotype and social description. On the one hand, God has created the phenotypes of race or we receive our phenotype from our parents. Biologically and naturally, some are born into the world with distinctiy identifiable appearances. No human engineering can erase completely these given racial characteristics. On the other hand, from the sociological angle, in the United States human beings live out the spoken and unspoken omnipresence of pre-determined racial classification all the time. In fact, an American, by definition, is a racial being.

And so, in my definition, race results from combining both biohgical and sociological traits. For example, take the definition of who is black in US contexts. In America, certain biological phenotype attributes are given by nature (or created by God) and have been societally labeled as black. Yet, in one sense, these same features in another country and culture would destroy the idea of blackness found in the American context. For instance, some American blacks with light skin would become, in the global dispersion, Algerian (in northern Africa), South African "Coloured" (in South Africa), Mulatto (in Brazil), Brahmin (in India), or Samoan (in the Pacific Islands). …

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