Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America. And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”
At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.
You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”
Whose culture, whose race is dividing us? Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).
Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore. The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.
Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here. Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.
Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify. There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.
There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ. Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless. And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.
If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice. Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God. You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us. And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”
Of course, there’s so much more to read and do. But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ. Christians have got to stand for more than that. We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.