Notes Towards a Theology of Race

By Fr. Mark Perkins


Richmond Barthé: Head of a Boy

Editor's note: The following essay is lightly adapted from the final lecture of a class titled "Biblical Slavery in Ancient and American Contexts." (See Fr. Perkins' related essay, "Al Mohler, Slavery, and the Bible.")


Like representative democracy, nation-states, and the Internet, the modern concept of race does not appear in the Bible. The Bible’s lack of an explicit “theology of race” does not, however, mean that it has nothing to say about race — any more than we would consider the Bible to be irrelevant to questions of government, nationalism, or technology. A theology of race must be constructed through the extrapolation of underlying principles and the analogical application of relevant or similar concepts — of which there are many. By examining human origins in Creation, the nature of the Incarnation, and the promise of the Resurrection, we can consider how God’s original intent, ongoing redemptive work, and eschatological purposes relate to race.


To begin with, the creation of the image-bearing human as male and female firmly inscribes difference as a fundamental created good. Male and female are an assertion of community — unity together. It is a unity not just of two humans but of two fundamentally different humans. We do not, it would seem, find the unity God intended through uniformity. Unity in difference is part of the creational mandate. God did not, however, create race. The phenotypic traits we associate with race are part of God’s creative handiwork, but these physical traits are not synonymous with race. Race had to be invented. The precise timing and nature of that invention remain disputed, but almost all scholars agree that to speak of race as a permanent human reality is anachronistic at best. Furthermore, many argue that the category of race was constructed as a deliberate instrument of oppression, making it especially dubious to read racial categorization as divinely created and sanctioned.


Creation provides critical material for theological reflection, but we should not be surprised to find that the most important data concerns Jesus — in particular, his Incarnation and his resurrection. Christ’s Incarnation creates what is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” The Incarnation manifests God to the world and reveals true humanity to humanity. This, then, is the greatest event in cosmic history. And it happened through one human being, a Jewish carpenter in the backwaters of the Roman Empire who lived briefly and died young. It is astonishing that God chose to reveal himself so singularly and through such an apparently obscure life. We might see this as a kind of stinginess on God’s behalf, but it is simply a side effect of creaturely limitations. We humans do not experience universals — or, rather, we only experience the universal through the particular. We never encounter “beauty” as such, but only beautiful things. We never encounter the universal quality of “good” — only goodness. We never encounter “truth” — only truths. Or at least, we did not do so until the universal united himself to the particular in Jesus Christ.


Each of us is, like Jesus, a person who lives briefly and dies — our practical experience of creation is extremely circumscribed! For God to come into relation with such creatures requires that he condescend to the particular, as every story of God’s dealings with his people in the Old Testament confirms. And for the Son of God to take on human flesh requires that he unite to his person just such creaturely limitations. Jesus would have to live a human life — one human life and not another.


The Incarnation, then, offers two relevant principles. First, it teaches us that God cares about difference — about the particular and the peculiar. As my rector likes to say, God loves us in all of our oddness. I know of no better, no more beautiful expression of this principle than Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty”:


Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.


God did not create race, but he is the source of the visible, phenotypic variation we associate with race. And he loves it, and it brings him glory. We do not serve a “colorblind” God.


The second thing we learn from the particularity of the Incarnation is that God cares about human history. When he became Incarnate within history, he forever took up the very flesh of a first-century Jewish man into the divine life of God. In understanding and applying biblical principles, a double historical context matters: not only the context within which the text was written, but also the cultural context into which the text is applied. The God who inspired the text then still speaks through it now. “Race” may not have existed in biblical times — but it surely exists now. And it has been an integral part of the American story. Within the context of American and European history, a “colorblind” Christianity is a de facto white Christianity. The “universalizing” of Jesus — the divorce of Christ from historical context — has served the purpose of whitening him into a European. Liberation theology has rightly responded by foregrounding Christ’s historical context as a marginalized Jew. Yet liberation theologians also tend to historicize Jesus selectively in order to associate him more closely with the racially oppressed of today, and they sometimes fail to do justice to the ongoing reality of the Incarnation. Orthodox theology cannot dethrone one manipulation of the Incarnation — making Jesus a white European — just to replace it with another.


Hale Woodruff: Old Church

While we cannot conceive of Jesus as a racial minority, we certainly should recognize that in his terrestrial life, Christ was noteworthy — scandalous, even — for his association and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed. Moreover, the God who loves his creation and who glorified human history by becoming Incarnate within it brings about redemption in and through history. This life matters. What we have done with race matters. It is part of our history and therefore part of what God must put right. As Esau MacCauley says, God wants to redeem “my whole black self” — uniting the distinctly black story in America to what God is doing in all creation. “My blackness,” he says, “is affirmed as a unique manifestation of God’s desire” to restore all things.


Along with Creation and the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body — a foreshadowing of our own eschatological destiny — provides more ground for a theology of race. Christ’s post-resurrection appearances make it clear that his resurrected body is the same human body that went through the crucifixion — yet transformed. The man Jesus did not lose his distinctiveness. He is identifiably the same person — Mary Magdalene and the disciples both recognize him. But he is not immediately recognizable. Not until Jesus says Mary’s name does she know him; not until Jesus breaks bread do the disciples on the road to Emmaus understand with whom it is that they are sharing a meal.


St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection. At least in some respects, his resurrected body is a model of what our resurrected bodies will be. Everything about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances suggests our resurrected bodies will be recognizably like our bodies now — which surely means that the phenotypic traits we associate with race will continue in the life of the world to come. But if race is a cultural convention — and if it was constructed in order to justify oppression, its persistence into the eschaton would seem to insert a category of oppression into the kingdom of heaven.


One more detail of Christ’s resurrected body may help here. Shockingly enough, that glorified body bears the scars of the crucifixion. Although the Church has never been quite sure just what to make of this, it may well be that what we do now in these bodies — and what is done to these bodies of ours by others — will matter in the hereafter. Though healed and glorified, our resurrected bodies may retain the signs and evidences of the mortal life we lived. Our bodies are not tracksuits to be discarded at the last; they are not superfluous fleshy containers of what really matters. Our bodies are, rather, the immortal creation of God Himself, incorporated into Christ here and now, to be resurrected and perfected in the life of the world to come. At very least, we can say that race will continue into the eschaton as part of our life stories — stories which were united to the life story of Christ when we were grafted into his Mystical Body, the Church.


Given the early modern origins of race as an organizational category to justify enslavement and oppression, we must conclude that racial categorization as such is not part of God’s good intentions. We have already seen, though, that the phenotypical traits we associate with race are in fact part of God’s good creation. We must further assert that the cultures and communities and ways of being in the world associated with race can be and often are good. The God who superintends all things — who, from the perspective of eternity, works all things “together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28) — that God will honor and preserve the good in racial difference, even as he ultimately roots out and makes right the evils of racism and oppression.


Union with Christ does not eliminate our differences, but in Christ the power, merit, and worth ascribed to these differences will be undone — for “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28, NRSV). The logic of the passage does not require the elimination of all distinctions — grace perfects but does not destroy nature, and thus we do not cease to be male and female. But it does mean that the injustice, sin, and harm that flow from such differences in this fallen world will be healed in Christ.


Furthermore, we learn in Revelation that, despite their being “no longer Jew or Greek” in Christ Jesus, the ethnos — the “nations” — continue in the eschaton (i.e. Rev. 21:24-26). We should be cautious in transmitting the “nations” into our contemporary context — these ethnos are neither races nor modern nation-states. Still, at the very least we can affirm that the kingdom of heaven will not eliminate distinctive human communities. Christ's own mystical Body, the Church, is composed of “many members” whose differences are as fundamentally good, complementary, and enduring as the differences between the various parts of any human body (1 Cor. 12). It must be that, somehow, the variation in human communities that make up the ethnos can be made part of that good diversity which brings God glory — and which can become part of our worship of God.


We must never lose sight of the eschatological end towards which all liberation properly points: doxology. God’s demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery in Exodus was specifically “so that they might worship me.” We are freed from the bondage of sin precisely through being enslaved to God — which enslavement turns out to be true freedom. In the eschaton we will bring our whole, healed selves before God in worship.


“For at that time I will change the speech of the people to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering” (Zeph. 3:9-10, ESV).


Along with every part of our life, the wounds of racial oppression, suffered or inflicted, will be healed in the redemption and consummation of all things, though it may be that the scars will remain — as a testament to who we were, what we did, what was done to us.


Fr. Mark Perkins is (about to be) Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar.