Why race matters in the church

Why race matters in the church August 7, 2013

When my wife and I were in Uganda in 2011 we attended liturgy at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Kampala one Sunday. Following the service, the priest Fr. Anastasios sidled up to a woman named Anastasia and joked that the two were siblings. Laughter ensued. The jest worked because they shared the same name but were obviously unrelated. Anastasia is white; Fr. Anastasios is black.

I recently read a report about growing diversity in the church and came across a sentiment that hit me sideways. “Our congregations, like our society,” it said, “still are far from a place in which color and nationality are irrelevant, but there has been change in a positive direction” (emphasis added).

Diversity is markedly up in some churches, and as the father of two Ugandan boys I agree that’s very positive. But are we shooting toward the irrelevancy of race? If yes, then as the father of two Ugandan boys I think we’re missing something.

Race and the providence of God

The desire for a colorblind society seems more like a gnostic fantasy than anything bordering on reality. We are not disembodied souls. Genetics and geography and language and history and family are incarnational. They are part of the flesh-and-blood reality of being human. By doing away with them, we do away with us.

This fantasy is particularly problematic in the church because if we believe in any sort of providence, we have to recognize that we are born in distinct places at distinct times to distinct groups within distinct cultures for distinctly divine purposes. Anastasia isn’t Ugandan, and Fr. Anastasios isn’t American — or Indian or Russian or Lebanese or Argentine or Swedish. Our diverse nationalities roll up into God’s plan for our very salvation. If God works all things for our good, that all includes place, race, and ethnicity. In the economy of faith, they all play a part.

There are of course contexts in which race and ethnicity are truly irrelevant — our participation in the sacraments, for example, and our place in the family of God. But to discount race in the name of colorblindness or “change in a positive direction” seems at best naive and at worst dishonoring. It would be a profound shame if my sons lost their history, lost their story.

The path to a new humanity

While respecting and even celebrating our differences, we should not lose sight of Anastasia and Fr. Anastasios. From the beginning Christians have seen themselves as a new and different people, a “peculiar people” (1 Pet 2.9), a people in but not of (Letter to Diognetus 5-6). The name shared by Anastasia and Fr. Anastasios bears the clue. It’s Greek for resurrection.

In his resurrection Jesus constituted a new humanity, one that takes up all the races, all the peoples of the world, and sets them like Adam and Eve in the Eden of his church to eat together of the Tree of Life, the Eucharist. That is how Paul can say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female. We are all one in Christ (Gal 3.27-28).

But the same Paul also speaks of his brothers the Jews and being of the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 9.3, 11.1; Phil 3.5). We all converge in Christ, but we all come from different directions.

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