Before any discussion of race can occur, we must first ask whether or not the places we choose to worship affirm our humanity. Theology must speak the language of the believer, so how language gets used in your church is significant. I experience God as a Black woman and I read the Bible from that experience. How we understand God, and who God is to us, has both a cultural and communal context. Theology may have an academic/taught in the classroom formal aspect, but theology is also lived life. All human beings are mired in social frameworks, and there is no such thing as an unbiased, objective reading of the Bible. So the first thing to do when using the Bible to talk about race is to acknowledge the human subjectivity of the process, and determine if your church affirms that humanity.
Next, understand that the concept of race as we know it today does not exist in the Bible. Race is a modern and social construct, and it defines white as the ‘racial norm’ while blackness is seen more as more of a limitation. Consider the language of ‘minority.’ Speaking specifically here about race matters between blacks and whites, race has been used historically in America to apply limits to blackness and to define what constitutes a “black body” for the purposes of establishing white supremacy. For example, the one-drop rule, a binary classification that determined that if either parent had a drop of black/sub-Saharan African blood, the offspring would be legally defined as a Negro (or whatever the ‘lesser class’ was determined to be).
Here are some ways churches can have conversations about race as Christian education:
Reject the ‘whitenization’ of the biblical text. Art, media, and popular culture have a long history of white-washing biblical characters and their respective geographic locations, even though a quick look at the people who live in those regions now are clearly people of color. You can outline the ‘white Jesus’ model Hollywood presents us with and consider that religious images often take on the shape and form of the dominant culture for obvious imperial reasons. Of course, we have no idea what Jesus looked like. But a good bet is to examine the areas where he ministered. Baby Jesus was taken to Egypt to hide him from Herod. Acknowledge that many of the major nations identified as biblical regions, areas like Cush and Put, are African territories. Help your black congregants see themselves in the text. A great resource for this work is “Black Biblical Studies” by Charles B. Copher, a scholar who dedicated his life’s work to recapturing the Black presence in the Bible.
Employ the work of scholars from differing social locations, even if you don’t have people of color in your congregation. Even if you are facing an all-white congregation, readings of Scripture should consider those life experiences and social structures that are informed by race:
All of these, and more, build a socio-cultural framework that informs their lives and more than that, their faith responses to their lives. Incorporate these perspectives in your teachings.
Consider how the experience of difference in the ancient biblical cultures can speak to modern realities. The Bible may not speak specifically about race as we understand it today, but there are plenty of texts that speak to ethnic and cultural difference. Consider how First Nation/Native Americans might hear biblical texts that tell the Israelites to go in and occupy Canaan despite the fact that there are people already living there. Consider the tension between the Jews and the Samaritans that comes up repeatedly throughout the New Testament; for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the definition of a neighbor, and the tendency of Jesus to go into foreign occupied territories. The encounter with Legion in Gadarene, the confusion of the disciples when they found Jesus speaking with a woman in Samaria are just a few examples of Jesus encountering difference and you can explore his responses to it.
This is also a prime opportunity to discuss Jesus’ encounters with people who are not Jewish. The New Testament is replete with exchanges and encounters between Jesus and nonJews (Gentiles) and you can make the case that his response to them is one of acceptance. As we struggle with this, remember the disciples did too: the response of the disciples when they find Jesus engaged with the Samaritan woman (John 4:27-30; 39-42), a rivalry so fierce the Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t even share utensils with each other (Jn. 4:9). You can use biblical stories like this as a way of talking about the Christian response to people who have been treated badly and encourage the people to parse that in a 21st century reality.
Affirm Jesus’ concern for how human beings are treated, particularly those considered outcast. If I were advising a white church on how to speak about modern day racial tensions using the Bible, I might use an example from pop culture, the film “A Time to Kill. ” If you haven’t seen this movie, you can find a summary of it here. There is a courtroom scene in “A Time to Kill” when Jake Tyler Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) described everything that happened to Carl Lee Hailey’s (played by Samuel L. Jackson) ten-year-old daughter when she was beaten and raped by two men, and he asked the jury to consider how they would feel if this precious, violated girl had been white. Please think about why that corollary was even necessary. If the Christian message is love, why is it such a struggle to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes? Can we love our neighbor if we cannot empathize with them? Encourage your people to describe their feelings when they place themselves in the shoes of the people who loved Tyre King. Terrence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott. And so very many others.
Of course, these guidelines simply skim the surface of possibility in using the Bible to talk about race. It goes without saying that how the Bible is handled within congregations has far-reaching impact. It is a solemn, sacred duty, and preaching and teaching the gospel without consideration of the myriad of lenses it will be filtered through makes this task at best, incomplete. Paul admonishes us not to be ashamed of the gospel. But don’t be a shame to it, either. We can never forget that theology itself is formed in and through social structures. Look for God in the experiences of the other. Racial bias is a form of suffering. Oppression is suffering. Theologically, where is God in it? and from the point of view of social justice, how can we work to alleviate it? Is that not the work and the way of the Christ?