Culture and Race: Can They Be Separated?
When we talk about racism we think of mainly the degradation of a people based on their ethnic looks or racial background. This is the fundamental definition of racism, the one everyone can agree on. However, what happens when racism goes and roots itself in other areas of life? What happens when racism and its grimy hands affect other areas?
We know a lot of different areas in which racism can reach. Systems being the main one, it reaches in other areas as well. We see it affecting educational, social, geographical, and economic circles. But I believe there is one area that is unaddressed in the discussion when it comes to race and racism. Culture.
Can we separate the discussion of race and racism from culture? Does culture need to be included in the conversation at all? These questions have come up more and more. The most recent public discussion of this came in the form of a twitter discussion turned blog between a well-known Christian writer for the “The American Conservative”, Rod Dreher and Jamar Tisby, author and President of “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective”. I cannot go into great detail about what happened, but what essentially happened wasRod Dreher was working through the issue of the POTUS’s most recent statement about Haiti and some African countries and made some statements about how no one would view it as a good thing to want poor people or section 8 people moving into their neighborhood. In response, Jamar Tisby addressed him via twitter. This turned into a blog response from Rod Dreher, which you can read Here and the response to that from Jamar Tisby you can find Here.
The debate eventually boiled down to the point that Rod didn’t see it as a color issue but a cultural issue. Jamar disagreed. But the very fact that the disagreement is being had, in my opinion, only proves we cannot talk about race without addressing culture. Rarely do we think of black or white without thinking about where they live, their education, their likes and dislikes or beliefs or political leanings. All these are linked to people groups and are of themselves culture. I understand this is a very dense topic and people will have different views. So I want to attempt to show my thoughts on this question to the best of my ability based in the Word of God. I think it would be good to define some terms first.
Definitions. What does the word culture mean? Webster Dictionary says it is this: “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.”
or: “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
And Racism? Webster says this: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”
or:”a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles.”
So how do these two tie together? I would say that the belief that a certain ethnic group is better than another based on race (Racism) will lead to creating social groups and beliefs (culture) that minimize and uplift one over the other. This is a base for systemic racism. But does this mean culture in and of itself is sinful? Yes and no. How can it be both? Let’s look at scripture, both Old and New Testament.
Old Testament: In the early parts of the Old Testament we see culture is created in the form of languages at the tower of Babel. In Genesis 11:1-9 we see mankind had decided to build this great tower as a show of power and might. So in response, God came down and gave all of humanity different languages. As a result, people who spoke the same language grouped together. Then, God had them disperse. Now from the outlook, culture seems to be a punishment on mankind. However, at the end we are told that because of their different languages, they were dispersed across the whole earth. This is is to fulfill God’s command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth (Genesis 1:28) and then again to Noah (Genesis 9:1). So culture is in and of itself is not sinful since it was given by God!
Yet we must understand that because of the sin of man, culture can become corrupt. That is why there are different types of idol worship throughout the Old Testament equated with different cultures. the Canaanites worshiped Baal, Egyptians worshiped their types of gods, Babylon was polytheistic and accepted pretty much any god, and so on.
Yet even in this God is not without love and mercy. He called out Abraham from the very world of polytheism (Josh. 24:2) to be the father of a people who would be devoted to Him and be His people. This is Israel. And in doing so, He called them to live a distinctive life form the world. To have a different culture. We know these as the “ceremonial laws.” These laws were given to have Israel live in a way that points all the other nations to the true God and the future savior, Jesus Christ. This included what to eat and not to eat, certain sacrifices, matters of uncleanness, and so on. God called them to live not without culture, but one with Him as the center of their culture! So culture is again shown to be used by God to give Him honor.
What happens is people can take these Old Testament beliefs and say that we aren't supposed to be interacting or intermingling cultures (yes I have heard this before). That is why there is a black and white church today. It’s not about race. It’s about how we do things. Now while I would love to spend a whole discussion on why there is a black and white church in America, I simply don’t have the time to expound on this in detail. But what I will do is say that the use of Old Testament cultural distinctions spoken above is not only detrimental to the mission of the church but also completely ignores the New Testament and what occurs there.
New Testament: The New Testament tells the plan of God’s redemption coming to full fruition with the arrival of Jesus Christ. In His coming to live the perfect life, He kept all of the Law of God. Not the Pharisees’ version and add-ons, but the perfect Law of God. With His death and resurrection, he brought in His followers into salvation and holiness. And He gave them the great commission to take the truth of the gospel to the entire world (Matt. 28:19-21).
And so they did. What I love to see throughout the New Testament is how the gospel enters into different cultures not by trying to change those cultural differences, rather entering into those differences.
Take for example the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip in Acts 8 meets him on his way home from Jerusalem and explains the Old Testament and preaches the Gospel to him. The Ethiopian is saved and goes home to proclaim the gospel to his people. To this day, Ethiopia remains one of the most Christian countries in Africa. If we go to Ethiopia, how they live, the customs, their government, and social circles are culturally distinct, yet Christ is still uplifted.
We continue in the New Testament we see in the next chapter, God prepares Peter to take the gospel to the Gentile the Roman Centurion. And He does it by challenging his cultural leanings (Acts 10:9-16). Why? Because God knew that it would be Peter’s biggest hangup as a model Jewish man. So when he did go, Peter was not hindered by his cultural leanings, and he wasn’t hindered by going into another culture. The Gospel came in and saw a whole family saved and brought into the family of God.
But as we get further into the New Testament, sin still plagues this idea of culture. cultural laws plagued the church. Jewish leaders were looking to bring over their ceremonial and cultural laws and tried to impress them as the main way to live, as a part of salvation. Paul is always addressing that (1 Corinthians 9:1-14; the book of Galatians; Col. 2:16-17).
Yet in all of this, we are also told that we are all one and that no man is better in any way, even in culture (Col. 3:11; Eph. 2:14-19). How can there be distinction yet everyone is the same? Because God’s plan includes both. We are all the same because we are all in need of a savior. Yet we are all distinctive culture-wise because, in it, He is glorified now and will be glorified in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 7:9).
Culture and Race Today.
After looking at scripture, I see only two major cultural distinctions: The way a Christian is to live and the way the world lives apart from God. Then, within the Christian culture, we see a multitude of cultures uplifting the name of God. Now I want to say here that we can talk about culture without talking about race (football culture, church culture, Comic book culture, etc.). What I would venture to believe though is when dealing with racism, culture is and must be a part of the conversation. I believe we all unintentionally link race and culture together.
I firmly believe one of the biggest examples of this is found in the “you act (fill in the blank)” statements. If an African American man speaks in a particular way, he can be told by fellow African Americans he is “talking white.” At the same time, a white person who dresses in a more urban manner and has adopted hip hop as their culture will often be perceived as acting “black.” From the outset, the way a person speaks or their choice of clothing should have nothing to do with race. Yet because of their connection to one race or another, they become a part of their cultural identity.
Or if I may be bold to speak of the mission realm as an example. My friends who have done long-term mission work to a different people group (regardless of color) always have to get to know and be a part of the culture. They learn their language, what they do for relaxation, how they get their food, how their government functions, what the traditions are, and so on. The same must go for us here in America. We cannot dive into dealing with race issues until we understand the culture in which people live.
God never removes nor ignores culture because He created them with distinctions. It is through the gospel both the sinful parts of culture are done away with and the redeemable parts of culture are used to glorify God. So when talking through the racial issues, it is important to remember that culture cannot be ignored nor separated.
With that being said I would offer four points as to be aware of when talking about racism and culture.
Be aware that any culture without God as the center will be prone to sin. Again when I say culture I’m talking about the full gambit of life: from music choices to educational background. All of that applies to a person and their choices of friends and where they live and what they eat. While not all of that is bad in and of itself, its contents can be idols for people. That includes even the one who is coming from the outside in.
Seek to understand the culture. One of my favorite examples of this is Paul in Acts 17 when he went to Athens. He spent days among the people talking to them before he was able to talk to the men of Areopagus, the supreme court of Athens. When he did he was able to speak into their religious culture (Acts 17:22-31). Our call is the same. When speaking about racism, we must go beyond just knowing that racism is wrong. Understanding the culture of the person(s) will be a great opportunity to find the best way to speak gospel truth into the situation and their life.
Be aware of preaching your culture over the gospel. There is this idea that has been equated with predominately the white church that they preach a “westernized” or an “Americanized” way of faith. In other words, they attach their cultural ways and beliefs onto the gospel and say it must be done this way. Worship must be done this way. I am not here to debate whether it is true or not. That is a discussion for a different day. However, I think we do see that warning in scripture. We aren’t to try to save people with our methods of Christian living. We aren’t to try to save people from their culture to our particular culture. We are to preach the gospel and seek the salvation of their souls. When they are saved, their way of life will change and in that so will the sinful parts of their culture. The rest will be shifted to give honor to God.
Rejoice with different cultures. While God shifts and shapes cultures once he saves people, He still allows them to be distinct because that is what gives Him glory. So we as believers can and should rejoice in that. We rejoice that He not only made different races, but we rejoice that He gave each race the ability to worship Him uniquely. We rejoice that He has given us all unique calling into different cultures so that every tongue and nation will be able to praise God! And if we get a chance, we should dive into worship with them!
We need not fear including culture when it comes to talking about race. Understanding culture will not only help battle racism but as we saw with Paul and Peter, will allow us to preach the gospel! When racial harmony shows that God has called distinct people in their different areas and different social connections and political views to come together and worship the same God, nothing speaks more to the honor of God. And when it comes to who gets the honor, we as believers should all agree it is the Lord.