We here in New Zealand may seem far away from the troubles of racism that are convulsing parts of the world today. However a ‘kiwi’ form of soul searching and questions are still necessary at this time. In what ways has our colonial history unconsciously influenced our attitudes? In what ways does ‘white privilege’ blind us to the true state of affairs for people of colour? In what ways have Pakeha silenced the voices of Maori, Pasifika and other ethnic groups?
A particular question for Christians is of course ‘In what ways has the Bible been used as a kind of moral cloak for racism?’ The obvious answer is that the Bible has been used very inventively, for hundreds of years, to justify these attitudes and practices. In Genesis chapter 9 for example, Ham, the youngest son of Noah, was traditionally seen as the father of the black skinned races. Through a curious circumstance, Noah cursed him and declared that his descendants would become slaves to his brothers.
Throughout the New Testament we find the injunction that slaves should obey their earthly masters. In the short letter to Philemon, Paul says that he is sending Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus back to him. Paul exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother in the Lord, however at no point does he invite Philemon to consider setting him free.
These and other texts, were used to justify the slave trade in particular and racism in general. They were also used to promote docility among black slaves. How could a slave possibly break free of what was thought to be a ‘God ordained’ station in life?
Today responsible Biblical scholarship sees things quite differently. While there is agreement that neither Jesus nor Paul actually condemned slavery, there is a consistent emphasis that all people, including people of colour, are made in God’s image and possess an essential dignity.
Furthermore this vision of unity was much more than wishful thinking. We find that on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 people, of every language, class and race, flowed into the church. The list of those who first heard the gospel of God’s grace were from all points of the compass and included people from Europe, Asia and Africa (Acts 2:9-11).
Just a few years later the gospel was embraced by non-Jews in the city of Antioch. The leaders (Acts 13:1) are multi-ethnic group representing 3 continents. Clearly the early Christian communities were remarkable because of their rich diversity of people. There was a fundamental unity in Christ which completely transcended the differences in language, gender, race and class.
The fundamental New Testament text that undergirded this revolution of racial harmony was Galatians 3:28 where Paul says “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.” This does not imply that the differences between people should be obliterated. It is rather a vision of a world where differences were to be celebrated within an overarching unity that is found in Jesus Christ.
So how do we at St Barnabas live out this vision of a renewed humanity? We celebrate our Three Tikanga Church – Tikanga Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika – three strands woven into one. Unity in diversity. We embrace and welcome all those who come from the different nations of the world – and by God’s grace we enjoy a growing ethnic diversity within our parish. And we celebrate each individual person as someone for whom Christ died. The love of Christ is the antidote to the ugliness of racism in the world today.
Canon Mark Chamberlain