Galatians 3:28 is one of the better-known verses in the Bible:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christians, rightly, rejoice at its liberating truth – all joined ‘in Christ’ through faith are ‘one’. This unity transcends the great religious, socio-economic and gender divisions of the ancient world. The implications are astounding – in God’s eyes all human beings are of equal value and dignity regardless of religion, ethnicity, net-worth, social standing, intelligence, physical disability, education, gender, age, or skin colour.
However, it’s one thing to affirm an inclusive principle, it’s quite another to put it into practice. From its earliest days, a challenge for the church has been to live up to its calling to be a radically inclusive community in contrast to systemic inequalities that define the world.
At this point Wilberforce is often referenced (rightly) as an inspiring example of Galatians 3:28 in action – taking on, and defeating, the economic and political might of the slave trade. His dogged determination, and eventual success, is a story worth telling.
But I wonder if it also rather too conveniently air-brushes the darker history of Christian rejection of the radical social and political implications of Galatians 3:28.
Perhaps if you are reading this you might be like me, a Christian with roots in Northern Ireland evangelical Protestantism. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about theology and the intersections between evangelical identity, faith and politics. I’ve also thought a lot about gender, particularly how innumerable gifted women have experienced marginalisation within the church and the inbuilt privilege and assumptions I have as a man. For centuries the dominant paradigm was that women were simply inferior to men. If we had space, we could quote Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Hodge and many others. More recently, modern ‘complementarians’ shy away from the inferiority argument, instead making the historically novel, and logically questionable, claim that women are equal in status and gifting with men and yet selected leadership roles in church and family are open only to men.
But why is it, I ask myself, that it took the death of George Floyd for me, in my 50s, to even begin seriously to think about the colour of my skin?
Over the last few weeks I’ve begun to read up on slavery and the bloody history of white colonialism in Africa (too many atrocities to name but we could start with Britain in multiple places, German genocide in Namibia and millions dying in the Congo under Belgian rule). And then there are the tens of millions more men, woman and children kidnapped and transported to lives of unimaginable brutality in a global slave trade designed to prop up the developing economies of the colonial powers. And this doesn’t even include the violent suppression, and local exterminations, of indigenous populations in places like Australia and the United States. To this you can add Apartheid in South Africa and the appalling more recent history of deliberate systematised racism in America post-Lincoln (summarised in this excellent video by Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame).
And white Christianity has been, and is, deeply implicated in this toxic history. Yes, that’s a sweeping statement but one, I think, that is impossible to deny. White supremacism isn’t a delusion of the radical left, it’s a defining assumption of modern Western history. Underneath it is an ability of those claiming the name of Christ to detach political and economic activity from what they profess to believe. In other words, to read the words of Galatians 3:28 but leave their radical implications conveniently behind in favour of power and money.
Take Edward Coulston, so recently thrown into Bristol harbour (well his statue at any rate). A slave trader who made vast profit from human lives, but also a churchman and philanthropist, well known for his generosity to good causes (hence his statue).
So is this PS just an exercise in ‘white guilt’? After all, you may be thinking, ‘What has all this got to do with me? I’m not responsible for the past. Nor do I live in the racially segregated USA.’
Well, let me suggest that recent events are challenging that sort of detachment, wherever you live. If you are a white follower of Jesus and haven’t thought about what that means as a Christian, then this is a good time to start. Indeed, the very problem with ‘whiteness’ is that it is taken to be the ‘norm’ – and we don’t think about what seems to be normal (which is why I’d never thought seriously about being white until now).
One Christian scholar challenging these sorts of assumptions is Professor David Horrell who has studied how Galatians 3:28 has been applied by white Western Bible interpreters. He concludes that
“… though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge it, is not our racialised identity one significant part of that complex intersection of facets of identity to which we should – indeed must – pay attention? … Assuming that our interpretation is uncontextualised – unmarked, unlocated, unraced – is, I would suggest, no longer a feasible option.”
In other words, if you are a Christian, you are a Christian first and a white person second. It is as Christians we are called to reflect theologically and critically on the intersections of whiteness, power and injustice. This means beginning to appreciate that our reading of history, theology, the Bible and Christian identity is deeply shaped by our whiteness. And then to put those assumptions under the searchlight of texts like Galatians 3:28.
In doing so we will be better placed to begin to seek out, befriend and listen to non-white voices and perspectives. This is especially needed in such an ethnically monochrome society like Northern Ireland. Maybe, just maybe, as we do so we will begin to understand, and to feel, what it means in day-to-day experience to be non-white within a ‘default’ white culture. And once we begin to see things through non-white eyes, perhaps, just perhaps, we will find ourselves called to act against systemic inequality in the church and wider society.
Patrick Mitchel is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin and blogs at www.faithinireland.wordpress.com.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
I’m sure many readers will know John Wesley’s last letter (below), written 8 days before his death, to William Wilberforce:
Balam, February 24, 1791
Dear Sir: Unless the divine power has raised you us to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?
That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant,
We absolutely should be Christian first and white second. The problems start with working out what part of our worldview and practice come from our (white) culture, and what is from our Christian faith (which in turn may not always come from Christ our King). And then there are the issues we just won’t come across, as white people (or white men) in a white, and patriarchal, culture.
That said, we are Christian and White, or Christian and Black, or Asian, or whatever. There is not necessarily a conflict. Our background informs our faith, for good and sometimes for ill.
However, I have learned from my wife that the non-white experience is much more pervasive, broader, deeper, and more raw than I would have believed – even as someone already committed to fairness and justice.
Starting the debate with a white perspective may be a first step in confronting the issue. And it’s essential that we who are white do engage with the issues of race in the community of faith. But perhaps it’s also an illustration of the problem, that we start by talking rather than listening.