A thought on race and the New Testament, and how this inadvertently contributes to systems of injustice while also challenging them. (If we really want to tackle racism, then we need to reflect upon these things. The hard part of this kind of reflection is that it begins with ourselves and our traditions rather than making the easier moves of critiquing others).
As a Pauline scholar, my favorite presentation of the gospel is from Rom 1:16-17. Most people focus upon Paul’s language of faith (and make this very individualistic). However, we can’t ignore Paul’s words that this was good news for EVERYONE who believes – “first to the Jew then the Greek.”
Why does Paul say it this way? Why introduce ethnic categories?
I really like Robert Jewett’s take found in his Hermeneia commentary on Romans. He points out that Paul is playing with usual racist “us/them” categories. First, his language of “Jews” comes from the us/them categories of the Jewish people (which some churches oddly appropriate when they claim we’re the new Israel) as Jew versus Gentile. (How would that sound if I said “white person” versus everyone else?)
Second, he also notes that Paul also incorporates the “us/them” category of Greek versus Barbarian. Barbarian comes from the onomatopoeia slur of people who can’t speak Greek sound like “bar bar bar” to the Greek speaker. (How often do we hear people making fun of language and how people speak?
Paul, then beautifully brings them together. He uses the insider language of the Jews and the insider language of the Greek, and he omits their “othering” language. For Paul, salvation is about God’s grace being distributed to ALL and bringing reconciliation to ALL people, including racial reconciliation. Three other famous passages that cast Paul’s vision that the gospel is meant not just for so-called personal salvation but societal change and racial reconciliation (along with a whole host of other things) – Gal 3:28-29; Col 3:11; Eph 2.
Language is powerful, and Paul uses the usual us/them categories against themselves to cast his vision for an “us” in what Christ accomplished. Our words matter. Reconciliation matters.