When people start talking about race and racism, do you experience a range of negative emotions, an elevation in blood pressure, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, heartburn, chest tightness, or a knot in the pit of your stomach? If so, you may be suffering from Racial Discourse Allergy, or RDA. You break out in hives on the inside.
In the interest of finding an alternative to complete avoidance (unless you actually have an anaphylactic type reaction to these conversations), I would like to propose a treatment plan. Let’s take a break from our own trigger-filled context and practice talking about the role of race and racism in the context of biblical history instead. We’ll zoom in on 2 places in the Bible that portray interactions between different people groups and study their interracial dynamics. The goal of this approach is to provide us with a broader, more objective framework to help us manage and perhaps circumvent the RDA response in our own context.
Tongues, Tribes, and Nations: Two Biblical Portraits
1. The Israelites in Egypt – Genesis 37, 39-50, Exodus 1
The story of how the Israelites end up in Egypt is detailed in Genesis 39-50. It begins with Joseph’s arrival there as a slave. Thirteen years later, he becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man; and eight or so years after that, all of his family members arrive from Canaan as famine refugees. Pharaoh allows them to settle in northern Egypt. There, they grow into an exceedingly numerous people group that fills the land. (Exod. 1:7)
During this period of Israelite settlement and growth, Egypt is ruled by Hyksos pharaohs.(The Hyksos are a Semitic-Asiatic people group who invaded and conquered Egypt in the 17th century BCE and established dynastic rule.) However, an Egyptian nationalistic movement eventually precipitates a war of independence that results in the Hyksos’ being overthrown and expelled. A violent regime change, rather than a dynastic succession, is the context for Exodus 1:8, which says that a new king who does not know about Joseph has risen to power. The Israelites’ favored and protected status ends. They are now looked upon with suspicion, as potential enemies of the state.i, 1-4
As part of his effort to “deal shrewdly with them,” (Exod. 1:9) the new king resorts to xenophobic scapegoating of the Israelites, followed by systematic enslavement. He also implements a racist population control policy: infanticide of Hebrew boys.
2. Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews – Acts 6
We now enter the world of the first century church. The Hellenistic Jews are Greek-speaking Jews who have immigrated to Judea and Galilee from other parts of the world once ruled by Alexander the Great, including Africa, Southeastern Europe, and the Middle East. The Hebraic Jews, who are Aramaic-speaking natives of Judea and Jerusalem, look down on the immigrants as being culturally, linguistically, and religiously compromised.
Because of the language barrier and the hostility of the culturally dominant Hebraic Jews, the Hellenistic Jews worship in separate Greek-speaking synagogues.5 It should be noted that the language barrier is largely unidirectional. Most of the Hebraic Jews in this time period speak at least some Greek, since it’s the official language of commerce in the Roman Empire.6,7 So they could find ways to enfold the Hellenistic Jews into their corporate worship life if they had the will to do so; but they do not.
Even as people from both groups come to Christ, this thread of Hebraic supremacy remains. In Acts 6, we see that it’s significant enough to result in marginalization and neglect of the Hellenistic widows in the Jerusalem church’s daily distribution of food to its poor widows. The church apostles, who are all native Galileans and Judeans, are out of touch with the needs of the church’s immigrant minority until an organized Hellenist advocacy effort brings this matter of racialized disparity to their attention. Fortunately, the church leaders take the complaint seriously and address it by having the Hellenistic members choose 7 of their own men to oversee the distribution of their widows’ food.
Nothing New Under the Sun: Lessons from the Ancient World
From these 2 biblical portraits, we can make 5 observations about race and racism:
1. When different people groups come together, they typically form a matrix in which one group is dominant and the other groups are non-dominant. A group may enjoy dominant status for a variety of reasons, but the essential characteristic of dominance is the possession of greater power and influence than other groups in the matrix. The dominant group establishes and enforces the societal norms and structures in which non-dominant groups operate.8 The experience of any non-dominant group is therefore determined – to a large extent – by both the actions/attitudes of the dominant group toward them, as well as the degree of (in)compatibility between its culture and that of the dominant group.
Table 1 illustrates that the dominant/non-dominant matrix is fluid. Dominant and non-dominant dynamics can exist between different non-dominant groups; and events like war, conquest, and major population shifts can lead to reversals in dominant and non-dominant orientation.
Table 1. Dominant/Non-dominant Matrix for People Groups in the the 2 Biblical Portraits
|People Groups||Location||Time Period||Dominant Group||Non-dominant group(s)||Non-dominant group experience|
|Hyksos, Israelites, Egyptians||Egypt||17th century BCE||Hyksos (conquerors, ruling class)||• Egyptians (conquered people)
• Israelites (immigrants, refugees),
|• Violent overthrow for Egyptians
• Hospitality and provision for Israelites.
|Egyptians, Israelites, Hyksos||Egypt||15th century BCE||Egyptians (ruling class)||• Israelites (unassimilated ethnic group),
• Hyksos (overthrown interlopers)
|• slavery, exploitation, atrocities for Israelites
• expulsion for Hyksos
|Romans, Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews||Israel||1st century CE||Romans (external power, rulers)||Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews||religious freedom, heavily taxed, increasing poverty9|
|Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews||Israel, Jerusalem Temple||1st century CE||Hebraic Jews||Hellenistic Jews||marginalized, excluded|
2. Political uncertainty (threats to power and stability), economic uncertainty (scarcity), and bloody conflict (threats to physical safety) tend to provoke xenophobia, or “fear and hatred of strangers, foreigners, or of anything that is strange or foreign,”10 and all forms of bigotry (racial, ethnic, religious, political).
3. Even when there is no active oppression taking place, dominant groups are often unaware of and insensitive to the particular struggles of non-dominant groups.
4. Even in the church, God’s people are heavily influenced by broader cultural forces that are ungodly. Cultural supremacy and racial bigotry became a fully embedded and structural reality of the Hebraic Jews’ faith and way of life.
5. Interracial divisions do not passively resolve over time. Overcoming them requires: a) non-dominant groups to bring to the attention of the dominant group any existing gaps in brotherly love and equity, b) willingness on the part of the dominant group to listen to and partner with non-dominant groups to eliminate injustice and achieve harmony.
Interracial conflict has existed since the beginning of human history. It has created turmoil and division in every civilization, without exceptions. So understanding the dynamics of race and racism in our very own society, understanding where we fit into the dominant/non-dominant matrix of our time and place, and being aware of how those things influence our thought processes and perspectives, are vital aspects of our human development and Christian discipleship. Competency in these areas is what enables us to relate lovingly and effectively to people of all tongues, tribes, and nations for the sake of the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:22)
Here are some questions to stimulate more thinking on the subject. Work through these with a friend and talk about your answers.
- What do you think are the dominant and non-dominant groups are in the United States? Think about different time periods in history, as well as the present.
- What are the dominant and non-dominant groups in your city? In your neighborhood? In your workplace or school? In your church?
- Which ways have you experienced being part of a dominant group, and which ways have you experienced being part of a non-dominant group? For this question, think about other factors in addition to race, such as gender, socioeconomic status, level of education, marital status, history of mental illness, disability, history of addiction, age, and sexual orientation.
i. The details provided here are disputed by scholars, but the primary point remains: that a change in regime precipitates the oppression of the Israelites.
- Butt, Kyle. “How Long Was the Israelites’ Egyptian Bondage?” Apologetics Press. https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=796
- Ray, Paul Jr. “The Duration of the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt.” Associates for Biblical Research, January 5, 2012. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/The-Duration-of-the-Israelite-Sojourn-In-Egypt.aspx
- “Joseph, Egypt, and the Hyksos.” http://www.freemaninstitute.com/Gallery/joseph.htm
- The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. “Hyksos Egyptian Dynasty.” http://www.britannica.com/topic/Hyksos-Egyptian-dynasty
- Grace Communion International. “Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 6.” https://www.gci.org/bible/acts6
- Gleaves, G. Scott. “Did Jesus Speak Greek?” http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2015/09/gle398009.shtml
- Roberts, Mark D. “What Language Did Jesus Speak? Why Does It Matter?” Patheos – Evangelical Channel, 2010. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/what-language-did-jesus-speak-why-does-it-matter/
- Ellis, Carl. “The Culture We Promote.” Prepared for The Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable “Issues of Truth and Power: The Gospel in a Post-Christian Culture.” April 22-24, 2004. http://www.reformedblacksofamerica.org/rbasite/downloads/The%20Culture%20We%20Promote%20by%20Carl%20Ellis.pdf
- Willems, Kurt. “Behind Luke’s Gospel: The Roman Empire During the Time of Jesus.” Pangea Blog on Patheos.com, 2009. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/articles/unpublished-papers/behind-lukes-gospel-the-roman-empire-during-the-time-of-jesus/
- “Xenophobia.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/xenophobia