Many people believe that racial tensions would quickly subside in our country if we simply stopped noting and talking about our differences. Apparently it's thought that recognizing and discussing our distinctions inevitably creates a negative “us” and “them” mentality which leads to fear, conflict, and exploitation. We frequently embrace this ideology when we say, “I don’t really notice skin color,” or “I don’t have ‘black/white/Asian friends’—only ‘friends.’” It's true that, biologically speaking, there’s only one race—the human race. So couldn’t we all just agree to be colorblind? While this popular approach to race is well intentioned, it tragically misdiagnoses the true source of the tension. What's more, it completely disregards God's purpose and pleasure in our human distinctions. As such, it is counterproductive for the people of God, the church, to be “colorblind.”
Even though race is best understood as a subjective cultural construct and not a biological fact, it still remains a powerful and present feature of the human experience (especially for minorities). Race and ethnicity unite us to shared stories, songs, hopes, fears, and cultural values. Rightly or wrongly humans index and cross reference all this information in order to understand ourselves and make sense of the world.
The notion that we can eliminate strife by ignoring or extinguishing our differences is certainly not new. Many sociopolitical movements seeking to address various societal injustices have been built precisely on this flawed approach. Whether we are seeking to eradicate gender distinctions or signs of economic disparities by embracing uniformed clothing, language, etc. we are in the end failing to address the real issue. Jesus points out the flaw and backwardness of this superficial approach to managing sin when he explains to the Pharisees that they have done a bang-up job on the exterior but inside they're as corrupted as they've ever been, maybe even more so (Luke 11:39). It is our universal brokenness, our rejection of God and his goodness, that prompts us to fear, hate, envy, and seek to exploit each other's God-given differences. Therefore, misidentifying our differences as the source of our interpersonal and societal tension simply allows the real cancer to persist unnoticed.
Uniformity must not be confused with unity, and unity is what we're after if our goal is to be the sort of church that Jesus prayed for (John 17:20-21). In fact, diversity is a necessary component in order for unity to even exist. We can't very well boast about how great we all get along, for example, if we're all exactly alike. There must be the potential for fear, conflict, and exploitation if unity and grace are to emerge triumphant.
Paul's sentiment, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is sometimes used to advocate for an extinguishing of gender, race/ethnicity, etc. within the church (Galatians 3:28). But this simply can't be what he is describing. Paul writes extensively about gender and ethnicity elsewhere in his epistles. As a cross-cultural minister of the Gospel, one of Paul's greatest contributions to Jesus' infant church stemmed from his heart for the full inclusion of the once-marginalized, non-Jewish Christ-followers. He was also keenly aware of his own ethnicity as a Jewish man, as was Jesus. Our ethnicity, class, and gender—all of our human distinctions—are certainly superseded by our identity in Christ, as the Galatians passage points out, but are never erased or rendered meaningless.
Americans, including American Christians, are largely racially illiterate (perhaps due to our “colorblindness”). Yet Americans, including American Christians, are frequently among the most racially opinionated folks. In lieu of firsthand information, we tend to form our deeply held perspectives about race within our own racial/ethnic groups based on our own limited outsider observations (after all, it's “rude” to discuss such things in public or in mixed company). The truth is, humans can never really be colorblind. We weren't meant to be.
Our human distinctions are by God's express design. His fondness for variety can be seen in every crevice of his vast and varied universe. He has created human beings in his image, male and female, with a near infinite range and endless potential for combinations of skin tones, textures, body frames and forms. Denying that it is so is a heresy of sorts, a rebellion against his clear intentions. Let us instead, like him, delight in his beautiful and vibrant creation. After all, his endgame involves a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, family of God, worshipping together in glorious harmony (Revelation 7:9-10).
By the grace of God, transformed, kingdom-centric people are capable of recognizing and appreciating their own human distinctions without being threatened, envious, demeaning or domineering of others. We can also engage other image-bearers from every people group, color, and creed with a Spirit-filled curiosity and admiration. It is ultimately the people of God who have been uniquely equipped through the redemptive ministry of Jesus to be ministers of reconciliation. If not us, then who? True and abiding racial reconciliation will only take place in our culture when we, the church, embrace and passionately pursue our God-given role. Let's not be afraid to press into socially awkward and taboo conversations about race within a racially diverse body of Christ. Let's become good at asking questions and great at listening. We have much to learn about ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and our Creator (since we collectively bear his image) as we compassionately explore our human distinctions rather than shying away from them. I've received many scriptural insights from brothers and sisters of color, for example, things only they could illuminate to me, aspects of the heart of God that were previously unseen to my colorblind eyes. There are pains that I can only feel—if I am willing to feel—vicariously through a brother or sister's tears. There are songs now unknown to me. There is beauty that I can only see through borrowed eyes. There are many ways in which we will never be the same, and yet, through the miraculous power of the Gospel, we are made “one.” What a disservice we do to ourselves, Jesus' church, and the clearly articulated heart of God when we instead adopt the majority culture's colorblindness.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” -Romans 12:2