Tribe, tongue and nation means more than race

Anyone who has followed this blog knows I typically write about theological topics and cultural engagement. This is one of those rare posts where I will talk about what I do for a living. For the past three years, I have served as Executive Director of a nonprofit arts and culture organization whose mission is to celebrate ethnic and cultural heritages from around the globe. Our mission is prominently seen in our annual festival in May that brings many different cultures together for performances throughout the day that shows the various art forms from around the globe, including martial arts demonstrations. Dozens of vendor booths are present with cuisine, crafts, and cultural displays. It’s like a “It’s a Small World” festival and one of the largest in this area. There is no preference or prominence of one group over the other. You’ll see displays from Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and everywhere in between.

Because our goal is to highlight different cultures, we also have culturally specific events for Lunar New Year and Hispanic Heritage Month. Recently, we added an event for Nowruz (Persian New Year), a significant celebration in Iran and Afghanistan and we’re gearing up for a celebration of African cultures in collaboration with another arts organization later this year. So you can imagine that with our festival and the other events, people and their cultures are identified with a national heritage, i.e., cultural heritages that come from a particular region that has certain customs and cuisines.

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if we categorized the different groups according to skin color and use the black/white binary or even black, white, or brown people. Of course, it’s easy to speak of Europeans as white or Africans as black. But but what does that mean for the distinct nationalities and their accompanying cultures? How do you distinguish the Italians from the Germans from the Greeks if everyone is just white? And where do the Middle Easterner’s fit into this categorization? And if a person is just black, what does that say about the black person from Ghana vs. the black person from Brazil or the Caribbean who have completely different cultures? The ethnicities would get erased.

Yet, when I look at how we discuss race and ethnicity in the American church, the blanket categorization of white, black, or brown, is often used, echoing classifications according to the broader culture. Even when I see ethnicity referenced, it’s often in association with skin color not one’s ethnic heritage unless of course it’s in reference to African-American. Multi-ethnic or multicultural church can get reduced down to people who look different…or white, black or brown. But what about people from different ethnic heritages that may get lost in the black/white binary?

If we’re truly going to consider the church of every tribe, tongue and nation, I am increasing convinced that ethnicity is far more important than race. Race simply categories people according to biological features and can easily get flattened to skin tone. Race alone does not account for cultural heritage or culture. Ethnicity, on the other hand, accounts for one’s ancestral and national heritage that also comes with customs, traditions, and languages. Skin color as a descriptor falls flat because you can have an ethnicity with multiple skin tones or different ethnicities with the same skin tone.

You may be asking why does this matter anyway? Well, because God is at work in the world drawing people to himself from different countries, cultures, and languages. Migration patterns over the past century have brought a taste of this global scenario to our doorstep to varying degrees. According to this article from Pew Research, the population of foreign born people has experienced a significant increase in the past 50 or so years and expected to increase. I consider what Paul says in his apologetic at the Areopagus;

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place. (Acts 17:26)

Those dwelling places look different from one another. While the Christian message does not change, how it gets applied in a particular cultural context is going to look a little different. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! God made a big, beautiful world full of diverse people. It’s something to cherish. And when the presence of different nations and cultures is among us, we can give a nod to God’s work in the world among diverse people by acknowledging different cultural expressions. It doesn’t mean putting one’s ethnicity or culture first. We should not! Every aspect of our earthly identities must be subjected to the lordship of Christ with church gatherings focused on HIS work and person. And also have to account for cultural norms or traditions that contradict Scripture. But can we at least consider how God might be moving through different cultures? Would this not give us a foretaste of what the New Heavens would look like?

Another conviction that I have why ethnicity is a better marker than race is because Scripture itself refers to the nations. In fact, it’s actually dishonest to impose skin color or even the black/white race binary on to the text because in that culture, there was no such thing as a black or white race and nobody cared about skin color. “Who were your people?” was what mattered. It’s actually a bit off putting to insist that Jesus had brown skin. Honestly, we really don’t know. It could have been olive and it didn’t matter. What did matter is that he was ethnically a Jew to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant so all the nations would be blessed through him.

Now I recognize there are a couple of challenges to this focus;

First, the American context has been entrenched with a black/white race paradigm. In fact, the development of this distinction was expressly for the purpose of subjugating the “black race” to an inferior status. You don’t believe me? Do some research on laws established in the colonial period leading up to independence. The existence of chattel slavery, the short-lived success of the Reconstruction period that got decimated in 1877 and followed up by decades of Jim Crow, overt discrimination against those considered black (even by one drop), had ramifications for how we identify. I realize that doesn’t go away over night especially when racism still exists based on this distinction.

On a side note, I’ve been checking out Dr. Sheena Mason’s work on racelessness. Joel Miller provides a good summary here at the Center for Biblical Unity site. I track with her theory of racelessness because it befuddles me that we persist in using and reinforcing the same social construct that got us into this racial mess in the first place. Particularly as Christians, our lens should be more sharpened than that. But I do think it would be good to acknowledge unique cultural expressions from the African-American experience in the US.

 Second, I recognize that those of European descent will not necessarily identify with those heritages especially considering that the height of European immigration was in the early 20th century. Those classified as “white” will just tend to think of themselves as American. I get that.

What I’m suggesting is that to the extent we can, when we think of multi-ethnic, multicultural or cross-cultural ministry, it would be better to think in terms of how God works through the nations right at our doorstep. If we’re going to be true to Scripture, we are one human race consisting of many different ethnicities. We should look to honor that as best we can.



4 thoughts on “Tribe, tongue and nation means more than race

  1. Evan Spencer August 1, 2022 / 9:51 pm

    Good point. I wonder if given the developments that have emerged from the black/white/brown construct if a new focus on ethnicities would not seem to bury the struggle for what it means to be just American. Apparently it would mean that anyone could identify as “just American.” I for one identify as just American, as my heritage is composed of two geographical ethnicities. Afro-Carribean and Afro-American. When celebration of cultures come into play, I identify with both a American heritage in being black, and a separate Caribbean one, whose culture is based in national and geographic distinction. So many people can identify as “just American” regardless of their skin tone.

    It would be great if we realized that this distinction occurs within African as well as Asian as well as brown skin tones. What about the person of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage? More than whites are “just American” and should maybe have the opportunity to be regarded as such.

    Admittedly geographic identity does have the best chance in celebration of “nations.” But one day we will have to accept that America will be best identified as a conglomeration of ethnicities, because as the number of ethnicities grows in America, more and more diverse people will contribute to American greatness.

    One place this is easier to see is in the military. All wear the same uniform, but various otherwise obscure ethnicities rise above and stand out when they perform exceedingly well, which allows the various nations to have recognition and notoriety and distinction for their contribution to the whole. In these cases, both ethnicities and nationalities can be noticed, while the individuals all remain Americans at the same time. Unless of course you have a group like Local Colors whose express purpose is to recognize and honor contributions of various ethnicities by their geographic and cultural identities.

    • Lisa Spencer August 2, 2022 / 8:06 am

      Some good thoughts here. I appreciate the comment!

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