“I’m not racist, why should I feel guilty?”
“I’ve always treated everyone the same.”
“Christians are ‘colorblind.’ We shouldn’t care about black issues or white issues or any social issues.”
I hear these kinds of words often, all the more now that #BLM is back in the news; in fact, all over the news. I’m not Black, but as a person of color (I am Indian American), I’ve appreciated careful and deep responsiveness from most of my white friends. They are willing to search their hearts, lives, heritage, and social systems to lament over racism and repent over being often unknowing, but still culpably accomplices to systemic discrimination.
Others, though, say something to the effect of “I don’t care if people are Black or white. I treat everyone the same. I’m colorblind.” You might even hear Christians say that Paul encouraged “colorblindness” when it comes to race and ethnicity, perhaps even citing the apostle’s famous freedom and equality motto: “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” (Gal 3:28) Paul was not promoting being “colorblind,” certainly not in the way this verse is invoked in race conversations today. Click To Tweet
Let me go on record saying that Paul was not promoting being “colorblind,” certainly not in the way this verse is invoked in race conversations today. Paul was actually quite concerned about treating everyone respectfully, and often that meant not treating them exactly the same (1 Cor 9:19-27). Before we get to the real meaning of Galatians 3:28—and what it could mean for the social imagination of the church today—let’s begin with a few key statements about Paul’s social consciousness.
Paul Continued to Have a Special Bond with his Kinspeople, the Jews
It should go without saying that Paul did not surrender his “I’m a Jew” card when he met Christ. He doesn’t talk about his Jewish identity as a thing of the past, though he had to let go of being a Jewish superstar in his earlier circles (Gal 1:14). He continued to love deeply his fellow Jews, even wishing he could save them at the cost of his own damnation (Rom 9:2). At times in his letters, he noted colleagues such as Andronicus and Junia who were “my fellow Jews” in the faith (Rom 16:7). He remembered, prayed for, and loved his Jewish people.
Paul Accommodated and Respected Gentiles and Their own Cultures
Paul spent most of his ministry in Gentile territories, and in order to preach to those communities, he had to respect their own traditions and cultures (see Gal 4:12). He applauded Cephas (Peter) who “lived like a Gentile” when he visited the mostly-Gentile church in Antioch (Gal 2:14); he rebuked Cephas when he flip-flopped. I imagine Paul tapping his feet to indigenous music played for him in a household he was visiting in Phyrgia. I see him trying the unique foods of the Macedonians in Philippi. He listened to the stories of local leaders and heroes in Thessalonica.
“Poor Lives Matter”
Though Paul sought to respect all people, he knew that certain circumstances called for giving one group special care and attention, much like a hurting limb needs extra support. We see this in the case of the apostolic call to “remember the poor” (2:10). The Beatitude Gospel will commission us, when needed, to pour out our resources on a particular group. This was simply taken as a fundamental of the way of Jesus; Paul was even eager to follow Christ’s example! Though Paul sought to respect all people, he knew that certain circumstances called for giving one group special care and attention, much like a hurting limb needs extra support. Click To Tweet
Is “Blackness” Anything? Rethinking Galatians 3:28
Galatians is all about freedom. But it is not about political freedom or existential freedom. It is about Christian freedom, especially liberation from sin and evil such that believers can make the right kinds of choices without shackles on. Without going into all the details, let me say that the situation behind the letter involves Galatian Christians confused about their relationship to the Jewish law and the heritage of Israel. A pressing question that is never far from Paul’s arguments throughout this letter is how does a Gentile become a true son of Abraham?
In part, this matter came up because certain outsiders, certain Jewish Christian enemies of Paul, went to Galatia after Paul left and tried to convince them that they could not find full acceptance in God’s family without the rite of circumcision and living under the aegis of Torah, the constitution of the covenant, as it were.
Paul shifts the focus away from the protective umbrella of Torah, as that may have been true before, but not after the coming of the Messiah. The focus should be squarely on Christ, who through participation in himself invites all into the household of faith, as equals (Gal 2:19-20).
Gal 3:28 is not, then, about erasing social, ethnic, or gender difference. Paul recognized such differences on many occasions (1 Cor 7:21). If we just take the example of Jew and Gentile, Paul wasn’t advocating seeing them as “the same” (see Rom 1:16). He was saying that the world operates all too often on power structures that make you more or less important based on things such as your gender, the color of your skin, or your last name. But the church ought not to be that way. Paul had no intention of “forgetting” someone was Gentile. (Or a woman. Or a slave.) What he wanted was for each person to be treated with the full amount of respect and dignity as anyone else.
What would Paul say about “blackness”? Is it “anything”? Of course it is. The color of skin shouldn’t matter when it comes to whether or not, or how much respect that person deserves. Each person is a precious life created by God. God created all our human bodies, and he made them all to reflect a part of his own glory.
Paul and #BLM
In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time, “diversity” was widely frowned upon. Amongst Gentiles, the ideals were Greekness and Romanness. Amongst traditional Jews, the ideal was Jewishness. Quite strikingly, Paul had friends of practically every kind and in every place, and he called no one to cultural conformity. I think that if a #BLM-style protest erupted in one of his ministry centers and believers were hurting, he would drop everything and care for them. I don’t think he would be out protesting with a sign (that didn’t go over very well in the empire), but certainly, he would not tell them to forget about discrimination as a “worldly” concern. I honestly think he would amplify the voices, leadership, and the influence of the oppressed within the church. Oneness is about setting aside hostilities, bias, and any sense of self-superiority, to turn towards one another in service and gratitude; to become allies rather than competitors. Click To Tweet
We often remember that Paul said “neither…nor” in Gal 3:28, but those negations served a wider point that is too often forgotten: “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To be “one” doesn’t mean to erase difference, like the proverbial melting pot. On the contrary, difference is necessary (1 Cor 12:12-31). Oneness is about setting aside hostilities, bias, and any sense of self-superiority, to turn towards one another in service and gratitude; to become allies rather than competitors. The church today disrespects this beautiful oneness vision of Paul if they ignore the harm and pain done to any one member of the great body of Christ, even—and especially now—Black lives.