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Tribe, Tongue and Nation Means More than Race

by Lisa Spencer

A Note from Monique: A couple weeks ago, I published an article about why CFBU will no longer be highlighting Black History Month. I also introduced the new direction we are going with this issue. I've asked my friend, Lisa Spencer, to help us continue this conversation.

For the past four and a half 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, which brings many different cultures together for performances throughout the day to show various art forms, including martial arts demonstrations. Dozens of vendor booths are present with cuisine, crafts, and cultural displays. It’s like an “It’s a Small World” festival, and it’s one of the largest cultural festivals in southwest Virginia. There is no 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 throughout the year, 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, as well as celebrations of African cultures. 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 with its own customs and cuisines.

How Skin Color Erases Ethnicity

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like if our organization categorized the different groups according to skin color and used the black/white binary (or even black/white/brown). Of course, it’s easy to speak of Europeans as “white” or Africans as “black.” 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”? Where do the Middle Easterners fit into this categorization? And if a person is just “black,” what does that say about the black person from Ghana, or the black person from Brazil or the Caribbean, and their completely different cultures? If we focused only on skin color, the unique 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 with one’s ethnic heritage—unless, of course, it’s in reference to African-Americans. Multiethnic or multicultural churches can get reduced down to people who look different—whether they’re white, black or brown. But what about people from different ethnic heritages that may get lost in the black/white binary?

Ethnicity, Not Race

If we’re truly going to consider the church of every tribe, tongue, and nation, I am increasingly convinced that ethnicity is far more important than race.  Because race simply categorizes people according to biological features, our understanding of it can easily get flattened to skin tone. But race alone, particularly when defined this way, does not account for cultural heritage or culture. Ethnicity, on the other hand, accounts for one’s ancestral and national heritage with its 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.

A Foretaste of the New Heavens

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 an article from Pew Research, the population of foreign-born people has experienced a significant increase in the past 50 or so years and is expected to increase even more. 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.

This doesn’t mean putting one’s ethnicity or culture first. We shouldn’t do that with ethnicity any more than with skin color! 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?

The Blessing is for All Nations

Another reason I believe ethnicity is a better marker than race is that Scripture itself refers to the nations. In fact, it’s actually dishonest to impose skin color or even the black/white race binary onto 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.

Challenges to a Focus on Ethnicity

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, this distinction was developed to subjugate the “black race” to an inferior status. 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, which got decimated in 1877 and was followed up by decades of Jim Crow; and a history of overt discrimination against those considered black (even by one drop), all had ramifications for how we identify. I realize that doesn’t go away overnight, especially when racism still exists based on this distinction.[1]

Second, I recognize that those of European descent will not necessarily identify with their cultural heritages, especially since the height of European immigration was in the early 20th century–over 100 years ago! Those classified as “white” will just tend to think of themselves as American. I get that.

One Human Race, Many Ethnicities

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 must understand that we are one human race consisting of many different ethnicities. We should look to honor that truth as best we can.


1 I’ve been looking at Dr. Sheena Mason’s work on racelessness. Dr. Joe Miller published a short review of her work. I am sympathetic to her approach 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.

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