Racism and the Imago Dei

Race and racism have become something of a cultural/social/political obsession in recent years. It’s difficult to go a day without reading or hearing of a story that has something to do with race and race relations. While discussing race relations can be a good thing and promote progress in people getting along with each other, the current atmosphere makes that very difficult, at least partly because it reduces the conversation to mostly one of making sure everyone knows who is an oppressor and who is a victim. In this conversation, make no mistake, every White person is an oppressor, and every person of color is a victim.

This was made clear when the Anti-Defamation League changed its definition of racism last year. Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. It has a long and distinguished record on that front and has gained a great deal of respect from other organizations equally committed to social justice and civil rights. But many accused the ADL of bowing to the current woke mob when it changed its definition of racism, making it considerably more narrow in scope. Before 2020, the ADL had described racism as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.” That strikes it just about right in my mind. It’s the definition of racism with which I grew up, and the definition of racism that motivated the Civil Rights movement in past decades. The current milieu, however, has so emphasized a particular type of racism that the ADL decided a change was needed. So, it revised its definition of racism to this: “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”

Now, I don’t think anyone would dispute that that definition of racism describes the type of racism that has dominated in the United States, or even in much of the West. One problem with this definition, though, is it assumes that White people are a monolith. That error is what lay at the root of Whoopie Goldburg’s recent remarkably bizarre and historically ignorant statement that the Holocaust was not about race because the Germans and the Jews were two groups of White people. Yes, in the current socio-cultural understanding of race in America, it’s understandable that Goldburg would see it that way. All White people are part of one race, the current thinking goes. But how Goldburg sees it today is entirely irrelevant to the roots of the Holocaust. What’s relevant is how the Germans and the Jews saw themselves at the time of the Holocaust. There’s no question that the Jews have identified themselves as a particular race of people for millennia, and still do. There’s no question that the Germans regarded themselves as a race distinct from the Jews, and even from other Europeans. That the Germans judged themselves a superior race and the Jews an inferior race was at the heart of the Holocaust.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, condemned Goldburg’s statement about the Holocaust not being about race, and appeared on “The View” to educate the cast and audience about exactly how the Holocaust had everything to do with race. To her credit, Goldburg acknowledged, “I stand corrected.” But, as was pointed out to Greenblatt by some, under the ADL’s own 2020 definition of racism, it’s Goldburg who is right and Greenblatt who is wrong in condemning her. According to the definition above, the Holocaust wasn’t about race, because it was, indeed, a matter of one group of White people oppressing and killing another group of White people. No people of color being oppressed or marginalized by White supremacists here!

Another problem with this definition is that it assumes that only White people are racists, and only against people of color. The Irish, I think, would disagree, having suffered for over 700 years under the heel of the English. The Tutsis, too, would disagree, having suffered the horrors of the Rwandan genocide at the hands of the Hutus. The Chinese, too, would disagree, having suffered the ravages of Japanese invasion. In our current American understanding of race, this seems odd. The Irish and the English are both European White people. The Tutsis and Hutus are both Black Africans. The Chinese and Japanese are both Eastern Asian. What do any of these conflicts have to do with race? They have everything to do with race, because those involved, both oppressors and victims, regarded themselves as a separate people from those oppressing them or those they oppressed. Race has many meanings, not limited to skin color. The concept of race is far more fluid than we might imagine. I recall a Hispanic friend describing to me the racial tensions between Whites and Hispanics when he was growing up in El Paso. He was shocked and dismayed by the fact that, when he moved to Memphis, he was considered White by the Black members of the parish where he ministered. He had never thought of himself as White, but the Black members of his parish never thought of him as anything else. The broadness of racism manifests itself, as well, in the continued tensions between African Americans of various darker or lighter skin tones.

Now, also to his credit, Jonathan Greenblatt realized the error of the ADL’s new and much too narrow definition of racism. Greenblatt said, “While this [definition of racism] is true, this new frame narrowed the meaning in other ways. And, by being so narrow, the resulting definition was incomplete, rendering it ineffective and therefore unacceptable. It’s true, it’s just not the whole truth. It alienated many people who did not see their own experience encompassed in this definition, including many in the Jewish community.” So, the ADL adopted yet another definition of racism, an “interim definition” it will use until further reflection and feedback inspires another. The newest new definition of racism, provided by Prof. Robert Livingston of Harvard, is as follows: “Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.” That’s fine. I’m glad it includes “ethnicity” in the definition. Honestly, though, I think the ADL had it about right the first time and wouldn’t have any problem with going back to that one. But the newest new definition is certainly an improvement on the older new definition.

Discussions about race are important, if not essential. But those important discussions will not happen if definitions keep changing, being so narrow as to focus only on certain types of racism, or so broad that everything is racist. Progress will not be made, either, if the focus of the discussions is on broadening definitions of oppressor and victim, on perpetuating labels of oppressor and victim based on historical associations or legacies of racism, or on insisting that people are first and foremost part of a particular group based on skin color rather than individuals graced with the imago Dei. Christians might begin the discussion with St. Paul’s admonition to the Galatians: “Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abrahams’ descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:26-29). Racism is fundamentally not a social, cultural or political problem. It is a sin problem. Concupiscence, the tendency toward sin to which we remain attached as a result of the Fall, infects our relationships to the point where we are tempted to encounter each other based on things other than the imago Dei inherent in each of us, or in on our status as brother or sister in Christ or heir to the promise. Imagine a world where even only Christians would have the courage to act as such toward all others, and toward themselves. If progress is to be made, we can’t afford to leave the past behind, but neither can we afford to continue living there. It’s time to move forward, to destroy racism by any definition, for the sake of us all.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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