By Sean Palmer
Biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. It’s hard to believe given both the recent and distant history of America, yet in reality, race is fiction. The reason some of us have darker or lighter skin is the result of thousands upon thousands of years of physical adaptation based on location.
An easy way to think about it is this: Our ancestors living in Norway were cold. They stayed inside. Over time, their hair became predominantly blonde and skin incredibly light. The opposite was true for our ancestors living in Africa. As anthropologist Robert Wald Sussman makes clear in his recent book The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, biological races do not exist.
This is not news. In 1950 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared that humans are one species and, biologically speaking, race does not exist. The majority of studied scientists and anthropologists agree. Race is a social construct! In fact, until the mid-1600s people predominantly described themselves by location, saying, “I’m an Englishman” or “I’m an Italian.”
So why does what we call “racism” exist? If every human is part of the same species, why is there persistent racial acrimony, hostility, and violence? Why do we experience racism (which is the assumption that a group of people share deeply held properties and ought to be treated in accordance with those properties)?
The Reason? Story
What we know, how we know it, how we see ourselves, and what we enact are built on deeply believed stories. Narratives are how we navigate our world, understand who we are, and pass on our values. There’s a reason ancient Jews were told to pass on the stories of the faith to their children, why those same Jews adhered strictly to feasts and festival days that reenacted their history, and why Jesus taught his followers through parables. Stories anchor our hearts in what is most meaningful to us; they explain why the world is the way it is and what our role in the world is.
Robert McKee is Hollywood’s foremost teacher of storytelling. McKee says that every great story has three central elements. First, you need a likable character. Second, that character has to want something—a desire. Third, the character needs an obstacle to overcome. Without these three elements, McKee says, you don’t have a story.
American culture, like all cultures, is built on a story. That story is called The American Dream.
In common imagination, The American Dream is built on the narrative that lighter-skin Europeans, fleeing religious persecution, escaped to the New World and threw off the shackles of tyranny in order to construct a society where everyone is born equal and is rewarded through hard work, merit, and playing by the rules.
These Europeans are what McKee calls “likable characters” or heroes. What the hero desires is unfettered access to freedom with ever-increasing economic gain. And the obstacle? The obstacle is any person, group, or nation that threatens the continuation or motives behind the hero’s goal.
But there’s a problem with this story: It’s not true!
For starters, “slaves” never existed! “Slaves” is not an ethnicity, though we speak like it is. In reality, human beings were enslaved—taken by force, beaten, and threatened with murder for noncompliance.
A full year before America declared her independence; our cultural myth was being exposed. By 1775, enslavers carried 160,000 Africans to Chesapeake colonies, 140,000 to colonies in the Carolinas and Georgia, and 30,000 to Northern colonies. What’s more, these numbers fail to capture the untold regiment of enslaved Africans sent to sugar colonies. In 1775, the nation which proclaimed “all men were created equal” boasted a population of 2.5 million, 20 percent of whom were forced into violent, uncompensated, forced, and murderous servitude.
Two million cruel actors launched America’s story with authorized barbarity. This is a fact of history. Pressing against every teaching of Jesus regarding the treatment of others and the explicit instruction of God in the treatment of foreigners, the darker skinned were subjugated based solely on the darkness of that skin.
The great tragedy of America’s “racial strife” began when Europeans rejected the teachings of Jesus for economic gain. And it was for economic gain. According to Edward E. Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by 1850, enslaved Africans were worth $1.3 billion, a full one-fifth of America’s wealth. Enslavement built America’s economy. Europeans fleeing one form of persecution came to the New World and enacted another form of persecution.
Yet even after the end of formal enslavement, the legacy of the enslavers birthed a regime of domestic terror. For instance, in 1930 African-American teenagers Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron were accused of murder and rape in Indiana. Rather than standing trial, they were confronted with a mob of thousands that gathered outside the city jail, broke in, beat the boys, lynched the trio, and stayed to pose for pictures.
Lynchings—as well as all violence perpetuated by the empowered upon the defenseless—were and are warnings. At the Indiana lynching, and many others like it, photographers were on hand to capture the experience and sell postcards. Men, women, and even children were frequently present. Photographs typically reveal one or more attendees pointing to the lifeless, swaying bodies of the murdered. The message was clear: Stay in your place or experience the same.
The nation that threw off the shackles of tyranny triggered their own form of domestic terror. There is no equality in these pictures. Neither perpetrators nor witnesses feared consequences for their felonies.
In popular lore, the story of America is a great one, filled with overcoming obstacles and expanding freedoms. In many ways that’s true, yet in myriad ways it could not be more false.
The majority culture sees America as the story of a hard-working people determined to lift all boats for greater personal freedom and economic gain. Therefore the Trail of Tears, transatlantic slave trade, the Three-Fifths Compromise, America’s Civil War, failed Reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment camps, Native American reservations, church bombings, and unpunished killings are hiccups in the narrative. To many lighter-skinned Americans, these realities are glitches and abnormalities in what is otherwise a wonderful tale.
That’s why when Eric Garner is choked in the street or Freddie Gray dies bouncing around in a police van, some say, “We need to wait until all the facts come in.” These events place “the dream” narrative under scrutiny, and these abnormalities must have some exceptionally fantastic reason why they happened.
But for those with darker skin, the Trail of Tears, transatlantic slave trade, et al., aren’t simply bugs in the software. In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative found white Southerners lynched nearly 4,000 black men, women, and children between 1877 and 1950. These realities are too easily minimized by some, but they are historically rooted documentation that our society has never been what we desperately proclaimed we are.
The reason our country experiences racial rupture is because we are long engaged in a grand contention about our story. The reality of life is that sin, evil, and wickedness reside in all people and Americans must warm to the reality that our forefathers were not exempt. For some, America is a story of opportunity, for others, a story of oppression. Both stories contain truth. Both stories also harbor lies.
Christianity Is a Different Story!
For Christians, the American story is simply too small a narrative to give our lives to. Any nation’s legacy is too insignificant a tale for the grand theater of God’s epic. To surrender Christian identity to the inherited and approved storyline of the American Dream (or any earthly vision) is to savagely enslave the gospel itself.
While our cultural story may have been initiated by the servility of one people by another, that is not the story the Scriptures proclaim. In the first-century church, the biggest subject in the church was the church. The first and biggest argument in the first century was whether both Jews and Gentiles could be children of God and live and worship together without asphyxiating ethnic distinctions. Our struggles are not new struggles.
How did the church respond?
Instead of obliterating differences, the apostle Paul reveals how God uses differences to demonstrate the expanding and deepening power of God. Paul explains it this way, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:13, 14, New Revised Standard Version).
Christians dare not miss this! Paul is speaking to a specific circumstance, the culturally rooted division between Jews and Gentiles. If we miss this, we will discount the power of the gospel. Jesus gives us a new story, a story beyond and overwriting whatever cultural myths, priorities, and preferences we might otherwise possess. In the Jesus story, disciples of our Lord are brought together in peace to be ministers of peace. As Paul said, Christians exist to be “ministers of reconciliation” (see 2 Corinthians 5).
The historical and cultural story we have inherited is corrosive to both the lighter and darker skinned. It’s corrosive because it tempts us to leap over the Christ narrative and embrace a faulty story that will ultimately fail us. It will fail because it is a tale built on the rickety scaffolding that all people are not equally made in the image of God.
For our churches and communities to embrace a “gospeled” vision of humanity means rejecting any story that elevates our heritage and work or diminishes the image of God in others. Race is a social construct, and any beliefs rooted in that story are fruits of its poisonous tree. We believe a superior story: the story of a rejected, beaten, politically powerless Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6, 7).
Until we take the same form as Jesus, we will live in the wrong story.
Sean Palmer serves as lead minister with The Vine Church, Temple, Texas. He is author of Unarmed Empire, set for release in spring 2017.