Grace and Race
Bishop Graham Tomlin explores how race and ethnicity are central to the gospel.
Let’s be honest. Many of us (though not all) in the church have often felt in the past that questions of race and ethnicity are at best marginal, at worse a distraction from the gospel. When I did my initial theological training in the 1980s, I don’t recall any particular discussion of race. It seemed like a special interest of a few people, and not something essential to think or do anything about.
Yet I for one have begun to discover that questions around ethnic and cultural diversity are not marginal, but in fact take us to the heart of the gospel – not least because St Paul seems to have thought they did. There was a well-known occasion, referred to in Galatians 2.11-14, when Peter started to feel uncomfortable about meeting and eating in a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles in the church in Antioch. Eating together had great symbolic and social significance at the time and such a gathering implied to him and to others that the ethnic distinction between Jew and Gentile was no longer of fundamental importance. Under pressure from the more conservative Jewish-Christian groups, probably from the Jerusalem church, Peter started to withdraw from such mixed racial gatherings.
You might have thought Paul would have respected Peter’s choice, and let it pass. Each to his own, you might say. Not a bit of it. This was, for Paul, something so crucial that he opposed Peter ‘to his face’. Remember this was Peter the Apostle, who had known Jesus in the flesh, upon whom Jesus had said he would build his church, the one who had an unparalleled position of authority within the church. Opposing Peter in this way was risking Paul’s entire ecclesiastical career, if he can be said to have had one at this stage!
Why did Paul think this was such a big deal? A recent book by the Professor of New Testament in Durham University, John Barclay, explores Paul’s theology of Grace. He shows how first century Greek and Roman culture was organised around a competition for honour and respect. Gifts and favours were a common way of lubricating social relationships and in that context, gifts would be given to those who were deemed to be worthy of the donor’s generosity. The expectation was those gifts would be reciprocated to cement alliances, create relationships and enhance one’s own social standing and respect within wider society. Roman citizens would not generally give gifts to the poor because they could not return the gift, leading to embarrassment all round.
God’s gift of Jesus Christ however had been given irrespective of ethnicity, gender, wealth or status. It was a gift of grace that paid no attention to the worth of the recipient (although it did still expect a response and a change of life – it was unconditioned but not unconditional). This was the radically new message of the gospel, that the grace of the God of Israel was now available to all people, no matter what their racial background. Peter’s action therefore implied that the gift was just like other gifts in that culture, given only to the worthy, on the basis of ethnic identity, primarily to Jewish people and only secondarily to Gentiles. It implied that Gentiles were not full members of the community because of their race, and because the gift was, after all, given according to ethnic status or identity.
That’s why Paul thought Peter’s action was such a betrayal of the gospel and could not just be allowed to pass. It was not ethnicity, status or wealth, but the gracious gift of God that was the currency that mattered in these new experimental communities on the edge of empire, centred around the grace, or generosity of God. This just didn’t fit with the normal categories of honour, gift and race at the time.
Instead, baptism gave a radical new identity – formed not around the Jewish Law, social status, or any other identity marker for that matter, but the presence and gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit – what Paul called a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17). It is why we give babies a new name at their baptism – a Christian name, different from their received family surname, indicating their new self in Christ, that their identity is not defined by family reputation, but by the worth given to them in Jesus Christ.
If in our structures, our forms of leadership and normative culture within the church we privilege one particular culture, making those from other cultures feel second rate or allowed in as visitors but not really valued as fully participant and valued members of the church, then we are making the same mistake as Peter did. We are denying the gospel of grace that is offered regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, wealth or status.
Presumably Peter himself had to re-think his own attitudes in the light of this incident. He had already seen the need for Gentiles to be brought into the new community (Acts 15.7-11) yet he still had more to discover as to the full implications of what this meant. Attitudes to race are complex – the world is not neatly divided into racists or non-racists. We are all on a journey to discover the significance of God’s radical gift of grace.
Grace and race are linked together. It is vital that we are able to create churches that are welcoming to all cultures and deliberately try to form genuine intercultural space which enables the expression and gift of all cultures to be received in the context of Christian faith. Prejudice is subtle and we often under-estimate the gifts of others due to our own preconceived ideas about people who are unlike us. This does not mean ignoring or being ashamed of our own particular cultures, but both critiquing them when they are sinful and valuing them when they reflect God’s boundless wisdom. As Barclay puts it: “mutual welcome will require the members to relativise their traditions – not necessarily to abandon them, but to subordinate them to the higher goal of serving Christ.”
It is the gospel, not a secular agenda that drives the Church’s vision to combat racism and to see our churches genuinely reflect the varied and multi-faceted wisdom and grace of God in Christ. If we are able to respond to this with humility, creativity and a willingness to learn, we might just enable something to emerge in our churches that is truly glorious, beyond what we are able to anticipate or image. We might see churches in London and beyond that truly reflect God’s generosity of welcome and that reflect, not just the diversity of our city, but the city which is to come – the city of Grace.