Updated: Oct 23, 2019
Seeing Diversity as God's Design
I often hear reconciliation defined and spoken of in a way similar to affirmative action. The goal of this brand of “reconciliation” is to get enough colorful bodies into a shared space that was previously (or is currently) occupied by white people. This is how reconciliation is viewed in the broader culture, and the church often adopts the same view. The problem is that the worlds’ understanding and standards for diversity are quite different from the sort of reconciliation that is spoken of in God’s word, and without a good theology for diversity, our attempts to diversify, while well intentioned, may end up being more divisive than unifying. Dr. John Perkins says that reconciliation is a theologically rich concept that can be said to be the summation of the Biblical narrative. Within the first three chapters of Genesis we see God’s creation, mankind’s rebellion and the consequences of that rebellion, which affect everything. The next 1,186 chapters in the Bible are about God’s work to restore all things and set mankind back into right relationship with God, self, others and creation.
In her book, Roadmap to Reconciliation, Brenda Saltier-McNeil says that reconciliation is “an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance, and justice that restores broken relationship and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.” A thorough understanding of God’s heart and design for reconciliation starts by understanding that diversity was woven into the fabric of God’s creation; it wasn’t the result of the fall, but was God’s design for his creation from the beginning. It starts with the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:27-28. It says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it...’” God's blessing and mandate to mankind was for us to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it.
The importance of this mandate is highlighted by the affirmation of the Biblical claim that all of humanity can trace its lineage to the same people – Adam and Eve. If this weren't evidence enough, Scripture affirms the oneness of humanity again in Genesis 7, where every living thing on the face of the earth was destroyed with the exception of Noah’s family and the animals that were with them. Furthermore, modern biology and anthropology reject the idea of distinct racial categories as a biological reality. “Rather than distinguishing separate groups, variation is seen as a continuum.” To claim that race does not exist as a biological reality is not to ignore physical differences, but to say that those differences are not biologically substantial enough to account for distinct racial categories. Franz Boaz, a founder of anthropology in America, conducted a study with his students in 1912, finding that aspects of the environment such as nutrition and exposure to illness influence our physical and biological traits. “The findings of the study can be discussed in terms of nature and nurture. Genetic differences between individuals – differences based on nature – will be consistent across those individuals’ lives and may be passed on to future generations. Nurture consists of every influence of physical and social experience, including nutrition, exposure to toxins and pathogens, the safety of one’s environment, and all social interactions.” In 1972, evolutionary biologist R.C. Lewotin found that racial categories only account for 6.3% of genetic variation. In other words, “The greatest amount of genetic variability occurs within each of the [racial] groups.” Why this matters to a Christian dialogue on race and reconciliation is because an understanding of the oneness of the human race gives an entirely different meaning to the blessing of Genesis 1.
When Christians take into account what modern anthropologists, sociologists and biologists are saying about race, it should be clear that our physical and biological differences can be traced back to the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. God’s blessing and command was for mankind to fill and subdue the entire earth, but man decided that it would be better if everyone stayed in the same place. God, seeing that mankind was rebelling against him, forced them to obey by giving them different languages. Now, the Human family fulfills God’s mandate, moving to different places all over the earth, resulting in differing physical traits and cultural nuances, as they adapt to life in light of varying experiences and environmental conditions.
Something to reflect on:
“We, like those at Babel, establish structures for ourselves and rebel against God’s plan to bless all people. God resists our empire- building tendency towards homogeneity and causes us to realize our human limitations. Reflection on our finitude forces us to recognize our interdependence with others and our need for reconciliation. We need our differences in order to reflect the glory of God.”
- Brenda Saltier-McNeil
If the body of Christ is made up of many interdependent members, then it is only when we learn with and from the entire cultural spectrum of that body that we can fully mature and reflect the image of God (Ephesians 4:11-15).
Here’s how to do it:
Build intentional cross-cultural friendships (more than one!)
Listen empathetically to people's stories
Learn the histories of other people groups
Read non-Western theologians, or theologians from American minority groups
Study scripture with Christians from different cultures, with a focus on exploring the impact of culture on interpretation