I expect that most of us have become familiar with phrases like, “We all bleed red,” “There’s only one race: the human race,” and “I don’t see color.” They’re part of the colorblind mentality that has become commonplace in our vernacular. We tell our children, “It's rude to talk about other people’s skin color,” and hush their curious questions. And honestly, being colorblind is an intriguing idea, isn’t it? It allows us to focus on the idea of a commonality (we are all humans), while enabling us to avoid addressing cultural and ethnic differences (something we may find difficult and uncomfortable). But I wanted to know whether or not this colorblind approach to racial harmony was actually building unity in the Church and whether it was actually biblical, so I began asking questions.
As I started digging into this idea, I had to confront the fact that I felt awkward, uncomfortable and scared to talk about ethnic and cultural differences with others. I am often afraid that I'll say something wrong or insult someone in my ignorance, so I'd rather just avoid the topic. But do you know who I've found time and time again doesn't feel uncomfortable talking about ethnic and cultural identities? People of color! A friend of mine, an African American woman, communicated this so beautifully to me by saying, “Aurlyn, the most unloving thing people say to me is, ‘I don't see color.’ ‘Cause you know what? Every day, the first thing I see when I look in the mirror is my brown face.” In that moment, sitting with a friend at breakfast, I realized that by saying, “I don't see color,” I was actually saying, “I don't see you.”
Colorblindness falls out of sync with God’s enthusiastically multiracial grand mission of world redemption.
When we address the tensions in our society between different ethnic and cultural backgrounds by saying, “I don't see color,” we are misdiagnosing and misaddressing the problem. We are essentially saying that color is the problem; therefore, if color goes away, we can all live in perfect unity. However, color, culture and ethnic differences aren't the real problem; the problem is the varying levels of value that we attribute to these unique backgrounds. The solution, therefore, will not be found in ignoring the differences but in identifying them, discussing them and learning what is beautiful and valuable about each culture and background. When we elevate one another and cherish our differences, we reflect God's heart for a diverse body—one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:12).
Colorblindness falls out of sync with God’s enthusiastically multiracial grand mission of world redemption (Gen. 12:1-3; Ps. 67:2; Rev. 21:24). Jesus affirms the diverse nature of His bride, full of members from every tribe, tongue and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9), a fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. The word “nation” here is translated from the Greek word “ethos,” which is the root of our modern term “ethnicity,” and was used to denote culture groups. Jesus is never seen neglecting or denying the different cultures within His creation. Instead, He celebrates them and draws them all to Himself.
When Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” many Christians have taken this to mean that Paul is espousing a colorblind perspective (Gal. 3:28). But if we look closer, we see that the opposite is actually true. Dr. Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, notes, “Paul's remarks are shocking in Gal. 3:28, not because he asserts ethnic and social distinctions no longer exist, but because he contends that they do not determine one's status within the Abrahamic family.” Paul, speaking to common hierarchies within that society—free over slave, male over female, Jew over Greek—reminds the church at Galatia that we are all equally broken before the cross.
Paul is not saying we have no differences. He affirms distinct roles of men and women within the church (Eph. 5:22-33) and unique cultural identities within the body of Christ. In Galatians 2:11-14, he boldly and publicly rebukes Peter for separating himself from Greek Christians—for pressuring them to assimilate into Jewish practices and customs. Paul says that the Gentile Christians don't need to leave behind their culture and cloak themselves in Jewish identity in order to inherit Christ or grow in spiritual maturity. Paul also intentionally recognizes leaders within the church at Antioch not only by name but also by country of origin (Acts 13:1). It is this diverse church in Antioch, led by men from Asia Minor, the Middle East and the Mediterranean (Acts 4:36; 9:11; 13:1) that Paul repeatedly points believers to throughout the New Testament as a picture of the thriving body of Christ. As Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li point out in their book Ethnic Blends, Paul chose this vibrant, multiracial church as his example, rather than the healthy but homogeneous church of nearby Jerusalem.
We see in Scripture that Christ's kingdom is colorful and that diversity is intentional and celebrated.
Today, few churches reflect that diversity Paul spoke of. According to Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, “Churches are 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods they're in and 20 times more segregated than nearby public schools.” This statistic, combined with experiences like the one I had with my friend at breakfast, has led me to believe that the colorblind mentality rampant in our culture and church is not only unhelpful, but it is hurtful. It is a way for the majority culture to avoid a conversation that makes us feel uncomfortable, but the cost is that it alienates our brothers and sisters in the minority whose skin color and unique culture are a beautiful image of our Creator.
When I expect my friends of color to submit to my comforts and to feel loved in the way that I think they ought to feel loved, it looks a lot less like love and a lot more like selfishness. I'm essentially saying, “You do what I say for my comfort.” When speaking on this matter, the artist Propaganda said, “It communicates that my distinctions don't matter, which would mean that my identity doesn't matter, right? And that's confusing to a young black man because you're telling me my identity doesn't matter, yet I'm being treated a certain way because of this identity.”
We see in Scripture that Christ's kingdom is colorful and that diversity is intentional and celebrated (Gen 12:1-3; 1 Cor. 12:12; Rev. 7:9). As Christians, we are called to walk in humility, considering others as more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). So perhaps in the area of how to address ethnic and cultural differences, it would be loving and wise to let people of color lead us in how best to love them. That doesn't mean we find one friend of color who agrees with our sentiment and weaponize them against all others; no, it means that we humble ourselves and listen to a variety of diverse voices. It means that we seek to love others in the ways they are most served. It means that we take note of the beauty and differences of other cultures, looking for how we might set aside our comforts and interests in order to make those outside the dominant culture feel more valuable, welcomed and seen.
When we begin to see and value the ethnic and cultural differences within our community, we will be able to incorporate those distinctions in meaningful ways. This will often be at the cost of our preference or comfort, but that's what biblical love does (Phil. 2:4). Eternity will be a multitude of people, worshiping in a multitude of ways—together (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Here at the Bible's climax, God's greatest glory seems to come not from a homogeneous singularity, but from a united diversity, so that's what we ought to seek to become. Along the way, we will begin to look more like Christ, and we might even glean a greater glimpse of the beauty of our King.