Whiteness and race is a modern invention:
This idea of “whiteness” was new. First, it was abstract, not really based on your place and culture as with ethnic identity. No longer were you primarily Irish or German or Swedish–you were primarily white. When the Irish and the Italians first began to enter the U.S. in major numbers in the mid and late 1800s, they were not seen as “white” and part of the dominant U.S. racial group. But they were eventually admitted. Second, because now there were only four or five races, it was easier to identify “higher” and “lower” races. It was a way to very quickly categorize the whole human race into a strict hierarchy.
This modern development did indeed produce a devastating new kind of racism. But is it fair to say that since the modern idea of race has been forged by white people in order to justify their slavery and colonialism—that therefore, while the Bible may address tribalism or ethnic prejudice, it does not speak to racism? I don’t think so.
So does the Bible actually speak to racism?
As we have seen, the deep human need to bolster and justify ourselves produces some form of “Othering,” choosing a group of people to define yourself against by despising them as inferior to you. “Othering” is addressed all through the Bible. Consider the Pharisee “who looked down” on others in Luke 18, who says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (verse 11). Here is literally a man doing “Othering.” He is classifying entire groups of people, setting up a hierarchy, and then building himself up through his contempt.
This is not, however racial “Othering.” Is that in the Bible? I believe it is.
When Peter refuses to eat with any Gentiles at all, he was doing what modern racism does. He was “racializing” them into a category—regardless of their ethnic or national background—and in addition, he was setting up a hierarchy of superior and inferior races, and then “Othering” them by segregation.
This emphasis on “segregation,” on “othering,” and “racialization” is exactly correct. However, not all othering requires us to depise the other. Just cutting the “other’s” concerns off from our own is enough to justify and perpetuate quite horrible things.
This is a three part series. The first article is here: Tim Keller on The Bible and Race - Life in the Gospel