Traditional Western Christian theology has not always served us or our world well.
As a particular example of this, I would refer to our accepted understandings of “grace” and its implications. The debates between medieval Roman Catholics and the Protestant reformers focused on the nature of grace as it applied to individuals and their standing before God. “How can I be saved?” was the question; “How can I go to heaven and avoid hell?” Given the historical situation as it was, it was a necessary debate. However, the overwhelming dogmatic shadow this constrained definition of grace cast over Western civilization and its history is criminally unfortunate. Catholic and Protestant battles over the nature of individual salvation coincided with the onset of European colonial expansion, and became part of the fire feeding its twin engines of religious conversion and economic exploitation of indigenous populations around the world.
I would contend that a radical misunderstanding of God’s grace in Christ lies at the very root of our struggles with evils like racism.
Some theologians saw problems early on in the era of discovery and conquest. The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) was an early moral and theological debate in Spain about the conquest of the Americas, whether or not it was justified to convert natives to Catholicism, and what relations should be between the European settlers and the natives of the New World.
On the one side was Juan Ginés de Sepülveda, a prominent humanist and Greek scholar who justified conquest and evangelization by war and forcible conversion. His opponent, friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, in contrast, was a staunch advocate of peaceful and persuasive conversion. These two sides were dealing with a question that had been argued back and forth in Spain — were the indigenous peoples of the New World full, rational human beings, or were they complete “barbarians” who could not make rational decisions for themselves?
Though the Valladolid Debate signaled commendable ethical reflections on conquest and colonialism, the result did little to actually help Europeans see the people of the New World as anything more than “barbarians” (rational or not) to be conquered, converted, and ruled over. According to Bonar Ludwig Hernandez, “although the Spaniards actually sat down to discuss the fate of the Native Americans, the Indians did not benefit in any tangible way from the debate.” Nor did it do anything to stop the tide of colonialism and imperialism by Spain or other European nations. By 1914, a large majority of the world’s nations had been colonized by Europeans at some point.
This subject, of course, is as complex as history itself, and I’m not suggesting that all the blame for the attitudes and actions of Europeans toward the other peoples of the world should be laid at the feet of poor theology. However, I can’t help but think that the world and its history might have taken a much different course if Paul’s theology of grace had been understood more fully and applied more faithfully by the church. As Klasie pointed out in his excellent posts recently, the “racism” we know today in the West is not innate but deeply rooted in the colonialism and imperialism of our past, which fostered our own particular tribal “in-group” and “out-group” perspectives on people of various ethnicities and skin tones. The church often played a key role in this history.
But all this is directly contrary to Paul’s theology of grace in the New Testament. Paul’s conviction was that Jesus came to be Lord of all and to reconcile all people to God and one another. This is God’s good news, his gift of grace to the world.
Hear what John Barclay, author of the essential study, Paul and the Gift, says about the subject:
Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries. This is what made Paul so controversial in his day. His mission to the Gentiles involved telling them that they didn’t have to fit within the cultural boundaries of the Jewish tradition. In his letter to the Galatians, for instance, he strongly criticizes other Jewish Christians who say you have to fit in the Jewish cultural box in order to be Christian. Paul says no—God has not paid regard to that cultural box.
…What we take for granted as having worth—our place in a hierarchy, our class, our wealth, our education, you name it—does not count for anything when we are encountered by Christ. In Paul’s day, the main forms of hierarchy were built around gender, ethnicity, and legal status. Men were considered more important than women, Jews were considered more valuable than non-Jews, and a free person was considered more valuable than a slave. Paul says that in God’s eyes, none of these social boundaries matter. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28).
What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.
• John Barclay, What’s So Dangerous about Grace? (interview at CT)
Barclay says that Paul’s distinctive contribution to our understanding of grace is its incongruous nature. In the ancient world, patrons who gave gifts to beneficiaries were encouraged to find worthy recipients. But Paul learned that God’s favor was not bestowed in that manner. Paul observed that God had showered the gift of Christ upon Gentiles as well as Jews, those he formerly deemed unworthy. And Paul’s own experience confirmed this as well. He knew that it wasn’t because of his Jewish privileges or zeal that Jesus laid hold of him by grace. Barclay writes, “Paul thus identifies a divine initiative in the Christ-event that disregards taken-for-granted criteria of ethnicity, status, knowledge, virtue, or gender.”
In other words, Paul’s teaching about grace brings “into question every pre-existent classification of worth.” The gift of Christ comes to all, without regard for any of the categories we have established to determine our worthiness or unworthiness.
That’s why Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:16, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh.” “According to the flesh” means according to the categories humans have set up. He is not saying that all these distinctions have disappeared, or shouldn’t ever be taken into account, only that grace renders them insignificant as “markers of worth.” The Galatians need not submit to Torah-observance to make themselves worthy recipients of God’s favor. Peter need not fear that eating with Gentiles will offend God’s standards. Grace teaches us that, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, Roman citizen or barbarian — the distinctions we erect in order to divide and organize our world into “worthy” and “unworthy” are no longer the categories by which we are to judge and relate to others.
Furthermore, as Paul emphasizes in Galatians, social practice is the necessary realization of Christ’s gift. In that epistle, he argues that the good news of grace in Christ is actually lost if not enacted in social relationships that challenge common cultural conceptions of worth and standing.
Social practice is not, for Paul, an addition to belief, a sequel to a status realizable in other terms: it is the expression of belief in Christ, the enactment of a “life” that can otherwise make no claim to be “alive.” (Barclay)
The Church’s long history of cooperation with Empire in reinforcing human standards and divisions rather than contradicting them in word and deed has nurtured the growth and spread of such evils as racism. Paul taught and demonstrated that God’s incongruous gift of grace in Christ is meant to form dissident communities which follow the Spirit whose fruit is love, welcoming the “other” rather than judging them by “fleshly” categories.