In July 2020, author and radio host, Eric Metaxas, tweeted, “Jesus was white.”(1) His tweet was in response to news that the United Methodist Church had enlisted author Robin DiAngelo to produce a series of videos about white privilege. He went on to say, “Did [Jesus] have ‘white privilege’ even though he was entirely without sin? Is the United Methodist Church covering that? I think it could be important.”
The lambastness of Metaxas’ words, while controversial for many, were also unsurprising. Many North American evangelicals have grown up seeing the painting by Warner Sallman called “The Head of Christ” that depicts Jesus, with an incandescent glow about his face and distinctly European features. This is a standard portrait in churches and Christian schools across the nation, and it has shaped generations on what Jesus looked like more than the Bible itself. I too grew up believing Jesus was white. My picture Bibles as a child portrayed every character in the Ancient Near East as fair-skinned, with many also having blond hair and blue eyes. No one ever told me that Jesus would not actually look that way because he was a Middle-Eastern man! The same was true for most of the other key figures in Scripture.
Even in the midst of our current fraught racial divisions and polarized country, American Christians still know little to nothing about the ethnicities and cultures represented by the characters in the Bible—what they looked like, what language they spoke, where they lived, and the beauties of their culture—let alone how to apply the truths of these realities to our lives. As a recent Lifeway research study shows, Americans don’t know much about theology in general,(2) and this includes the Bible’s theology about culture and ethnicity. Sure, most of us say God wrote the Bible, but do we know what he said? Only 32 percent of Americans who attend a Protestant church regularly even read the Bible personally every day. (3) Our lack of Bible reading has caused us to develop an apathy toward our cultural identities. We don’t care about the ethnic make-up of people in the Bible. Surely, we decide, it plays no role in the exegesis of a text. Our lack of spiritual formation in this topic means we don’t even see it when we do read the Bible.
But cultural identity and ethnic heritage matter a great deal in the Bible. For example, Jesus wasn’t white. He was a first-century, brown-skinned, Jewish man. Scholars have also shown Jesus had a multiethnic ethnic heritage that included Moabite, Canaanite, and Hittite ancestors’ multiethnic identity. (4) Moreover, Jesus’ multiethnic identity fueled both his ministry and his mission. If we don’t understand this, we will have gaps of understanding in every story he is in, from the wedding at Cana (John 2) to the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14). Moreover, mapping out culture and ethnicity in the stories of biblical characters is crucial to how we understand our own identities and the way we live out our faith. We need to become biblically literate about culture and ethnicity by spending more time in God’s word. That way we can see the big picture, understand what the main guard posts are, and what the Bible’s commentary on culture and ethnicity means for us today.
Step 1: Trace the Arc of Culture and Ethnicity from Genesis through Revelation
Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 7 are our guard posts for tracing the arc of culture and ethnicity in Scripture. The commentary within these two passages on the subject bookends the Bible, and every other passage in Scripture that speaks on this issue should be interpreted through this lens.
In Genesis 1-2 God creates a diverse world. From plants and animals to the birds of the sky and the first humans, God’s creative spirit is manifest in his design for creation. He commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28) and thereafter we see the ways humans begin to diversify—ethnically and linguistically—and move throughout the earth (see Genesis 10-11). From the creation account we can infer that God intended for humankind to exist with wondrous variety, not as a monocultural demographic. Diversity was God’s idea from the very beginning, and diversity is part of what it means to be human.
Genesis 1-2 is then capped with Revelation 7. Here we see that cultural flourishing is paramount to our ability to be together in Christ not only in the present age as the church but also throughout eternity. John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, presents a picture of believers as multiethnic and multicultural, coming from all the nations of the earth to worship God together. This picture envisions the full conversion of the nations to obedience to Jesus, all while returning to Genesis 1 and the original intentions God had for creation. In Revelation 7:9, we see “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (New International Version). Around the throne of God one will find Ugandans, Mongolians, Arapaho, Vietnamese, Russians, Argentinians, Polynesians, South Africans, Koreans, Iranians, Bulgarians, Hmong, Mexicans, and a host of other peoples from thousands of different tribes and nations. This is a picture of the ideal humanity with each person retaining their ethnicity, story, and voice as they unite in worshiping God for eternity. This vision of the future should impact how we see things today.
Put together, we see that Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 7 proclaim that 1) our cultural identities have spiritual significance; 2) our cultural identities are not erased in the new heavens and new earth; 3) God’s heart is for ethnic unity and reconciliation; 4) God intentionally created a multiethnic body of people; and 5) leaning into the multicultural expressions of our identities is part of our worship of God.
Step 2: See Color in Scripture
Spend time identifying different Bible characters’ ethnic identities, naming them aloud, finding where they lived on a map, and even discussing what they might have looked like. If you have children, buy them a Bible in which people are depicted with brown skin.
In any passage you read, ask yourself, What cultural elements are at play in this story or passage? For example, when we read the story of Moses in Exodus 1-3, we are presented with three different people groups: the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and the Midianites. The story that unfolds includes oppressive power dynamics between the different cultural groups, interracial adoption, interracial marriage, and Moses living at the intersection of these different cultures and having unique access to Pharaoh because he grew up as a Hebrew in the Egyptian court.
Moses’ cultural identity development is crucial to this story. He grew up as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses enjoyed all the wealth and privileges of Egypt and the royal court. We don’t know how much he knew about his ethnic roots or to what extent he identified with the Hebrews; however, at the age of 40 he decides to visit his own ethnic people of Israel and witnesses first-hand their suffering and exploitation at the hand of Egyptian society. As Robert Chao Romero argues, this moment in the story, of Moses visiting his own people, is a vital first step in his development of a cultural identity as resistance. (5) Like Moses, we must not forget about the suffering of our own sisters and brothers in the Black and Brown “Goshens” of the United States, choosing instead to visit them as they work in the metaphorical storehouses of Egypt and develop a posture of solidarity with them.
Identifying people’s skin color and ethnic heritage is fundamental to our theological understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ and how we are to value and relate with one another. In the book of Numbers, we read about the biracial priest Phinehas. Professor of Old Testament J. Daniel Hays explains that the name Phinehas “translates as ‘the Negro,’ the ‘Nubian,’ or ‘the Cushite’: that is, one of the Black people who inhabit the land of Cush.” (6) Phinehas is a dark-skinned African. He also happens to be the great-nephew of Moses (Aaron’s son Eleazar marries a daughter of the Egyptian Putiel; Exodus 6:25). Phinehas’ leadership in Israel offers a provocative racial commentary on who is included in the people of God as well as the importance of minority leadership. Imagine what sort of changes the church might make today in regard to hiring practices and who serves as executive leaders if we spent more time teaching and modeling the story of Phinehas.
Step 3: Celebrate Cultural Identities and Ethnic Heritages
When we read Scripture through the lens of culture and ethnicity, we will better see the ways that God crafts culture to foster a healthy, harmonious relationship between Spirit, humanity, and nature. (7)
Take, for example, the biblical feasts. In each of the cultural feasts in the Old Testament and up to Jesus’ observation of these feasts, we see that confessing and celebrating our culture and cultural identities is good and holy work. The Passover (Pesach) is an expression of liberation and freedom as it celebrates the Hebrew people’s emancipation from the Pharaoh of Egypt. The Sabbath centers communal celebration as it enables God’s people to participate in a cyclical rhythm of gatherings that cultivate interconnection and interpersonal relationships. The Feast of First Fruits provided a cultural medium for God’s people to express gratitude for God’s provisions in their lives. In each of these feasts, God calls us to bring our whole selves to the table. As Dr. Lucretia Berry writes, “Celebrating our cultural identity is not only food for our souls, but it feeds those who have never experienced the Divine expressed in this way.” (8) In other words, celebrating our cultural identities is both life-giving and missional.
What would it look like for you to flourish culturally right now? In what ways can your family and your church incorporate daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms of cultural flourishing?
For me, culturally flourishing includes practices of gratitude, celebration, and invitation. Each week, my husband, Aaron, and I take time to either talk about or write down one to three things in our cultures for which t we are grateful. This gratitude practice has created a habit for us of thanking God for how he made us and others. We also have regular rhythms in our home of sharing or celebrating something good in our cultures. From week-long holiday celebrations to inviting friends over for Indian and/or Mexican food, we make a point to recognize what is good in our cultures. Finally, the way we overcome shame and publicly declare our God-given pride and delight in who we are as cultural beings is by choosing to share the positive experiences of our culture with others. Invite friends over for a homemade meal or to celebrate a cultural holiday or even to watch a movie together with ties to your ethnic roots.
Each of us needs to grow in our biblical literacy and theology of culture and ethnicity. My encouragement to you is to make regular time to read the Bible as well as develop and celebrate your cultural identity. As we take steps to becoming more ethnically and culturally aware, we will begin to see both our own individual cultural distinctiveness as well as that of others. Our children will come to believe and see how unsatisfying it is to paint ourselves and others into one monolithic, colorless blob, and how much more meaningful and in fact biblical it is to discover all the colorful shades within each and every one of us.
1. The tweet is no longer available. However, see the following article for reference: Relevant Staff, “Uh, Eric Metaxas Said That Jesus Was White?,” Relevant Magazine, July 28, 2020, https://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/uh-eric-metaxas-said-that-jesus-was-white/
2. See “Americans Love God and the Bible, are fuzzy on the details,” Lifeway Research, September 27, 2016, https://lifewayresearch.com/2016/09/27/americans-love-god-and-the-bible-are-fuzzy-on-the-details/
3. See “Few Protestant ChurchGoers Read the Bible Daily,” Lifeway Research, July 2, 2019, https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/07/02/few-protestant-churchgoers-read-the-bible-daily/
4. Andrew Rillera, “Jesus’ Multicultural Identity and Mission,” November 17, 2020, https://www.madeforpax.org/storyarc
5. Robert Chao Romero, “Cultural Identity as Resistance,” Made for Pax, September 2020, http://www.madeforpax.org/archive/cultural-identity
6. J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 81.
7. See Lucretia Berry, “Food + Rhythm for the Soul: A Guide for Celebrating Cultural Identity,” Made for Pax, September 2020, http://www.madeforpax.org/archive/cultural-identity