Justin Taylor sent me an email asking me to comment on Many Ethnicities, One Race by Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the forthcoming The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accomodation. This article is a Christian argument for an increasingly-common view today that races are not real, following by a biblical theology lying behind a call to end segregated congregations.
When I saw the links to a bunch of pieces on race on Justin's blog, I looked at a number of them and got a sense of what they were about, but I didn't pursue most of them (with John Piper's as a key exception). This was one I didn't look at in much detail, largely because what I initially saw seemed to me to be pretty far from what I think is the correct way to look at these issues. I must say (now that I've read the whole thing) that the second half of his piece was much more in line with my own thinking, but his initial arguments are very much not. Since Justin asked for my thoughts, here they are, and perhaps they will be helpful to others besides Justin. I'm not going to repeat the arguments in the article but will assume you have read it.
One worry I have is that I see no biblical warrant for taking the image of God to be anything more than being given a mission to represent God (which is what an image does for a god in the ancient near east). It is thus the same as being given the mandate to steward creation as God's representative on earth. Anyabwile rests a lot on his more expansive view of what the image of God is. all the while complaining that people's views of race go way beyond what the Bible actually says about race.
I'm a bit disturbed at the idea that our bodies could have something to do with being in the image of God to begin with. The only reason God has a body is because he incarnated himself in his second person as a human being. But that is in time after the creation of Adam, who is nonetheless made in the image of God. Even if being in the image of God is more substantive than the view I hold, it cannot have anything to do with having a body, since God does not have a body in any sense other than in the second person's incarnation, which is to reflect what human beings are like and not the other way around (although the new creation does reflect what Christ is like, but that's another step removed).
I think his general argument form is fallacious. It basically notes that the modern notion of race isn't in the Bible and thereby dismisses it. But the modern notion of a mailman isn't in the Bible. The modern notion of a refrigerator isn't either, nor is the modern notion of a university or the modern notion of a conservative. But all those things exist.
Another problem I have is that he keeps speaking of "races rooted in biological difference". Most race theorists who accept the existence of races do not think that races are a necessary implication of biological facts. They think social and historical factors have produced racial categories that rely on biological features in terms of how we classify people, but the root is in social and historical factors, not in biology. The fact that they are not rooted in biology doesn't mean they're nonexistent any more than the fact that categories like "conservative" or "university student" aren't rooted in biology doesn't make them unreal.
He states at one point, "the contemporary conversations about 'race' assume a biological definition, or at least assume that 'race' is phenotypically identifiable (skin color)". Not true. Virtually everyone today who writes about this issue in academia denies a biological definition, except for those who deny the existence of race altogether. Most do not assume that race is phenotypically identifiable. Many race scholars think that the one-drop rule is still in operation in the United States, for instance. On the one-drop rule, a black parent and a white parent can produce only black children, even if their skin is very light and their hair like that of most white people. Then that child may marry a white person and have children who look for all intents and purposes to be white. The one-drop rule classifies such kids as black. So how is race, on this view, supposed to be tied to phenotype? This is the predominant view about how racial classification works in the U.S. (although I myself think it's disappearing in some parts, e.g. the northeast and the west coast).
But the idolatry charge really baffles me. Suppose racial categories, as most race scholars believe, are social constructions. Suppose, also as most race scholars believe, that the historical origins of these beliefs depend on immoral actions in the past and even to some degree in the present (and a Christian will rightly trace these back to the fall). How does it follow that recognizing these realities and accepting the existence of these categories as social fact amounts to idolatry? Idolatry is putting something in the place of God. But no one here is claiming anything divine about these categories.
Even more baffling is that Anyabwile goes on to use racial categories as if unproblematic. He pretends he's using ethnic categories, but "black" and "white" are racial categories, as he acknowledges when he goes on to distinguish from ethnic categories. If these terms don't refer to anything, how can he use them meaningfully and be saying true things? If they are immoral to use, why is he using them? I'm not sure he can pragmatically follow through on his view and still say the things he says.
He seems to advocate use of ethnic terms as more precise than racial terms (which assumes racial terms do refer to something after all, just something less precise). The problem with using this as a reason to abandon racial terms is that some real evil is done in terms that line up exactly with racial categories, not ethnic ones. People discriminate against black people, not usually against black Africans or black Americans. People make fun of Asians in general often enough, and to have to refer to that group by listing Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc. as ethnic groups would get a bit tedious.
While I would agree that in Christ people of all races are one, and racial differences should amount to nothing in terms of spiritual identity, I think that is a far cry from denying the reality of race in the social and historical dimensions in which racial categorization is real and causes real problems. To deny the reality of race is tantamount to denying the reality of racial discrimination, racial hatred, and any other racial evil. It is impossible to address evils that do not occur, and evils based on some purported category that does not exist must also not be real, since there is nothing at all for them to be based on. If racism is real, then race is real. Racism is clearly based on things that wouldn't exist but for the fall. So is adultery, and so are adulterous unions. But no one denies the existence of adulterous unions on the ground that adulterous unions wouldn't exist but for the fall. The fact that it wouldn't exist but for the fall means that it does exist. Why isn't the same true of race?
Now all that being said, I want to emphasize that I am almost in complete agreement with the last few sections of Anyabwile's article. When he discusses his view of what the church should look like and what the local church should look like, he probably says what will cause the most controversy among contemporary evangelicals. Yet that is the part I think he is right about. We should be putting a lot more effort into figuring out how to end the absolute travesty of segregated congregations. Anyabwile has little to offer on the practical end of that, but I don't have a lot of suggestions myself. But I agree that the status quo is extremely bad, and most evangelicals don't want to admit that.