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Overcoming racism requires us to see in color
The old has gone and the new is here
Central to my theology of anti-racism is participating in the New Humanity with Jesus in the New Creation. Paul, the Apostle, and the Evangelist that spread Christianity across the Mediterranean and into Europe, wrote this passage which has formed my understanding of what that New Humanity is. From 2 Corinthians 5:16-19:
So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
Paul is calling the Corinthians to no longer see each other in the worldly ways that have caused problems and division in their church. In his first letter to them, Paul vehemently exhorts them about unity amidst diversity in the Body of Christ (chapter 12). He then tells them that love is the great law of all (famously in chapter 13), and he warns them against divisions in the body (chapter 14). In 2 Corinthians, Paul is completing the ethic of the New Creation that he was forming with this cosmopolitan church in his first letter.
Paul no longer wants them to see each other according to how the world or state sees them, but in a whole new way. For Paul, though, this isn’t just a matter of acting like worldly differences don’t exist, but overcoming those worldly differences through a reconciling community. He notes that Jesus reconciled himself to us, by forgiving us and loving us into our fullness (instead of “counting people’s sins against them"), and now we have the same message of reconciliation.
Lessons for us today from Corinth
Paul’s message of New Humanity and New Creation applies to us in our immediate context, because we still see each other through our worldly lenses. I am thinking about this now because racism is apparently alive and well in the U.S.—and we see this in the most devastating way when it comes to police violence. In 2019, police killed nearly 1,100 people—24 percent of those people were black, while black people only make up 13 percent of the population. The racial bias is obvious and it is deadly. It is clear that we continue to see each other by human standards, but Paul is calling us to something more.
However, this is not as easy as “not seeing color.” It’s not as easy as saying “all lives matter.” We can’t ignore the racism and think our ministry of reconciliation is complete. You see, the sins of racism, manifesting themselves in hate and power, require us to interrogate them within ourselves and outside of ourselves too. Being called to the New Humanity means actively being anti-racist, and that means we need to consider the violence of racism that covers everything in the United States.
Growing up brown in a white land
“Race” in the United States is a complicated idea, though. Let me share about my personal experience. I grew up in a family of Egyptian immigrants in a white environment. I didn’t really understand that I was a different “race,” or even ethnicity or nationality, than my neighbors at first. In fact, I never really noticed when my neighbors and schoolmates treated me differently because of how I looked. I thought everyone was like us. But eventually, when you come from a different culture, you start to realize you are different. And eventually I felt like I was embarrassed by our unique customs, our accents, the different food we ate, and so on. My experience of racism started with “microaggressions,” like in school someone asking me if I lived in a Pyramid, or likening me to Osama Bin Laden. But in high school, I was profiled by law enforcement for being a brown guy in a parking lot waiting for his ride to get him from work. Another time, a convenience store clerk once warned me about coming into his store because he didn’t want to accuse me of shoplifting. Those instances were moments where I was singled out because of how I looked.
Race is about how you look and what the powers over you see when they see you. Unlike other sociological identities, I never “came out” as brown. I didn’t give my skin color meaning and share it with my friends. My skin color was assigned meaning the moment I was born in the United States (“born in the United States” is another phrase that I used to say to my friends, as if to prove my worth). My skin color was given meaning by the powers, but also by my peers.
My experience in Philadelphia mirrored my experience in Central PA. Philadelphia is generally more progressive, and so the negative meaning assigned to my skin color was less flagrant than it was in Lebanon. But just like I needed to learn about my experience as a brown boy in a white land in Lebanon, PA, I came to learn about my experience as a brown man in Philadelphia as I spent time here. It is a painful realization to recall the racism I have experienced. It is easy to ignore it. It’s easy to be colorblind to my own skin color—but that is not the way of the New Humanity. In order to be anti-racist, we need to see in color.
Seeing each other as New Humans means repenting of seeing each other the Old Way
We’re born into a world that assigns us value based on how we look, specifically our skin tone. Race is entirely about your skin color and the meaning assigned to it. Being anti-racist means undoing the meaning assigned to our skin color. Sometimes that means we try to value or elevate the experiences and voices and even the power of people with skin color that have been demeaned. And other times that means we need to actively divest when our skin color gives us privilege and power. That’s what the ministry of reconciliation can look like. That’s what it looks like to no longer hold our sins against each other. The discomfort that some of the people in power feel when they divest is not holding their sins against them—it’s what reconciliation looks like. Similarly, it may feel unfair to elevate someone or preference someone based on their skin color, but when you have a group who is dominant and another one that is dominated, that is how we reconcile ourselves to one another and how we live into the New Humanity.
The New Humanity that Paul declares is prophesied in scripture before this moment. From Isaiah 40:4, beginning the second part of Isaiah’s prophecy, from the perspective after liberation from Babylon, prophesying a return to Jerusalem or a New Exodus—a new movement of freedom in God, a New Humanity you might say:
Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain.
In the first Exodus, God made an entire people by freeing them from their Egyptian captors; in the New Exodus, which we are participating in now, there is a new freedom and a New Humanity that is created through Jesus’ liberation. We are actively moving beyond the old slave-way of thinking about each other and treating each other.
John the Baptist, in predicting the coming of the Messiah, hearkens back to Isaiah 40, when he is preaching “a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins” in Luke 3:
Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.
When the valleys are filled (when the oppressed are elevated), and the mountains and hills are made low (when the oppressors divest of their power), people will see Jesus in our New Humanity.
We all have work to do. All of us. White people, brown people, black people. It is different work, but work all the same. None of us haven't been affected by the old way—the racist way—of doing things. We all likely are complicit in racism in some way—some more than others—and we need to see one another, and ourselves, in a new way by letting go of the old way. This is a hard thing to do because we all know it’s wrong to be racist, but I think we fear that our sins will be held against us if we name our own racism. But Paul, through the power of Jesus, is giving us permission to reconcile—which involves repenting of our sin—because we will not be punished for our sin any longer. The idea that we’ll be punished for our wrongdoing is also wrapped up in the old way of the world. But the old is gone, and the new is here.
Jesus reconciles himself to those that are in him
Jesus is so committed to reconciliation, he became a human being, in order to love us and relate to us. Jesus became a frail baby to meet us right where we are. He even succumbed to death for the sake of solidarity with us. The ultimate act of reconciliation is the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ solidarity with humanity and even his oneness with humanity leads us to love ourselves into our fullness and let go of the old ways of thinking about ourselves and treating ourselves. In order to live in the New Humanity, we must confront the old ways of seeing ourselves—that means we can’t simply be “colorblind.” We have to see in color in order to overcome seeing ourselves that way.