Efrem Smith: The Multi-Ethnicity of Jesus

“In Christ Jesus, we are no longer red, yellow, brown, black, and white. … We are freed from false identities, but we retain the gift of our true identities of ethnicity and nationality.”

Excerpted from “The Post-Black, Post-White Church: Becoming the Beloved Community in a Multi-Ethnic World” (Jossey-Bass)

That Jesus is the Son of man is empowering to us because we live in him and he in us. As a descendant of Abraham, to whom God promises his role as the father of nations, Jesus is heir to great multi-ethnic diversity. This is important to note in connection to his human family tree and his identity as the Son of man. Could this be Jesus, Son of multi-ethnic hu(man)ity?

When we look through scripture, we see the interplay of ethnicity and the way race came to be and see how Jesus is the fruit of a long and diverse bloodline. A woman named Tamar listed in the genealogy of Jesus provides some insight into his multi-ethnic and multicultural family tree. We learn about her in Genesis 38. As a Canaanite, Tamar is the descendant of Canaan, who had been cursed by his grandfather, Noah. For a time in our Christian culture, there was a theology accepted in order to justify slavery within the United States that the Canaanite was Black. This type of racial theology helped to reinforce the false and inferior identity of Blackness. Biblical scholar J. Daniel Hays sheds light on this issue:

It may also be pertinent to note that the Canaanites are ethnically very close to the Israelites … the Canaanite language and culture is similar to that of the Israelites. They were also probably very similar in appearance. The critical difference was in regard to the gods that they worshipped. So … the curse on Canaan has absolutely nothing to do with Black Africa. Furthermore, because of the close ethnic affinity between the Canaanites and the Israelites, it can be said that this curse has nothing to do with race at all.

Note that Canaan and his family are the original inhabitants of Israel and Palestine. Canaan’s brother, Cush, and his family are the original inhabitants of Ethiopia and the Sudan. Another brother, Mizraim, and his family are the original inhabitants of Egypt. And yet another brother, Phut, and his family are the original inhabitants of Libya. Canaan’s uncle, Japheth, has a group of descendants (including Ruth) who are known as the Moabites, whom some scholars believe are the ancestors of Europeans. This means that Jesus’s bloodline has Israelis, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Egyptians, Libyans, and various European ethnic groups in it.

The biblical world of Jesus thus spans Africa, Asia, and Europe, which means that Jesus walked the earth as a multi-ethnic human being, not as Black or White. None of these ancestors dominated his identity, unlike the days of slavery in the United States when a person who was even one-eighth Black (which amounted to a teaspoon of Black blood) was classified as Black. If this race rule were applied to Jesus, he would have been considered Black. But race rules don’t apply in scripture or in the kingdom of God. Jesus both transcends and dismantles race. The fact that he was multi-ethnic as a human being is significant.

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When Jesus was hanging on the cross and the blood was dripping from his head, hands, and feet, that was multi-ethnic blood. When we say that Jesus died for all of our sins, that is true both figuratively and literally because all humanity was pumping through him and pouring out of him. He was the sacrificial lamb of all of sinful humanity and therefore embodies all of humanity in both the carrying and shedding of this precious blood. This truly is in this sense a substitutionary death. That is why the multi-ethnic and missional church must find identity in the multi-ethnic Jesus who is the Son of man and the Son of God. Through the Holy Spirit, this multi-ethnic Jesus lives in us. In him is new life and new identity.