Efrem Smith: The Multi-Ethnicity of Jesus

Ethnicity and Tribes

Although race is not biblical, ethnicity is. We see groups of people described by ethnicity, nationality, and tribe within the scriptures. We also see where some of the same dynamics that take place in our racialized world also come into play in the social structures of the Bible, for example in the ethnic divide between Jew and Gentile. Other social divides connect more directly to social divides of our own day, such as class and gender. But we see through scripture that these divides are dealt with in Christ, as Paul tells the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

As Jesus is walking the earth, we see him dealing head-on with the divisions within the social structures of his day. He sits at the well with a Samaritan woman (John 4); heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Luke); and sits at a table with a tax collector and immediately after is touched by a hemorrhaging woman while he is in the midst of a large crowd (Matthew 9). The multi-ethnic Jesus deals with the social structures and divides of his day and connects them both to the kingdom that he proclaims and the cross on which he will hang. Christ brings unity into divided humanity by offering new life. His miraculous works are the signs of what potentially can happen through the power, authority, and transformation found in him. In Christ Jesus, we are no longer red, yellow, brown, black, and white. We are new creatures in him. We are freed from false identities, but we retain the gift of our true identities of ethnicity and nationality. Although these characteristics are biblical, they can become false identities when we live them outside our relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This means we never put our ethnicity or nationality above our identity in Christ.

This hierarchy of identity can be problematic for people who have made being Christian synonymous with being American. What does my identity in Christ mean for my relationship with another Christian in, say, South Africa? Am I closer in relationship eternally with another American or another Christian who is a citizen of another nation? Our nationality can become a base of worldly pride, our ethnicity can lead to ethnocentrism, and our tribalism can cause civil war. But our ethnicities, nationalities, and tribes in Christ can become a vehicle to give God glory and advance his kingdom in the world. This new identity in Christ is what makes the multi-ethnic church both healthy and missional. This healthy, beloved community is better positioned to fulfill the Great Commission both locally and globally.

The biblically based theology of race in the post-Black, post-White church must show up in teaching, preaching, and other initiatives of Christian formation. For many, dismantling old identities of race in order to live into the new identity of Christ-centered multi-ethnicity will be like a second conversion. This process is a journey.

This excerpt is taken from The Post-Black and Post-White Church: Becoming the Beloved Community in a Multi-Ethnic World by Efrem Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Efrem Smith. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

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