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Efrem Smith: The Multi-Ethnicity of Jesus

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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.

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.

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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