The ‘Immovable Race’: An Ancient Christian Idea That Could Break Systemic Racism
by Shirley Paulson, PhD
We’re ready for change. We’re ready for healing. Now. But how? Where? What does it take to break the systemic racism holding down black individuals and communities?
Before I try to untangle some of these complex and tense questions that have grabbed the soul of America lately, let me say that I acknowledge my place of white privilege, and that I know my life has been enhanced in immeasurable ways by my black and African American friends, colleagues, and unknown individuals. I boil inside when I experience verbal and policy-driven injustice, even in my own world. I can’t claim to know the depth of that heat from the perspective of being black in America, but I know injustice hurts and is wrong.
I hope my musings from some early Christian texts might shed some light on our shared journey forward. There is a phrase from the first couple of centuries, CE, that circulated widely around the Mediterranean area that gives me hope: “the immovable race.”
What kind of race is this?
One of the texts that highlights this immovable race is the Secret Revelation of John, and the author describes it as
“…those upon whom the Spirit of life comes and will become perfect and worthy of greatness” (BG 33:6).
‘Perfect’ and ‘worthy of greatness’ sounds like it could be another invitation to a ‘supremacy’ race, but it isn’t. It’s an all-inclusive race.
People of this race get their worth and greatness from the Spirit of life, not from personal virtue, special selection at birth, or rewards at death. The ‘immovable’ part of their race comes from the part of God’s kingdom that cannot be shaken or violently attacked. Their peace is established by the spirit that comes from the imperishable world.
The translation of the phrase ‘immovable race’ isn’t always translated the same way. Some translators see it as the ‘unshakable generation.’ Whether it’s a ‘race’ or ‘generation,’ the idea is that the Greek term ‘genos‘ was understood in antiquity as groupings of people such as those who share “ancestors, rights of inheritance, knowledge, ritual practices, or ways of life” (Denise Buell, Why This New Race?, p. 2). People grouped themselves for various practical reasons. But there was no mention of inherited bodily characteristics!
In the Secret Revelation of John, the apostle John asks his Savior how anyone could become a member of this immovable race. The surprising news is that it’s a choice available to anyone. By being faithful to the spirit of life made available to everyone, each individual can choose to live faithfully with the ‘unshakable’ or immovable continuity of good.
But it’s neither a form of escapism, nor privilege for a favored few. It requires faithful living with the gifts of the spirit, not the alluring attractions of materialism.
Since this ‘race’ was “from the Spirit of life” when the ancients chose to live with it, I wonder how this Spirit would affect the other kinds of races on earth today. Certainly, it would outlaw hoarding goods from others and judging worthlessness in others. It would also dissolve our fearing of differences in others. It would inspire us to acknowledge everyone’s worth in the immaterial reflections of the original Creator of all.
If this Spirit is broad enough to make space for everyone, it is conceivable that this is the means for discerning human policies that would correct injustices too. One of the causes for injustice is the fear there isn’t enough for everyone, so those who have plenty are those who fear they will be deprived and might become hoarders; those who have not, might resort to whatever means they have to take what they need.
Another form of Injustice is a perpetuated dominance that comes from the belief in universalism. When the dominant group requires uniformity — to be like them — in the guise of universal good for everyone, then the smaller group is a perpetual heretic and thorn in the side. Can dominant groups give up their privilege? I would assert that can happen only when the model is from the Spirit of life. The abundance of good is from the divine source.
This ‘immovable race,’ – which sounds very much like the ‘kingdom of heaven’ – is not a distant hope. We all have the privilege to work for it and witness it here and now.