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Racism in early Christian communities?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Multi-racial Hands Together

Many of us are trying to dismantle racism in the US and abroad. A good reason to probe ancient Christian texts is to discover what kind of wisdom might emerge that could shed light on our current situation and isn’t so heavily laden with our recent history.  But as always, we need to remember we can’t directly import the past into the present any more than we can evaluate the past from the cultural lenses of today. Since Christianity is built on the legacy of the earliest followers of Jesus, though, it’s helpful to consider if or how their religious experiences might enlighten us.

It’s somewhat surprising to realize that early Christians found race/ethnic reasoning useful for their own self-definition. Denise Kimber Buell’s book, Why This Race (2005), explains why ethnic reasoning would have been so prevalent in early Christian thought and why their attitudes might even challenge our ways of thinking of race, ethnicity, and religion now. She notes that the Greek word ‘genos’ identifies groups in categories such as ritual practices, ancestors, rights of inheritance, knowledge, ways of life, and more. These are not categories based on skin color or any physical appearances.

For any of those groups not in power (such as the early Christ groups in relation to the Romans), it makes sense that they would seek to strengthen their identity, to enhance their self-definition, and to consolidate and mobilize themselves geographically and theologically. This kind of ‘race/ethnic reasoning’ (a term used by Buell) helped these Christ groups to

  • produce and indicate distinct religious practices,
  • claim anyone can join the Christ groups with both fixed and fluid interpretations of race/ethnic reasoning,
  • compete with other groups by reasoning polemically (Buell, 2-3).

Our contemporary culture tends not to acknowledge the prevalence of ethnic reasoning in early Christian self-definition because of how dominant ideas of race, ethnicity, and religion inform our current presuppositions. But we might draw new helpful conclusions about how and why early Christ communities divided themselves into groups. First, from this distance, we can see why dominant groups (such as mainstream Christians) would have made issues of race a taboo topic – to preserve the status quo. But marginalized groups made issues of group separation a central theme, seeking intra-Christian reform – to reduce the marginalization. That is, critique generally comes best from the margins.

Another key lesson comes from one of the groups that became increasingly ostracized from the dominant group in antiquity. Those early Christ groups who placed high value on spiritual learning above doctrinal development often talked about three ‘genos’ of Jesus followers: the spiritual, psychic, and fleshly. Irenaeus (one of the most influential founding ‘Church Fathers’) argued that those who held this view – the ‘gnostics’ – believed that humankind was divided into three classes, and that they identified themselves as the superior class. But more recently scholars, such as Ismo Dunderberg (Beyond Gnosticism, 2008), have explained that these distinctions between people are more like the distinctions philosophers drew between more and less advanced students (p. 135). That is, neither their bodies nor souls separated them from the higher group, but anyone could aspire to learn more and to grow spiritually.

These kinds of Christ groups encouraged each other (following the Savior’s teachings) to put off the deeds of the flesh and to nurture a relationship with the Spirit.  But the Tripartite Tractate, (one of the texts we discuss in the online course Ancient Christian Texts for Modern Healing) shows us the value of the intermediate type of life. The lust for power, for example, was the curse of the Roman Empire they lived under. But the right attitude to power was also useful for ruling righteously. Those exercising political or social power just needed to recognize that their ruling was temporary.

We can’t look to antiquity to find the model for classless (raceless) society, but some of those ancient writers do help us consider whether our divisions are based on theologically sound viewpoints and whether they support moral relationships or not. Minority groups can keep before the attention of dominant groups their role in critiquing and seeking reform, while majority groups realize their power and take care not to belittle or diminish the voices of others.