Co-authored by Dr. Neil Shenvi and Dr. Pat Sawyer
I. Introduction and positives
II. Connection to critical theory
III. Should we use the word ‘whiteness’ to mean ‘white supremacy’?
IV. Is racial identity good or bad?
V. How central is ethnic identity for a Christian?
VI. Are all whites ‘white supremacists’ by default?
Question: How central is ethnic identity for a Christian?
Throughout the talk, Uwan proclaims the goodness of our ethnic identity. She correctly observes that ethnicity is a God-created category and that we see its presence in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 5:9, Rev. 7:9). Just as we have been created as male and female, are redeemed as male and female, and will be resurrected as male and female, so we are created, redeemed, and resurrected as people with particular ethnicities.
While these statements are true, the details of her theology of ethnicity are not clear. For instance, her focus on ethnicity seems out of balance when it comes to a proper understanding of identity for the Christian believer. This leads to a number of serious problems.
First, she seems to believe that whites (and possibly blacks) in the United States currently have no ethnicity. She says: “the thing for white women to do is you have to divest from whiteness because what happened was that your ancestors actually made a deliberate choice to rid themselves of their ethnic identity and by doing so they actually stripped Africans in America of their ethnic identity. So I can say sit here and say I will be Ibibio in the new heavens and new earth, but you Elizabeth can’t yet say that, but in my sanctified imagination I believe that God will give you and MY sisters according to the flesh will be given their ethnic identities in the new heavens and the new earth, I believe that right deep down in my core, I believe that, and I pray to that end.”
The later, she says: “the goal for you all [whites] is to recover what your ancestors deliberately discarded – so that means return to whatever that ethnic identity is, are you Italian, are you Irish, are you Polish, are you Turkish, whatever that was, you have to do that work to find out what that is, pull into that, learn what that cultural heritage is, Celebrate that.”
If whites really were stripped of their ethnicities, will be given new ethnicities in the new creation, and must “do the work” of rediscovering their lost ethnicities now, does that mean that whites currently have no ethnicity? This seems like a very odd position, particularly since Uwan defines the core of ethnicity as a shared heritage and shared language. Take a white American to France, or China, or Kuwait, or even to Australia, and they’ll quickly recognize that there is a uniquely American culture, language, and heritage in which they participate. To insist that white Americans who have no immediate felt connection to cultures in other parts of the world should determine what their blood line is and then go celebrate a culture that is entirely unknown to them seems strange, even overbearing.
Second, it’s unclear what Uwan does with people of mixed ethnicity. For example, Neil is half-Indian. Does he have an Gauda Saraswat Brahmin ethnic identity? And if the GSBs can trace their ancestry to the Aryan invasion of ~1500 B.C., does he actually have an Aryan ethnic identity? How far back does this go?
This line of reasoning raises another uncomfortable question: how does Uwan feel about interethnic marriage? We assume that Uwan would not want to prohibit or discourage interethnic marriage. But the central role that ‘ethnicity’ plays in her theology makes it difficult to see how she addresses the ‘dilution’ that interethnic marriage will inevitably have on cultural ties.
After just 5 generations of intermarriage, a child will have a share in 32 different ethnicities. She might be 3% Dutch, 3% British, 3% German, 3% Haitian, 3% Cuban, 3% Japanese, etc… Should she be celebrating all these cultures by speaking all these languages, wearing all these traditional clothes, etc…? That’s an impossibility. So are we diluting and erasing the ethnicity that God created when we intermarry?
And what about missionaries? Should they refuse to give up their ethnicity or adopt other cultures? Are they effacing a God-given ethnic identity if they and their children choose to embrace the culture and language of the people to whom they are ministering?
What about immigrants who genuinely love their new culture? Should they resist assimilation not merely when it is compelled but on the principle that assimilation would alter their God-created identity?
We could go on, but suffice it to say that all these problems can be solved by recognizing that while ethnicity is a category in the Bible, it is not a central or immutable category. Rev. 7:9 talks about ‘peoples’ (ethnoi) but it also talks about ‘nations’ and ‘tongues’ being present in the new heavens and the new earth. Yet a moment’s reflection shows that the mere presence of these descriptors doesn’t suggest that they should be central to our identity today: learning a new language or immigrating to a new country does not alter our fundamental identity or mode of existence. The point of Rev. 7:9 is not to exalt the category of ethnicity, but to show that Jesus is being exalted by people of all ethnicities!
Finally, the Bible simply doesn’t center ethnicity like Uwan does. In fact, the two most-discussed demographic categories in the New Testament are “Jew” and “Greek” where “Greek” is a huge, catch-all category for anyone who isn’t Jewish. While we agree that ethnicity is a God-given category like eye color or hair color, it is never presented as a core part of our identity as Christians.
Philippians 3:8 is particularly instructive. Here, Paul says that he considers his Jewish identity to be ‘rubbish’ or ‘dung’ compared to his Christian identity. We agree with Uwan that texts like Galatians 3:28 and Col. 3:11 do not ‘erase’ ethnicity or culture, as if that were even possible. However, they do radically demote ethnicity, culture, and gender in importance relative to our shared status as sons and daughters of God in Christ. It’s not that our God-given gender, ethnicity, hair-color, height, etc.. are evil. But they are ‘as nothing’ compared to our received status as God’s children. When it comes to our identity, we must live dead center in Paul’s declarations in Galatians 6:14 (“as for me, may I never boast, except in the cross…”) and Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live…”). These paramount realities were absent from Uwan’s interview.
A Christian’s ethnic identity should be considered as ‘dung’ and ‘rubbish’ compared to our identity in Christ, and should never be a barrier to fellowship with other Christians.