Guest Column: Reading the Bible Through Racial Lenses
Chad Brennan is coordinator of the Race, Religion, and Justice Project, and founder of Renew Partnerships, a Christian research and consulting ministry that focuses on diversity and race in faith-based organizations. He, along with others at the Racial Justice and Unity Center, partnered with Barna to conduct the Beyond Diversity study. Brennan is also co-author, with Christina Barland Edmondson, of the forthcoming book Faithful Antiracism: Moving Past Talk to Systemic Change (IVP, March 2022).
This blog represents his opinions, interwoven with past Barna data.
On February 13, 1850, Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederate States, gave a speech in the U.S. Senate where he argued that slavery was “established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations (sic).”
Two of the most common pro-slavery arguments presented by Davis and others was that slavery was endorsed in the Bible and that it was a part of God’s plan for “civilizing” Black people whom they believed were morally and intellectually inferior to white people. Sadly, those views were not limited only to white Christians in the South at that time. As one historian explains, “in the decade of the 1830s there were forty-five biblical defenses of slavery published, and two-thirds were written by Northern ministers.”
Today, there are very few Christians that agree with the pro-slavery arguments presented during the antebellum period. We recognize that many Christians during that period twisted scripture for the purpose of fitting it to their economic, political and religious views. Their assumptions about the Bible, American society and the differences between white and Black people caused them to ignore or distort the Bible’s teachings on justice, mercy, love for others and protection for the oppressed.
It’s easy for us to point fingers at Christians who lived a few hundred years ago and wonder how they could have been so wrong in their interpretation of scripture. Yet we are not immune to falling into a similar trap. Examples like “biblical support” for slavery during the antebellum period should motivate us to reflect on whether our economic, political, religious views and racial identity—which are interrelated—are distorting our understanding and application of scripture. Could Christians today be making similar errors in our society as Christians of the past?
From 2018 to 2020, I directed a major national study of racial dynamics in U.S. Christianity in partnership with the Barna Group, Dr. Glenn Bracey, Dr. Michael O. Emerson and hundreds of experts. The research from this project, as well as other studies, consistently show that viewing the Bible through racial lenses is still common in our society today.
For example, in a 2020 study conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with the American Bible Society, respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement, “The Bible leads me to advocate for those who are oppressed by society.” In the graph below, you can see the percentage of those who “strongly” or “very strongly” agree. Notice that the level of agreement is significantly lower among white Christians than all other racial / ethnic groups.
The Bible frequently emphasizes God's desire for individuals and societies to provide justice for the oppressed and to show special kindness toward groups that are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Here are a few of the hundreds of examples that could be given:
Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. —Deuteronomy 27:19a, NIV
The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. —Psalm 33:5, NIV
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. —Proverbs 31:8–9, NIV
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. —Isaiah 1:17, NIV
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. —Ezekiel 16:49, NIV
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. —Micah 6:8, NIV
And, in Jesus' words:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. —Matthew 23:23, NIV
White, Hispanic, Asian and Black Christians all have the above passages in their Bibles. However, Christians in some racial groups have a more difficult time seeing or applying those passages because they are viewing the Bible through their racial and ideological lenses.
In the Bible and throughout U.S. history, we can see the dangers of twisting scripture to conform to our views and desires. That was one of the primary reasons Jesus rebuked the teachers of the laws and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Invariably, the individuals and groups that twist the Bible end up hurting both themselves and others. In many cases, they also severely damage the witness of the Church.
Without outside help, it is very difficult for us to recognize the ways that our racial lenses impact our views of Scripture. Most of us develop our racial lenses very early in our lives. It's all we've ever known. As the saying goes, “a fish doesn't know that it's wet.” Furthermore, throughout our lives we may be surrounded by family and friends within our racial group that affirm views that are inaccurate and unbiblical. For example, it's likely that most, if not all, of Jefferson Davis' family, friends and religious leaders affirmed that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible throughout his entire life. It is very difficult to recognize and undo that type of programming in our brains and hearts.
As a white Christian, I know firsthand the challenges of viewing the Bible and the realities in our society in accurate ways. I'm a wet fish. Despite the experiences I’ve had studying racial dynamics and working in the area of biblical racial justice, I continue to catch myself thinking and acting in ways that are a reflection of my racial lenses and contrary to God's will.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to completely remove the biases and distortions caused by our racial lenses. However, with the leading of the Holy Spirit, prayer, humility, teachability and the help of brothers and sisters in Christ, we can learn to think and act in ways that better align with God's will.
Each day, we can take steps to live according to truth, justice and love rather than the lies, injustice and hate that all too often characterize our world.