In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind. The idea sounded noble enough. After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me. Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality. I get and affirm that.
However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity. Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion. Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful. The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight. They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations. We are not monochromatic but polychromatic. To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.
So far, so good. But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art. Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community. There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.
Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance. We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.
This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history. Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing. But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation. In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world. They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.
But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece. It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others. Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.
As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity. It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity. People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves. As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.
So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create? First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another. People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another. Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.
There’s a catch, of course. We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations. Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders. They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial. This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns. Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal. These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.
Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice. For example, how can we genuinely care for one another? How can we empower and protect minorities? How can we check and limit the powers of the elite? And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom? Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.
Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity. Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.
Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice. These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present. Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident. Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling. In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis. Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times. Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.
In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values. Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies. What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed. These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm. Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced. The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision? Whose will? And why?
Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being. Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations. As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . . To this day, there is no alternative to it.”
Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time. Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.
This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.