Baptists have been urged to take a resolute and strong stance against racism. The call came from Baptist World Alliance (BWA) General Secretary the Revd Dr Neville Callam as he delivered the second annual Sam Sharpe Lecture
on 'The Deconstruction of Race' in the Northern Baptist Learning Community (Manchester) and the Inernational Mission Centre (Birmingham) earlier this month.
Drawing on studies and statements issued by the United Nations, anthropologists and others, Dr Callam contended that the very idea of race is fiction.
'The alleged scientific basis for the notion of biological race has been rejected by most scientists, sociologists and anthropologists, many of whom have helped clarify that race is a socially constructed identity.' Race, he said, 'does not correspond to any set of biological features which were once used as a basis for dividing humankind into different racial groupings...it is now generally affirmed that biologically there is only one race - the human race.'
Dr Callam asserted that the socially constructed notion of race has led to many ills, including racism and some forms of slavery. Dividing people into races, he said, was 'a strategy of dominant ethnic groups that wish to assert their superiority over others.' The ideology of race, he claimed, 'is a human creation designed both to make inequality between people appear to be inborn and to reinforce the belief that it is part of the taken-for-granted landscape of human life.'
He said the church has a responsibility to oppose racism that still persists, even in the church. Churches that refuse to do so, he declared, are guilty of a major failing. The BWA leader said racism is heretical and those churches that accept the ideology of race, provide shelter for known racists, and refuse to join in the struggle against racism are denying the Gospel they are called to proclaim. 'Christians and churches defending racism are guilty of heresy.... They can no longer be regarded as churches in the true sense because they have forsaken, and are living in corporate betrayal of, the true gospel and its just demands.'
The leader of the BWA, which represents 42 million Baptists in 121 countries and territories, suggested several steps that Baptists may take to combat racism. Anchoring these steps in a clear Trinitarian framework, Dr Callam said the denial of the freedom that rightly belongs to each human being represents 'a rejection of the divine design for creation.' This divinely ordained liberty is given to all humanity.
'The church needs to rediscover and acknowledge the link between divine freedom and human freedom.' Awareness of the relation between these two freedoms will lead the church to adopt 'a responsible theological anthropology.'
Christ is the example par excellence for rejecting racism, Dr Callam declared. Christ, he said, broke 'down the walls that separate people from one another.' A faith centred on Christ 'will not accommodate the racism that trades in negative images of others.' Instead, that faith asserts not only the common humanity of all people, but also the 'shared identity in Jesus Christ' that Christians enjoy.
Dr Callam also emphasised the need for Baptist Christians to be responsive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. True openness to the Holy Spirit will enable believers to become aware of the sin of racism and other sins in their midst, including 'the unspoken racist thoughts and unacknowledged racist assumptions that inform the attitudes [of] many.' The Spirit, Dr Callam stated, can help people to become aware of ways in which they are beneficiaries of institutional racism 'which, whether we like it or not, makes us complicit in the sin from whose perpetration we continue to reap privileges and benefits.'
Reading the Bible with eyes wide open is important in confronting and overcoming racism, Dr Callam told participants at the lectures. This way of reading Scripture is necessary if the church is to come to terms with the "dominant readings" of certain passages in the Bible that some groups use to justify or reinforce racism.
Open-minded Bible reading would 'thoroughly undermine the claims of those who make the Creator culpable for the racist ideology that denies the equal dignity of all human beings created by the one God.' Examples of enlightened Bible reading include 'the thoroughgoing critique of social injustice in the tradition of the great prophets of ancient Israel' and 'Jesus' ethic of radical love of neighbor.'