What did Jesus say about ethnocentrism?

The events in Charlottesville last weekend around a planned white nationalist protest called “Unite the Right” have raised the ugly specter of racism again in a country which has been steadily growing ever more diverse. Given that white evangelical Christians famously voted in droves for the same president that the white nationalists cite as inspiration, one naturally wonders: Should we be also allow ourselves to be united to such a cause?

The answer, for Christians who follow Jesus, is a resounding no.

To be quite honest, even as a Christian, I didn’t always realize this. For much of my life, I would say that I probably had a general impression that the Bible was against slavery or hatred of any kind, and that racism was not specifically called out. It wasn’t until I read John Piper’s Bloodlines as a part of a book study at my church earlier this year that I became aware of this thread of messages woven throughout the gospels.

Accordingly, then, much of the credit for this post comes from that book, particularly chapter 7, which I’d highly recommend if you want to dive into this in more detail. I’ll be focusing just on Jesus’s words and deeds as recorded in the gospels, but Piper deals very thoroughly with how the rest of the Bible and Christian theology also condemn racism, answering all of the tangential questions that might arise along the way.

For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll also focus on only one component of racism, called ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own ethnic culture is superior and/or favored by God. This seems to be the opinion of white nationalists who want the United States to be an “ethnostate,” chanting slogans like “You will not replace us!” But while that’s the most obvious exhibition of these sentiments this week, I don’t expect this is an opinion unique to white people.

We’ll start the story at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, when he preaches in his hometown of Nazareth, where Jesus is famously rejected. Growing up in church, I was often given various explanations for this, like, “Wouldn’t it be weird if someone you knew growing up suddenly claimed to be the Messiah? You wouldn’t believe him, would you?” But that’s actually not why the rejected him at all. Read carefully:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16-30, ESV)

To sum up, Jesus first claims to be the Messiah, and they admire him. Then he explains that his message and healing are meant for foreigners, and they want to kill him.

He shares this message by bringing up two stories from prophets in the Old Testament showing that God repeatedly chooses to lift up and act through the ethnic and political foreigner. Why bring this up in his hometown? Well, they were probably expecting some kickback, some special status as the ancestral home of the Messiah. But Jesus’s kingdom is not embedded or constrained by the ethnic and geographical landscape of the day, then or now. His message and calling is universal, and even goes out of the way to include those of different races and nations.

But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to heal a Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) — keep in mind that the Romans were the mortal enemies of the Jews — and a Syrophoenician’s daughter (Mark 7:26). When he wants to illustrate for his audience what loving your neighbor looks like, he picks a Samaritan as his hero (the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37).

What makes Jesus angry? In Mark 11:15-19, he sees merchants ripping off foreigners in the outer court of the temple: “And he was teaching and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.'” This outer court wasn’t even meant for the Jews; it was for foreigners. The idea of denying or even slightly inhibiting a foreigner’s access to God is revolting to Jesus.

At his final address to his disciples, Jesus gives them this mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV). His final words carry forward what had been his mission all along, that the Christianity that he founded would not be confined to or bestow benefits on any one ethnic or political population.

When I first realized this upon reading this chapter (and the rest of the book), it surprised me. Explicitly baked into Christianity from the beginning is a conviction that ethnic and political barriers are wrong. This is why you see Christians fervently trying to evangelize in the far corners of the earth. It’s why Christians have been on the front lines of ending slavery (Abraham Lincoln, William Wilberforce) and racial reconciliation, and why there were clergy counter-protesting in Charlottesville, and why evangelical leaders have nearly universally condemned the rally.

Image credit: Heather Wilson, as featured here.

Christians, there are some political matters where there is room for debate about the best way for us to respond to the calling of Christ. As a centrist, I actually think this is true for most issues where there is substantive disagreement between the two parties.

But ethnocentrism, most prominently expressed today in white nationalism, is not one of those issues. Jesus and the rest of the authority of Scripture are clear: You cannot be ethnocentric and a follower of Christ at the same time.

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