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On racism, ethnicity, and culture

I thought today would be a good day to make a few comments about the relationship between race and culture. Often the idea that cultures should be judged or that one culture may be better than another is charged with racism.

This is a misguided charge, however. Contrary to the beliefs of early cultural evolutionists, there is nothing embedded into the fabric of a given race that necessarily leads them to develop a certain culture. Culture is not like skin color or hair texture. Without a doubt, to claim one skin color is better than another would be racism, but this is not true with comparisons of cultures. Rather, a people’s culture is an expression of their shared values and beliefs, something not directly connected to their “race.”

Interestingly, John Piper makes this very argument in his book about race:

In the summer of 2004, the Presbyterian Church in America settled on the following definition, which I find helpful: “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values
one race over other races.” In spite of saying above that I usually use the term race with cultural connotations (ethnicity), in this definition I am thinking of race primarily in terms of physical features. I am making
a distinction between race and ethnicity.

The reason is that, since ethnicity includes beliefs and attitudes and behaviors, we are biblically and morally bound to value some aspects of some ethnicities over others. Where such valuing is truly rooted in biblical teaching about good and evil, this should not be called racism. There are aspects of every culture, including our own (whoever “our” is), which are sinful and in need of transformation. So the definition of racism here leaves room for assessing cultures on the basis of a biblical standard.1

READ
Sola Scriptura and Form: Biblical Form

I’m actually a bit confused about Piper’s distinction between “race” and “ethnicity.” Earlier he makes a distinction between “ethnicity with a physical component and race with a cultural component.” So there I take him to mean that “ethnicity” has to do with skin color and other physical features while “race” has to do with culture. But in the quote I printed above, it seems to me that he reverses them (“race” is physical while “ethnicity” is cultural). Perhaps someone can help clarify that for me. UPDATE: Now that I’ve read a bit more of Piper’s book (Appendix 1 in particular), it appears clear that he DOES identify a race and a separation of people along biological/physical lines and ethnicity as a group united around cultural similarities. I agree that this distinction is helpful, although (1) I think it is incorrect to say that an enthnicity (ethnos) is the same thing as a culture but rather a group united around cultural similarities, and (2) Piper does seem to equivocate often throughout the book and at least imply that all Enthnicities (ethnoi)–”cultures”–are legitimate.

Either way, Here’s how I would distinguish the two: I would suggest that “race” refers to physical features that unite a group like skin color, etc. “Ethnicity” refers to the cultural expressions that unite a group. Neither of these terms is the same as “culture”–ethnicities unite around culture, but they are not “culture” per se–but I think Piper is correct in the quote above that the cultural “ethnic” expressions of a people group implies certain values and beliefs that create such a culture.

Therefore, as Piper suggests, Christians must judge cultures and various cultural expressions based on a biblical standard. Therefore (1) some cultures may indeed be better than others when compared with Scripture, and (2) this is not racism.

READ
The Two Kingdoms and Immigration Policy

To denigrate the physical features of a people is horrendous racism.

To judge the culture of a people is biblical discernment.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.



Endnotes:

  1. Bloodlines, 18. []

11 Responses to On racism, ethnicity, and culture

  1. Scott, I essentially agree with what I think you intend to argue. But at the same time, I think you'd have to agree that some cultural critiques may, in fact, be racist when they're grounded in unbiblical, prejudicial attitudes or perceptions rather than biblical principles.

    In other words, your last statement is not always true. Sometimes judging a culture is biblical discernment. Sometimes it's still racism.

  2. No, I think unbiblical, prejudicial (assumes inaccurate) perceptions actually go to the matter of the critique as well as the heart motivation.

  3. My point is that someone might critique hip hop because it's "black," and someone else might critique hip hop because of the values it expresses. The act is not racism, although the motivation of the first is.

  4. By the way, now that I've read a bit more of Piper's book (Appendix 1 in particular), it appears clear that he DOES identify a race and a separation of people along biological/physical lines and ethnicity as a group united around cultural lines. I agree that this distinction is helpful, although (1) I think it is incorrect to say that an enthnicity (ethnos) is the same thing as a culture but rather a group united around cultural similarities, and (2) Piper does seem to equivocate often throughout the book and at least imply that all Enthnicities (ethnoi)–"cultures"–are legitimate.

  5. Scott, I agree with your 3:18pm post that the act of critique is not racism.

    Nevertheless, I would continue to argue that it's not merely the motivation for the critique that can be problematic, but also the content (or lack thereof) of the argument. I can argue based on a racist assumption with the best of motives.

    I'd also argue that there may be critiques of the values of hip hop that are racist. What arbitrates whether or not values critiques are racist is not merely the motivation, but also the validity (correspondence with truth) of the criticism.

  6. I see. I agree with you. Some critiques themselves (i.e. the content of the critique) could be racist if the basis of the critique is rooted in biological/physical issues.

  7. FWIW, I think you are misunderstanding Piper's statement: "ethnicity with a physical component and race with a cultural component."

    The fuller quotation is this:

    "Unless I explicitly differentiate race and racial from ethnicity and ethnic, I would like you, the reader, to think of both when I mention either–that is, ethnicity with a physical component and race with a cultural component."

    Thus, his point is that when you see the word "ethnicity" you should also add on the physical component (i.e., race), and when you see the word "race" you should also add on the cultural component (i.e., ethnicity).

    I know you already gave the update, but just wanted to point out that in the quote you gave he was making the same distinction he makes later in the book.

  8. Yes, thanks Ben (Edwards). I was confused at first by the use of "with." I thought at first that he was making a connection between enthnicity/physical and race/cultural, but I realized later that me meant exactly what you explained. Thus my update in the post above.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  9. BTW, I wasn't trying to pile on, since you noted his usage in the update. I just wanted to provide the context and meaning of the original quotation.

    Good and needed discussion on this issue.

  10. No problem at all! I appreciate the clarification. My main point anyway was to highlight what I thought was a very good point that Piper made, namely, that cultures must be assessed based on a biblical standard.

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