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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

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.

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

To judge the culture of a people is biblical discernment.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.

  1. Bloodlines, 18. []