One Body, Many (Ethnic) Parts – 1

Between kids and ministry, I am plugging away at my doctorate degree. I thought I’d share part of my most recent essay in small chunks over the next few days. My course was on “Race and Ethnicity in the New Testament World and Today” — a very timely topic in our increasingly divided country in the age of Trump. I’m skipping the first six pages and sharing the second half. Enjoy or ignore. =)

BEYOND THE MELTING POT

In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick published their seminal book Beyond the Melting Pot, which challenged the prevalent modernist assumption that “traditional group loyalties to family, tribe, and clan would be replaced by interest-based loyalties to class, party, or state.” 

This assumption was driving the much cherished metaphor of ethnicity in the United States—the “melting pot”—which celebrated the idea that all ethnic and racial differences could be melted together in the cauldron of nationalistic ideas and values (as defined by those with the power and influence) to form a new kind of national identity as Americans. Glazer and Patrick’s book sums up the main idea behind Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot stating, “The point about the melting pot is that it did not happen.”  

Yet, in the age of Trump, Christian leaders and committed followers of Jesus know deep in their bones another kind of “melting” needs to take place if the message and mission of the gospel is to bear fresh fruit in a culture where so much is rotten. This essay calls the church to be a society where hard and rigid “us vs. them” racial and ethnic prejudices are being melted down in the cauldron of gospel grace as we stand together on the level ground beneath the cross of Jesus. 

Empires both ancient and modern have tried their best to assimilate distinct ethnic groups into a larger unified vision for political and cultural identity—the Roman Empire of the past and the ‘American Way’ of the present—but ethnic and racial distinctiveness have stubbornly resisted such attempts at globalization or the formation of a transnational corporate identity. Perhaps our inescapable “otherness” and human diversity is not something to be squeezed into uniformity, but part of the divine blueprint over which the Triune Godhead—unity within diversity embodied—spoke the words, “It was very good” (Gen. 1:31). 

This presents the reader of the Bible and leaders in the Church with a kind of puzzle when confronted with the apparent universality of a gospel that calls forth a New Humanity from “every tribe, tongue, and nation,” and the sweeping vision of the church as a new corporate identity whose mission is to break down cultural and ethnic boundary lines and thus undo Babel’s legacy of divisiveness and restore humanity to a common goal of glorifying God instead of making a name for ourselves. 

We can draw a direct line from Babel’s demise to our world’s inability to communicate in healthy, constructive ways today. We have a global and national speech impediment.

BEYOND THE TOWER OF BABEL

Now, in the light of the gospel, instead of fashioning fire-hardened bricks into sky-scraper monuments to our own egos and idolatrous projects that make a name for ourselves, God is fashioning soft and moldable human hearts into a new Temple for his Spirit to dwell. This indwelling Spirit is the divine power that can bring about the “s/Spirit of unity in the Body “so that with ONE heart and mouth [we] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6). 

The church is this new spiritual edifice — the New Humanity — learning to speak the sweet and lovely dialects of love, peace, patience, kindness, forgiveness, grace, mercy and reconciliation. Within this Temple, people of the Spirit are learning how to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). This Temple isn’t built by high-reaching efforts of the human ego, but by lowering ourselves in humble service to all the “others” out there we tend to avoid, misunderstand, fear, and are tempted to write off.

Jesus taught and embodied this new language of Love and His Body must now learn to speak into the cacophony of the conflicting choruses of our own day. In doing so, the church implements His victory and brings about the first fruits of healing and redemption to a world still very scattered and deeply divided. 

This sounds lovely in theory but the question lingers: How exactly can we learn to celebrate diversity in the Body of Christ while moving toward unity of purpose?  Does the New Testament provide us with such a ecclesiological vision we can implement “on the ground”? I believe it has been staring us right in the face, lingering under our noses all along.

Many have preached all around it and built church ministries upon it. But in all my ecclesiological experiences and theological training in the predominantly White Evangelical world, I have never heard this famous passage of Scripture applied to the challenges of racial and ethnic unity in particular. I am referring to Paul’s “One Body, Many Parts” manifesto in 1 Corinthians 12.

What can we learn from this well-trodden passage about pursuing Christian unity while honoring and celebrating our racial and ethnic differences? 

Stay tuned.

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