Editor’s note: The following article is the first of four excerpts from Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.”
In the late 1970s while I was a college student in Anderson, Indiana, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) marched through the town recruiting new members. A student majoring in journalism interviewed a KKK member during the march. The Klansman attempted to instruct the young journalism student regarding the origins of the black race by using the Genesis account of Cain killing Abel and then being sent away by God (Genesis 4:1-16). The Klansman said that “Gabe” killed his brother Abel. Because of the killing of Abel, “Gabe” was sent away by God and found an ape for a wife. This was the beginning of the black race. Even though the Klan member did not seem to know the right name for Cain, and stretched beyond the truth of the text into his own imaginings, he was certain the Bible proved that people who were not white were less than human. In fact, they were half ape! The Bible has been misused and abused in the dialogue on diversity—sometimes overtly, as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan leader. Other times the Bible has been assumed to support a lesser status for women in the church and society or as speaking against interracial marriages.
What does the Bible offer a dialogue concerning cultural diversity? The ancient Israelites often found themselves struggling with ethnocentrism and the resulting tendencies to feel superior and uniquely special. The early church proclaimed the message of Jesus in a world where diversity in culture (Jew and Gentile), gender (male and female), and social class (slave and free) caused tensions. In the midst of these challenges, the biblical authors recorded how followers of God not only coped but also made surprising contributions to showing the importance of diversity.
The Bible addresses issues of diversity, but not by starting with the differences in the human family. Rather, it begins with the oneness of humanity. In Genesis 1, the author records God saying, “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. …’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). The Bible announces that all of humanity flows from one couple, Adam and Eve. All women and men are created in the image of God. This theme of the oneness of the human family is found throughout the Bible. It was the bedrock of Jesus’ ministry as he called humanity to a re-creation experience. The apostle Paul echoed this theme when he told the philosophers in Athens that “from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26).
While the Bible begins with the unity of humanity, it clearly demonstrates that God values the diversity that emerged within the human family. A rich mosaic of people is acknowledged and celebrated by the biblical authors. The Bible is a confessional and historic document written primarily from the perspective of the ancient Hebrews of Israel and the Diaspora, and Christians in the region of Palestine. Yet the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament also present the universal message of God’s salvation. Therefore, by necessity, a variety of people from outside the particular cultural focus of those writing the story were included. If we emulate the biblical authors, then our starting point for discussion is our oneness rather than our differences. Faced with fears that push us to separateness, our common ancestry must challenge us to recognize those who seem different from us as sisters and brothers. Even if we want to forget our relatedness, the God revealed in the Bible does not.
Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung is professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University and the author of six books on the topic of reconciliation and multiculturalism.
Excerpted from “One Human Family, Many Cultural Expressions” in Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2009), 7-9. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.