How do you identify yourself within the human race? Religion and ethnicity may both play a part, and at first glance seem to be distinct categories. We may think of religion as a choice we make freely, whereas our ethnicity or race is stamped at birth. But there are complex overlaps between these elements.
What is the connection, for instance, between being Christian and being British or English? In his 2016 Easter address, the British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the British values he sought to defend as “Christian values”, and of the pride we should feel that Britain is “a Christian country”.
In doing so he connected Britishness with being Christian. It is therefore no surprise that a recent report, which highlighted the overlaps between race and religion in the UK, suggested that some religious groups and communities suffer forms of prejudice and exclusion that “prevent them from seeing themselves as belonging fully to the national story”.
Religion and ethnicity, race, or nationhood are linked in complex ways. The most prominent conflicts in the contemporary world are ones in which religion and ethnicity (or nation, or race) are connected, whether we think they should be or not. White, Western, and Christian are often set in opposition to brown, Arab, and Muslim.
But this is not a particularly modern phenomenon, and ancient texts are important in understanding the roots of these issues. The Bible in particular and its (mostly Western) interpretations can be implicated in constructions of identity in both religious and ethnic terms.
Scholars often depict Judaism at the time of Christian origins as an exclusive, particular group identity. Judaism is seen as a kind of ethnicity or race from which others were excluded, despite evidence that Jews were often socially integrated into their wider societies and also welcomed sympathisers and converts of various kinds to join them.
These scholarly caricatures of Jews helped to generate violent anti-Semitism, a form of racial and religious prejudice, that most horrifically enacted in the Holocaust. By contrast, Christianity is frequently depicted as a universal, all inclusive movement which welcomes all people, from all races and backgrounds. The Apostle Paul declared: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). This sounds rather like the welcoming, universal message of tolerance and acceptance that modern liberals like to reiterate.
But there is another side to this appealing message, just as there is when Cameron praised freedom and tolerance but insisted that Britain is a Christian country. Saint Paul’s basis for acceptance and belonging demands an allegiance to Jesus Christ. Early Christians, like Jews, described their group identity in ethnic or racial terms. They saw themselves as brothers and sisters, descendants of Abraham, following a common way of life, raising their children in a “Christian” way. They identified themselves as a particular “people” in a world of sinful “pagans”. It is no coincidence that a sense of identity as a Christian people often combines aspects of religious, ethnic, and national characteristics.
Both early Jews and early Christians, in other words, saw themselves as a particular kind of “people”, even though they articulated this in different ways. When Christian interpreters ignore this similarity, and instead depict Judaism as exclusive and closed, and Christianity as all embracing and inclusive, they (perhaps unwittingly) reflect and reinforce the imperial ideology of the white, Christian West. Everyone can live peacefully and tolerantly together, as long as it is under the umbrella of the system of values and practices that we determine and impose – often with overwhelming military power. Religious mission and imperialism stand awkwardly close together.
In the study of race, “whiteness” came to attention only relatively late. Being “white” was, in a sense, the unnoticed, unremarked kind of racial identity – precisely because it was the dominant, default perspective, from which “others” were observed. But what that in turn reflected was the dominant position of the white population, whose racial identity did not need, it seemed, to be examined. Yet such a masked, assumed position of domination was (and is) precisely at the heart of the problem of race and racism.
A similar presumption of dominance that operates in the case of whiteness often also operates in the case of “Christianness”. It is, in effect, the white Christian West which sets the parameters within which others may find their place. It does this, all too often, in ways that conceal the fact that this is a white, Christian programme, which requires others to accept its framework, values, and commitments, or – despite its stress on freedom and tolerance – face its uncompromising force.
Until we can find better paradigms for peaceful coexistence, is it any wonder that those from other ethnic and religious backgrounds feel their own values and identity are being compromised in the process?