Text: Galatians 3:23-29
Galatians 3:28 includes one of the best summaries of Paul’s understanding of the church. It was most likely a part of an early baptismal statement. The Apostle Paul passionately believed that Christ had broken down all the barriers that separate people from God and from each other. The church is a place of radical inclusion. Paul writes: “In Christ there is both Jew and Greek, both slave and free, both male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
I mean Yes, this verse in Galatians 3 is one of the best summaries of Paul’s teachings. And yes, he passionately believed that Christ has broken down all dividing walls, and yes, this was a baptismal vow. And yes, the church was and is to be a place of radical inclusion. But no, he does not write that in Christ there is both Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.
What he writes is this: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The NIV translates it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
Rather than making a series of additions, “both, and,” Paul makes a series of negations, “neither, nor.”
Maybe this is just being grammatically picky, since either way gets the point across. Both Jew and Greek, neither Jew nor Greek. We get the idea. Come one, come all, no matter who you are.
But maybe it does make a difference.
This verse is ripe for adaptation to the diversity of our day, and perhaps you’ve heard it expanded this way. “In Christ there is both immigrant and native, both gay and straight, both black and white…”
That would be the way Paul didn’t phrase it. The way he did phrase it would be:
“In Christ there is neither immigrant nor native, neither gay nor straight, neither black nor white.”
It’s a statement of negation rather than one of addition.
There’s something simple and beautiful about this. It points us back to our common origin and common identity as humans. Since we’ve been focusing on race…Race as a biological category has been thoroughly disproved and dismantled by the scientific community. Go back far enough, and we share common ancestors. Black and white are relatively recent inventions. We are neither black nor white.
I happened to be in the middle of a 24 hour flu bug when the lunch Bible study was scheduled for this passage, so I don’t have comments from that to bring in, but I did have a related conversation with a CMCer this week. She told me about a speech she recently heard from OSU Dr. Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu was born in Nigeria and had a breakthrough in his career in 2002 when he identified the physical brain damage that happens through the kinds of constant head bashings NFL players. His work was featured in the recent movie “Concussion.” This CMCer noted that in his speech the doctor said that he had performed 8000 autopsies in his career, many of them unrelated to concussions. His diagnosis of the human condition? “We are all alike,” the doctor said. Underneath the thin veneer of difference, we are alike.
In the language of Genesis, we are all created in the image of God.
The Apostle Paul saw in Christ the spiritual pattern of death and resurrection as the great Divine revelation utterly accessible to anyone, no matter their identity. To let go of the grasp on one’s own life, and then to receive it back as pure gift is the journey of death and resurrection that opens up a whole new creation, a whole new and renewed human family based not on ethnicity, nor social status, nor gender identity. We are all spiritual ancestors of Abraham, and we are all one in Christ. Before we were named or claimed by any cultural story, we were and are children of God.
But…I don’t know about you, but when I hear “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither gay nor straight, neither black nor white,” my gut reaction is “Yes there is.” Of course there is. There better be. You better not have to give up your identity in order to be “In Christ.” If anything, it seems like a healthy spirituality enables one to embrace these identities all the more. Gay folks find their pride. Black folks find their power. Women find their voice. Why would we want to negate that?
One of the books I’ve been reading during Lent is Racial Formation in the United States, by Michael Omi and Howard Winant. “Reading” may be too strong a word. It’s been more of slogging through. It’s a dense book, one that gets referenced frequently when folks theorize about race. The authors suggest that race and racism has shifted in meaning over time, but that race continues to serve as a master category, a way of “making up people.” The authors propose that for the last 40 years or so the predominant racial ideology in the US has been colorblindness. They do not speak fondly of colorblindness. Claiming that one is colorblind and doesn’t see race presents a veneer of equality, but only serves to reinforce the inequalities long embedded in the social system.
Back when Stephen Colbert – who is white – was doing the Colbert Report, he would frequently take on the persona of someone who claimed to be color blind. To just about every black guest he would have on, at some point Stephen would comment that he hadn’t even realized his guest was black because he doesn’t see color. I miss that Stephen.
The tensions between this idea of a universal humanity versus an embrace of the particularity of stories and bodies has been on display in the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the initial responses to the cry of Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter.”
Well, Yes. But, really?
One of the best analogies I’ve heard for this asks us to imagine that there is a house on fire in a neighborhood. The alarm goes off in the fire department and as the crew is scrambling to suit up and get in the truck the captain calls out: “Hey, relax everybody. All houses matter.”
Yes. But, really?
Black Lives Matter. Humanity = particularity. There’s no such thing as a generic human being. We are freighted, and gifted, with history. And this is hardest to see if we are a part of any of the dominant or power majority side of any of those identities – if we live in a house in which there is no emergency. What’s the big deal, anyway, what’s all the urgency? This is the spiritual disadvantage that the advantaged have. Colorblindness has the veneer of goodness, but ends up being simply blindness, and we who consider ourselves followers of Jesus have much to learn from his often repeated words, “Let those with ears, hear. Let those with eyes, see.” Jesus, who reached out to the blind, and caused them to see.
“In Christ there is neither black nor white?” Is Paul, or this adaptation of Paul’s statement, suggesting that we should be colorblind?
Is this one of those times when we grimace and pat Paul on the head? Even though his perspective was probably cutting edge at the time, we have moved on. Sorry Paul, you were in the age of “neither, nor.” We’re in the age of “both, and.”
Well…No. I mean, Yes, to that last one, probably. But, No.
I feel no need to defend Paul all the time, or justify what he writes, but in this case I’m going to do just that.
Because when we hear what he writes, we most likely hear it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (right hand and left hand held out on same level, brought together).
But the world in which Paul lived was filled with hierarchies. Everyone had their place in the hierarchy, and the higher up one was, the closer one was to god. So when Paul writes this to the Galatians, they would have seeb it more like this:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (right hand high, left hand low for each pairing.)
The world in which we live is also filled with hierarchies; we just prefer to think we’re all on equal footing.
What being “in Christ” negates, what it abolishes, is not these identities, these gifts of who we are, but the hierarchy these identities were and are embedded in. “In Christ there is neither black nor white.” The entire system that gives definition to who is above and who is below, and what kind of person is the standard for the normal human, is abolished, in Christ. And a new creation comes into being with neither top nor bottom.
Or, as other parts of the New Testament suggest, it gets flipped entirely. The last are first. The first and the last one’s to get it and enter the kingdom.
We are both in that new creation, living as if the new order is in full effect. And we are very much enmeshed in the broken world that divvies out privilege and oppression. So it both, and, also.
If all this “Yes, but…” and “No, and” talk feels a bit like constant whip lash, then welcome to the complex conversation on systemic racism. For just about every statement one can make, there is another layer to uncover, another angle to view. But…It’s the place our baptismal identity calls us to be.