In a classic recounting of his life as a slave on a Southern plantation, Frederick Douglass tells the story of his master’s garden. “This garden was probably the greatest attraction of the place,” he writes. “It abounded in fruits of almost every description, from the hardy apple of the north to the delicate orange of the south… Its excellent fruit was quite a temptation to the hungry swarms of boys, as well as the older slaves.”
As a devout Christian, Douglass was no doubt familiar with the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 2–3). But, in a strange twist on that story, he remarks that the slaves on the plantation had neither “the virtue nor vice to resist.” Adam and Eve had the choice to obey or reject God. In the system of slavery, however, as Douglass reminds us, some people were denied – by other people – the freedom and dignity of choice; the freedom and dignity, that is, of being human.
In Canada, we do not bear the terrible legacy of slavery but our history is also tainted with the stain of injustice. The spectre of residential schools, the forced registration and internment of Ukrainian immigrants, the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII, and more recently, the deportation of Maher Arar, all testify against our national image as a tolerant and pluralistic society.
On a more personal level, I have heard – and uttered – my share of jokes aimed at people of Aboriginal, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Polish descent. I remember the Ukrainian jokes in particular. My Scottish last name and the fact that I do not look Slavic hides the fact that my mother is Ukrainian.
I always laughed along with those jokes, but inside something in me shrivelled. The joking shamed me into thinking my ancestors had passed along a racial defect that made me prone to laziness and stupidity. Somehow, my “Ukrainian-ness” made me less human than those born of pure (usually British) stock.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes that “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith: to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16, my translation).
A great Bible teacher once said that this passage sets a question mark against all truths. It sets, in particular, a question mark against anyone who claims to know the truth about the essential characteristics of a person’s race.
Paul announces confidently that the gospel erases any attempts humans make to create a hierarchy of people based on their ethnicity. The power of the gospel is for all who have faith, both Jews and Greeks. Whatever your background, he insists, salvation is available to you. In Jesus Christ’s offer of redemption, you find your essential equality with others, your completion as a human being.
This is not to say that differences do not matter. To pretend that skin colour or ethnic background does not affect our lives is to deny the reality of our existence. The problem, however, results from saying that our British or Ukrainian or Indo-Canadian ancestry is primary or supreme.
Even religion has become a dividing line: Muslim versus Hindu, Christian versus Muslim, Shi’a versus Sunni, evangelical versus liberal. Somehow we have come to believe that religious identity sets up hierarchies of better or lesser.
Too many people have spilled too much blood thinking God is on their side. We forget that God is not in the business of creating and maintaining religions, but of saving people.
As the people of Jesus Christ, we know that nothing truly exists apart from God. Without the grace of God, everything we use to construct our identity may seem solid as a rock but is actually shifting sand. Christians are the ones who, with Paul, can confess, “If God is for us [weak and frail and miserable as we are], who could be against us?” (Romans 8:31). If God has welcomed you and me into the kingdom, surely everyone else must be invited to the party too.
Whenever we are tempted to call another person lazy, stupid, irresponsible, or fanatical because of the colour of their skin or the sound of their last name, we must stop. We must consider that this very person is someone for whom Christ died.
May we ensure that God’s bounteous garden of grace is open to all.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?