By David Ney
We are a divided people. What is not so obvious, though, is whether the societal divisions we take for granted are inherent in the very nature of things or whether they are socially constructed. This is a crucial point.
Since I moved from Canada to the United States last summer with my wife and four children, I have found that people are eager to know about what I think of my adopted country. Most of the time I can tell they want me to say something nice, and I happily oblige. But more than once people have pressed me by asking, “Is there anything that has caught you off guard?” When they do, I usually say one of two things. Either I tell them that I find it utterly incomprehensible that the gun lobby manages to levy gun violence as a justification for firearm ownership, or I tell them about my experience looking for a school for my kids.
When I sat down last summer to survey the available options, I was initially impressed by the array of resources at my disposal. Websites like Great Schools, Niche, and School Digger will tell you more than you care to know about local schools. One thing these websites did caught me completely off guard: racial profiling. None found it necessary to point out that of all the little boys and girls running around the hallways of a particular school, 100 percent were known to be human. Instead they advertised, for example, that of all the little boys and girls running around the hallways, 79 percent are white, 7 percent are black, 5 percent are mixed race, 4 percent are Asian, and 4 percent are Hispanic.
Since my wife is from Taiwan, I’ve asked where our children fit into this scheme. Usually I’ve been told, “Oh, they’re Asian,” presumably in order to celebrate the diversity they bring to their communities. But the sheer arbitrariness of this choice puzzles me. Why not mixed or white? “Excuse me. I don’t see a box marked Human.”
I assume that progressively minded educators have lobbied to make racial profiles public knowledge to celebrate diversity. Websites try to pitch this information positively to remind us that this is their intention. But they have no means of directing the use of this information once it has been unveiled. True, there might be some progressive-minded parents who put their children into schools because of racial diversity. But who is to say that the information won’t be consistently used in precisely the opposite way?
After all, websites set their public racial profiles within an evaluative grid for school performance, and multiple studies have pointed out a “racial gap in academic achievement.” We should thus expect that within this public context the presentation of racial profiles presses even progressively minded parents into affirming racial diversity in principle but not in fact. The statistics are out that racial segregation in American schools is increasing. And we wonder why.
Geneticists agree that race is not a meaningful scientific concept. Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute, puts it this way:
What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one.
Thus, when the full genomes of two American scientists of European ancestry, James Watson and Craig Venter, were compared to that of a Korean scientist, Seong-Jin Kim, “Watson and Venter shared fewer variations in their genetic sequences than they each shared with Kim.”
What keeps us apart from one another is not genetic differentiation, but history. Race continues to be a fundamental category because we continue to live out histories in which we choose to make it a fundamental category. The very nature of things determines that for race to continue dividing us, we must elevate its profile.
Christian division, like racial division, can only survive when it is enacted, for the simple reason that it is socially constructed. The Protestant Reformers independently embarked on rigorous programs of catechetical formation because they believed, from the bottom of their Christian hearts, that genuine Christian formation required it. But they also did so because they needed to justify the existence of their divided Christian communities. Doctrinal distinctions had to be highlighted, and not just highlighted but created to ensure that division was established and remained.
In our day, we continue to receive the labors of earnest and learned Christian scholars in this same polemical tradition. Yet the ground has shifted. History has moved on. It is, under God, driving us toward a particular end as Christians. It is stripping away our sins, and among our sins our prejudices, but only as we allow it to do so (Rom. 8:28-29). Ephraim Radner puts it best:
Even the hardiest Tridentine Catholic and premillennialist Fundamentalist, who may be “right” about some aspect of truth, can insist on the stakes being the same as in the sixteenth century only by raging like Canute, against the tides of disinterested Christian culture. (“The Naked Christian: Baptism and the Broken Body of Christ,” Pro Ecclesia 26:1 , p. 32.)
This is not to categorically deny that the polities and creeds and liturgies we have constructed enumerate substantial distinctions. It is merely to say that they will only continue to divide us as long as we make sure that they do. If and as our congregations dwindle and our culture begins to actively persecute the Church, we may choose to continue to draw our swords against one another, since this is what we are accustomed to do. But it is Christ, not us, that determines the very nature of things, and he tells us that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). The hope remains that through our suffering we will be brought to understand, in a new way, that the fundamental marker of Christian identity is the baptism that we share. The hope always remains that we will allow the very nature of things to dictate the way we live in world.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Lincoln, of course, got the idea from Jesus, who said, “every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt. 12:22-28). The great irony is that we continue to be divided because we continue to choose to be divided. That is not living in a house that is falling apart. It is tearing down the house you are living in, on top of your own head.