Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Tribe of Ishmael: Whiteness and Christian Identity

March 24th, 2020 | 16 min read

By Bill Melone

In 1889, an Indianapolis pastor named Oscar McCulloch gave a speech that empowered the development of eugenics in America. McCulloch had studied the Ishmaelites, a poor, white, extended family, and named his speech, “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation.” Surrounded by impoverished white migrants in his city, he argued that their poverty was hereditary: they were–he believed–descended from “the old convict stock which England threw into this country in the seventeenth century.” (Quoted in The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, p260-261)

The title, ‘Tribe of Ishmael’ is not only an interesting name for an extended family, it was also a theologically meaningful banner over the (supposed) genetic illegitimacy of those who could not or would not live up to the social standards of other white Americans in the 1800s. But I would argue that such a title is more helpful if it is used in a broader sense: it is an accurate theological description of what it means to be ‘white’ in America. Like the Ishmael of Genesis, to be ‘white’ is to appear to be the legitimate heir and fulfillment of God’s promise and blessing, when, in fact, Ishmael was not at all the heir and fulfillment of any promise or blessing. Or to say it a little more precisely, white identity, biblically and historically understood, is a false imitation of Jewish and Christian identity. That is a strong statement to make, but there is a strong case to be made for it.

The common idea that ‘white’ is a neutral, amoral category of identity related to skin tone is not the unquestioned societal precept that it once was. Ekemini Uwan’s Sparrow Conference interview, along with books such as Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, makes forceful claims about the immoral nature of white identity. And when we consider the position of colorblindness held by many of those who opposed Uwan’s remarks, including many who authored or signed the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (Craig Mitchell and James White are two particularly strong examples), it’s actually worth asking if there are any Christians at all who are interested in openly defending white identity as a neutral concept.

Does the absence of such defenders mean that white identity is unimportant? Should we assume that whiteness will just die a slow, peaceful death, if it hasn’t already? Not at all: whiteness still exerts incredible influence in America through on-going racial disparities in wealth, opportunities in school and in job searches. These disparities are reinforced by real estate law-breaking and white segregation among others, which are not disabled by colorblindness but rather are empowered by it. Christians, of all people, know that identity is central to praxis and so should be exceedingly skeptical of any extra-biblical identity, let alone one with such a horrific history of inciting injustice.

All of this makes the task of defining white identity theologically an incredibly important one. Nathan Cartagena has capably made the case that defining race in relation to Scripture is both necessary and challenging, and this is especially true of white identity, because historically, white identity was developed prior to enlightenment anthropologists’ use of the term ‘race.’

No Equivalent to Race in Antiquity?

Cartagena uses Galatians 2, where Paul rebukes Peter for not eating with the Gentiles, as a focal point for explaining the problem of seeing ‘race’ in the Bible. He says of this passage and its relation to race:

We would need to establish, for instance, that Peter conceived of races and that his refusal to eat with Gentiles involved this conception. We need, that is, to show that Peter racialized the Gentiles. How else can we rule out that his apparent fears of the Judiazers did not only cause him to act or become ethnocentric or tribalistic, assuming these ways of “othering” do not presuppose a concept or process of racialization?

So to understand white identity theologically we will be aided by answering the question, ‘Did Peter racialize the Gentiles?’ And to answer this question, we need to know what it means to ‘racialize’ a group of people.

What does it mean to see people groups specifically in a racial manner rather than seeing them as ethnic or tribal or according to some other mode of division? Ethnicity is most often imagined to be synonymous with race, so a comparative treatment of the two can point us toward the meaning of racialization and thus help us to know whether Galatians 2 (and other Scriptures) might illuminate our theological understanding of white identity.

We can identify three simple but critical differences between race and ethnicity: hierarchical ordering, absolutized (or segregated) categories, and disembodied markers. The contemporary Black-White distinction is racial rather than ethnic for these reasons. To talk of one group of people as Irish-American and another group as African-American is to speak of them in a very different conceptual manner than to call those groups ‘white’ and ‘black.’

‘White,’ as a signifier of skin tone, cannot be thought of as an embodied concept for two reasons: real skin and real geography. God placed each of us in particular places (Acts 17:26), and ethnic terminology such as ‘Irish-American’ honors the embodied existence of Americans with ancestry from Ireland, while ‘white’ disconnects identity from any kind of real place. ‘White’ is also disconnected from people’s real skin: ‘white’ peoples’ skin is not actually white, it’s light brown because of melanin. Distinguishing the tone of your skin from printer paper, snow or bleached underwear may appear semantic, but European peoples never bothered to refer to themselves as ‘white’ prior to Gomes de Zurara’s writings in 1444. God really did give ‘white’ people melanin, and he also placed us in particular places, so the Black-White distinction, the contemporary manifestation of race, is disembodying distinction, while ethnicity is very much an embodied concept.

Race is also characterized by absolute categorization rather than the fluidity which characterizes ethnic differences. Terms like Italian-American (or Korean-American, or Chinese-Jamaican or Mexipino etc.) can exist because national identities, while distinct, can merge through procreation or immigration. But white does not remain white if it is mixed with another color: white becomes gray or tan or baby blue or ‘off-white’ when mixed with other colors.

This isn’t just a conceptual reality for color theory: the idea of absolute purity has marked the black-white distinction sociologically throughout American history: Ben Franklin didn’t consider German immigrants in the 1700s to be fully white; there was violent opposition to Irish immigrants assimilating in the 1800s; Jews and southern Europeans were prevented from assimilating in the early 1900s. The Racial Integrity Act in 1924 said it most clearly: “the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian” (emphasis mine).

Race is also hierarchical by nature, unlike ethnicity. Ethnic distinctions may be ordered hierarchically to justify slaughter, as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, but there is nothing inherent within the name of a nation or place or ancestor that necessitates differentiated moral or social standing. And with four-thousand-plus ethnic groups in the world  (some people argue it may be as many as 24,000 ) making any kind of thorough hierarchy of ethnic groups is impossible to do with intellectual honesty.

The lists of 3-5 races imagined by enlightenment anthropologists made racial ranking easy; such lists were created for hierarchy. And given the clear biblical associations between the color white and righteousness, and the color black and sinfulness, disentangling white and black from conceptual hierarchy is virtually impossible, and that is without addressing the historical coterminous existence of white identity with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The concept of race is fundamentally characterized by hierarchical, absolute and disembodied categories, so to racialize people groups is to (1) see those groups according to a scale of supremacy to inferiority, and to (2) organize those groups into categories that are completely separate from each other and cannot be mixed, all through (3) the work of reimagining identities as disconnected from real bodies. So can we say that Peter ‘racialized’ the Gentiles by seeing them according to these three elements?

Peter and Jewish Identity

Peter, of course, did not conceive of race exactly as we do today, as there is no perfect linguistic equivalent in antiquity to our word ‘race’ today. As Cartagena notes, “Greek words [such as ethnos, genos, and phule] denoted significantly different concepts to the Greeks than “race” does to us.”

But we can ask, did Peter envision the Jew-Gentile distinction in a hierarchical manner? Did he treat the categories of Jew and Gentile as absolutely different? And did he misconceive of the human body in order to get to the hierarchical vision and absolute categorization? If so, Peter need not have had a Greek word that equated with ‘race,’ but we can still say that he racialized the Gentiles because he envisioned Jewish identity as having a similar conceptual architecture as Americans today have of white identity.

Far more exegetical work is necessary than what I will attempt here, but I believe a solid case can be briefly made that Peter did racialize the Gentiles because he imagined Jewish and Gentile identities in a hierarchical, segregated and disembodied manner.

The Jew-Gentile distinction was instituted by God. It was primarily a spiritual distinction rather than a physical one, evidenced by the inclusion of Gentiles by birth within the people of God. Examples such as Moses’ (initially) uncircumcised sons (Ex. 4:24-25), Ruth, the devout Jews from every nation (Acts 2:5) and the mixed multitude that joined the Israelites on the Exodus (Ex. 12:38) (which presumably prompted the instructions for handling Gentile inclusion in the Passover celebration (Ex. 12:48)) demonstrate God’s intention that Jewish identity be understood as spiritual rather than physical.

This was misconstrued, of course, by many Jews, such that great correction of it was necessary as the Early Church grew. The problem of dividing Jews and Gentiles by birth and ancestry rather than spiritual commitment required Paul to distinguish ideas about Abraham as a “forefather according to the flesh” from that of being “father of us all” (Rom. 4:1, 11). It is also why Paul made sure to speak of his “kinsman according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3), it is why he makes clear distinctions related to Gentile inclusion in Romans 11, and why he sought to address the idea of being “Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15).

Paul’s narrative of Peter’s failure to walk according to the gospel is positioned right before Galatians 2:15 for a reason. Peter thought of himself as a Jew by birth and not a Gentile sinner, so he chose not to contaminate his Jewish righteousness by eating with those who were Gentiles by birth. The absolute spiritual distinction between Jews and Gentiles, which necessitated all the segregationist marital, dietary and civil laws of the Old Testament, was for the sake of spiritual hierarchy where Israel was to be a people holy to the Lord, his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6) who would be blessed above all peoples (Deut. 7:14) and would consume the peoples God gave to them (Deut. 7:16). Peter reenvisioned this absolute and hierarchical spiritual distinction as primarily one of physical birth rather than spiritual birth, which was out of step with the gospel (Gal. 2:14).

Peter’s vision of the Gentiles was thus one of absolutized categories because he connected the spiritual state of Gentiles by birth (‘Gentile sinners’) to their physical birth, an immutable social characteristic. This vision of the Gentiles took a spiritual hierarchy based on covenantal relationship with YHWH, and reimagined unity within the covenant as socially hierarchical, for Peter felt social pressure from the powerful ‘Circumcision Party’ (Gal. 2:12) to maintain purity away from Gentile sinners (even though he believed they were in Christ). Peter also misconstrued what it meant to be an embodied human being by imagining physical birth to be aligned with spiritual division, as if place or parentage held some kind of spiritual power.

To conclude, then, that Peter ‘racialized’ the Gentiles is abundantly reasonable. Peter’s failure was not simply the sin of segregating himself from the Gentiles, and not simply the sin of treating the Jews as better than the Gentiles, but his failure was also more broad: it was his acceptance and living according to ideas that wrenched Jewish and Gentile identities away from God’s definition. Accepting and living according to a racialized social imaginary is to redefine God’s intentions for human relations unto our own ends.

The three critical characteristics of race can be found in Galatians 2 because they form a conceptual architecture that has been applied and reapplied to different markers of difference throughout history. They can be found in the history that exists between Galatians 2 and modern America, for Peter’s twisting of Jewish identity was the historical seed for the contemporary Black-White racial distinction. Illegitimate, twisted versions of Jewish and then Christian identities are not just analogous to white identity but are the historically conceptual origins of white identity.

From Illegitimate Jewish Identity to White Identity

In the early 1800s, Isaac Watts wrote a series of hymns that perfectly illustrate the mistaken thinking of so many Christians about Christian and Jewish identity during the colonial era and earlier. Many of his hymns based on the Psalms directly substitute Britain for Israel, prompting Willie James Jennings to comment:

British land, British hearts and tongues all announce British election by God…

Once salvation was imagined territorially it was also imagined racially and drew vernacularization and racial formation into tight collaboration. This means salvation does not create a new people. Peoples are simply saved. (Jennings, The Christian Imagination, p218, 217)

The mistake that Watts made, which so many others (including especially the Spanish and Portuguese) made in the preceding centuries, was one of aligning Christian identity with national identity, in a similar manner to Peter and the Circumcision Party aligning Jewish identity with physical birth. And, as Jennings points out, this enabled the development of the modern form of racial identity based on skin tones.

This effect begins with positioning Christian identity fully within European (white) identity… Here was a process of discerning Christian identity that, because it had jettisoned Israel from its calculus of the formation of Christian life, created a conceptual vacuum that was filled by the European. (Jennings, p33)

So when we come to Colonial American Christianity, it is no surprise to see the coupling of English with Christian, and ‘Negro’ with non-Christian/heathen:

These two words, Negro and Slave, being by custom grown Homogeneous and Convertible; even as Negro and Christian, Englishman and Heathen, are by the like corrupt Custom and Partiality made Opposites; thereby as it were implying, that the one could not be Christians, nor the other Infidels. – Morgan Godwyn, The Negro’s and Indians Advocate (1680), quoted in The Baptism of Early Virginia, by Rebecca Anne Goetz, p36

So Jewish identity had been superseded by English identity, which was coupled with Christian identity and not black identity, and this association was so strong that it was written into law:

And that if any christian shall committ ffornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the ffines imposed by the former act. – General Assembly of Virginia (1662), quoted in The Baptism of Early Virginia by Rebecca Anne Goetz, p78 (emphasis mine)

Of course, such a law is blatantly anti-Christian in its assumption that a ‘negro’ cannot be a Christian and that being a Christian was equivalent to being English. So the law was changed in 1691 (albeit 29 years later), replacing the word ‘Christian’ with the word ‘white’. This allowed white Virginians to maintain social power through anti-miscegenation and maintain the appearance of being Christian.

The social significance and privileges of being ‘white’ in America are not simply the result of a vague historical process where science and hatred and different skin tones were amalgamated into today’s understanding of race. Those factors were involved, but the social significance and privileges of being ‘white’ are a direct result of European (and later, American) Christians embracing an illegitimate understanding of Christian identity. White identity is an Ishmaelite identity: appearing, but not truly being, the heir of God’s blessings.

Such a falsehood requires a consistent maintenance of the appearance of credibility, making white identity parasitic: “The problem is the racialization of that soteriological vision such that racial existence is enfolded inside the displacement operation and emerges as a parasite on theological identity.” (Jennings, p138)

White Identity in the Future

The problem of white identity living parasitically off of theological identity has not magically disappeared over time. The use of white identity to influence theological and soteriological vision continued in America for centuries, albeit in increasingly hidden ways. Just as the Colonial Virginia law-makers had done, white Americans in the 19th and 20th Centuries held onto social power and maintained the appearance of Christian virtue by obscuring their hatred. Marybeth Swetnam Mathews’ book, Doctrine and Race details the use of segregation among white, Christian ministries in the early twentieth century to maintain white supremacy where standards of doctrinal fidelity were used against black people whose identity as Christian had barely been conceded after centuries of denial:

This insistence on separate ministry begins to hint at why white fundamentalists did not call for a mission among American blacks. Rather, they preferred to maintain their distance, calling for white-controlled seminaries to train black men to prevent the tide of modernist, socialist, communist, or Roman Catholic thought among African Americans nationally. (Mathews, p31)

While the examples in Mathews’ book are from almost one hundred years ago, it exposes an almost liturgical pattern. White advantage and the appearance of Christian virtue are maintained through grudging social concessions that are then a claim for moral high ground to be used against black people. This pattern continues today when white people claim colorblindness in response to calls to address systemic racism. Overtly racist words and actions do not benefit white people who like their social advantages and also like the title, ‘Christian,’ but covert words and actions do.

This isn’t just a societal problem, it’s a church problem. White identity continues to have a parasitic relationship to soteriology. We can see this in James White’s 2016 summary of the black church as more prone to error than the white church, and in Paige Patterson’s letter questioning the commitment to inerrancy of a black candidate for SBC President. We can see this when white Christians flee diverse cities, or avoid living in black neighborhoods when they do move into cities. We see this when white Christians don’t even consider attending black churches close to where they live. De facto segregation is perhaps the most common means by which white Christians today retain social privileges along with some semblance of the title ‘Christian,’ following in the hypocritical steps of previous generations of white Christians, and the hypocritical steps of Peter and the Circumcision Party in Galatians 2.

White identity may one day be removed from the top of theological and social hierarchies, just as the Portuguese and Spanish were. It may transform and adjust in some form, but the association of immutable characteristics with theological judgment and segregation is not going to magically disappear. It has infected Christian hearts and churches for centuries. We are setting up future generations of Christians to repeat Peter’s mistake and the mistake of our ‘white’ ancestors if we do not openly attack and undermine both the broken biblical anthropology and the disparate social conditions that continue to racialize our darker-skinned neighbors.

White identity is the modern equivalent of a twisted idea of what it meant to be Jewish in the 1st century. The human heart is sinful indeed, who can understand it? But with bold faith and spiritual eyes, we can confront false identities that inform conduct that is out of step with the gospel.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0