What is the Christian attitude toward race, ethnicity and peoplehood?
Such things do not determine human worth any more than other aspects of social position do. Nonetheless, it seems important to me to recover a Christian conception of legitimate particularism. Such a conception would necessarily include some degree of ethnic identity and loyalty and therefore ethnic boundaries. Without such a conception Christianity becomes a this-worldly universalism like Islam or the various modern totalitarianisms. It loses the recognition of the necessity and goodness of the concrete and particular that is, I think, essential to it.
The view that ethnic boundaries are illegitimate, which is implied by the view that racial discrimination as such is wrong, is radically new in Christianity. The historic church never thought it was wrong to have particular attachments or recognize differences among groups of people. To some extent the early Church tailored Christianity to fit each society and people. Such efforts have been revived today—recent Roman Catholic discussions of “inculturation,” for example, presume that cultural particularity is important to spiritual life and insist that it be respected. If cultural particularity is good, though, boundaries among peoples with distinctive ways of life—ethnic boundaries—can’t be all bad.
The Christian embrace of particularity isn’t a fluke. The story of Babel treats this-worldly universalism and the demand for a single universal people, society and law as a sort of idolatry. And Christ himself explicitly recognized the continuing existence and validity of the nations. (Jean-Marc Berhoud goes into the details in his The Bible and the Nations.)
Christianity does not flatten things out and make them all conform to a single comprehensive scheme. The doctrines of Creation and Incarnation tell us that God made the here-and-now in all its particularity, called it good, and became physically present in it with all the specificity that implies. The unity Christianity gives is therefore a transcendent unity that applies even when there are obvious distinctions of unquestioned validity. When Paul said that Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). he didn’t want to abolish Greeks and Jews any more than he wanted to abolish men and women.
In many ways Christianity is at right angles to earthly social order. Grace completes nature, but does not abolish it. The temptation of Christ makes it clear that Christianity is not about political rule, solving economic problems, or the conquest of natural necessity. Unlike Islam and Judaism it has no concrete legal code, it explicitly recognizes the relative autonomy of Caesar, and it’s said to be a kingdom “not of this world.” If it recognizes that there are kingdoms other than itself why would it want all those kingdoms to get together and create a universal all-pervasive this-worldly order of things? Why would it suddenly decide that Babel was a worthy effort?
Christianity therefore lives at ease with earthly distinctions, much more than with earthly monoliths. It was after the concrete administrative unity of the Roman Empire was abolished through the appointment of multiple emperors that Christianity became its principle of transcendent unity. And that’s what Christianity was for the following 1600 years—a principle that gave Europe an overall civilizational unity while maintaining and on the whole respecting its practical diversity.
The rejection of Christianity has led to various schemes by Nazis, communists, Eurocrats and so on to replace the transcendent unity and concrete diversity of Christian Europe with pragmatic this-worldly unity. Nationality, local and particular loyalties, variations among peoples, and this-worldly boundaries thrived in Christian Europe. They are treated as monstrosities to be destroyed in the newly anti-Christian West. So why view them as opposed to Christianity?