Volume 10 - Issue 2

Race, class, caste and the Bible

By Andrew Kirk


On the surface a subject like this may appear straight-forward. However, there are a number of potential pitfalls. The Bible provides, for example, no clearly defined reference-point from which to start. This means that any attempt to cross-reference is hazardous. Moreover, the terms used in the title will not be found in Bible dictionaries, however sophisticated they may be: neither race, class nor caste are biblical words. The terminology as systematically developed and defined in modern times was unknown in the ancient world, though discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity was evident (e.g. Nu. 12:1; Acts 18:2). We are faced, therefore, with a classical case of hermeneutical investigation. Inevitably our approach to the text will have to be deductive: looking for teaching which appears to be related to the themes as these have been developed in recent years.

A case can be made for starting with the reality of race, class and caste, and the debate which has surrounded each, before investigating the biblical material. Unless we have a clear idea of what phenomena we are looking at it is difficult to address relevant questions to the biblical text. This approach does not imply that we can understand a current situation independently of biblical teaching. Contemporary analysis may have to be modified as a result of the unique biblical perspective on human relations in society. The text of Scripture, as revelation from the living God of history, gives us knowlege of the human predicament which no amount of social analysis could uncover. A hermeneutical approach to this subject is designed to effect a proper engagement between the Bible and what is happening in everyday life. When theologians start only from a theoretical base in the text, like two unidentified ships passing each other in the night they will probably fail to engage with concrete situations.

People have become particularly conscious of race, class and caste only in the last few centuries. In general terms race has become a matter of comparative study only since the expansion of the European peoples across the globe from the 15th century onwards. Contact between peoples of different skin-pigmentation and the aggressive subjugation of indigenous peoples in Latin and North America, Africa and Asia by people with pallid skins has provoked both curiosity and conflict. The belief that one kind of people was intrinsically superior to another became necessary in order to justify European colonial domination of other nations. That is why people from the Third World often assert that racism in the modern age is particularly a white person’s problem.1

Class, though not a concept invented by Karl Marx, is closely associated with his name. Contemporary sociological study has been deeply influenced by his class analysis of society. Discussion of social stratification tends to divide between those who support the Marxian thesis in general terms and those who do not.2

Caste is a phenomenon confined to the peculiar circumstances of the Indian sub-continent. It came into existence as a factor in the culture shaped by Hindu religion. Though caste has been part of Hindu Indian society for millenia it only became a fiercely disputed issue when the British conquered India and the modern missionary movement from the West began with William Carey.3

Each of these topics has to do with divisions which exist today among human beings. They function either as a way of justifying or of explaining powerful and stubborn social discriminations. Their importance relates to the steady upsurge in the last 200 years of egalitarian ideals which have permeated society from an intellectual stratum to the masses of the people.

Supposed racial differences, in particular, have been used in some parts of the world (South Africa is the most obvious case) to maintain a rigidly anti-egalitarian society. However, the notion of racial variations is fraught with insuperable problems. Often, for reasons of convenience, highly speculative ideas about different grades of human intelligence and ability have been confused with observable cultural diversity.


  1. General remarks

As we have already hinted there is no one biblical word for race, which would denote a separation of human groups into distinctive entities on the basis of different physical features:

the characteristic phrases, in Greek, to genos tōn anthropōn, or, in Latin, humanum genus, sum up the reality: ‘race’ means those descended from one common stock, and the only large-scale application of the term is to humankind as a whole.4

It is not easy to produce a definition of race that is not already loaded with prejudice and inherited stereotypes. The content given to words about race is usually weighted with negative words, images and linguistic symbolisms. In ordinary English speech ‘black’ and ‘dark’ often contain disapproving connotations: a ‘blackguard’ is a scoundrel; a ‘blackleg’ is a swindler or someone who betrays his companions; ‘to blacken’ is to slander someone’s character; the ‘dark side of things’ is their worst aspect; ‘to darken counsel’ is to confuse the issue, etc. For the sake of increasing awareness of present attitudes and policies the kind of distinctions often made need to be uncovered. In what follows the reader should be aware that so-called distinctives have little, if anything, to do with characteristics inherited through the exchange of genes in interbreeding. Most of them are gross simplifications based on absurd generalizations.

a. Distinctives based on how people appear

Black people are popularly considered to be good athletes and good musicians (often in the field of jazz), but to be less capable than other racial groups at picking up intricate mathematics or languages. Intelligence tests (carried out largely in the USA) are said to establish that the ‘average’ level of intelligence of black peoples is lower than that of white or mongoloid peoples. The method of testing is, however, highly suspect in that it does not make sufficient allowance for cultural variables: what is being tested reflects the bias of the tester. In any case, even by the dubious standards used, the variations in I.Q. within ‘races’ is considerably larger than the average variations between races. Something like 70% of the whole human race fall within the same area on the graph. Under-achievement at school may simply reflect the goals of a particular educational system and the expectations of teachers. Any supposed range of intelligence bears no relation to racial distinctives. Its measurement is likely to be culturally conditioned.

b. Distinctives based on how people act

This area covers such things as people’s food, dress, family life, beliefs and values, mode of speaking, relationship to time, hospitality, the use of etiquette in personal relationships, etc. Clearly, none of these has anything to do with genetic differences. They are all variables which result from a long history of cultural development, and help to give meaning to life and to secure a basic, corporate identity (‘roots’). They may become the excuse for racial discrimination and antagonism, but only because some people, on the basis of ignorance, feel threatened by what is different.

c. Distinctives based on what people do

Since the last major war there has been a massive movement of people from one part of the world to another. Two main causes account for this unprecedented migration: the need of the Western industrialized nations to acquire cheap labour in an expanding economy (paralleled more recently by oil-exporting Arab states), and refugees fleeing from violence and famine. In the first case competition for jobs and an increased use of social services in a period of economic stagnation have produced in some quarters virulent calls for repatriation.

Where political and economic life becomes destabilized, some people look for scapegoats among minority populations. The most obvious examples in European history have been the Jews and the gypsies, not only under Nazism, but down the centuries. Indeed, a plausible case can be made for considering that the Christian church in its prolonged discrimination against Jews and its past attitudes to Muslims (‘infidels’) has been the originator of racist attitudes.

  1. The biblical evidence

When we turn to the Bible we must be careful to guard against importing the alien modern category of race into our study of the text. Other categories, however, come closer to matching the modern patterns, such as ethnic groups, peoples and nations.

Israel, for example, was clearly a separate people. A sense of ethnic distinctiveness grew during the time of bondage in Egypt (e.g. Ex. 1:7–8; Dt. 26:5). The consolidation of a consciousness of peoplehood is associated with the giving of the covenant at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:5–6). Israel, as a nation identified with a territorial state, did not become a reality until the reign of David. As one nation it lasted less than 100 years. The Northern kingdom then survived as a separate entity for another 100 years and the Southern for a further 200.

Israel’s identity as a people was linked to the liberating activity of God in the events of the Exodus, to his self-revelation as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 2:24; 3:6; 3:15; 4:5) and to his giving of the law. They were a distinct ethnic group before God brought them into the promised land (Dt. 7:6–8). They also survived as a people the loss of their land, the monarchy and the temple.5 In Romans 9:3–4 Paul lists those things which characterized the Jews as a separate race (sungenos—co-people, in plural form): calling, covenants, the revelation of God’s glory, worship, promises and direct descent from the patriarchs. Most of these spring from the grace of God’s election; they have nothing to do with inherent human differences.

The rest of the world was divided into peoples and nations. The ‘people of the land’ (’ām hā’āres) in the earliest period were a body of free men, enjoying civic rights in a given territory. The phrase was still used in this general sense at the time of the return from exile (Hg. 2:4; Zc. 7:5; Dn. 9:6). In Ezra and Nehemiah, however, it denotes non-Jewish people, those who are antagonistic to Israel and with whom marriage is forbidden. The Jews, returning from Babylon, were no longer the ‘people of the land’, enjoying the same political status accorded to Samaritans, Ammonites and Moabites.6 In the rabbinical period the ’ām hā’ārestook on a religious significance. They were those who were ignorant of and did not practise the law.

The concept of nation is not defined or well-established in the Bible. In general terms it refers to a group of people with a cohesive system of political and military rule. Authority was centralized in a king (cf. 1 Sa. 8:5, 20; Dt. 17:14) who ruled through carefully-picked subordinates. Kingship in the ancient Near East was sanctioned by an intricate religious system. When Israel patterned its government on that of other nations it was accused by the prophets of going astray by abandoning the terms of the covenant.

The theme of the nations is taken up in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Revelation. The nations (kings, kingdoms) will be judged by God and ruled by Christ (Rev. 1:5; 2:26; 12:5; 13:7). They will also be healed (Rev. 22:2), come and worship (Rev. 7:9; 15:4) and bring into the holy city, Jerusalem, all their treasures (Rev. 21:26). God is the sovereign ruler over all nations (Ps. 67:4), who laughs to scorn all their pretensions to power (Ps. 2:1–12; 59:8). He deals with all impartially and indiscriminately on the basis of both judgment and mercy (Is. 10:5ff.; 29:23–24; Am. 1:3ff.; 9:7). Finally, he gives the nations as a heritage to his anointed Son (Ps. 2:8; Is. 55:5).

Fundamental for the current debate about race is an investigation into the unity and diversity of ethnic groups in the Bible, and the legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence.

All peoples are united through a common creation, through the universal consequences of the fall and through the promises offered to all through redemption in Christ. These are the most basic facts of a common humanity. They are far more significant than differences based on the colour of one’s skin, language, customs or religious and political beliefs.

a. Creation

The opening chapters of Genesis give us an account of the primal history of humankind before any divisions took place. We are to understand that all races find their origin in Adam and Eve. Indeed, Eve is called ‘the mother of all living’ (Gn. 3:20). Paul echoes this firm conviction in the Areopagus speech: ‘God … made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26). He is probably referring to the ‘Table of the Nations’ (Gn. 10:1–32), which accounts for all the inhabitants of the earth as descendants of Shem, Ham and Japeth: ‘These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood’ (Gn. 10:32).

All the nations were descended from Noah and spoke the same language (Gn. 11:1). The Noahic covenant (Gn. 9:8ff.) extends to every living creature, including all human beings, without distinction. The basis of the covenant is the divine image in human beings (Gn. 9:6). It is this which gives to human life its unique sanctity: ‘of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.’ We should not be surprised, following the biblical statements about common origin, that all human groups share the same type of blood, are inter-fertile and can receive and donate organs across so-called racial boundaries.

The unity of the whole race was accepted by the ancient world. Paul appeals to a common belief when he quotes from Stoic philosophers (Aratus and Cleanthes): ‘we are indeed his offspring’ (Acts 17:28). There is no attempt to make distinctions based on the fact of human life.

Conversely in the modern world, wherever there has been a retreat from belief in a God-centred world (theism) together with a general, uncritical acceptance of the evolution of the species through natural selection, the unity of humankind based on belief in a personal creation has been seriously eroded. The main result has been the increasing violation of the integrity of human beings, either for political or medical ends.

b. The fall

As every group is descended from Adam, so everyone has been affected by his one act of disobedience: ‘sin came into the world through one man … death spread to all men because all men sinned … death reigned from Adam … by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners …’ (Rom. 5:12ff.); ‘by man came death … the sting of death is sin’ (1 Cor. 15:21, 56).

The reality of evil as a force which pervades and affects the decision-making processes and relationships of all human beings can only be accounted for on the basis of a total human solidarity which is both historical—going back to Adam—and lateral—spreading out to engulf all sons and daughters of Adam living at the same time.

Sin is manifest most clearly in the refusal to love and serve God (Rom. 1:21–25). The consequence is anarchy in interpersonal relationships (Rom. 1:26–31). No-one is exempt: ‘all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin’ (Rom. 3:9). The effect of sin is subtle; never more so than when human beings believe they are free of its presence in particular instances. Racist attitudes and practices are often the result of a failure to discern how sin has caused a total distortion of our approach to life. Because we have a false view of God, we also have a false view of his creatures. The making of ‘graven images’ (Ex. 20:4—today mental pictures rather than literal idols) has produced as its result the manipulation and exploitation of man and woman, the image of God.7 Racism becomes inconceivable where human beings recognize their guilty failure to love God and their neighbour as themselves, confess it and receive God’s forgiving grace.

c. Redemption in Christ

The offer of a way out from the bondage of sin is offered on equal terms to every human being: ‘if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2; Jn. 1:29).

God is no respecter of persons. Freedom from the guilt and power of sin (in all its varied manifestations) is by grace alone through faith alone. No-one has any grounds at all to boast of their wisdom, power, righteousness or status. The way of salvation planned and accomplished by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit excludes all boasting and self-righteousness (1 Cor. 1:28–31). In the light of every human being’s overwhelming need to receive forgiveness, healing and transformation, belief in special privileges and superiority is totally out of place. God’s ultimate intention is to restore every kind of broken fellowship caused by sin. This reconciliation has already been achieved in Christ.

The message of Scripture, then, points to a radical and unequivocal equality of all people in their human nature. Nevertheless, the basic unity of all human beings in no way minimizes the rich diversity of the ways in which they express their humanity. It is by stressing diversity, divorced from commonality, that some Christians (particularly in South Africa) have sought to justify the forced imposition of separate development by racial groups.

It is important to have clearly in view the exact nature of the biblical evidence adduced to support apartheid:

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the DRC (Dutch Reformed Church) does not build its biblical case for its approach to race relations on such Old Testament episodes as ‘the curse of Ham’, nor does it transpose the ‘people of God’ motif from Israel onto the Afrikaner volk. But it does make a great deal of the creation narratives and the proto-history of Genesis 1–11. Two dominant themes emerge. The first is that ‘the Scriptures teach and uphold the essential unity of mankind and the primordial relatedness and fundamental equality of all peoples … The second and subsidiary conviction is that ‘ethnic diversity is in its very origin in accordance with the will of God for his dispensation’.8

The South African DRC, then, believes that

in specific circumstances and under specific conditions the New Testament makes provision for the regulation on the basis of separate development of the coexistence of various peoples in one country.9

In the final analysis the biblical basis for separate development seems to rest on the flimsy foundation of one particular interpretation of the story of Babel, on certain conclusions drawn from the incidence of the tongues on the day of Pentecost and on one verse in the book of Acts. The arguments are as follows.

At the tower of Babel God structured diversity into the human race by confounding human language and scattering different peoples over the face of the world (Gn. 11:7–8). The implication of the story is that the human race is no longer one people. Moreover,

not only were languages divided at Babel, but the spirit of one group became different from that of another. As a result they stood against one another with a different and divergent consciousness. It may safely be presumed that the confusion of tongues necessarily presupposed profound psychological changes, and that these varied directly, by reason of the psycho-physical unity of man, with the somatic changes which resulted in different nations and races.10

Though the event of Pentecost

made abundantly clear that the people of God is both supra-national and supra-racial and transcends all the distinctions that exist among mankind11

it also confirmed the multiformity of human social existence. According to Acts 2:5ff. people, even after the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, still spoke (or rather heard) in different languages. The mighty works of God were told in Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Egyptian and so on. People were still forced to live in separation. God’s revelation still has to be translated into the hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken across the globe. Finally, it is maintained that Paul refers to an appointed separate development when he states that God not only created all to be one but also ‘determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation’ (Acts 17:26). This verse is taken by some to refer to an alleged creation order, equivalent to the establishment of the family. Separate development is argued, then, on the basis both of creation and the fall into sin. Significantly, the theological rationale is silent about the effects of redemption on the possibility and desirability of a multi-racial society.

This is not the place to enter into a long discussion on the present policy of the South African government and the positive support it receives from the majority of the white DRC. Three brief comments may be made.

Firstly, the texts quoted do not substantiate the conclusions drawn from them. Acts 17:26 (which probably reflects Dt. 32:8) says no more than that ‘the distribution of mankind over all the habitable world must be seen in the light of God’s providential acting in history’.12 The text says nothing about different racial groups, nor about an immutable separation of people according to cultural variants. A literalistic interpretation should drive one to the conclusion that there was no place for white people in South Africa, for their allotted boundary would be Europe. Linguistic variations have nothing to do either with race or with the separation of groups into autonomous political entities.

Secondly, the real reason for the policy of separate development, imposed unilaterally by force on one people by another (stronger in military terms), is not to be found in any authentic exegesis of the Scriptures at all. It is due entirely to the desire for self-preservation. The rationale given is that ‘the love commandment gives a primacy to man’s love for himself over his love for his neighbour’13, but that even the latter demands a civil and cultural guardianship. This argument is a not very subtle smoke-screen designed to bolster the survival of a people (volk) at all costs. Separate development could, then, be said to be more the result of tribalism than racism.

Apartheid in South Africa might take on a new complexion (a little more consistent, a little less ideological), if the Afrikaner people established their own homeland, proportionate in size to their percentage of the total population of the country. Tribalism can only be defended by resorting to a tribal god. The DRC, unfortunately, has supplied the material to try to make this god respectable. The rest of the world church is wholly unimpressed. It was, therefore, principally on theological, rather than political, grounds that the DRC’s membership of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches was suspended in 1982, and apartheid declared a heresy.

Thirdly, the issue ultimately is that of submitting to the authority of the Scriptures, whatever the consequences. Those who disagree with the position of the DRC make the point that the concept of separate development has been read into Scripture rather than out of it. The consequence has been that ‘the relative idea of differentiation between peoples, to which Scripture points … has become an imperative for division between peoples’14:

At all costs, the concept of separate development must not be surrendered—which means that its theological basis must be affirmed—for the future of the Afrikaner people is regarded as tied up with the success or failure of this policy.15

The ultimate authority of God’s revelation is thus set aside in order to be able to accept another (‘higher’) principle which cannot be challenged. Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his day apply exactly: ‘thus by your own tradition, handed down among you, you make God’s word null and void’ (Mk. 7:13, neb).

Before moving on to look at the issue of class we need to mention briefly the suggestion made by some theologians that the Bible itself contains the seeds of racism in some of its attitudes and assertions. John Baker, for example, writes: ‘recent scholarship has opened our eyes to the way in which anti-Judaism, and anti-Jewish propaganda, have infected so much of the New Testament.’16

The evidence he gives for this very sweeping generalization is that the term ‘the Jews’ is always used pejoratively in John’s Gospel; that the passion narratives of the gospels of Matthew and John try to lay the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews, both leaders and people; that the book of Acts presents the vast majority of the Jews as ‘utterly bigoted and unscrupulous in their hostility to and persecution of Christians’, and that the promises of God are taken away from the Jews and reapplied to the Christian people (Romans 9–11 being a partial exception).

General accusations merit general refutations. However, with regard to the above statements one wonders how many exceptions have to be found for the generalization to collapse. The term ‘the Jews’ is not always used in a disparaging sense in John’s gospel (cf. Jn. 4:22; 11:45). More importantly the phrase is used in a technical, not a literal, sense for those among the nation who could not admit that the Messiah was in their midst. It contrasts, then, with ‘the people’ (Jn. 7:31) and ‘the crowd’ (Jn. 12:17) who were, of course, also ethnically Jews. The real contrast both in John’s Gospel and in the thought of Paul is between the Jew and the Israelite (Jn. 1:47, 49; Rom. 2:25ff.), the one who does not believe and the one who does (cf. Jn. 1:11–13). The term is no more implicitly racist than asserting that someone of another religious persuasion is not a Christian. That a misinterpretation of the phrase was used in a racist sense in subsequent centuries is hardly John’s fault.

New Testament writers in presenting some Jewish people as hostile to Jesus Christ and his followers are following the same pattern as the Old Testament prophets who declared God’s judgment on his people’s unbelief. They are arguing that rejection of the message of salvation through Christ crucified and risen is due to a failure to understand the implications of the law and the prophets. Submission to Christ is not the abandonment of the Jewish heritage, but its fulfilment. That is hardly a pronouncement of anti-Jewish sentiment. John Baker’s statement, evidently shared by others, distorts the real situation through over-reaction. Anti-Semitism in the church of later centuries arose in the face of the implicitly anti-racist implications of the proclamation of the new age in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28; 6:15; Eph. 2:11ff.; Phil. 3:3ff.; Col. 3:10–15).


  1. General remarks

The popular notion of class is not always precise. For this reason, perhaps, it is frequently used with emotional feeling: sometimes as a severe criticism—‘you reflect your class interests’, ‘the trouble with the church is its middle-class values’—sometimes in a romantic way to idealize, for example, the solidarity of working-class people torn apart by the impact of a mobile and self-centred society.

One does not have to accept Karl Marx’s interpretation of class to admit that his opinions have been decisive in shaping all future thought. Though he did not invent the term, for the classical economists of the 18th century spoke of three classes—landowners, the owners of capital, and the workers (owners of labour)—he imprinted his own distinctive ideas on the debate. Everyone now has to respond. Peter Worsley writes: ‘it has been said that all modern sociology is a debate with the ghost of Marx’.17

Marx and his life-long friend and colleague, Engels, argue that different classes have arisen in history as a result of their different relationships to the means of production (land, natural resources, capital and labour power). These relationships (ever since the first communities which had no division of labour) have always been in conflict. There exists, then, a fundamental conflict of interests between different sectors of society according to who creates and who is the main beneficiary of wealth. Engels, in the Preface to the 1883 (German) Edition of the Communist Manifesto, says ‘all history has been a history of … struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development’.

Exploitation (or expropriation) is the name given to the process by which the owners of the ‘fallow’ means of production (land, natural resources and capital) make profits out of the ‘active’ means of production (the labour-power of the worker). The latter, who turn potential wealth into real wealth, are only paid back part of the wealth they create; the ‘wealth-owners’ pocket the rest. This is seen by Marxists (and non-Marxist socialists) as robbery, for the fruit of the worker is taken away and given to another. In a non-socialist system of economic life the worker is not able to own and control what he produces. He is given a wage in exchange for the energy expended in the manufacturing process.

Societies are not destined, however, to continue for ever as the arena where hostile forces are bound to clash. When ‘working class’ people realize the true nature of their exploitation and organize themselves to take control of economic power, placing the means of production under the common ownership of the whole populace, class antagonism will be at an end. By definition there will only be one class and therefore no classes!

The Marxist view, then, states that class divisions are not inherent to society, but the natural outcome of particular economic systems. They are not, therefore, inevitable, and certainly not desirable. The Marxist view of society is utopian in its belief that an alternative way of organizing human life can and must be implemented. It owes much to the radical egalitarianism, based on the assumption of natural law that all people are by birth equal in rank, which arose at the end of the 18th century. What is a fact of nature must be converted into a fact of society. Achieving equality is thwarted primarily by the unequal (and, therefore, unjust) distribution of the ownership of wealth.

This uncompromising Marxist view of class has not gone unchallenged. A different explanation of class (or social stratification as they prefer to call it) is given by sociologists who adopt a ‘functionalist’ approach to reality. Their views are contained in the following assumptions about present societies:

a. Order and stability are the most important factors for the functioning of any human community. Ideas of struggle, conflict and antagonism, therefore, threaten civil harmony and the continuance of proven structures.

b. People are not equal by nature. Considerable differences both in a person’s ability and ambitions are facts of life.

c. Classes in the Marxist sense have largely disappeared. Modern society is more complex than that described by Marx 100 years ago: e.g. joint-stock companies, which have arisen largely since Marx’s death, have separated ownership from management of industry; the rise of professional groups through job specialization has produced a society with a continually graded hierarchy. Stratification, therefore, is open and mobile. Classes, by implication, are not immutable factors in a capitalist economic system.

d. Stratification is generally accepted by all groups as necessary to enable society to function in the most efficient way possible. Ranking in society is based on a set of values commonly held concerning the nature of success and efficiency. Allotting rewards and privileges is the only effective means of discovering and encouraging the best talents for the most important jobs.

e. A permanently unequal distribution of rewards is unimportant, if the lower strata of society continually achieve a higher living standard in real terms.

    2. The biblical evidence

The complexity of the issues which surround the current debate about class mean that it would be unhelpful to attempt in the limited space available here a general survey of the biblical material followed by broad conclusions.

Bearing in mind my opening remarks about the danger of a question-begging approach to Scripture which arbitrarily and selectively quotes certain texts and excludes others, I would suggest that the following elements present in Scripture (grouped under the same three headings) are relevant to the subject.

a. Creation

The declaration that together man and woman are created in the image of God (Gn. 1:26–27), and its repetition after the fall into sin (Gn. 5:1–2; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Col. 3:10; Jas. 3:9; cf. also Mt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6), has been the most powerful charter in human history for considering all people equal in worth, dignity and the respect due to them.

There is no religious sanction in the Bible for any notion that some people have been created ‘more equal’ than others. This is a surprising fact given the strong presence of such an idea within contemporary middle-Eastern religious systems. In many of them only the king was considered to possess, in a special sense, the divine nature. The Bible consistently demythologizes the aura surrounding kingship and all political power (cf.Dt. 17:14–20; 1 Sa. 8:5–22; 10:17–19; Ps. 8:4–8; 82:6–7; Lk. 13:32; 20:25; 23:8–9; Jn. 19:9–11).

God’s repeated concern to rebuke and limit the arrogance of human power and authority (cf. Ezk. 34:3–4; Zc. 2:8–3:7; Is. 47:8) and to lift up the weak and defenceless (Is. 11:4; Ps. 72:2–4, 12–14; Is. 3:14–15) has implications for economic equality among all. Social status was unjustly used as a lever for economic gain (cf.1 Sa. 8:11–17; Ezk. 46:18; Je. 6:13; 8:10; 17:11; 22:13–14; Hab. 2:6ff.), whilst the intention of economic life within Israel was to distribute fairly the bounty of God’s creation to all. Thus, no-one would become another’s bond-servant through the power to hire (wage-labour) and fire, but all would have independent resources guaranteed to them in perpetuity (Dt. 24:14–15; Lv. 25:25, 28, 39–41; Jb. 7:1–2; 14:6; Mal. 3:5).

b. The fall

The universal sinfulness of humanity is often used as a reason for accepting the inevitability and even suitability of a society permanently organized to promote inequality. The argument assumes that people will only strive to create wealth, which is necessary if all are to enjoy a dignified life, when they see that it is in their individual or group interests to do so. To harness human beings’ natural selfishness, therefore, society must devise a pattern of rewards even when these produce unequal benefits received from the system. The same argument goes on to dismiss any other ordering of society as idealistic, because predicated on a false, romantic optimism concerning human nature.

This line of reasoning proceeds deductively from the general to the particular, and becomes a major contributing factor to the defence of the private enjoyment of accumulated wealth. As such, it is frequently and vigorously employed by certain conservative Christian groups within the affluent nations. The logic may be sound, but the argument is spurious for it contradicts the actual evidence of the biblical text.

The Old and New Testaments proceed in the opposite direction. They depict in detail the many consequences of sin. From these they move to a more general view of sin as idolatry, rebellion or breaking the law of the covenant. This method accords with an outlook on life which concentrates on the concrete and specific and avoids abstract generalizations.

Thus, in terms of economic life, the Bible does not speculate about what kind of incentives may be necessary to guarantee a wealth-producing society. Rather, it starts from what is actually happening and interprets it as a particular manifestation of sin. In this way poverty is said to be the result of three possible factors: either misfortune, a refusal to work or oppression and injustice. Of these three the latter is overwhelmingly mentioned as the most common (among hundreds of texts cf. Ho. 5:10; 12:7–8; Am. 2:6–7; 8:4–6; Mi. 2:8–9).18 The response that God requires to each of the three factors is: firstly, compassionate care, resulting in a sharing of resources; secondly, a change of lifestyle followed by a sharing of effort; and thirdly, the establishment of justice, leading to a sharing of power and responsibilities.

The Bible supports the view that conflict is endemic within the economic and social life of people, and that it is this that causes inequality. Nowhere does it endorse the view that structured inequality is necessary to harness human beings’ selfish impulses in a fallen world.19

c. Redemption in Christ

In the last twenty years much has been done by theologians, biblical scholars and ordinary Christian people to recover the corporate and social nature of salvation in Christ, alongside its personal aspects. What one author has called ‘a lost bequest’20 unaccountably disappeared from the agenda of most churches for over 100 years. This is a sad reflection on the fact that Christians tend to endorse uncritically a way of life which suits their interests—in this case the freedom of the individual to choose his or her own future, and thus to choose simultaneously Jesus, free-enterprise evangelism, a culturally congenial Christian fellowship and economic and social betterment. The late 18th and early 19th centuries’ heirs of the Reformation and Great Awakening preached a robust gospel in which Christ’s redemption was understood to cover patterns of social life in which human relationships were structured by collective forces.

This assumption was built on a correct grasp of the purposes of the biblically revealed God. Redemption is placed within the context of human beings’ total environment—creation, society, culture and personal relationships. God calls his people to anticipate, as far as possible, the final consummation in the present moment. The promise is the final coming into being of God’s rule (kingdom) of justice and shalom (cf. Is. 60:21; 65:17ff.; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1, 27); the means of achieving it are found both in forgiveness and new life available through the blood of the new covenant and in obedience to its demands.

The terms of the covenant (Ex. 24:3–8) were an indication of a society liberated from oppressive and exploitative patterns of life (Ex. 20:22–23:19). The prophets God sent in his name called the people to observe them and warned of the serious consequences of their violation. They find their eventual fulfilment and realization in Christ’s work of reconciliation and the restoration of all things (2 Cor. 5:19–21; Eph. 1:10, 2:16; Col. 1:16, 20).

If the functionalist interpretation of inequality is strongly ideologicali.e. the legitimation and defence of society which promotes particular self-interests—the Marxist conviction that class antagonism will be ended by a drastic change in property relationships is illusory. Both clash with the biblical view of sinful human reality and God’s liberating activity accomplished in Christ.

The present fundamental flaw in the human model requires a new design. The real human problem, highlighted by a class-analysis of society, is the relation between power and freedom.21 Human beings as they are—not touched by Christ’s redemptive power—seek to extend and guard their freedom by gaining power for themselves and using it to curb the challenge of those wishing to share their freedom. This power, however, corrupts (because of fear and self-assertion). Those who wield it can only maintain their supposed freedom by propagating lies and restricting by force threats to their security.

From a biblical perspective true freedom can only be enjoyed by those who renounce all counterfeit versions (i.e. the idea that freedom is the absence of restriction on belief, choice and activity either by divine or human agencies), cast themselves upon the forgiving, merciful grace of God and avail themselves of the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice for sin. Such a view always has and will continue to have powerful, revolutionary implications for the way society should operate.


  1. General remarks

The origins of the caste system in India are lost in the mists of time. It seems likely, however, that it began as a result of the conquest of other peoples by the Aryan invaders during the first millennium bc. As far as can be known, there was no caste system among either the Dravidian people (the largest pre-Aryan racial group) or the tribal peoples. The Aryans probably did not practise caste separation amongst themselves either.

These presumptions have led some to detect a racist background to the development of caste. A. Beteille writes:

Traditionally, fair skin-colour has been associated with the ‘Aryans’ from whom the Brahmins claim descent … Fair skin-colour and features of a certain type have a high social value … in the whole of India.22

This view is given further substance by a quotation from the Mahabharata, an epic of the middle of the first millennium bc, in which the four main castes are said to have different coloured skins.23 Such a belief clearly exaggerates, as shades of skin-colour are not easily separable into well-defined groups. However, the racial element is powerfully present in traditional customs regulating marriage. The strict requirement that marriage only take place within the same caste suggests an attempt to preserve racial purity. This is bound up with the belief that one’s birth into a particular caste is regulated by karma:

The idea of desserts is associated with birth in a particular caste. A man is born in a high caste because of the good actions performed by him in his previous life and another is born into a low caste because of bad actions.24

Almost every commentator on the caste system agrees that it is inextricably bound up with certain notions found only in Hindu systems of belief. For example,

A man who accepts the caste system and the rules of his particular sub-caste is living according to dharma, while a man who questions them is violating dharma … If he observes the rules of dharma, he will be born in his next incarnation in a high caste, rich, whole and well endowed. If he does not observe them he will be born in a low caste …25

Dharma is a strict code of practice which applies traditional cultural norms.

The most easily recognizable feature of the caste system is the emphasis on purity and pollution:

Contact of any kind, touching, dining, sex and other relations between castes … results in the higher of the two castes being polluted … The polluted member of the higher caste has to undergo a purificatory rite in order to be restored to normal ritual status.26

Theoretically the distinctions and discriminations based on caste are due more to ritual than to social status. Caste differentiation, then, cannot be neatly linked to differences in wealth or power.27 In practice, however, this rigidly unegalitarian system has been used to foster and maintain relations of exploitation.28 This is particularly true for the fifth caste peoples variously called ‘outcasts’, ‘untouchables’, ‘Harijans’ (children of God, the name Gandhi gave them), ‘Panchamars’ and ‘Dalits’ (broken or oppressed people, the name they give themselves).

The Dalits feel very strongly that the caste system operates continually against their struggle to improve their opportunities in society. They also believe that the main sanction for persistent inequality is the Hindu religion.29 Dr Ambedkar who assumed leadership of the depressed classes in the 1920s believed that the caste system could only be ended when Hinduism itself was massively rejected by the people.

There are, however, other forces at work undermining the caste system. The impact of Christian faith has been well documented by Duncan Forrester.30 Egalitarian ideas were particularly strong amongst the early ‘dissenter’ (or non-conformist) missionaries from England, who resented the discriminatory apparatus of class in their own homeland, and among American missionaries influenced by the ideas of the universal rights of mankind. Criticism of the caste system has also occurred among reforming Hindus (such as Keshub Chandra Sen, Vivekananda and Gandhi). The latter two, however, along with Radhakrishna, never questioned the fundamental bulwarks of caste, namely the hereditary principle, endogamy (marriage within the caste) and rules governing social intercourse. At the most, they were critical of the present shape of caste (in particular, untouchability—Gandhi), but not the occupational divisions of society based on birth. Radhakrishna in his book, Hindu View of Life (1927), justifies the existing social order on the basis that caste occupation eliminates competition and therefore reduces conflict. Later, however, in Eastern Religions and Western Thought, he comes to the conclusion that caste no longer fits modern society.31

It was those Indians who broke with Hinduism by fully accepting secularist (and sometimes Marxist) views who most vehemently attacked the whole edifice of caste. One such was E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker32 who believed that the traditional caste system, dominated by Brahmins, was the root cause of exploitation, inhumanity and slavery. He campaigned fiercely for the rights of women, in particular for an end to the culturally enforced widowhood.

It is, perhaps, the arrival of a society adapted to technological advance which will ultimately have the biggest impact on caste practice. Physical separation is more difficult to achieve in an urban than in a rural environment. It is interesting to note that pollution through physical contact was first challenged when Hindu women began to go to Christian hospitals for delivery of their babies. Doctors, nurses and orderlies had to touch people of other castes. Divisions based on occupation break down in modern society, because the division of labour is far more widely spread. Strong cultural forces still promote the system of arranged marriages and the accompanying practice of giving dowry. So-called love marriages are the exception, though increased social mobility (not least work overseas) may make it more likely in the future.

  1. Biblical evidence

As there seem to be good grounds for suspecting that racism is a major factor in caste separation the same biblical arguments concerning race apply here also. In addition questions of ritual, purity and contamination, and Jesus’ intention to create a universal, eschatological people of God seem appropriate.

a. Purity and pollution

At the time of Jesus ritual acts of purity had a deep religious significance. Two groups of people who felt a special vocation to halt the religious indifference of the Jewish nation—the Pharisees and the Essenes—emphasized the symbolic acts by which pollution was avoided. Behind the sharp controversy recorded in Mark 7:1–13 there is a world of religious observances. The Pharisees, however, were not merely trying to show the superiority of their righteousness over that of other Jews. As Jeremiah states, ‘they set out to represent the priestly people of salvation at the end time’.33 They were consciously seeking to obey the God of their fathers by being a people dedicated to holiness. They liked most to call themselves ‘the separated ones’.

The Essenes carried separation to much greater lengths. They surpassed all other groups in maintaining themselves free of all compromise with those they considered law-breakers and unclean: Gentiles, the common people (who by definition were ignorant of the law), diseased people, even those with slight physical blemishes. Monastic communities with strict regulations for entry were the logical conclusion of this particularist view of righteousness.

Jesus, in contrast, went out of his way to cross those barriers and boundaries which separated people on grounds of religious purity. The contrast between Jesus and all attempts at forming a ‘remnant’ group emerges at one quite definite point: separation from outsiders.’34

The conflict between the religious consciousness of Pharisee and Essene and Jesus’ programme of the kingdom has to do with liberation from sin that cuts off from the life of God. Those who cast themselves in the mould of the ‘holy remnant’ saw religious observances as an end in themselves. They became the guarantee of God’s favour and acceptance. This attitude led to a concentration on the details of oral tradition (the halakah), which were intended to avoid the possibility of breaking the great commandments.

The most crucial result of this approach to holiness was the inability to understand grace and receive forgiveness. Simon, the Pharisee, knows about forgiveness. But he does not know what it means for himself. Grace, which comes through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17), was the principle that shaped all that Jesus said and did. Declaring all food to be clean (Mk. 7:19; cf. Rom. 14:14; Col. 2:20–23) was radical by any standards of contemporary religious practice (and remains so for many religious traditions today). Associating himself with every category of those the holy men considered outcast was proof that he understood God’s will in sharp contrast to other teachers of the time.

Jesus’ willingness to eat with ‘publicans and sinners’ (Mk. 2:15–17) was the most categorical statement that traditional religious views of purity and pollution were now finished. Yet this kind of table-fellowship was the essence of the kingdom (Lk. 22:15–16). It signified that religious discrimination was abolished: ‘when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind’ (Lk. 14:13 with Lk. 14:15, 21–24).35 Moreover, Jesus’ willingness to touch and be touched physically by those generally considered unclean demonstrated further his absolute opposition to conventional norms of religious behaviour (dharma?) (cf. Lk. 5:12–13; 7:38–39; 8:43–44).

b. The founding of a new community

Caste, as we have seen, finds justification in certain aspects of Hindu belief and practice. It has been part of a way of life going back at least 2,500 years. One is a Hindu when born into a family which shares this long cultural heritage. One is born, then, into a particular caste, making the accident of birth determine one’s religious way of life, status in the community and ritual purity or uncleanness.

The Christian view is entirely different. The conviction that all people have been created equal in dignity and status and that birth gives no ground for claiming either superiority or essential natural differences is confirmed by the kind of community of disciples Jesus formed. Hinduism has no equivalent to the position of the church in Christian belief. The church is that community of people who belong to the new age and are called to practise its values in the midst of the age passing away. Hinduism has no concept of kairos, of a decisive moment when God acts in the world to do a new thing (Is. 43:19; 48:6; Mk. 1:15; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 4:4; 6:15). The idea that God is directing history towards a final goal and that the church is an essential part of his total plan of salvation sets apart Hindu and Christian.

The reality and meaning of this new community of the Messiah is in direct conflict with every division between people based on the hazard of birth. The most characteristic activity of Jesus was that he associated with every kind of person, especially the outsiders.36 His followers, likewise, are expected to open themselves indiscriminately to all people. Jesus turned to those excluded by the ‘remnant theology’ of the Pharisees and Essenes and expects his followers to do the same.

Paul, using different language, affirms the same reality of the Messianic community when he states that the consequences of being in Christ are the end of distinctions based on ethnic differences, religious or political privilege, gender, education, technological achievement or cultural traditions (Rom. 10:12; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27–28; Col. 3:11; cf. Jn. 17:11, 21, 23; Eph. 4:4–6). To go on living as if these distinctions were crucially important denies Christ’s work of reconciliation and empties it of all significance (Eph. 2:14–19).


In a biblical perspective the existence of racist attitudes, class antagonism and caste distinctions are the manifestation of fear and insecurity. These result in an aggressiveness which seeks to exclude others from sharing privileges or contact.

Fear divides, isolates and creates hostility. It generates distance and alienation. It is incompatible with the love of Christ, for, by definition, love operates only when fear is absent (1 Jn. 4:18–19). Love, therefore, integrates, brings close (Eph. 2:12–13) and casts out all suspicion and prejudice.

Love is expressed by doing to others what we would like them to do to us (Mt. 7:12), by giving ourselves in sacrificial service to those in need and, above all, by caring for those who verbally and violently abuse us (Lk. 6:27–31).

Our convictions about God and the world he has made cannot tolerate separations and exclusions based on skin-colour, the ownership of wealth, or communal discrimination. On the other hand, love rejoices at the diversity of human life wherever this expresses the fulness and complementary nature of all God’s creatures.

Christ’s love is a vocation to a new way of being human. Those who wish to follow him are challenged to separate themselves from sin (in particular pride, arrogance, exploitation and false piety), but never from the world (i.e. from other people—cf. Jn. 17:15–16; 1 Cor. 5:10). Conventional religion reduces life to a careful system of laws and customs. This is the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, not of the kingdom (Mt. 5:20). Moral duties are limited to isolated acts of goodness. They are minimum requirements designed to fulfil the obligations expected by one’s religious community. God’s grace through Jesus, which makes the kingdom possible, is not intended primarily to enable individuals to find emotional or social security within their own small world, but to be free of fear and false evaluations of others in order to carry through costly acts of generosity, reconciliation and healing.

1 The relation between racial discrimination and caste is discussed later in this article. That discussion suggests that notions of ethnic superiority are not confined to contemporary times. Nevertheless, the theoretical legitimation of discrimination is a recent phenomenon.

2 Cf. M. Haralambos with R. Heald, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (Slough: University Tutorial Press, 1981), pp. 24–97.

3 Cf. D. Forrester, Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India (London: Curzon Press, 1980).

4 J. A. Baker, Race and the Bible (London, 1984).

5 Cf. R. Clements, Old Testament Theology (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1978), pp. 79–87.

6 Cf. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1965), pp. 70–72.

7 Cf. P. Richard, ‘Biblical Theology of Confrontation with Idols’ in P. Richard et al., The Idols of Death and the God of Life: a Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1983).

8 John de Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 71.

9 Ibid., p. 12.

10 ‘Report on Race Relations’ to The Reformed Ecumenical Synod (1968).

11 Ibid.

12 ‘Race Relations’, Minority Report to The Reformed Ecumenical Synod (1968).

13 ‘Report on Race Relations’, ibid.

14 John de Gruchy, op. cit., p. 75, quoting J. J. F. Durand, ‘Bible and Race: the Problem of Hermeneutics’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 24 (Sept. 1978), p. 8.

15 John de Gruchy, op. cit., p. 76, summarizing an argument of B. Johanson, ‘Race, Mission and Ecumenism: Reflections on the Landman Report’, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 10 (March 1975), p. 60.

16 Op. cit.

17 Introducing Sociology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 301.

18 Cf. further T. Hanks, God So Loved the Third World (New York: Orbis Books, 1983), pp. 3–39.

19 This is a view which Brian Griffiths seems to adopt when he says, ‘In the West capitalism has proved to be an efficient economic system yet it seems to have lost its legitimacy. Historically this was provided by a Judaeo-Christian world-view which emphasized a service of individual responsibility and justified the economic inequalities which result from the workings of the market place’ (Morality and the Market Place, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982, p. 125). In my judgment he is wrong on two counts. Firstly, he confuses biblical justice with natural justice. The first says, ‘to everyone according to their needs’; the second, ‘to everyone according to their desserts’. Secondly, real life does not substantiate the assumption that there is a necessary correlation between the distribution of rewards and either a person’s talent or his importance to society. The highest paid people in modern capitalist societies are not the greatest contributors to the production of wealth—namely, pop and film stars and sports celebrities.

20 R. Dowley, Towards the Recovery of a Lost Bequest: a Layman’s Notes on the biblical pattern for a just community (London: ECUM, 1984).

21 Cf. J. Miguez, Towards a Christian Political Ethics (London: SCM, 1983), pp. 87–99.

22 ‘Caste in a South India Village’ in A. Beteille et al., Social Inequality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 276. Caste was also associated from an early period with different occupations.

23 Cf. K.M. Sen, Hinduism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 28.

24 M.N. Srinivas, ‘The Caste System in India’ in A. Beteille, op. cit., pp. 266–267.

25 Ibid., p. 267, cf. also M.N. Srinivas, Caste and Other Essays and J. Hutton, Caste in India.

26 M.N. Srinivas, op. cit., p. 267.

27 L. Dumont, ‘Caste, Racism and Stratification: Reflections of a Social Anthropologist’ in Beteille, op. cit., pp. 352–354.

28 Cf. Somen Das, ‘Christian Response to some selected movements for Social Change in India in the 19th and 20th centuries’ in V. Samuel and C. Sugden, The Gospel among our Hindu Neighbours (Bangalore: PIM, 1983), p. 42.

29 Cf. A. Rajagopal, ‘The Scheduled Castes’ Struggle for Justice’ in The Pursuit of Truth and the Scheduled Castes (Bangalore Theological Forum 2, 1982).

30 Ibid. Cf. also Amelot Pavadas, The Indian Church in the Struggle for a New Society (Bangalore: NBCLC).

31 Forrester, op. cit., pp. 157–168.

32 Cf. Somen Das, op. cit., pp. 34–36.

33 New Testament Theology, vol I: The Proclamation of Jesus (London: SCM, 1971), p. 144.

34 Ibid., p. 174.

35 Paul, apparently, saw the radical consequences of the gospel with regard to this issue more clearly than Peter (Gal. 2:11ff.). He also rebuked Gentile Christians for a sense of superiority over Jews (Rom. 11:17ff.).

36 Cf. J.A. Kirk, A New World Coming (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1983), pp. 100–102.

Andrew Kirk

Andrew Kirk is Dean and Head of the Department of Mission in the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham UK.