Countries make grand resolutions towards achieving unity without real change. Churches know that racism and discrimination are wrong, but they persist among some of its members. The modern society’s ideal of a multi-cultural global world is desirable but collapsing (as the current mobs and riots on race prove). Groups protect their power and maintain their privileges, labelling others who are not like them. People shield their identity, creating divisions, using the accepted standards of a predominant culture or subculture to ridicule others, thus forcing partisanship and distancing.
In Ephesians 2:1, Paul states that the Gentile converts were dead in their trespasses and sins; in Ephesians 2:11, Paul shows that death and sin manifest more clearly in our interaction with others. Sin can be so entrenched in our culture, worldview, and behavior, that it becomes systemic. Anyone can easily be oblivious to the ongoing hostility happening around us, despite it being experienced at every stage of life, from kids in schools, all the way through to the elderly in care homes. This sinful hostility doesn’t only differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’; it polarizes, satanizes, and ultimately diminishes other people’s worth based on our differences and functions: Jewish vs Gentiles, blacks vs whites, those from the city vs those from the village, rich vs poor, left-wing vs right-wing, employees vs employers.
In Ephesians 2:11, Paul addresses the audience as those who were ‘called uncircumcision by those called the circumcision’. The Jews create a category based on a practice or mark (circumcision) and reject others because of their absence of it. The whole idea of reducing a group to a ‘defining property’ is itself offensive. It is absurd to define individuals, endowed with skills, gifts, beauty, and brilliance, by a single trait, mark, or feature. Paul situates this way of thinking and behaving in the past. Being hostile is a pre-Christian way of life, totally incompatible with the new thing that God did in Christ.
The new humanity
God did a new thing in Christ: He destroyed the wall of hostility, set aside the law, created a new humanity, and made peace. Christ achieves unity by moving the audience from one story and sphere (Israel and its ethnic practices) to one of spiritual inclusion based on Christ’s blood (Eph 2:13). Far from Christ taking sides between the Gentiles and the Jews, he creates a new reality in which ‘one plus one equals one’ makes perfect sense. The author states that they are ‘one’ as an entity (a number), not merely as a principle (the importance of unity).
In the Greco-Roman world, the male figure, a ‘man’ was the prototype member of the category ‘human’. He represented what it meant to be a human, whereas women were not as human, nor were children. As presented by some elements of the social justice movement, the current prototype is a heterosexual, Christian, white male. Seeking a redistribution of justice implies that minorities or factions should also enjoy the privileges of the elite group, of which riots and aggressive discourse are a modern version of the old problem of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Paul argues that Christ redefines what it means to be human. Firstly, Christ is the prototype member that every individual, both female and male, within his community, should aspire to be. Secondly, a human or person is someone for whom Christ died, and Christ died for the entire human race — one multi-cultural, polychrome, and multilingual race.
According to Ephesians 2:14-18, Jews and Gentiles needed reconciliation; both required peace. Therefore, Christ becomes the new reality from which the new relationships originate and are sustained. Thus, in a world divided by social classes and questions of ethnicity, the people of God, are not ‘you’ and ‘they’ but ‘us’, ‘brothers’, ‘family’, and ‘saints’.
Ephesians 2:20-22 speaks of a foundation that doesn’t eradicate cultural differences but changes what lies at the base. These distinctions are no longer determining factors in how we believers see ourselves and relate to others. Christ is their cornerstone, and the apostles and prophets proclaim their new reality ‘in Christ’.
In the version of the Gospel that was first presented to me, reconciliation was necessary in terms of God–humans: believe in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you can go to heaven. As a second-order issue, you should forgive your brother/sister for the harm they have done. However, the divine perspective embedded in the letter to the Ephesians is unsettling; it affirms that our horizontal reconciliation has the same weight, is at the same level, and is equally relevant as our vertical reconciliation. Unless God’s church embodies (not only quotes) the reality Ephesians 2:11-22 envisages, we will not see an end to any form of discrimination, social violence, or injustice, among God’s people. It is a firm apprehension of this truth that will lead Christians to protect the bond of peace, to walk in love, to see the other as a member of him or herself, and ultimately to avoid any behavior that violates the union Christ created.