Monday, June 13, 2011

Religious Roots of Racism

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Christianity could be a major force for racial reconciliation, yet it's track record isn't so hot. Scripture and doctrine have been used to perpetuate and justify racism, and there are consequences  for our modern witness.

We are all familiar with the practice of cherry picking verses to hijack the bible into defending our own views. Certainly, racialized agendas are no exception. It doesn't help, though, that the bible provides no explicit condemnation of slavery, while providing a litany of guidelines that seem to condone the practice. The general scriptural take-away seems to be, 'if you are going to have slaves, here is how you should do it,' which opens the way for statements such as this one:

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America
Although Christians were certainly sold into slavery in the early church, it should not come as a surprise that we preferentially unfettered ourselves as we gained global influence.

One of the most famous examples of biblical justification of racism is the mark of Cain. The story goes that Cain (the first person actually conceived and born on earth) murdered his little brother and tried to cover it up (not easy to do when you are dealing with an omniscient God). God curses Cain, basically saying he won't be able to work for a living. Cain thinks that's a bit rough, and that people will try and kill him as a result. So God 'marks' him so that folks won't kill him. 

To me, this makes the mark sound like a good thing, yet a lot of people understand the mark to be part of the curse. Furthermore, though there is no indication whether mark is physical or metaphysical, some believe the it to be black skin, and that the mark, the curse, and the violent behavior are forever heritable. Yikes! Not such a great reputation with which to start out the entire history of mankind/race relations. 

One of the most popular biblical stories is also the one most often used to justify white racial superiority. After he disembarked from his 40-day cruise, Noah went a little wild in his celebrations, resulting in a bit of indecent exposure whilst passed out on the floor. Noah's son, Ham, walked in on him and saw the display. Rather than covering Noah, Ham went and blabbed all about it. When Noah recovered from his bender, he was not pleased with Ham and so he cursed Ham's son: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). Eventually the Canaanites did indeed become slaves to the Jews, so end of story, right? Nah...

Some claim that people with dark skin descended from Ham, while white folks came from Japheth and Asians came from Shem. Ham's name is thought to translate to 'black /dark,' and his descendants populated North-East Africa (Cush's descendants populated Sudan, Mizraim to Egypt, Phut to Libya, while Canaan's folks went to Israel). Again, the claim here is that both the skin, the curse, and the seedy disposition are heritable.

But of course modern race is so much more complicated than these simple lineages would suggest. We have mixed so much since then that there is little practical justification for such a delineation. Not to mention, it is actually Canaan that is cursed, not his African brothers! 

Although neither the mark of Cain, nor the curse of Ham are often used as justification of racism anymore, these story lines have laid the foundation for modern pseudoscience racism and the belief in heritable social ill based on skin color. Add the many verses in the bible that negatively reference blackness, and positively mention whiteness, and we have a real mess of microaggressive conditioning.  

For example, look at Song of Solomon 1:5-6, famously 'Nigra sum nformosa': I am black, yet lovely. Indeed, it does not read, 'I am black and therefore lovely', or even 'I am black and also lovely,' but rather, 'even though I am black, I am lovely'--in spite of my skin color, I am attractive. All sorts of cultural and translational factors are at play here, yet the message remains, along with a litany of verses that imply similar racial values which can inadvertently reaffirm our modern biases. 

Wait, is that snow blue?
From these verses, stem so many of our modern worship songs and hymns that we hear all the time:

"Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus"

In a racialized world such as ours, we must be careful how we sing about black and white in our sanctuaries (see also 'Jesus Paid It All). Recognize that language has power, and when we sing words like this, we reinforce biases that affect relationships with those around us.

I am not claiming that these verses are the origins of modern racism, nor should we deny/ignore their existence in scripture. Instead, we need to put them in their proper context and have a sensitive understanding about how they are heard with modern ears. Their original meaning is very much in line with the Kingdom, but their current use may not be so in line with God’s will.

Our default, white, Jesus
Religious practice is subject to the same prejudices as any other human institution. Racialized language is all over our general lexicon (white lie, white hats vs black list, black plague ect). It is important to note how much our religious talk still tows this line. We are supposed to stand apart, to offer sanctuary. Instead, we are sluggish to change, and cling to the status quo, regardless of it's hurtful nature.  We ignore the painful nature of these verses, rather than examining them, and discussing them in the context of today's world. 

The consequence is that many marginalized groups in this country have sought solace in secular organizations. Far too many understand the Church as a hostile and unwelcoming organization, rather than one of comfort. Much of this altitude stems from the Church's history with race, it's persistence in continued abrasive behavior, and a lack of a coherent effort to reconcile past hurts

There are many verses that contradict the attitudes that stem from these few examples. Plenty
of scripture that promotes diversity, unity, and reconciliation. So as we go about our worship, let us be mindful of our language. Examine the songs we sing, the pictures we hang, the metaphors we use, the assumptions we carry.

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7 comments:

  1. This is so in lighting I have to share it with my other friends thanks Kate Luv U Jimi

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  2. LittlegoldenlambMay 15, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    Bravo. The American Church will continue to flounder, until we begin understanding the truths found in your blog! Be blessed!

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  3. The "white as snow" is not racist. It comes from Isaiah 1:18. The comment from Song of Solomon 1:5 "could" refer to racism with the Jews toward those of darker skin. But if you keep reading in verse 6 you will see that part of that dark skin was tanning from working in the sun. It does not say "black," either. So it is not good exegesis to say with certainty that it was a racist situation. However, racism is very real. And in the Lord's body it is wrong. (Gal. 3:28)

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  4. Thanks for your response, Roger. You're right that the bible doesn't uses these words in a racial way. I'm not trying to suggest that the bible is racist--indeed, how could the Word of God be such?

    I do think the bible has been used in that way though, and also that in the context of modern ears we much be careful to give context to the words of scripture we quote, just as you have. Otherwise, words of love get mangled into words of hate by our corporate sins of racism.

    I'll see what I can do to clarify this point above.

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  5. I know i am late to the party, but i am so thankful for this blog. that was an excellent post.

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  6. Thank you for your kind words :-)

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