Racism and our faith
By Nathan Decker
“Racism isn’t natural, it’s taught. Stop teaching it.”
– Meme on Facebook
One of my mentors, Dr. Steve Plymale, taught Gospels and New Testament at Virginia Union University: a white professor teaching at a traditionally all-black Seminary. On one of his final exams he offered a bonus question: name a white character in the Gospels. Hard to think of one isn’t it? According to the scholar, only Pontius Pilate comes close, and he’s probably Italian.
We tend to read the Bible from our historical, social and cultural context. When we read “chosen people,” we include ourselves. When I and others, as white Americans, read “slave,” we automatically color their skin dark. We do this even though neither of these are true. The chosen people were Hebrew and later Jewish. Slave in the Bible has nothing to do with skin color.
Because of the time frame when the Bible was written, the Bible is inherently tribalistic. God chooses one tribe out of all humanity to be the ‘chosen people.’ Not only that, but the Chosen People are to remain pure by avoiding marrying other tribes. Sound racist?
When I was coming into the faith as a teen and in college, I was taught racism using the Bible. I was told the mark of Cain was the reason some people are black, punishment for Cain killing Abel. Noah’s sons were described as the reason we have white, Asian and black with the last one being cursed since he had accosted his drunk father after the flood. The book of Ezra was lifted up as an example of building a strong and faithful nation by abiding by the rule that you should not marry outside of your own kind. None of these truly represents a good reading of the text but instead is abuse of the text, justifying our own broken behavior.
Yes, the Bible is tribalistic, but no, that does not give us license to participate in the sin of racism. Other texts teach us that God is a God who reaches far beyond the Chosen People. Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, is saved from the devastation and becomes a part of the nation. The whole purpose of the book of Ruth is to tell us a story of a foreigner who becomes King David’s great-grandmother and one of the ancestors of Jesus. The prophet Jonah is sent to preach condemnation to Israel’s enemies only to become (rather absurdly and reluctantly) the vessel through which they receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. And I haven’t even started on the New Testament where Paul magnificently writes “in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”
Our history has also taught us to be racist. Aristotle began teaching the Greeks that they were superior to the barbarians. Greeks were smarter and more suited for philosophy while the barbarians were suited for labor. Romans felt it was their job to conquer and bring law and order to the nations filled with savages. This concept of a “ruling class” became a huge part of the rising monarchies of Europe. By the time Western Civilization embarked on colonizing the world, there was no question in anyone’s mind that the European and most specifically, Anglo-Saxon, was the highest form of humanity. Everyone else was seen as being lesser to varying degrees and none lesser than the African who we enslaved.
One of my history teachers once said, “American history is the history of persecuting the last one off the boat or the one with the darkest skin.” We are the only nation in the history of the world who codified that those descending from Africa were less than human. We even specified it in a fraction, three fifths. And we did it in the Constitution of the U.S. The industry and might of America was built upon the shoulders of slaves, minorities and anyone else who could be “put in their place.” We as a nation are still struggling with thousands of years of wrong thinking, horrid assumptions and gross caricatures.
Yes, we have come a long way. The Civil War was a victory over the institution of slavery. The Civil Right’s movement was a victory over the systematic legalization of discrimination. But just because we’ve had a black president doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do. Generations were taught the lie of racism, it will take generations to teach the truth of inclusion with diversity.
Contrary to Aristotle’s opinion, science teaches us the difference in skin tones do not reflect differences in intellectual or physical ability. “There is no race but the human race.” The concept of race is usually used to describe other ways we are different. How are we really dividing ourselves? We come from different ethnic groups. We come from different cultures and even subcultures. America is blessed to be made up of thousands of different cultures. When we are at our best, we are not a melting pot boiling everything down to one flavor, but instead we are a tossed salad where every bite is a little different. At our worst we are tribes and parties vying for power. There is nothing sinful about a black man marrying a white woman. The same is true for Native Americans, Asians, Arabs and on and on and on.
Our faith teaches us to look to Jesus. One story, however, if often problematic. In the the Gospel of Mark, a Syro-phoenecian woman comes to Jesus asking for a miracle for her daughter. Jesus makes a comment about “stealing bread from the children and giving it to the dogs.” No matter who we are, we mishear the words of Jesus. If we look at the text the way the community of Mark would, without the modern understanding that tribalism is wrong or a theological assumption that Jesus is perfect, we find Jesus admiring clever response and learning to broaden the movement. We rarely can hear it that way. If you are a supremacist you just found your favorite story of Jesus. If you are like me and want Jesus to welcome everyone, this is a difficult text.
Thankfully, there are other texts. John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I have other sheep you don’t know about” referring to the Gentiles. Mark’s gospel where the Gentiles always are depicted as being faithful while the insiders always seem to have it wrong, especially the Twelve. Luke’s gospel where heroes can be centurions, women, lepers and Samaritans. Matthew’s gospel where the ones who understand who Jesus is at his birth are foreigners.
Our faith teaches us that love, grace and mercy are the highest lessons God has ever taught us. He did so in the form of Jesus Christ. Today, Pentecost Sunday, is a celebration that this Good News of salvation is to be shared with every nation, every tribe, every tongue. Racism has no place in the Christian. A heart freed by Christ can not enslave another human being. Amen.
NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 562-3367.