(Note: This is meant to be an overview, not a concise historical account of racism throughout history. It is meant to inspire people to do their own research.)
American exceptionalism has never been just a political claim. The pernicious idea that America was an inherently great country stems from another root of exceptionalism — that of being chosen by God. Over half of America claims to be a ‘Christian’. But, to make this claim is to also be a part of a history of racism, slavery, incest, murder, and genocide. This article explains how racism came into Christianity.
Every idea has a trajectory, a starting point — this is an exploration of what that looks like for the beginnings of a religious system that relies upon an ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking. The God of the Old Testament is a deity who, many times justified ethnic cleansing. However, the Israelites justified this as divine judgment. The whole system of sin is something that separated people from God, which became the very virtue that justified divine sanctioned violence.
The mythology of sin is still used today to defend the language of devaluing people based on whether or not they say a special prayer, that shows up nowhere in the Bible. Although that is not direct racism, it has been used as a tool to spiritually marginalize many.There are other areas in the Bible that justify slavery, and even indiscriminate massacre. A huge issue here can already be seen or heard in the fact that a lot of the theology developed during the time of the Old Testament, was simply put: Confirmation bias united with a superiority complex.
This is not to say that there cannot be or has not been certain aspects of the Christian story that can be used as universal tools for human liberation. In fact, Jesus did not intend Christianity, the apostle Paul however did. To truly understand how race influenced Christianity prior to America becoming an official country, we have t understand the ideas that helped influence and shaped its current manifestation.
ORIGEN & ETHNIC THEOLOGY
Origen was an early Christian scholar who in his work “…disparages certain ethnic groups and develops arguments that connect ethnic identity and geographical location with various degrees of sinfulness. His work offers clear evidence that theories of ethnic inferiority have a long history within the Christian matrix that stretches considerably beyond the modern and medieval periods.” To downplay Origen’s influence on the developments of Eurocentric separatism would be to deny history outright. Benjamin Isaac, (Professor and author of The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity) says this about the trajectory of racism “(he) argued that this common account of racisms historical development is misleading inasmuch as it purports that this sort of thinking was without substantial precedent in earlier centuries. Isaac recognized that new developments took hold in modern Europe with a particular iteration of racism. He (also) argued that racism can already be identified in Hellenistic and classical texts.” This strict tribal exceptionalism may not be a direct form of racism, but the need to hyperfocus on corporate individual value over another tribe eventually did extend into the territory of theological linguistics running from the Torah, and into certain parts of the New Testament.
Until we meet the theology of Jesus of Nazareth and the apostle Paul. Anachronistically, Jesus could easily be categorized as a liberal. from his treatment of women as equal, healing of a homosexual Centurion, and his anti-Roman sarcasm could easily place in the category of a social anarchist. However, its also important to note, that within a tribe its very common to make your heroes look just like you. This is why for so many years, Jesus looked ‘Whiter, Western, and less darker-skinned. Americans wanted a white Jesus so they justify the oppression of darker-skinned groups.
MORMONS & RACISM
A religious subgroup within Christianity nominally referred to as the Mormons, have had a history of white supremacy and racism Embedded within their self-named version of the Bible, the book of Mormon. One such phrase was written by its founder, Joseph Smith, who said: shall be a white and a delightsome people, and up until the 1970s, black people were not allowed to be in positions of authority or influence in the church. Racism has been so entrenched, that even after the Civil Rights movement, churches were still justifying racism within its ranks. Racism is not an issue that was ended just because Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that he was murdered for. It just had found different ways to sublimate itself in and throughout society, like in redlining, or in the workplace or in marriage – where the idea of having a multi-racial couple was still controversial up until the 1990s! This phrase alone is enough to condemn any religion. However, this was informed by a history that preexists the latter-day Saints.
Eurocentric hegemony in the way in which it attempted to justify taking over geographical territories, and converting them to Christianity or Catholicism, was nothing more than just another way to justify racism. Eurocentric practice and ideology were one of Colonialism, Christianity and Commerce. In fact the idea of making indigenous people civilized” including taking over land and/or transporting people and selling them for money. Part of the civilizing process was converting them to Christianity (or Catholicism). In 1884, the Berlin Conference marked the official beginning of colonialism in Africa. One of the justifying principles behind colonialism was the need to civilize the purportedly backward peoples of Africa. Fifteen years following the Berlin Conference, the supposed imperative of civilizing non-whites was expressed in Rudyard Kiplings poem published in 1899 in McClures Magazine entitled White Mans Burden.
“Christianity was one justification that European powers used to colonize and exploit Africa. Through the dissemination of Christian doctrine, European nations such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands sought to educate and reform African culture. In his book A History of Africa,scholar J.D. Fage describes the racially-based logic of European intellectuals and missionaries saying: Mid-and late-nineteenth-century Europeans were generally convinced that their Christian, scientific and industrial society was intrinsically far superior to anything that Africa had produced(Fage 322).
Unfamiliar with the diverse cultures on the continent of Africa, European explorers viewed practices unfamiliar to them as lesser and savage.” This morally-charged version of racism would follow American through to the modern-day, where assumptions and stereotypes about African Americans are perverted into humorous tropes like Black People can’t get a job, or that if Black people just worked harder, then they could experience less oppression and racism. This is to imply a concept borrowed from the Puritanical ethic, which states that to truly earn one’s salvation from God, they need to work harder to earn it.
The truth is, we have a long way to go. Equality can’t be just an idea we talk about it, it has to be applied and lived out. This can’t be something we think about or philosophize, it has to be systematically fought for by all. The Christian church has failed over and over, and if it is to maintain relevance beyond it current Republican category, it has to change drastically. The first step is to realize its direct complicity with perpetuating racism. Or, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr
“…. when it came to issues of justice, the church was often the taillight rather than the headlight in society. By that, he meant that the church often followed along after changes in the racial status quo were already taking place in different areas, from politics to entertainment to corporations, and thats what we often see throughout U.S. history. Though many Christians were actively engaged in struggles for racial equality, they tended to be in the minority.
The majority of white Christians, at least, did change, but only as the national sentiment was already moving toward more openness and more equality. The change was slow and a little reluctant. “
We all hope those who use the moniker can step up and support the very justice it seeks to believe in. Let’s hope the change can be swift and less reluctant this second time around.