By Jonathan Storment
I think it’s interesting that the Bible never hints at what race Adam and Eve were. When the first human is introduced into the story he is simply called ’ādām, which means “humankind.” Their “race” is not identifiable; Adam and Eve are neither black or white, they’re not even Jews.
The division of humankind into nations and races isn’t even mentioned until Genesis 10, and even then none are presented as superior to another.
Genesis is emphasizing, unlike all other ancient religions, that the image of God is in everyone, not just the kings or queens, or the elite classes, but in every single human being.
But not everyone throughout history has read it that way.
Louis Agassiz was a widely respected Swiss biologist back in the 19th century. And he argued that black people were not actually descendants of Adam and Eve but a separate species altogether. He believed that the book of Genesis, and specifically the creation of the first humans was really something that applied “Chiefly…to the history of the white race, with special reference to the history of the Jews.”
Agassiz was a Christian, and the son of a pastor, who said that he wasn’t trying to justify racism, just trying to do present the scientific and theological facts as he saw them.
This was the way that the Bible was used and abused by many white Christians for several hundred years. And it had, as you might guess, horrific implications.
No less than the Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens said in his famous Cornerstone address that the whole Confederacy rests on the fact that ““that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
He went on to say, “The negro by nature, or by the Curse against Canaan…is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system…. It is best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another in glory.”*
Growing up in the South in the 1980’s, I heard this idea from a few different people who sincerely believed that when God cursed Canaan for murder and placed a mark on him that this was the origin of the black race.
Churches of Christ great strength is that we submit to the Bible. We believe it is the Testament of King Jesus and we are His people. But an honest reading of the Bible realizes that this is not what Genesis is saying. If anything, it’s undermining the a basic and very revolutionary part of Genesis.
In its day, Genesis would have been shockingly counter-cultural because the ancient world believed only the rulers were made in the image of god. Genesis is a radical democratization of who are God’s image bearers.
With This Faith
Last week, I wrote about how science was co-opted in racism through the Eugenics project, but to me the much more troublesome truth is the way Christianity was used to re-inforce the evils of slavery and racism in the deep South.
But maybe you know, that globally and historically speaking, that was only a small group of Christians. Maybe you know that the Church across the world condemned slavery early on, especially the Catholic Church.
Maybe you know that while psuedo-theology/science in American and England was developing ways to justify using people as tools there were, at the same time Christians all over the world who were fighting to remind us of who God really is and that we would all one day stand before Him.
In the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s a place where Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I have a dream …” Most of us have heard this part. “… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
But did you know that just a little later in the paragraph, he says, “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
With what faith?
The very same faith that had often been used to oppress them.
One of the things that makes me think Christianity isn’t just some socially constructed thing is that when slave owners taught their slaves Christianity they thought it would make them more submissive and compliant, instead what happened is that it gave them a hope for freedom.
They read the same Bible as the people who claimed to own them and knew that this was a God who was on the side of the oppressed.
Tim Keller points out that Dr. King did not say to white Christians, “Racism is wrong because everybody has to be free to follow their dream.” He got up and said, “Racism is wrong because the God of the universe, the Rock, the unchanging, just God says it’s wrong, and you’re not listening to him.”
Dr. King didn’t tell white Christians to get less religious, to become secular, leave the church and become liberal and liberated.
He told them to listen to the very Bible their ancestors had once put in the hands of slaves.
Church as A New Race of People
So every January, there is a Monday in America which the mail doesn’t run, and many of us have a vacation day because of a preacher from Alabama who gave his life in ministry, Dr. King would say later in life that he saw his primary identity as a preacher of the Gospel.
He did what he did in service to Jesus and the church.
I want you to know that this runs deeper than just one good man, it runs deeper than even just a few hundred good churches.
Before Dr. King, many of you don’t know of a man named John Woolman, he was a Quaker who lived in the 1600’s
Woolman was a entrepreneurial businessman who probably did as much as anyone in America to bring to an end slavery…and chances are you’ve never heard of him.
I read his journal a few years ago, at the beginning of his diary, Woolman realized that he had fallen away from meetings and he recommitted himself to gathering with the other Quakers.
Because he realized that he was becoming a kind of person he didn’t like. He knew that he was gathering with/spending time with the wrong people, and if he wanted to hear the voice of God he needed to be with people who knew how to hear Him.
So he went, and heard from God in more ways than he’d hoped for.
He noticed that some of his fellow Quakers held slaves, and that bothered him…a lot.
So he started privately taking these brothers and sisters aside and sharing his concerns. I want you to think about the courage this took, back in the day, many in the abolitionist movement were very harsh and judgmental, they would shout their angry condemnation of slavery from a distance, but not Woolman. Which is why he was so effective.
He didn’t believe you could love people in theory, but only the actual people in front of you, and out of concern for them, and for the people they thought they owned, Woolman spoke for God.
He went all over the country, and everytime he’d go to the Quaker meeting house, they’d all sit for hour(s) of silence, and then when God would give Woolman a word he’d say it.
And it worked.
Here’s something that Woolman said repeatedly:
These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being who is no respecter of persons…I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony. I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of heaven without speaking to it.
Eventually, the 1780 Slavery Abolition act become official, and it comes from the tiny little Quaker colony called Pennsylvania, that was shaped by a business man who was moved by the voice of God.
Yes, in the name of God many people have promoted and reinforced the myth of white superiority. But it was also in the name of God that this myth was and is being deconstructed and revealed for the lie that it is.
It is with this faith that a Quaker spoke for God and told his friends that these people were family, not chattel.
It is the faith of the slaves that taught the slave-owners that God never made second-class variations of His image.
It was with this faith that a preacher from Alabama stood up to the racism of his day, and it this faith that is calling all of those who hold to it today to do the same.*Quotation taken from book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas-Brown