Douglas Jacoby, Washington DC (1993)
(recommended by Russ Ewell, San Francisco)
Prejudice is ugly and widespread, knowing no borders. Yet even more detestable is the use of biblical authority to justify racism. Through the centuries there have always been those who have used religion to gain their own selfish ends. Systemic exploitation and oppression are an all-too-familiar pattern globally, typically those with the power abusing, dehumanizing, or taking advantage of those without the same power. Scriptures have been wrested from their context and made to support countless creeds of convenience and crass self-interest. And the wounded: they number in the millions from victims of children's taunts to victims of "ethnic cleansing." They are found in every nation of the world and despite the common claim of professing Christians that they "love their neighbor as themselves" little if anything is done.
Below is an exposé of twisted racist reasoning to help us deal with rationalized ugliness—wherever it rears its head.
I. CURSE OF HAM
The "curse of Ham" is probably the most common racist argument made from the Bible. Slaveholders and some missionaries taught that Shem, Ham & Japheth represent the races of Whites, Blacks & Asians. The reasoning presumes that Jesus was white, though this is incredible, since people in the Near East aren't white! Ham was black, so it is claimed. Gen 9.18 says he was the ancestor of the Canaanites whom God said to annihilate. This obviously leads to genocide, slavery and outright exploitation.
Noah cursed Canaan Ham's son for his perversity, which continued in the Canaanite people. And the false argument goes that blacks are still cursed—which explains their poverty and struggles. The visible mark of the curse is dark skin. This argument has been leveled against Native Americans and other non-white minority groups. In the southern United States the "Curse of Ham" argument is still widespread.
As another of many possible examples illustrating the consequences of this unfortunate doctrine, consider the case of the Mormons. Mormon leaders had always taught the inferiority of blacks. Brigham Young for example wrote: "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man, who belongs to the chosen seed, mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty under the law of God, is death on the spot" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p.110, 1854-1886). Until June 1978, when a "revelation" came to the current Mormon president, Spencer Kimball, Latter Day Saints barred blacks from the priesthood, since they were under the "curse of Ham." Bowing to increasing civil rights pressure, the Mormons conveniently received the "revelation" and changed their policy.
Ham had four sons mentioned in the Bible:
- Cush: A nation roughly corresponding to modern Sudan
- Mizraim: Ancestor of peoples including Philistines. Also the Heb. word for "Egypt"
- Put: More obscure group of peoples, probably North African.
- Canaan: Ancestor of morally degenerate Canaanite tribes
The Hamitic peoples are explicitly said to be descendants of Ham, but the curse applies specifically only to the Canaanites—a curse realized intensively during the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Once again it wasn't Ham who was cursed but his son, Canaan. So-called Christians using this passage to justify racism show an appalling prejudice, as well as ignorance of the biblical text.
The "curse of Ham" is not a curse on Hamitic peoples, like the Egyptians, but a curse on one part of the Hamitic peoples who (oddly enough) weren't black at all! The curse became reality as the Canaanite nations sank deeper and deeper into apathy, immorality and godlessness—even to child sacrifice. Eventually God commissioned the Israelites to totally remove them from the land.
God is Judge, and he has the right to determine how he will carry out his judgments. But we have no such insight, and no such right. Most important, there's no connection between Hamites or Canaanites and Black Africans! The passage has conveniently been lifted from its context to support racist self-interest.
II. "ADAM" WHITE MAN
Since "Adam" in Hebrew means both "mankind" and "red," and since blacks and other races don't generally have pinkish skin, non-whites are not human beings. They belong to the animal kingdom, but they have no soul. Obviously, then, to claim that non-whites have equal rights with whites is unreasonable.
Who would teach such a doctrine? It was long a stock argument of the Dutch Reformed Church, especially in South Africa. Additional "proof" is claimed in that "Edom," another name for Esau, as well as for the nation of which he is ancestor, means "red, ruddy," and that this is the same word as that for "man."
We're dealing with two different words in Hebrew. They have the same consonants (d, m) but different vowels (a, a vs. a, o), and they're listed separately in the Hebrew lexicon: (' is a consonant Aleph.) The confusion arises because Hebrew words are normally written without vowels.
'adham = man, mankind
'adhamah = the ground from which man was made.
'adhom = red, as the skin color of Esau. From an obsolete word meaning "tawny."
As an illustration of our unfamiliarity with Hebrew, take the English words fever and favor. The consonants are the same (f, v, r) but the vowels are different (e, e vs. a, o). Are the two words related? No; but if you took out the vowels (Hebrew was written without vowels) they could be confused. So it is with the adham/adhom confusion.
Along the lines of the thinking above, some people reason that since God created man "in his image," and yet we see human beings of many different physical appearances, only one race was created in the image of God. Colored peoples (Indian, Mongolian, Negro, Melanesian etc) are thus not truly created in God's image.
But the image of God is a spiritual image, not a physical one. His spiritual image is normally thought to include such aspects as spirituality, moral capacity, forgiveness, and abstract reasoning. Being (or bearing) his image also means we are his representatives on the planet.
God is beyond our concept of physical "image" because he is beyond our three-dimensional universe. Moreover, Jesus being Semitic would fail to qualify since Semites aren't a white race. (The reasoning also contradicts Colossians 1.15, which says Jesus is the image of the invisible God.)
III. EXODUS & CONQUEST
This powerful Old Testament motif has been used many times by professing Christians. One example is the colonization of America and Africa by Europeans, led out of the "slavery" of the Old World to the "freedom" of the New World.
Along with the exodus and settling in the new "promised" land comes the extermination, if necessary, of the aboriginal peoples, just as God instructed the Israelites to purge Canaan of its sinful inhabitants (Deuteronomy 9).
This doctrine shows a misunderstanding of the difference between the union of church and state under the old covenant and the separation of church and state under the new. The church is a people, a race, a nation—but not a geographical people an ethnic race or a political nation!
Those who espouse this teaching fall into the same trap of arrogance God had warned the Israelites about (Deuteronomy 9.4-6) forgetting that this was a limited one-time commission. For Old Testament Israel, actions against other towns or countries were not analogous to the Conquest of Canaan, as Deuteronomy 20 clearly teaches.
When extermination is condoned, any lesser crime is also condoned: slavery, torture, physical abuse, denial of other human rights and basic needs. This is vividly familiar to us in the colonization of the Americas: disrespect for the lives of native Americans, appropriation of their lands, frequent massacres and final isolation in "reservations." In fact, the tale could be told hundreds of times, illustrated from every continent and repeated every century in one form or another.
Racism is always inexcusable, and any attempt to rationalize it from the Bible is doomed to fail because God is "the righteous judge" (2 Timothy 4.8). He is love (1 John 4.8) and with him there is no favoritism (Acts 10.34). He hates oppression and he will oppose the proud. That means we must use the Bible correctly, not to pacify "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4.3). Let our conviction be that of the Bible, as we respect our fellow human beings:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3.28).
This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 1993, 2003. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.