The Church, Society and Race: Part 5 (Introducing Racism)

This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 6, part 7, and parts 8a and 8b.
The oft-quoted maxim, “Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it” is not so much a modern construction as a timeless reality. Scripture itself constantly points back to Israel’s history for this very reason. In Psalm 95, for example, after inviting the worshiper to enter God’s presence with a joyful noise, he exhorts them,

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” (Ps. 95:7-9, ESV)

In short, “remember your history – don’t be like your forefathers.”

In Stephen’s famous speech in Acts 7, he gives the religious leaders a history lesson and draws a present-day application: “You’re responding just like your forefathers! Stop it!”

A study of history not only exposes “how we got here,” but provides us with a the crystal clarity of hindsight, exposing beliefs and actions which are easy to judge from our perch in the present, allowing us to see with greater clarity those same patterns appearing in the murkier fog of our contemporary moment.

In this post, we begin a history lesson – a high-level history lesson, to help us to understand how we ended up where we are in our racialized society. I will be focusing on the development of racist structures and ideas from the conception of our nation, to the pre-Civil War era. As we progress, I am going to aim to also highlight ways the church has interacted with these ideas. For after all, as Christians, we are not only affected by culture, but the American church has, in many instances, failed completely to distance itself from culture.

This woefully and insufficiently detailed history is simply meant to get you started thinking about these issues – perhaps motivated to dig further.

What We Mean When We Speak of Race #

We must begin at the beginning. There is a strange tension in the very conversation about racism, for the word, on the one hand, suggests a kind of prejudice against, or advantage toward one group of people by another; of one “race” by another. And yet, the indisputable reality is that there is that humanity is a single race – homo sapiens. There is diversity and superficial difference, to be sure, but at a core biological, genetic and theological level, humanity is vastly more common than different.

From a biblical perspective, this commonality is defined in the key creation text of Genesis 1:26-27:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27, ESV)

As the ruling pinnacle of His creation, God forms mankind. Importantly, He creates mankind in His image – that is, to serve as His under-regents to govern His newly made world as His representatives. In short, “all mankind is royal.”1

Of course, the natural order of things was quickly disrupted by man’s descent into sin. Spiritual and relational harmony were broken and corrupted as mankind abandoned his post as God’s representatives on earth, and instead turned to self-reliance and self-service. And yet, despite this fracture in the created order, Mankind never lost its mandate and identity. For in Genesis 5:1, we read this affirmation of the reality: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God…” And in 9:6, God holds humanity accountable for the taking of another’s life, explaining that “God made man in his own image.” In short, we see, from the earliest of texts, both the inherent value and equality of being human.

The Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) will provide an explanation for the linguistic and geographical diversity of mankind, and God’s promise to Abraham will establish a primacy to a particular ethnic group (Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, and ultimately the nation of Israel). But even this is no indication that God created the Jewish people as inherently superior to the rest of mankind. Although the promise initially passed through and was accessed through Abraham’s lineage, the primary distinction was a theological one. The difference between Israel and the rest of the world was that this ethnic group was called by God as God’s people, were given God’s law, and received God’s presence in their midst.

In short, there is no indication that there are diverse races of mankind (in the sense that one group of people is biologically or ontologically different). This is confirmed, in fact, when Jesus Christ comes as the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3, ESV; cf. Gal. 3:14). Because Jesus is the singular Savior, all who come to Him are given the incalculable privilege of being named as the people of God. This participation in Jesus equalizes all peoples, renewing the human race into its created intent. Paul explains that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11, ESV) Jesus does not eradicate distinction; He redeems corrupted image-bearers from all corners of the world into His image, together.

The point that we are trying to make is simply this: there is no ontological basis for race distinctions. There are cultural distinctions; there are ethnic similarities; there are differences in our skin color; there are linguistic differences – but we are simply human.

Why Racism? #

Why, then, this discussion of race-ism?

Human antagonism and hostility toward the “other” is no new thing. The sin introduced in Genesis 3 has infected human relations thoroughly. We need not revisit in detail the tribal wars, geographical conquests, ethnic cleansings, and general hatred of “the other” – every generation witnesses the way sin seeks to destroy “the other” in new and creative ways.

But the past several centuries saw the development of a particularly insidious strain of hostility, framed as an inherent distinction between, and inequality of races of humanity. That is, beginning in the late middle ages, and exploding during the Enlightenment, racist ideas began to be offered which sought to demonstrate the built-in superiority of one people group over another – more often than not, as a justification for the burgeoning slave trade or other forms of discrimination and exploitation.2 After all, the objectification, trading and forced subjugation of other people goes down easier when one believes those people are inherently inferior, and therefore inherently suited to such roles.

What is Racism? #

Now, what do we mean by racist ideas? What is racism? I am arguing that racism is the treatment of one group of people as inferior to another. This has individualized and active aspects, but also structural and passive senses. For example, Beverly Daniel Tatum argues that racism is more than personal prejudice. It is “a system of advantage based on race.”3 This comes close to what Emerson and Smith argue in Divided By Faith, where they note that “racism is a changing ideology with the constant and rational purpose of perpetuating and justifying a social system that is racialized.” Of course, “the justification may include individual, overt prejudice and discrimination, but these are not necessary. Because racialization is embedded within the normal, everyday operation of institutions, this framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.”4
Now, these ideas are going to require us to unpack them, but notice several common features:

  1. Racism involves stereotypes (both descriptive and evaluative). Racist ideas are those which believes that entire groups possess some trait, quality or defect. It is the impulse to assume any overriding characteristic about an entire group of people, whether positive or negative. All racist ideas are built upon these prejudicial assumptions.

  2. Racism is systemic. Often, when we consider racism, we imagine the nasty old klansman in the south with his racist ideas. And no doubt there have been many individuals who have held dearly to explicitly racist ideas throughout our history. And yet, as we will see, institutions and social structures are shaped by philosophies of personhood and justice. And once these structures are put in place, the original philosophies may disappear, yet the structures continue to perpetuate injustice.

  3. Racism can be passively perpetuated. If racism is systemic, then it follows that those who live in a society designed for their advantage (in our case, white America) can participate in unjust structures without trying very hard – even without knowing it. One author uses the illustration of a moving walkway to illustrate this point.5 A society of advantage is where one group of people are living on a moving walkway, while others are forced to walk. Those who are particularly ambitious and walk on the walkway are actively taking advantage of racist systems, while those who simply stand still are still benefiting from its forward movement. Those who are forced to walk must make every effort to just keep up with those standing still.

The second and third aspects of racism are particularly important as we seek to make sense of how in the world the American church could stand by in some cases – and actively promote in others – not just racist ideas which are contrary to the biblical vision of humanity, but ones which would fortify institutions of evil such as chattel slavery and Jim Crow. It’s to that we now turn.

A Brief History of Racism in the Early United States #

The discovery of the “new world” and the establishment of the British colonies was a thrilling and tumultuous time. The possibilities for economic advancement abounded, along with the realization that religious communities could find freedom from the overbearing oppression of the state churches of Western Europe.

However, the development of an untamed land, inhabited by unfamiliar peoples and limited provisions proved to be a dreadfully difficult endeavor. Those early settlers and colonists suffered terrible hardships of many kinds. One means by which they sought to relieve the burden of cultivating the new land was the importation and cultivation of indentured servants, both of European and African descent. The first recorded notice of Africans which appear to be named among the cargo of the ship is in Jamestown, in 1619. From that point, enslaved Africans were a part of the burgeoning colonial life.

The transatlantic slave trade began in the early 16th century, and continued until its final abolition in the mid 19th century. Over the course of these 350 years, an estimated 12.5 million Africans were stolen from their home shores and transported to Spain and Uruguay; Portugal and Brazil; Great Britain; the Netherlands; the American Colonies / United States; France; and Denmark and the Baltics.6 Perhaps only a half million or so came directly to the North American shores, but by the end of the Civil War, there were approximately 4 million African Americans: 3.6 million as slaves and 400,000 living as free people.7

Early on, Africans were treated more as indentured servants. However, as the colonies expanded, and so too the industries of cotton and tobacco, the need for cheap labor surged. Wealthy landowners creatively latched on to racist ideas, providing privileges to poor whites and promoting ideas which identified the black slaves as an uncivilized and lesser race, suitable primarily for labor.8 As the demand increased, so did the supply of the slave trade, and the need for greater justification of this evil practice.

The Necessary Support of Racist Ideas #

Not all, of course, bought into this system – especially enslaved Africans. To protect this developing system of labor, and preserve the system which provided wealth for their enslavers, racist thinkers of the day developed a two-pronged approach. First, those in power passed laws and policies which protected the “property rights” of slave-holders and punished rebellion by enslaved peoples, thus preserving law and order in the community. Second, racist ideas were robustly developed to not only justify, but preserve the systems in place. These ideas were particularly important for a few reasons:

  1. First, not everyone approved of chattel slavery. Indeed, there was some initial ambivalence about the whole matter. This division of ideas can be seen in the disputes between the framers of the constitution, and ultimately, in the abolition of slavery in all northern states by 1804. However, such concerns were countered at high levels by men such as the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who developed a complex anthropological perspective on race which viewed “Negroes and whites” as the “base races,” with all other races on a kind of continuum between.9 In establishing a kind of fixedness about these races, and making sweeping generalizations about the various races in-between, he establishes that the native Americans and Africans are essentially useful only for slavery.10

  2. Second, a creeping sense of hypocrisy emerged between the institution of slavery and the political philosophy of these American colonies explicitly anchored in the “inalienable rights” of mankind. The hypocrisy of sparking a revolution and fighting for liberty against the tyranny of Britain while preserving a system of slavery at the same time was not lost on many, both within and without the colonies.11 Indeed, this conflict was enshrined in our very constitution, with the so-called “three-fifths” compromise (Article I, Section 2) in factoring representation of the states (computing enslaved peoples as three-fifths a person)12 and the effective preservation of the transatlantic slave trade until 1808 (Article I, Section 9).

  3. Third, and perhaps most pressing for our purposes, was the troublesome contradiction for the many Christians living in these colonies and, eventually, the United States. Indeed, as Harvey notes, “Once slavery took root in the Americas, it was inevitable that religious authorities would decree that, if slavery existed, God must have a reason for it – and that reason must be in the Bible.”13 Of course, American slavery was racially-specific, and therefore would not find a direct analogue in the Scriptures. However, creative minds developed complex and insidious systems of thought which looked to Scripture for evidence that men were indeed created unequal.

The Church and Racist Ideas #

One critical point of debate was whether slaves who were baptized should remain slaves. There was a strong tradition which suggested that any who were baptized should be freed and treated as equals within the body of Christ. This created an uncomfortable tension. On the one hand, it encouraged many slaveholders to avoid allowing their slaves to hear the gospel preached. This, of course, troubled the consciences of many preachers in the early American context. After all, many saw the importation of Africans as a boon for the gospel – to bring the gospel to “the heathen.” With the Great Commission mandate on one side, and the desire not to compromise the institution of slavery on the other, many Christian thinkers worked out various solutions.

Several colonial legislatures determined that baptism would lead to no formal change in status, and in a 1727 letter to American planters, Anglican Bishop Gibson made it clear that “Christianity, and the embracing of the Gospel, does not make the least Alteration in Civil Relations” – a point further emphasized by prominent minister, Cotton Mather.14 Over time, Christians began to realize that conversion did not require equality at all. In fact, they reasoned, if anything, it should lead to greater submission. In short, slaveholders realized they could preach the gospel, achieve conversion, and then emphasize passages of Scripture which spoke of submission to authority to command loyalty and obedience to those they had enslaved.

There is much more to be said, and much more complexity to the painfully brief overview above. For example, we have said nothing yet about the way native Americans were dehumanized, overrun and exploited in the pursuit of expansion.

But the main point is this: the desire to maintain the superior position of the wealthy white landowner in the American colonies through the exploitation of cheap slave labor required robust supporting ideas to preserve these systems. But the ideas inserted a corrupting poison which infiltrated society at the deepest of levels. This is evident in that, even though there were people opposed to slavery, the early antislavery advocates, according to Emerson and Smith, “were not full-fledged egalitarians, continuing to see blacks as inferior or as not part of American society. The early white abolitionists opposed slavery but not racialization.”15

We see this dynamic at play in the early churches. Through the Great Awakening, many African Americans, free and enslaved, received the good news. But this reception did not entail true brotherhood. Indeed, between 1740 and 1830s, Harvey notes that African American Christianity took on three forms – none of them truly integrated with mainstream white Christianity. First, in the south, churches were technically integrated (with segregated seating), but did so within the slave system. They worshiped together so that masters could keep an eye on their slaves. Second, in the north, (and some southern urban areas), free black churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church worshiped independently. The AME was born out of a resistance to racist ideas in the north, when white worshipers in a northern church demanded that black parishioners move up to the balcony from their seats in the late 1700s. The third form was covert, mainly in the south, unattached to formal church gatherings, meeting in secret to find honest expression of worship away from the eyes of those who would seek to control and oppress.16

Conclusion #

My point in traversing this history is this: racial discrimination and reinforcing racist ideas so pervaded American society that every quarter was affected – including the very company of saints saved to be diversely unified as Jesus’ own body. While there was absolutely pushback by various denominations at various times against the evil of slavery, more often than not, Christian thinkers made peace with it, opting rather for spiritual concern of enslaved peoples and good social order over the pursuit of justice.17 In many ways, this capitulation did extreme damage in sanctifying institutionalized racism.

In the next post, I will seek to follow the trajectory of racist ideas and structures through the Civil War and into the Jim Crow era, to see how it evolved to shape and influence our present-day experience.

  1. Victor P Hamilton, The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 135. 

  2. Ibram X Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, 2017, 15–21. 

  3. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 87. 

  4. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9. 

  5. Adapted from Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, 91. 

  6. Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publ, 2013), 10–12. 

  7. Harvey, 10. 

  8. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Revised edition (New York: New Press, 2012), 25. 

  9. J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 84. 

  10. Carter, 84–92. 

  11. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, 104-08. 

  12., accessed March 10, 2018. This was rendered obsolete with the passage of the 13th Amendment, but it took until 1865 to do so.  

  13. Harvey, Through the Storm, through the Night, 16. 

  14. Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 23. 

  15. Emerson and Smith, 28–29. 

  16. Harvey, Through the Storm, through the Night, 30. 

  17. Harvey, 34–35. 


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