Category Archives: Race and the Enlightenment

A 3- Minute Lesson on Race

You’ve got time for this class and it is brought to you by Jenée Desmond Harris.  It is a lesson that must be learned and that bears repeating.  Harris starts from the beginning of race and no, she does not begin in the book of Genesis.  Lie #1 struck down.  Race is not that old.

Race is a lot of things but biological, biblical or original to our being are not to be included.  Still, the misrepresentation of who we are continues and so does the cycle of hatred.  Race wars are plotted against places of worship for African Americans and Jews.  Protests seem unending, CNN describing last year as “a year of outrage.”  The hashtag Black Lives Matter has become a movement.  Right now, the University of Missouri has been added to the list and to the ongoing conversation on race after accusations of racism on campus. Consequently, this class is always in session.

And while it won’t lead to an advanced degree, these truths concerning race as a social construct are certain to advance our understandings of self and our neighbor.  I’ve devoted my life to teaching about race and to the eradication of the racial category for human identity.  Week after week, I look for ways to say this because it is so much easier and less painful to accept this superficial existence.  I want us to go deeper and pray that this video and my words would peel away another layer of race’s deceptions.

The Double- Minded Church: Spiritual Formation and the Impractical Theology of Race

27029_360054929042_83975054042_3430697_4705708_nThe conversation I entered into with the attendees of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s ChurchWorks this week picks back up and concludes here:

I suppose that it is a matter of pride and it’s a mind game. James uses the descriptor “double- minded” when speaking of the doubter who prays[i] but this two-ness is found both in the Old and New Testaments. “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” asked the prophet Elijah.[ii] Isaiah recorded the voice of the Lord saying, “These people draw near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips while their hearts are far from me.”[iii] Jesus spoke of Pharisees who were clean on the outside but inside were “full of greed and self- indulgence.”[iv] He asked them, “Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?[v]

Great question, Jesus. God made the outside as well as the inside, flesh and spirit.[vi] So, God knows the spirit and while we have a hand in our formation, our nature is a sight unseen by us. And the outside of us does not fool God. He sees everything.

In fact, God knew us before we were in our mother’s womb,[vii] before texture of hair or eye color, before shape of nose or size of lips, before the social coloring of skin. God beheld a form that we cannot see and that no label can attach itself to.

And Paul echoes this spiritual reality and ends the culture war by waving this white flag at the Galatians and Colossians, who are now in the Body of Christ, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek.”[viii] Consequently, race does not form us spiritually but socially and should not inform us spiritually but assist us in understanding our society. Therefore, we must retell the story of our spiritual formation, our Christian identity without it, beginning with God.

Race has nothing to do with it. It is our idolatrous belief in the social construct of race, our support of its prejudices, our use of its stereotypical lens that has made the Church unstable. We waver between two opinions behave as if there are two gospels, two sets of commandments, two segregated heavens and hells. But, we forget that we cannot serve two masters, God and race. [ix]

Therefore, Christian education must challenge social realities and subject them to the scrutiny of Scripture. Christian educators must keep race in its place— out of the pulpit and pews, out of our hymnals and Bibles, out of our fellowship and worship. Christians must serve the Lord with their minds, not merely repeating after society but examining ourselves, “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.”[x]

We must change our minds about race as it does not renew us.[xi] We must learn about race in order to unlearn it. We must see race for what it is so that we can see our selves and our neighbors as they are. We must speak up about race in order to take its voice and find our own.

Because our faith and race do not agree. Race is not a partner in our becoming. It says that God creates no one new, that God is a Copycat, that we are all members of a boxed cultural set.  Race teaches us that God stereotypes.

Race says that it is a part of God’s plan, that God makes some persons better than others, that God decides who is best according to the image that He made us in.  Race teaches us that God judges and prejudices our physical features.

Race also says that we can put God on our side— the side of the oppressed or privileged, that we can discern based on the outward appearance who God loves and hates, accepts and rejects, blesses and curses.  Race teaches us that God racially segregates us.

But, race is the false teacher, an instructor without credentials, made up as we go along.  We must stop singing and teaching about race as it is a learned behavior that neither edifies us nor glorifies God.

Believing in race changes our confession of faith, compromises our witness and confuses our allegiance, fighting for flesh instead of standing in the solidarity of God’s Spirit. The theology of race both deifies and demonizes our flesh. Calling us to worship whiteness, one color becomes our symbol of righteousness and the other of social condemnation.

Suggesting that we are saved by our skin, it becomes our social messiah. Race says that our standing with God and in society is determined by our epidermis. Race says that it knows who we are and that the inside of us, our inner being, our spirit cannot change that.

So, how did we come to believe this, support and endorse it? How did we, spiritual people, get stuck on the surface? How did the Church of the living God submit its mind and members to the power of the flesh? When did we change our minds about the God who loves us all and sent His Son to die for us all in order to support a divided and double- minded Church, a color- coded and dismembered Body? What were we thinking when we began to categorize God’s love, to divide the image of God—all for us and none for them? And what of our witness to the little children, to the next generation?

Do we really believe that Jesus loves us and that he can love us without race? What do you think now? Where do you stand?

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[i] James 1.8

[ii] First Kings 18.21, NRSV

[iii] Isaiah 29.13, NRSV

Also, the writer of Proverbs speaks of a “double heart” (Proverb 25.26).

[iv] Matthew 23.25, NRSV

[v] Luke 11.40, NRSV

[vi] Job 33.4

[vii] Jeremiah 1.5

[viii] Galatians 3.28; Colossians 3.11

[ix] Matthew 6.24

[x] Second Corinthians 10.5

[xi] Romans 12.1-2

Five facts about the life of race

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  1. Race is a modern invention of the European Enlightenment: “European Enlightenment thinkers retained the Greek ideal of reason, as well as this reason’s categorical function of discriminating between the cultured (now called the ‘civilized) and the ‘barbarian’ (the ‘savage’ or the ‘primitive’). It can be argued, in fact, that the Enlightenment’s declaration of itself as ‘the Age of Reason’ was predicated upon precisely the assumption that reason could historically only come to maturity in modern Europe, while the inhabitants of areas outside Europe, who were consistently described and theorized as rationally inferior and savage.”[i]
  2. Race, here being the hierarchical system that socially positions human beings according to the social coloring of skin and other external features, did not exist prior to the 17th century: “Enlightenment philosophy was instrumental in codifying and institutionalizing both the scientific and popular European perceptions of (human beings).”[ii]
  3. Race rose to fame and notoriety when the Bible’s story of creation was reasoned to be irrational: “The rise of science in the Enlightenment period had overthrown the biblical story of creation and replaced the authority of religion with that of reason, nature was still conceptualized as a hierarchical system (the Great Chain of Being), in which every being, from humans down to fauna and flora, had a ‘naturally’ assigned position and status.”[iii]
  1. The power and influence of race can be attributed to travel writings: “During the two centuries prior to the European Enlightenment, an enormous amount of exploration and voyages around the world had produced numerous published accounts of distant lands and peoples as well as the great expansion of European wealth. These popular travel writings contributed significantly to the perception of Europe as familiar and ‘civilized,’ living in the Age of Light, while the peoples of other lands (Asia, Africa, America) were of ‘strange’ habits and mores. Savagery could then be physically located outside of Europe, outside of light, so that Africa, for example, was considered the Dark Continent, and a terra nulla.”[iv]
  1. Neither colored people, that is socially colored beige/ black/ brown/ red/yellow/ white, existed neither the belief that persons were mentally, physically, socially or spiritually inferior based on appearance prior to 1680. Winthrop Jordan explains, “After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term of self- identification appeared—white.”[v]

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[i] Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, (Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Malden, MA, 1997), 4.

[ii] Ibid 5

[iii] Ibid 4-5

[iv] Ibid 5

[v] Winthrop Jordan, The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States, (Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 1974), 52.