Tag Archives: race and the Enlightenment

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

divided-heartThis week, I was in Decatur, Georgia and presented at ChurchWorks, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship conference for ministers of spiritual formation and education.  I, along with several others, spoke about the theological rumblings and ruminations of our shared ministry with Christ.  I will present part one of the message here:

“Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in his sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.”[i]

 This refrain from a popular children’s song demonstrates the inclusion of racial identity, the connecting of God’s love to social categories. This song teaches the little children that they are loved according to and/or in spite of the social coloring of their skin. I say social coloring because there are no physically colored beige/ black/ brown/ red/ yellow or white people. It is not seen. Instead, we believe it by faith. We walk by race, not by sight.[ii] And this song splits our vision, divides us and makes us two people— children of color and children of God.

This song also suggests that the love of Jesus and thereby the love of God is determined, informed and influenced by the social construct of race, that God shook and agreed to the social contract of race. We are, in fact, teaching our children to think that Jesus loves them not because the Bible tells us so but in the way that race tells us to.

And it is our singing, our worship that divides us. When asked about our sacred Sunday morning segregation, many people will say as a matter of fact that we worship differently. It’s a matter of taste, of cultural preference. But, no one really wants to say it. Race divides us— believers and churches, “the light of the world”[iii] and “the Body of Christ.”[iv]

Race. The mere mentioning of the word makes us uncomfortable. We hope that no one mentions or acknowledges it, that it rides off into the sunset of history never to be seen or heard from again. Regrettably, we don’t know what to say when it comes to race.

It confuses and unravels us, shames and unnerves us. People who serve the Word- God, the speaking God, are afraid of a word that we created. More specifically, race came from the mouths and minds of Enlightenment thinkers. Practitioners of this scientific racism attached humanity to the “Great Chain of Being,” introduced a second Genesis narrative[v] to account for the different cultures and measured skulls[vi] in order to categorize humanity: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid and Australoid. But, race was not in the beginning with God.[vii]

So, how did we forget that our theology matters and should not be offered up to the false god of race or its progeny, that our spiritual identity in Christ should not be sacrificed for a racial identity though it provides social acceptance, privilege and security? How did we forget that in order for the Church to work, we cannot accept identities that work against our new nature in Jesus the Christ? How do we now focus on spiritual formation when we have invested so heavily in the social realities of race? Bishop William Willimon asked, “What are we to do with a church that speaks to people on the basis of their gender or race, all the while baptizing them on the basis of Galatians 3.28?[viii]

And where did our theology go wrong? Who gave us the directions to race and why do we continue to follow them when in search of identity? We’re going around in circles, coming back to “the color line” because no one wants to stop and say that we are lost, that we have lost the Way.

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[i] The words are by C. Herbert Woolston (1856-1927). The music was written by George Root and was originally for an American civil war song according to http://www.cyberhymnal.org.

[ii] This is a play on Second Corinthians 5.7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

[iii] John 8.12

[iv] First Corinthians 12.27

[v] Gossett, 45-47.

[vi] This science was known as anthropometry.

[vii] Genesis 1.1; John 1.1

[viii] William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 7.

Who came first- people or race?

chickeneggUnlike the chicken or the egg analogy, human beings and the social construct of race are not inseparable.  Humans did not come from race but race did come from humans, a product of Enlightenment thinking.  Race was not “in the beginning” with God but is with us now because we created it.  We came first and then race.

It is so odd now that race comes first and then our humanity, that we consider the race of a person to determine who they are, what they will be, what they can do.  We place race above empathy, hospitality, reality and even common sense.  When bad things happen, who comes first: the person or their race?  And why does it matter so much?

Does our response or lack thereof depend on how they look?  And if so, why is it a determining factor?  Why are we putting race first, above our call to love and our duty to raise a village?  Who really comes first when we put it like this?

Five facts about the life of race

get-the-facts_garland
  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.