His book arrived in the mail yesterday. I must confess that it is one of forty books that I have ordered in recent weeks. New home, new bookshelves, I am creating a library to support my future work on the raceless gospel. I want to be surrounded by these conversation partners. I have also decided that I want to be buried under my books. Please tell my family to pile them on top of me and now that I think about it, under me as well.
I will rest on pages.
But before then, I will read his book and so many more. Tisby’s book is where the conversation on race and the church in North America should start: with the realization and acceptance of our role in its existence. Race is not just a social construct, but an ecclesial one. Beginning with the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, Tisby calls us to account for our complicity. He writes, “Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing, created and maintained a status quo of injustice” (17). For him, we must start by owning what we have allowed by letting racial identities persist and racialized injustice to continue in our families, churches and neighborhoods.
Providing a historical survey, this is more than a history lesson but a call to action. He recounts our sinful past so that we can face this present moment with the assurance that it need not be repeated. We can say and do something different. Tisby is convinced of the possibility. He says, “Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past, but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today” (19).
From American slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement, the book concludes with a how- to list, which I will not detail here. You will need to pick up the book. Detailing the history of race in the making of the church in North America increases the sense of urgency for the healing work required and before we put the book down, Tisby has given us several assignments. But, these are not ones you and I can simply check off. The change that race has made on American Christianity will require more of our time and tongue.
Tisby’s words can change how we talk about race and in turn, our Christian faith. Now aware and accountable, we are empowered to say something different and in so doing, to truly see each other without race and for the first time.
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
- 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]
[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.
“How did the idea of race begin in America?” The video provided below offers the answer. It is resources like this that inform my understanding of race and its designation as socially constructed. It is important to know and repeat again and again that race is not divinely inspired. The father of race is not God but Johann Blumenbach, who created a race- based classification of human beings. Race was and is not a part of the plan of God but in this video, you can see how the idea came into being, how scientists and politicians encouraged its life and maturity in the United States for economic and political reasons. Race was “discovered” not because it was true but because it was profitable.
Do not just accept race without understanding it, without questioning it. Don’t give it that much of your faith. When it comes to our identity and society’s offerings to support it, it is important to question, to critically interrogate what gives our lives their meaning, worth, dignity and purpose.
“Race is so deeply imbedded in our lives it appears to be the natural order of things. We must challenge that notion with all of the power of our science and society.”
~Yolanda Moses, Anthropologist
Once upon a time, there were no human races.
How we talk about race is important to me. Unfortunately, the stories that I hear about race sound much like what’s left after playing the childhood game telephone. What was whispered in the ears of our ancestors hundreds of years ago is now a muddled message mixed with biblical, biological and cultural rationales for the belief in and the necessity of human separation according to races. We really don’t know what we believe about race and we don’t really know how the story goes.
RACE: Are We So Different?, a project of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), answers the question: “How did the idea of race begin in America?” The American Anthropological Association (AAA) tells The Story of Race and provides a timeline that traces the the concept of race and the development of the idea through the influences of science, government and culture. It can never be told enough as there are multiple and competing stories as to the origin of humanity, its cultures and their differences.
Telling and retelling the story of race humanizes it and strips it of its divine appearance. It reminds us that this “social construct” is a part of us, formed with our minds and passed from generation to generation not because of a “genetic inheritance” (also known as eugencis) but because we have made it a part of how we talk about the human family. It is my hope and my goal to change this character’s role and the means by which we talk about how race came to be. So, repeat after me: “Once upon a time, there were no human races.”
Art Munin, White Privilege 101 Timeline, an Annotated bibliography
Race: The Power of an Illusion, Race Timeline, www.pbs.org
Dr. Shelly Tochluk, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need To Talk About Race and How To Do It (2010).