The Origin of Race and Racism
It is an interesting challenge writing about Christianity versus racism because biblical faith does not recognize the modern conception of ‘race.’ As such, addressing the topic necessitates reframing of the subject within biblical presuppositions. Scripture surely does speak of tribes, peoples, and nations (Gen. 10-11; Rev. 7:9), but the word ‘race’ is not part of the lexicon of the New Testament nor the idea of ‘races’ part of the DNA of inspired revelation. In Scripture there is only one ‘race’ or blood in Adam (Acts 17:26), and so, although now greatly extended, there is ultimately only one human family – a fact vital to our theological understanding of the unity of all mankind in both our fallenness and potential inclusion within redeemed humanity in Jesus Christ, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:21-28), our kinsman-redeemer (Is. 59:20). The gospel itself is at stake when we consider the root-unity of all humanity. It was this barrier-breaking message of the gospel of peace in the early church that overcame the old division, prejudice, and resentment obtaining between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-22).
The ancient world into which the Christian church was birthed by the preaching of this gospel was in many respects remarkably cosmopolitan due to growing trade, increased mobility, and the expansion of Roman imperial power. Ancient peoples no doubt had their tribal and ethnic prejudices, but they tended to think of themselves in terms of religious and political collective identities rather than in the modern sense of ‘races,’ and certainly not in the ‘racial’ denominators of Mongoloid, Negroid and Caucasoid – a largely arbitrary European classification for the members of the human family.[i] Instead, religion was the defining factor for life and so at times, religious discrimination and prejudice were widespread.
The modern idea of ‘race relations’ emerged when, after some centuries of relative isolation during the Middle Ages, explorers among European nations began discovering hitherto unknown lands and peoples from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onward. With the so-called Enlightenment and a growing exposure to foreign peoples, a race consciousness began to emerge in Europe, simultaneously developing a hierarchical pattern in which ethnic groups were arranged in order of superiority. This hierarchy was not confined to black, white and yellow ‘races;’ differences amongst Slavs, Jews, Europeans and even Anglo-Saxons were often referred to as ‘racial differences’ as well. Cultural differences in civilizational advancement, technological development, moral rectitude and refinement began to be seen not as the result or outworking of vital religious differences between peoples – resulting in the ‘opening’ or ‘closing’ of cultures to the reality of God’s law and kingdom – but as inherent, natural, or even God-ordained limitations within a biological type.
This way of thinking was given a massive boost in the nineteenth century with the evolutionary speculations of Charles Darwin – an inherently racist theory in which ‘races’ of people were thought to have evolved at different times and rates. This implied some people were closer to and much more like their apelike progenitors than others. Australian Aborigines, for example, were classified by some as ‘missing links’ between pre-hominid ancestors and modern humans. The noted evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould has admitted, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”[ii] This Enlightenment movement from a theological understanding of humanity to a ‘scientific’ one is highly significant:
In the modern era, as Christianity’s influence receded and science began to govern together with humanism, biology came to predominate over theology. The differences between men were seen increasingly as biological and racial rather than religious…the theory of evolution fueled this developing scientific racism…. The human race was no longer the human race! It was a collection of possibly human races, a very different doctrine.[iii]
So, while ethnic prejudice is as old as humanity, ‘racism’ as a category of thought is a distinctly modern notion in the Western world. It is characterized by specific ideas of superiority and inferiority and correlated to behavioural practices involving domination and subordination on the basis of particular recognizable external features. When this kind of thinking, whether arising religiously or ‘scientifically,’ gets embedded in societal norms or institutions, ‘racism’ can take on a socio-political reality and result in various forms of discrimination in human societies.
It was, for example, paler-skinned outside invaders who brought Hinduism (Brahminism) to India. Unsurprisingly, the Brahmin (priestly) upper caste in Hindu society are typically much paler-skinned, while the lowest caste ‘untouchables’ are the darker-skinned descendants of the indigenous defeated population. The vile caste system has a religious root in the Hindu conception of the divine and at the cultural level keeps a class of people in perpetual servitude. Similar examples abound from across the world. In Japan, around the time of World War II, doctrines of Japanese racial superiority blended effectively with evolutionary thought and were widely propagated, leading to great cruelty – the hairy long-armed Europeans were thought closer to apes. The Yamato people, in particular, considered themselves a superior race, and others were brutalized and discriminated against as a result. In Europe, a notorious and murderous ideology arose in Nazi Germany around a romanticised and mythic notion of an Aryan line of racial purity to be recovered and selectively ‘bred’ to facilitate the emergence of a superior race. Blending with evolutionary ideas, this folk religion of blood and soil required the ‘purification’ of Germanic stock and greater segregated ‘living space’ at the expense of Slavic peoples, Jews, and all people of colour. In the United States, “Jim Crow” laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were introduced because black Americans were considered inferior to whites. Miscegenation laws were also enacted in many Southern and Western states, forbidding ‘interracial’ marriages– typically these involved laws prohibiting marriages between whites and blacks, Asians, or native American Indians. In a similar vein, the eugenics program in America and the work of Planned Parenthood led by race ideologues like Margaret Sanger viewed Italians and Jews, not just blacks, as inferior undesirables to be targeted for abortion and sterilization.[iv]
Tragically, some Christians, lacking a clear scriptural understanding, have all too easily been caught up in cultural attitudes of superiority rooted in some form of race biology. Charles Kingsley, for example, was a clergyman and one of Darwin’s close friends. He was an avid promoter of Darwinian ideas and wanted them synthesized with Christianity. Kingsley wrote:
The black people of Australia, exactly the same race as the African Negro, cannot take in the Gospel…all attempts to bring them to a knowledge of the true God have as yet failed utterly…poor brutes in human shape…they must perish off the face of the earth like brute beasts.[v]
It is clear then that much of this virulent prejudice, including the attitudes of domination or superiority, was based not just in fear of the unknown but in rationalistic assumptions and, as we have noted, false understandings of human origins. Despite the perennial appeal for intellectuals in East and West of an idea of hierarchy in nature leading to a hierarchy of peoples – whereby Aristotle held some people were slaves by nature – biblical Christianity rejects any notion of superiority and subordination of one people to another based in physical, biological, or so-called ‘racial’ characteristics and asserts that no people or culture is free from grievous sin in past and present.
The Cultural and Philosophical Context of Contemporary ‘Racial’ Tension
When it comes to the present social fixation with ‘racism,’ context is very important. The Western world is currently in a profound state of crisis. As Christian conviction and a biblical worldview has eroded leaving a deep sense of spiritual uprootedness, a loss of cultural identity has quickly ensued. Having been deliberately demoralized and de-Christianized through a process of indoctrination and social subversion, the ideology of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘pluralism’ has been invoked to offer a new identity and sense of belonging. The problem is that it hasn’t worked. Multiculturalism and religious pluralism as ideology under the supervision and endorsement of the secular state have utterly failed and instead of harmony, radical divisions are emerging everywhere.[vi] As culturally very different peoples are forced to integrate through technocratic social engineering, including near-unrestricted legal or mass illegal immigration, tensions are reaching boiling point. The migrant crisis in both America and Europe is very real, stoking both frustration and resentment.[vii] Pointing out the self-destructive urge involved in such immigration practices gets one labelled a ‘racist.’ Yet ‘race riots’ have frequently broken out across Europe and America,[viii] whilst serious prejudice and hatred between the Black and Asian communities in Britain as well as between Indians and Pakistani’s are commonplace; here the problems of the Indian subcontinent are simply exported to the United Kingdom.[ix] This resentment is exacerbated by the political meaning of multiculturalism summed up perfectly by Thomas Sowell: “What multiculturalism boils down to is that you can praise any culture in the world except Western culture – and you cannot blame any culture in the world except Western culture.”[x] This ‘progressive’ agenda is utter folly because it is directed at the evident superiority of Western culture for at least four centuries. However, that undeniable advancement and superiority (now in rapid decline) is not rooted in biological facts, but values, beliefs, and common faith – in short, religion.
The socio-political landscape of multiculturalism provides the backdrop for this even deeper problem: the crisis of meaning at the centre of Western thought. When the meaning and thereby ordering of life shifts from centredness in Jesus Christ, the triune God, and his Word, it is inevitably sought elsewhere and because all such meaning is an imitation, a counterfeit, it will inevitably fail. One vital aspect of the question of meaning since the beginning of philosophical inquiry has been the source and ground of unity in diversity. It is this problem, expressed at the religious and cultural level, which lies at the root of the West’s social travails – including ‘racism.’
Finding unity in diversity is a question for every nation and culture. What can provide the unity to bind societies together? Central to the answer is shared meaning and purpose. As a shared meaning declines, movements for devolution or separation become commonplace. As Christianity has collapsed in Scotland, the Celtic ethnic heritage and sympathies with republicanism have replaced it, stoking a powerful Scottish Nationalist movement. In de-Christianizing Canada, French language and identity perennially feed an independence movement in the province of Quebec. The root and source of meaning for any society is inherently teleological and eschatological – that is, it involves purpose and direction or fulfilment – its movement is toward the source of ultimate meaning and cohesion, which is an inescapably religious matter. So long as the West refuses to acknowledge and grapple with the central religious dimension of shared meaning, value, and purpose in society, it will neither understand nor be able to overcome the present problem of ‘racism.’
The tension between peoples living in the West is further complicated today because it is now caught up in a three-way eschatological-meaning conflict between utopian/globalist-Marxian and ethno-nationalistic views of society over against that of the gospel of the kingdom in and through Jesus Christ. Having been variously influenced by faulty Enlightenment and Marxian conceptions of ‘race,’ ethnic origins and hierarchy, both competing groups, falling short of the truly Christian answer, propose a false solution to the difficulties. On the Marxian side Critical Race Theorists (CRT) presently dominate the political landscape who believe that only by permanent revolution against the white oppressor can we move toward the vanishing horizon of so-called ‘racial justice.’
On the growing ethno-nationalistic side, reacting to the false gospel of Marxism, advocates have their own socio-political solution to the tensions involving a need for greater ‘race consciousness’ (whether in the language of ethnicity or nation) and some measure of ethnic segregation. On this view, a careful study of nature’s law by reason is said to reveal inherent distinctions between ‘races’ or ethnicities – differences also grasped intuitively by our natural instincts regarding kith and kin to be acknowledged and applied socio-politically. This can take an Aristotelian form rooted in ancient conceptions of Natural Law, social order and custom or an evolutionary and Darwinian form rooted in biology and heredity.[xi] Ethnocentric nationalists tend to have a primordial view[xii] of identity in which your ‘race’ (blood) and ‘place’ (socio-cultural heredity) is at the centre of defining who you are – the romantic call of blood and soil – whilst Critical Theorists subscribe to a constructionist view of ‘race’ as a real but culturally invented social category used to exploit and oppress people.[xiii] The primordial nationalists tend toward absolutizing ethnic particularity (diversity) for truly living well, whilst the Marxian globalists tend toward absolutizing universality (unity), where all distinctions must be levelled and discarded. In forthcoming installments of this blog I will describe the CRT and primordial nationalist movements, demonstrating how both poles hold only a partial truth and are consequently errors.
[i] James F. Childress and John Macquarrie (ed.) The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), 523
[ii] S.J. Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap-Harvard Press, 1977), 127–128.
[iii] R. J. Rushdoony, An Informed Faith: The Position Papers of R.J. Rushdoony, Vol. 1 Christianity & Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2017), 21.
[iv] See Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).
[v] Charles Kingsley, cited in Wieland, One Human Family, 30-31.
[vi] See acknowledgement of the crisis here: https://www.ft.com/content/dd122a8c-8720-11e7-8bb1-5ba57d47eff7 accessed September, 2023.
[viii] See: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/8/paris-memorial-march-banned-as-fresh-protests-planned-in-france and in the USA: https://www.foxnews.com/us/protests-riots-nationwide-america-2020 accessed September, 2023
[ix] See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/leicester-riots-hindu-muslim-violence-b2173293.html Note the anti-Asian sentiment in these protests: https://thecritic.co.uk/peckham-protests-and-parasitic-merchants/ accessed September, 2023.
[x] Thomas Sowell, ‘Random Thoughts,’ Jewish World Review, 12 September 2002, cited in Wieland, One Human Family, 316.
[xi] For example, see, J. Philippe, Race, Evolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (Port Huron, MI: Charles Darwin Research Institute, 2000).
[xii] Primordialism is the idea that nations or ethnic identities are fixed, natural, and ancient. On this view, each individual has a single inborn ethnic identity independent of historical processes. Ethnicity is viewed as embedded in inherited biological attributes, a long history of practicing cultural differences, or a combination of both.
[xiii] Race Constructionists argue that ‘races’ are social rather than natural groups. Critical Race Theories posit on this basis that ‘racial justice’ requires us to recognize the mechanisms of ‘racial formation’ to subvert the present racial order and liberate the oppressed.