Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Bible and Races

Apparently, today's posts are all about books. But if you're like me, those are the best kinds of posts.

I read with great interest and delight "Enlightened Racism: Not from the Bible," CT's review of Colin Kidd's book, The Forging of Races:Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.

The central premise of the book is captured in these paragraphs from the review:

Colin Kidd's well-researched, wide-ranging, and insightful book, The Forging of the Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, demolishes such assumptions when it comes to the issue of race. Kidd's persuasive and learned monograph is no gloating work of Christian apologetics. If anything, he seems slightly embarrassed by how well orthodox Christianity comes out in his narrative, trying to tone it down with mitigating statements calculated to make the accounts look more balanced than they actually are. What are in fact the obvious conclusions from his evidence repeatedly appear coyly as questions. Kidd also has a habit of using refracted or muted language.

Nevertheless, there is no effective way to offset the decisive direction in which his evidence takes us. Even the Old Testament—that vast, stagnant pond in which all manner of offensive viewpoints are supposed to lurk—offers no support to racists. Kidd admits this candidly: "the Bible is itself colour-blind with regard to racial difference." Racists have often quoted Scripture when expounding their views, but Kidd observes that they imported these racial readings into the text rather than finding them there. The New Testament teaches unequivocally that God "hath made of one blood all nations of men" (Acts 17:26 KJV). In traditional scientific terms, this is a denial of polygenism and an assertion of the monogenesis of the human race (thus all homo sapiens should consider each other as part of their extended family). Monogenesis is by no means a self-evident hypothesis. Traditional cultures uninfluenced by the biblical narrative—in China and Japan, for example—assumed polygenesis. As Kidd puts it, "Scripture has the benign capacity to render racial Otherness as a type of cousinage or remote kinship."

Moreover, far from this being the incidental implication of a few verses, orthodox Christians have consistently recognized the solidarity of the human race as a core theme of both the biblical narrative and formal Christian theology: the image of God in humanity, the Fall, and original sin are predicated on the understanding that all human beings are bound together in a single, common origin, lineage, and family. The Christian tradition has consistently discerned that this doctrinal teaching has substantial implications when it comes to the issue of race. To take a typical example, the 18th-century conservative biblical scholar Nathaniel Lardner averred: "all men ought to love one another as brethren. For they are all descended from the same parents, and cannot but have like powers, and weaknesses, and wants … . For notwithstanding some differences of outward condition, we have all the same nature, and are brethren."

I'm very much looking forward to getting a copy of this book and slowly considering its pages. We need more scholarship of the sort that takes seriously the biblical teaching on identity and applies it to our current thinking and behavior. Thansk JT for passing on the article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's always hard to tell just what the argument of a book is from a book review. However, assuming the CT review is representative of the content of the book, I have to say the thesis sounds a bit misleading, for a number of reasons.

1) It's certainly true that the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period marked the beginning of a new "modern" and "scientific" racism. There is plenty of scholarship on this topic, as I'm sure Kidd is aware - and I would bt surprised if he doesn't cite this scholarship in his book, so this may just be confusion on the part of the reviewer. The review seems to imply that "enlightened racism" has been neglected in the scholarship in favor of a focus on religious racism, which simply isn't true.

2) It's true that monogenesis has long been recognized as the theory of human origin most in line with Scripture. However, there were plenty of 18th and 19th century monogenists, both Christian and otherwise, who were deeply racist. Belief in the common descent of all races of man did not necessarily imply belief in the equality of races in intelligence, character, dignity, or rights. It's misleading to suggest that, because many Christians were monogenists, they were "less racist" than "scientific" racists.

3) I'm not sure how one measures whether a theory is "more racist" than another (as the reviewer states that scientific racism was "more racist than past theories" because it was untempered by biblical belief/teaching). But if we're going to attempt that such a measurement can in fact be made, it seems to me that it is Christian racism that comes out on the bottom - Christian racists in this period were making biblical arguments for the enslavement of blacks. "Scientific" racists - people who believed in the biological inferiority of non-white races - included both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates.

I couldn't agree more with Kidd's basic argument that the Bible does not, in and of itself, affirms the the dignity of all as people made in the image of God. But the Bible, like any other document, has to be interpreted. It's unquestionably the case that the Bible has been used throughout history to support virulently racist ideas and practices, both in the period I study, the Middle Ages, and in the period Kidd is writing about. Larsen's statement that "orthodox Christianity" comes out looking well in Kidd's narrative does not seem to acknowledge the reality that plenty of "orthodox Christians" in the history of the church have been profoundly racist.

This is not to deny the bravery and hard work of many Christian abolitionists and crusaders for human rights like Wilberforce and others. Rather, I think it's very important that we understand the pro-slavery opponents of Christian abolitionists were more often than not "orthodox Christians" themselves, and many of them convincingly argued that abolitionism was heterodox (See Mark Noll's _The Civil War as a Theological Crisis_).