Morality & Politics

Biblical Morality: Racism

Nehemiah 13:23-27 (NIV): Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab ... I rebuked them and called curses down on them ... I made them take an oath in God's name and said: "You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?"

The Bible has always supported what the Ku Klux Klan refers to as "the old time gospel of racial separation". Consider the following sentiment from one that God himself considered exceptionally wise and noble:

Genesis 24:1-4 (NIV): Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. He said to the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, "Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac."

It just wouldn't do to have Abraham's son marry one of those dirty Canaanites, would it? It amazes me that people can read the Bible and not see anything wrong with the conduct of its heroes. Suppose we changed the names? The above passage might become: "Billy Joe Jim-Bob was a God-fearing man, and he said to his chief servant, I want you to swear by the Lord that you won't let my son marry a black woman, but you will find a white woman for him." How does that strike you? Lovely sentiment, isn't it?

Ezra 10:10-12 (NIV) Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel's guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives." The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: "You are right! We must do as you say."

Some defenders of Old Testament morality might dredge up passages such as Leviticus 19:33, in which they are told not to "mistreat" foreigners, but they fail to recognize the difference between not abusing someone and treating someone as an equal. Leviticus 25 shows us the double standard in action, as dictated straight from the mouth of God:

Leviticus 25:42,25:44-46 (NIV): "Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves ... Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

This doesn't contradict God's earlier instruction not to "mistreat" foreigners because slavery wasn't considered mistreatment back then (since God himself condoned it), unless the slave was beaten so severely that he died (note that any beating which falls short of killing the slave is considered acceptable, according to Exodus 21). That's the Biblical version of racial equality: different races get different treatment, and that's considered perfectly acceptable so long as they aren't beaten to death. I must reiterate: if you don't wish to be a racist, then it is not enough to refrain from killing someone of a different race! Racial equality means just that: people of different races must be treated as equals, as defined by their human right to racial equality. Unfortunately, the concept of human rights is alien to the Bible, which is based on the philosophy of authoritarianism rather than humanism.

One common response is to argue that the Bible was describing nations, not races. But this is a purely semantic distinction, since for the ancient Israelites, nation and race are synonymous concepts. Indeed, nation and race are still synonymous for a lot of European countries (particularly Germany, which made German ethnic background a prerequisite for citizenship until the law was finally reformed early in the year 2000), and the persistent idea that nationality = race was arguably one of the root causes of the Bosnian/Serbian conflict. If we want to look at the question of whether the Bible discusses nations and races as we understand the terms today, we must look at how they are defined. The Bible defines the Israelites as the descendants of a particular line. Therefore, they are defined by genetic inheritance, not nationhood in the modern sense. In other words, the Bible defines them as a race, not a nation. And it explicitly instructs them to subject all other races to indignities which they consider immoral for themselves, which amounts to Biblical endorsement of racial discrimination.

A Christian fundamentalist's instinctive response will be to claim that Jesus reversed all of that, but again, Jesus never once explicitly condemned racism. Therefore, in order to support their claims that the Bible attacks racism, they must take quotes like "love thy neighbour" or the prophecy that Jesus would rule over "all the kingdoms of the Earth" and very loosely interpret them as support for racial equality. However, they would do well to examine Jesus' actions: when confronted by a Canaanite woman begging him to heal her sick daughter, he refused to help her, explaining that "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs," (Matthew 15:26). Any modern person can see that this is a repugnant display of racism and religious bigotry (she eventually changed his mind by declaring her faith in him, and reminding him that even Canaanite "dogs" get to eat the crumbs that fall from the Israelite master's table). By modern, humanistic values, we would regard such prioritization of humanitarian aid based on religious affiliation as utterly unconscionable, just as we would be appalled by Jesus' attempt to withold aid pending religious conversion, his encouragement of religious enmity, or his racist characterization of Canaanites as "dogs". Did Jesus believe in helping those outside of his own race? Only if they converted, and even then, they would still be treated as "dogs": second-class citizens at best.

And what about the Good Samaritan? We tend to read our own message into that story, but that message is not necessarily one that Jesus himself practiced. Consider Matthew 10:5: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy ...". In other words, heal Israelites, but not Samaritans. It looks like Jesus didn't think that the Good Samaritan's favour should be returned.

Was Jesus a nice guy? By the moral standards of his era, he actually was. But would his values hold up today? Absolutely not. He didn't have a problem with racism or slavery, and he spent a great deal of time upholding the doctrine of resignation, which is that we should be happy to settle for our lot in life, regardless of whether we are slaves or kings (the hook was his claim that you would get paid back for your suffering in the afterlife, so there's no need to create a just and fair world here on Earth). Paul echoed the sentiment in Ephesians 6:5, with the famous phrase: "Slaves, obey your masters", but both of these men lived in an era in which such things were simply accepted. Neither of them knew any better, but we do. The world has moved on during the last two thousand years, and the Bible, by virtue of being frozen in time, has not kept up.

Continue to 4. Family Values

Jump to sub-page:

Jump to: