Jesus said, and the apostles confirmed, that the truth of Christianity was to be preached to all people of every nation. The earliest Christians were mostly Near Easterners and Africans. There is no evidence of racial discrimination against blacks or any other racial groups in early Christianity. The apostle Paul was firm: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) The New Testament does not mention the color of people’s skin.
The bizarre idea that the Bible curses black people derives from tortured readings of Old Testament texts such as Genesis 9:18-27, in which Noah curses his son Ham and Ham’s son Canaan, decreeing their slavery to Ham’s brothers. In the 19th century, Christian racists made the connection Ham = slave = black, even though the Bible makes no mention of Ham’s color. Racists conflated this passage with Genesis 4: 15, where the mark put on Cain by the Lord was believed, again without any evidence, to be black skin.
Such readings were nothing more than rationalizations for racism. Christianity lacks reference to race: It regards Adam as the common ancestor of all humans and Christ the Savior of all humans. The idea that Christianity is white man’s religion made sense for a limited time in particular regions, such as the West Indies or the U.S. South, where misery was inflicted on millions for the wealth of a few, and where slaves were encouraged to seek release in another world, rather than liberty in this one. Even then, the growth of African-American churches was impressive.
During the 19th century, pseudo-Christian racism was eclipsed by pseudo-scientific racism. The bizarre term “Caucasian” for white people was introduced by the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) in about 1800. He was followed by William Lawrence, who wrote Short System of Comparative Anatomy, published in 1807; South Carolinian Josiah Clarke Nott, On the Natural History of the Caucasian and Negro Races, 1844; and Robert Thomas Hulme, Elements of Medical Zoology, 1861. There were allegedly three principal varieties of race: Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian. This is why the current knowledge that all races sprang from the same African roots (monogenism) is so socially important: It affirms the unity of the human race and refutes previous scientific belief that different races had different origins (polygenism).
In the mid-19th century, pictures showing the “evolution” from ape to Anglo-Saxon were common. Such ideas became common in America, providing an excuse to condone the exploitation of African-Americans. Even the celebrated moderate Stephen Douglas proclaimed in an 1858 debate with Abraham Lincoln that “I positively deny that he [the Negro] is my brother or any kin to me whatever.” So prevalent were such unchristian ideas in American society that they leached into Christianity. Two rationalizations — the pseudo-Christian and the pseudo-scientific — reinforced one another. The failure of Christians to recognize the full humanity of all races preceded the failure of scientists to do so. Together, they allowed the enslavement of Africans as well as the subjugation, exile, degradation, and near extermination of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.
After abolition, the next great struggle against racism began in the late 1950s: the civil rights movement. Enlightenment ideas surrounding the rights of man had a role in the movement, and so did Christianity. Most of the civil rights leaders were Christians and based their opposition to racism on Christian grounds. There were more Christian marches for civil rights in the 1960s than secular ones.
It’s a belief on college campuses today that Christianity is opposed to multiculturalism. This is understandable when college “multicultural” programs exclude only one culture: Christianity. For centuries Christians have debated the degree to which European cultural religious practices should be exported to other regions. Such exports have had limited success, and most Christian missionaries now adapt the religion to the culture whenever central doctrinal matters do not arise. Of course, a few Christians still haven’t realized that racism is totally contrary to Christianity.
This post is an excerpt from the book Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell (IVP Books, 2012). It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published January 29, 2018