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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Theologically speaking

 

How Scripture relates to racism

September 25, 2021

Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa, where enslaved Africans were held before boarding ships headed across the Atlantic Ocean bound for Europe and the Americas. (Photo by Philip Woods)

The objective of this brief reflection is to explore the theological interplay between the Bible and racism. Being an African Jamaican, I have embraced the Christian faith through Presbyterian missionary Christianity. For me, Scripture centers on being “the Word of the Lord.”

This has meant that the religio-cultural and social context or life setting of the text — or that of the messenger of the narrative (sitz im leben— generally has not been questioned. However, despite the intentional miseducation, the hidden texts of my ancestors, through words and songs, an alternative hermeneutics has emerged that is best illustrated through the critique of Pan-Africanist Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887–1940). His teachings and writings contributed to the rise of the Rastafari movement in 1930 that called for a new hermeneutics in reading and understanding Scripture. They recognized that centuries of misusing the Bible in defense of racism must be intentionally opposed.

European colonialism and its partnership with western missionary movements from the 15th century incorporated the church and the Bible as strategic allies in their conquest of other peoples’ lands and resources. The misuse of the biblical text gave moral and spiritual justification of dehumanizing other peoples and the stealing of their lands and made it morally acceptable to enslave them.

Scriptural and theological justification for colonialism was appropriated in the reading of the Old Testament texts in which they claimed that God gave divine approval for the Israelites to forcibly seize Canaanite lands. Later profitability of their stolen lands led to the dehumanization strategy of forced capture, imprisonment and transportation of millions of Africans and their eventual enslavement on European plantations in the Americas. By misusing the Bible to legitimize their economic objective of acquiring maximum profit, the theological rationale was established in their reading of Genesis 9:18–29 and Genesis 10 — in particular, the misunderstood passage referred to as the “curse of Ham.”

This embodiment of “spiritual wickedness in high places” was most evident when I first visited Elmina Castle in Ghana in 2004. Hundreds of thousands died in captivity, and the Atlantic became the African cemetery and a memorial of their holocaust.

It was not only the Hebrew Scriptures that were used to justify slavery by the Christian Scriptures, especially Pauline texts such as Ephesians 6:5ffColossians 4:1 and 1 Timothy 6:1. The European colonizers and their contemporary ideological partners in the white supremacist movement regarded people of other ethnic groups, especially those of African descent, to be destined to serve as less than fully human beings. The use of Scripture to support racism is intentionally designed by the powerful to acquire and maintain, at all cost, political and economic power at the expense of those humans they deem to be unequal to their self-ascribed superior ethnic/racial standing.

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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. twice a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.

 The Rev. Dr. Roderick R. Hewitt, Mission Crossroads

Today’s Focus: Scripture and racism

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Ashley Winn, Senior Assistant, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program
Jung Ju Winner, Marketing Assistant, Presbyterian Women

Let us pray

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to spread seeds of life through the word of God. We ask that you would help us grow in love and service to others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.