Bigotry in America: Its Christian Roots Part One

Think of America’s greatest historical shames. Most have involved the singling out of groups of people for abuse. Name a distinguishing feature — skin color, religion, nationality, language — and it’s likely that people here have suffered unjustly for it, either through the freelance hatred of citizens or as a matter of official government policy.

That is the opening paragraph of a very powerful editorial from yesterday’s New York Times entitled Ain’t That America. The title is taken from a John Mellencamp song called Pink Houses. Both the song and the editorial deal with the sham we call the American dream as it pertains to people of color or immigrants. With all the attention lately on the resurgence of the civil rights movement in places like Jena, Alabama and the debate in Washington over how to deal with the so-called “illegal immigrant problem,” I thought a brief sociological and theological look at the core issue, which the Times editorial so aptly defines, is in order here.

The best way to define the root issue at the heart of the racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, vultural bigotry, whatever you want to call it is that most Americans, and most people in other countries as well, have a problem with “others.” that is people who are different in some way. In American history, these others have included the native peoples who were here before the first Europeans arrived, the Africans who were brought here originally as a slave population, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Eastern Europeans, the Chinese (which for generations probably included Southeast Asians), the Japanese, and most recently anyone who is Muslim.

Why are we so afraid of these “others?” How did bigotry get its start in the USA?

For the answers to these two questions we need to review early American history – what my youngest son Michael is learning in his fifth-grade history class.

The oldest European, not including the Vikings, settlement in the United States, as taught in our schools was Jamestown, Virgina. Anyone who has gone to elementary school in the United States knows the story of John Smith and Pocahantas. The original settlers at Jamestown were English adventurers looking for gold. All of them were men. They had peaceable relations with the Indians at first. But as more settlers arrived, and there was a need for more land than the swampy island where they original group settled, the trouble started.

You see, native Americans had, and to some extent, sill have a different attitude toward land and nature, The land belong to no one and humans need to learn to live in harmony with the land and nature, talong only what they need.

The Europeans, on the other hand, felt that the land was theirs to take, since the Indians said it belonged to no one. The white settlers could not understand the native Americans’ lack of property rights. It is this need to own the land and to exploit its resources that is the driving force behind all of American history. From the time of Jamestown until the last Indian war was over – the Apache at the end of the nineteenth century, white American felt it was its Manifest Destiny to take Indian land and make it “productive.” as white American defined productive.

Where did this need to make the land productive come from? Well, to answer that we need to go forward a few years and go north several hundred miles to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Plymouth Colony was settled in 1620 by the Puritans – Separatists who wanted to reform the Church of England. The Puritans also started out on friendly terms with the local native population. But as the need for more land arose, the Puritans also gave in to their “Manifest Destiny.”

The results of Manfiest Destiny are well known. The United States became an independent nation stretching from sea to shinng sea and the native population was almost completely decimated. To this day, the indigenous poplulation of the United States, especially those trying to hold on to the little bit of land that the US government has allowed them to keep – the reservations – have been treated as second-class citizens at best. It is only in the last 30 or 40 years that americans have begun to get away from the stereotypes and the mythical history that was pounded into our heads in school – how Manfest Destiny lifted the indigenous population out of savagery and barbarism and the real history of what happened – smallpox epidemics started bu infected blankets and the real state of life on a reservation and the massacres of peaceful populations – has replaced the mythical history.

Getting back to Plymoth, the Puritans were religious fundamnetalists. They took Scripture quite “literally,” or so they claimed. In the Book of Genesis, after creating Adama and Eve, God charges them to “be fruitful and multiply.” He also introduces them to all the plants and aninals, charing Adam, of course it’s the male, to name them all and he gives him or them (the Bible is a bit vague here) “dominion” over all of the land and everything on it. The key word here is dominion. What did God mean by that?

According to Princeton University’s WordNet:(n) dominion, rule (dominance or power through legal authority. Now that’s funny. As far as I know, God is not a lawyer, nor was either Adam or Eve. Matter of fact, I don’t think God ever created any lawyers. And, if as the fundamentalists claim, the Book of Genesis was written in its entirery by Moses, there weren’t any lawyers among the Israelites of that time (1393 – 1273 BCE). The Hebrew religious legalists, the scribes, did not start writing down the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) until the seventh century BCE – almost 700 years after the death of Moses:

Hebrew scribes probably began writing down the text of the Hebrew Bible in the Seventh Century BCE, making use of oral traditions that came from earlier periods. In it there are codes of conduct, ethical guidance, and laws that give us insight into the emergence of ideas of how society can be strengthened to improve the lives of all its members. Within the Bible, the primary sources for early information of this type are the Book of the Covenant in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and the Holiness Code in Leviticus. Exodus may date from the Seventh Century BCE, Deuteronomy from the Sixth Century BCE, and Leviticus from the Fourth Century BCE.>

Hebrew Scribes” from Humanistic Texts

So, given that there were no legalists around when God charged Adam and Eve with responsibility for Creation, at least that part that exists on this planet, then whatever word Moses used in telling the story of Adam and Eve, it probably did not mean what dominion means. I’m not fluent in Hebrew, so I cannot just go to a Hebrew text of Genesis and do my own translation. The best I can do is offer some other people’s linguistic explanations. So, here goes.

The Scriptural text in question is Genesis Ch. 1 verse 26, which in the Revised Standard Version reads:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Sacred offers a polyglot annotated version of the Bool of Genesis with the following footnote about the Hebrew word translated as “dominion:”

‎ râdâh
A primitive root; to tread down, that is, subjugate; specifically to crumble off: – (come to, make to) have dominion, prevail against, reign, (bear, make to) rule, (-r, over), take.

Genesis actually contains more than one Creation account. The version in Chapter 2 is somewhat different. The equivalent text is verse 15, offered here in the Revised Standard Version:

And the LORD3068 God430 took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

The polyglot version offers the following etymology for “dress” and “keep” respectively:

‎ ‛âbad
A primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.: – X be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, + husbandman, keep, labour (-ing man), bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve (-ing, self), (be, become) servant (-s), do (use) service, till (-er), transgress [from margin], (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper.

‎ ‛âbad
A primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.: – X be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, + husbandman, keep, labour (-ing man), bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve (-ing, self), (be, become) servant (-s), do (use) service, till (-er), transgress [from margin], (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper.

The tone and implications of these two texts are very different. Those who want to exploit the natural resources of the Earth would favor the first, while those who take a more responsible, conservationist view would definitely favor the second. How do we decide which one is what God really intended?

I’m not sure we can without consulting Him directly and, last I heard, God ann’t telling. I suspect He wants us to decicde for ourselves. Me, I’m going with the second one.

It may seem we’ve come a bit far afield, but not really. The treatment of “others” here in the USA has its roots in Puritan fundamentalism that is grounded in certain Scriptural texts like Genesis 1:26. But, like we’ve seen in our discussion of that text, there are other Scriptural texts that modify or even contravene the texts used by the fundamentalists. The Bible is not a seamless whole, written by one author. The Book of Genesis, if one acepts critical literary analysis of the written texts, had five or more authors.

Using Scripture to justify bigotry and racism goes against the message of at least the New Testament, if not the Old. If one accepts the Creation story or stories in Genesis, then all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve, irregardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or whatever, But, and this is the topic of the next part, we Christians, and especially the fundamentalists, have not always seen some “others” as human.


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