In Western culture, white is associated with Light and Good, and black is associated with Dark and Evil. Just think about the imagery and symbolism in cultural icons like the Star Wars movies. Darth Vader, the Emperor and the Sith are all servants of the Dark Side of the Force. That means Luke, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the other Jedi are all servants of the Light. And Light, as we all know from elementary school science classes is white.The indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa are dark skinned. They are referred to colloquially in many Western cultures as “black,” although most of them are not truly black skinned, but rather some shade of brown. There is a lot of variation in the pgmentation of these peoples, but we invariably consider them as being black.
Caucasians refer to themselves as being white. Now, I doubt that most Caucasians consciously make the association, but the cultural archetypes we learn as children in the process of being socialized into our culture is that white goes with light and goodness, while black goes with darkness and evil. And if we add Christianity into the mix, then white people are servants of God (Jesus Christ) while black people are servants of Satan. If you think I’m crazy, look in a good university library for accounts written by early European explorers who went to Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I read some of these accounts while in graduate school at the Uinversity of Chicago some twenty years ago and they have stuck in my brain ever since.
Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Comparative Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions and Texts by James A. Boon has some material on these early acciunts.
Europeans, then, tended to think of Africans – dark skins – as somehow inherently evil or at least inferior in some way to white people. Enslaving them was not seen as a sim, but rather an act of kindness or redemption. Exposing them to the Light of Christ was seen as our duty, although from what I’ve read over the years, most Europeans, and even many of the missionaries sent to convert the slaves to Christianity, felt that the Africans were beyond redemption.
But where does this cultural archetype come from that links white to Good and black to Evil? You have to look no further than the Christian Bible, especially the Gospel of John. Here are some classic examples:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
The Gospel of John Chapter 1 verses 1-4 King James Version
I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.
The Gospel of John Chapter 12 verse 46 King James Version
There are many other verses like this in the Gospel of John. I could find no references similar to these verses in the Synoptic Gospels. They are unique to John. Not even the Book of Revelations has this kind of language.
But, if it is unique to John, then we can make the argument that John’s Gospel is outside the early traditions of the Christian community. So, did John make it up or did he get it elsewhere?
I think we will find clues, if not the answer, in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Looking at a few of those scrolls and the people believed to be responsible for them – the Essense – will be the focus of the next installment.
Note: I nearly lost this post because of my ISP doing some unscheduled maintence. I was working on the rough draft very early Thursday morning. I had just finished the part up to the citations from The Gospel of John and was getting ready to do some more research on Gnosticism, I hit the save button on my WordPress editor and got a message that I had no internet connection. I was afraid I had lost what I had written, but when I came back a couple of hours later, what I had written was there. Talk about perfect timing!!! If I were a fundamentalist I could say that it was God’s grace that saved it, but I’m not, so I won’t. If you want to say it for me, feel free! 😆
I ran some searches on online versions of all four of the Gospels and fpind references to the opposition of Light and Dark only John’s Gospel. There were also some references to that opposition, supposedly written by the same author as the Gospel of John. Whether that is true is a matter of debate and is not really relevant to our discussion today.
Whoever the actual authors of both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations were, they both were heavily steeped in the apocalypticism of the first few centuries following the Crucifixion. And the imagery and language of both is heavily reminiscemt of the War Scrolls of the Essenes found at Qumran.
The Essemes, if that is who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, seem to have been dualists, diving the universe into Light and Dark, Good and Evil, with separate cosmic sources for each. This cosmic dualism seems to be present in the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations, although various orthodox Christan apologists, starting with Irenaeus [A.D. 120–202], have tried to rationalize out this dualism. Here is a link to an English translation of Irenaeus’ opus Against All Heresies. I recommend you at least read through the table of contents, paying especial attention to Book 2, Chapters IX, X amd Xi.
Christianity has never really resolved the issue of this dualism: If God is the solre creator and source of everything in the universe, then is he responsible for the evil in the world? But how can He be the infinitely Good and the source of all evil at the same time? To my knowledge, no Christian theologian has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. The more they try, the more they fall into heresy.
The pre-Christian worldview in Europe, grounded in Druidism, was very dualistic. I think that this is one reason why these “Gnostic” heresies flourished in Western Europe. And this dualism still very much informs Western culture today. Claude Levi-Strauss, a very influential French anthropologist, developed a theory of culture, structuralism, based on using binary oppositions, like good and evil. I’m not certain that it would work as well on non-Western cultures as it does on Western culture.
Christian fundamentalism is especially ripe for a structural analysis because of its strong use of binary oppositioms. That is what we will do in the next installment. Until then, peace.
Recommended reading: The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss
Postscript: Tring to answer the question of the existence of evil in a world with an all-powerful God who is Good is called theodicy. There are two new books coming out soon on this issue, Here’s a link to a review of them in the New York Times that is worth reading: Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God.