My initial understanding of racism arrived deus ex machina when I was 14 standing in the back of a empty country church in Iowa. Years were still to pass before I met anyone whose ancestors weren’t northern European.
While I didn’t know any blacks, Latinos, or Asians, I knew “my people” well – good people, farming people. I was a keen observer from an early age. I knew “my people” were insecure about how people outside of the Midwest saw them. Farmers, bumpkins, clodhoppers, country folk.
The tenet that we were “made in God’s image” was spoken often from the pulpit and it was reassuring. Yes, humility might be praised and promoted – we could take pride in how humble we were – but knowing we were made in God’s image was a private pass in our back pocket if life went from humbling to humiliating. It was an assurance of value. We had affinity with the Almighty.
Alongside the push-pull between humility and God-heritage was the question of the nature of God. Our black earth, hogs, corn, and cows inclined us to believe in God as embodied, as a being with our senses but over-sized, while the vast formless sky revealed infinity. The trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit tried to meld these concepts, but anyone looking at the symbol can see it is too complex – this is part of this which is not part of that. It is contrived. Truth has to be more elegant. But that’s looking at it from now.
Looking at it from then, my people assumed Michelangelo got it right regarding God the Father. White, male, mighty. And we knew the Holy Spirit from the miracles of nature around us and by the feeling inside when we were being saved. Salvation was pure spirit, a visitation of light.
And Jesus, well, . . . Jesus made the whole thing human. We could relate to Jesus. He was a shepherd, which is a kind of farmer. And a carpenter, and a fisherman. Jesus was an all-around capable amazing guy. He would have made a great neighbor.
But we weren’t told we were created in Jesus’ image. We were told we were created in God’s image, and God, we understood, was the Father – a Father who played favorites, kept score, and wanted allegiance; and He watched us. “His eye is on the sparrow” was not entirely reassuring. He held all the power, as in “. . the Power, and the Glory forever and ever. Amen.” Good thing we were in the same family – white and Christian.
He had to be white. We were made in His image and we were white. This special standing elevated us from backbreaking labor. If other races were equally loved by God, then we were no longer special – and we needed special.
At age 14 I melded the psychological premise of “I feel better about myself if I think less of you” to the priority of believing you are created in the image of a God that favors you, and that it did not allow for people who did not look like you to be equally favored by God. Standing alone in the back of that church, I understood that prejudice attached itself to the belief that you were in a special relationship to God.
While I could not have said it at that time, what this means is that instead of being made in God’s image, we made God in our image and we made Him racist.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on claiming special status as God’s chosen people. It is a self-serving fault line of extremists of the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Extremists use it now and have used it historically in the name of (so-called holy and definitely unholy) wars, forced conversions, justification of violence, the Inquisition, genocide, prejudice, ghettoes, the Crusades, pogroms, expulsions, and occupation of other people’s land and property.
Terrorists of these three religions believe they are God’s, Allah’s, Yahweh’s favored children. They believe they are superior, privileged, and – having kinship with their racist and vengeful God – can act with impunity. They are on a mission of the highest calling.
It is, of course, only a small minority of people of any religion who become fanatics, and what I am saying is, we all know, only a sliver of the multiply causes of evil enacted in the world. But among those causes, we must examine the ideological seeds that are planted in people.
Speaking only for Christians: If we had been taught that we were created in the image of Jesus who loved and forgave and didn’t suffer pomposity perhaps life on our communal planet might have turned out differently.
Or if we had been taught that we were created out of the Holy Spirit, perhaps more of us would have felt and found the light inside us. That flame has no ethnicity, no favored people, it burns from love.
But many of us, instead of finding our light, judged ourselves as inferior, sought – and created – an all-power father, and gave ourselves permission to harm and kill “lesser people” in his name.
It is a cyclical internal process that becomes institutionalized and fills our world with horrors. Syria, Gaza, Ferguson, torture, drones, Guantanamo, rape, injustice, police brutality, destruction of the planet, child abuse, slavery, prejudice. This list goes on, and it breaks our hearts.
It is revealing, isn’t it, that human hearts break from the harm we do to each other? Is this how the Holy Spirit makes itself known to us? Is this how we wash away false gods?