It doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, barbarian, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters. (Colossians 3:11)
Imagine that you are a white minister—or at least you are light pink, as Stephen Biko noted—and you’ve married a black woman.
Your own sister, also white, complains bitterly to everyone in town about your interracial marriage, and uses it to question your spiritual judgement.
Her racist complaints reach the ear of the Almighty God, who answers by punishing your sister with a disease that turns her skin truly pure white. She has to be quarantined for a week.
“You think lighter skin is better?” says God, in effect.
“Oh, I’ll make you really white. Then maybe you’ll learn your racism is a disease.”
Moses lived this story in the Old Testament. In the book of Numbers, his sister Miriam was angry that he married a woman from Ethiopia (a region often called “Cush” in the Bible). To this day, people there are known for particularly dark skin.
As a Middle Eastern man, Moses was not “white” like my own European heritage, but he was lighter than most Ethiopians. Even God remarks on this in a rhetorical question to the prophet Jeremiah: “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin?” And God punished Miriam with leprosy, turning her skin “as white as snow.”
Miriam’s racism still casts its shadow.
The events in Charlottesville, my childhood home, are tragic. White supremacists and neo-Nazis — American-born terrorists—held a pro-white “alt-right” rally, beat people, and attempted to murder folks protesting against them (killing one). Dozens of people were injured. Amazingly, the police have largely stood by, uninvolved.
Such racist violence between citizens has been mostly dormant for decades, though black people in America have never forgotten the not-too-distant past when these were common. And they’ve been expecting its return, especially since America elected a President who takes counsel from white supremacists and refuses to condemn violent racism unless forced to.
KKK leader David Duke tweeted at Trump, “remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency.” The Charlottesville Nazis shouted “Heil Trump!” while marching, because they see him as one of their own. In this context, Trump’s initial response about seeing “many sides” is tacit agreement, which he then confirmed in his aggravated comments about “fine people on both sides”—as if there could be “fine” Nazis.
Even the Tiki Torch Company issued a stronger condemnation than Trump did. I wish I was joking. They had to say something, especially after one of the rally’s leaders said, “I love the torches. It’s spectacular; it’s theatrical and mystical and magical and religious, even.”
Ah, yes, “religious.” Some insist the rally around the Civil War statues is not about race, but about preserving and celebrating Southern beliefs and culture. But when that culture is literally built on racism, celebrating it is a fundamentally racist act. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens made it clear in 1861:
[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.
Stephens went on to justify slavery with Scripture, as many Southerners did. He failed to heed the story of Miriam; or the instruction of the Apostle Paul, who twice wrote that ethnicity does not matter before Jesus—literally “Christ is all that matters”—and that all of humanity is one race made by God. The so-called “curse of Ham” is a lie, even according to the most literalist Christians of our day.
All white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.
Here we see a reflection of Miriam, looking down on her darker-skinned family member as less human, failing to see racism as a disease. And we see it again in every voice and fist raised against equality, from the physical violence against the Civil Rights Movement, to the economic violence of Jim Crow laws; from the brutality and immunity of unjust law enforcement systems, to the white supremacist neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
These are not separate weeds sprouting up at random. They are shoots from the same deep root that has been there all along, never dug out. Black people see the connected system plainly and have said so again and again. It’s time for the rest of us to see it too.
Let us learn from Miriam, and fully treat our darker-skinned brothers and sisters as equals, reclaiming our nation and our systems for true fairness.
Anything else is a lie.
Photo credit: Artistic manipulation of a public domain photo of a pro-segregation protest in Little Rock, Arkansas, August 20, 1959; part of the U.S. News and World Report collection at the Library of Congress; found on Wikimedia Commons.