There’s a bit of everything in the bible – including racism

I love the bible more than most people,  because I love it as it really is, with all its faults, rather than the magically purified version some believers read. Or perhaps in fact they don’t read it, they just read little text boxes from it; for in truth only a large degree of ignorance of its contents, can convince people that the bible is holy. It is a magnificent mixture of myth, legend, history, theology, morality, folk tales, liturgy, law, poetry, philosophy and propaganda; it laughs and weeps and howls with rage; it has a terrible beauty, but holy it is not, nor inerrant, nor always even right.

IMG_0371One of the ways it’s not right is its racism, which is not at all peripheral to its message  but central: God has chosen the Jewish people as his own, and therefore he treats other races as disposable. The promised land originally belonged to various other peoples, some semitic, some asian, some indo-european, who must have had their good points, but the Bible regards them as so much trash to be ethnically cleansed from Canaan so that God’s people can take it over. At times the Lord gets so annoyed at the continued survival of some of these tribes that he punishes his own people for not killing them off with sufficient thoroughness.

Now scholars tell us that it didn’t happen that way, that the Jewish settlement of  Cannaan was gradual and mainly peaceful, but that’s not the point: the Bible tells a story of brutal conquest and ethnic cleansing, and tells it with approval, attributing a greater degree of racism to God than to his humans. Fact. Certainly within the Hebrew Bible there are counterblasts to this racism, such as the many laws commanding care of the stranger and the foreigner, as well as the books of Ruth and Jonah which tackle racism head on; but it is nevertheless integral to the main story of that  Bible, which is of God’s unconditional love for Israel, and his relative unconcern for other peoples.

The New Testament presents a very different picture. The earliest writings which are the letters of Paul, show a mission devoted to the inclusion of Gentiles along with Jews in the Assemblies of Jesus, and a theology which regards the rejection of Messiah Jesus by his own people as God’s way of opening up his sphere of favour to the Gentiles. Paul spends a lot of time teasing out the issues which arise in the life of a multi- ethnic community, and he is adamant that Jewish Torah rules should have no place in the life of God’s new people.

By the time when John’s Gospel was written, say 100 CE, a further change has taken place, in that there is real animosity between followers of Jesus and Torah -observant Jews, so much so that it repeatedly refers to the opposition to Jesus, as “The Jews” using rhe usual Greek word for Jews, “Iudaioi”.

IMG_0372This would be so blatant an instance of racism, that I translate it as “Judeans” instead, which gives the author the benefit of the doubt, that he may be referring to Jews of a particular sect, rather than the whole race. On the face of it however, we have, right in the heart of Christian scripture, a gross prejudice which has been used down the centuries as an excuse for persecuting Jewish people. In one of the tragic turns of history a race whose ideology set it above all other races, became a race that could be persecuted by Christendom for the crime of deicide, the murder of God. Paul’s multi- ethnic community which welcomed all-comers became, and remained for much of history, a church in whose scheme of salvation the hatred of Jews was well-embedded.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan,  visited Scotland last week, to give a speech at the Scottish Labour Party conference, in which he likened the national movement Scotland to racism, because both create separation between human beings on the grounds of their origin. The was a monumnetal stupidity even for a conference in which stupidies abounded. For a start the National party, the SNP includes people of all ethnic origins, including many English who live in Scotland. Its policy explicitly promotes a multicultural society and welcomes immigration and the free movement of labour within the EU.

But Khan’s error is also stupid in his view of nationalism as always exclusive, and likely to drift towards persecution on the  grounds of race. Yes, the Nazis were racist as well as nationalist. Yes, the Serbian nationalists who massacred Bosnians were also racist. But there is no good reason for imagining that all nationalisms are contamninated with arrogant exclusivity. The generous nationalisms of 19th century Greece and Italy were fired by a desire to create open and democratic societies.

IMG_0373The contamination of the Bible by racism is evidence that there is a deep-seated human impulse to fear the stranger, which can be corrupted into arrogance, exclusivity and hatred. If followers of Jesus are to oppose racism in their own societies and beyond, they must begin by confessing the racism in their holy book. But more, they should study the evidence of inclusiveness, multiracialism and equality in the writing of St Paul and in the communities of Jesus Messiah which he established. By any standards the man who argued that in his Messiah there was neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, slave nor free, deserves attention at a time when varieties of populism succeed by blaming the woes caused by capitalism on people of other race or nationality. If Christian churches could translate Paul’s inclusiveness into contemporary words and actions, they could redeem their own traditions and help build a humane alternative to the aggressive ghettos of Wilders, Farage, Trump and their like.

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