When people describe racism as systemic, is it clear to you what that means?
For me, when I think of that phrase, I am reminded of a Muslim teacher I once had in seminary whose specialty was the history of Christianity. When asked why he studied Christianity, he said, “Because, it’s in the air we breathe.” That is what systemic means — something pervasive. Problems can arise from not seeing something ubiquitously hidden in the air we breathe.
In a mostly Judeo-Christian culture, we don’t see when religiosity has crept in, influencing our thoughts or decisions. Our understandings may not be correct, but they remain as though they are. One simple example is that many of us believe Eve tempted Adam with an apple. Apples don’t come from the Middle East. The Bible never says that the fruit was an apple. It could have been a fig or a pomegranate, but we don’t know. We’ve come to accept the apple story and through art and story we pass it on, keeping the fallacy alive.
Often Eve is portrayed as a fair woman with long hair. We don’t know that she had long hair. Nor do we know what her skin color was. If we are open to science, we know that the first man and woman on earth were African with dark skin. Yet, in white society, Eve is portrayed as white, as is God, who is said to have created humankind in God’s image. Without twisting into theological knots, I think it at least useful to imagine, if the first people created in God’s image are black — doesn’t that imply that God is also?
Yet, for centuries, white Judeo-Christian culture has elevated a white bearded God. Michelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel becomes representative of God. A danger in accepting such a glorified image, is that white must be better, since God is white. The Bible has been used to explain slavery and why people of color ended up on the short end of the stick. The “Mark of Cain” is one story that’s been used to explain destiny. It’s a sad thing that the Bible gets used to spew erroneous racism into our culture.
Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, killed his brother, Abel. Afterward, God marked Cain so that he stood out and looked different. We don’t know how, but I like to imagine that if God, Adam and Eve were black, Cain might have lost his pigment. God punished Cain with some physical difference and placed a divine protection over him so that he would not suffer a premature death, forcing him to live an entire lifetime with guilt for what he did to his brother.
I imagine God hoping through the centuries that Cain’s descendants might figure out how to be their “brother’s keeper.” I imagine God crying in horror over slavery, beatings, lynchings, little girls bombed in a church basement, mass incarceration, disproportionate coronavirus deaths, and apathetic it’s-not-my-problem white folks.
I imagine God continuing to hope that Cain’s descendants would see their brother’s and sister’s equal needs for income, education, healthcare and fair treatment under the law. God was right there with George Floyd and many others in their final frightened moments when they could not breathe. God is still watching and waiting for Cain’s descendants to recognize that their long lives and economic blessings are not because they more closely resemble God, inherently making their lives worth more.
Do what you can to stop spreading such racist pandemic thoughts throughout the air we all must breathe.
May God Bless and Keep You.
The Rev. Nancy Bacon is at Tehachapi Community Church, UCC.