As I read Drew Hart’s article in the April 2017 issue and especially the Clark Doll experiments with black and white dolls, It occurred to me that my Christian upbringing also reinforced the concept that black is bad and white is good.
I did not grow up in a racist family. In fact, one of my memories (the implications of which I did not fully comprehend at the time) was of how my father, who operated a non-denominational children’s camp in northeastern Pennsylvania, responded when the first two children of color came to camp. A father of white children from a local church that sent children to the camp came to my dad very irate, and demanded that he send these two children home or he would withdraw his children from camp. My dad refused and the man took his children and left. That was the beginning of our camp transitioning from all white children to mostly black children from New York City.
But I also remember clearly the repeated use of The Wordless Book in which sin is black and the blood of Jesus makes us white. And I think of many places in the Bible where black and dark and night are bad, and white and light are good. Psalms 51:7 and Isaiah 1:18 talk about being washed from sin to be “whiter than snow.” Interestingly, Isaiah says our sins are scarlet not black.
I worked in Zambia as a missionary doctor for 27 years. For my black colleagues, white skin is dirty and black skin is clean. But I do not quite know what to do with this. We cannot change the Bible and yet it seems to reinforce this problem of black being bad and white being good. Can we change the language to say sin is dirty and God washes us clean, without using the words black and white? Should we somehow modify our Sunday School teaching?
I would be interested in Dr. Hart’s thoughts on this.
John Spurrier, Dillsburg, Pennsylvania
Thank you for your thoughtful observations and questions. I think you are on the right track on multiple levels. I believe you are right to take my example of what happened with the Clark Doll experiments and try to make connections with how it touches y(our) life. The idea of racial hierarchy in which whiteness is seen as the standard of everything good, beautiful, and true while blackness represents immorality, ugliness, and inferiority can be seen in many spheres of life. And you are right that this presents a particular challenge for Christians because there are biblical metaphors that seem to perpetuate these ideas. On this, it is worth noting that the idea of modern racism that spread from imperial Europe to Africa, Latin America, and Asia did not exist during the creation of these metaphors. In other words, those words and metaphors were not “racially charged” sentiments in their original context.
This, however, doesn’t get us to safety. The truth is that racial hierarchy ideology developed within western (Christianized) Europe, which took those biblical metaphors as tools to bolster their diseased vision of humanity. While the original writers did not have race in mind, our racialized society was indeed created by misappropriating these texts to justify racial oppression. As such, a framework that makes whiteness and light good, and blackness and darkness bad, tends to unconsciously encourage unconscious bias. The subtle unconscious bias that has quietly socialized and trained us requires careful untangling.
This brings me to the third way I believe you are right. I think we must read our scriptures carefully so that the spirit of the message is not lost. Some people do not recognize how U. S. society continues to be plagued by race because of our 400 years of white supremacist history, but it is nonetheless our reality. As disciples of Jesus, we must resist anything that misrepresents Jesus and his reign. The church’s role has always been translation. We translate Israel’s story fulfilled in Jesus in scripture into our twenty-first century world, with our society’s challenges in view. We proclaim the good news that Jesus has come bringing his new society. What does it look like to find new words so that we are faithful for to our calling? There is no easy three-step process. I believe that part of the work is for local communities to have hard honest conversations about our racialized world, take responsibility for the sins of the church in perpetuating it, and then creatively and intentionally initiate new Christian disciplines and “translations” that demonstrate God’s love for all people, especially the least, last, and lost of society.
Drew Hart, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania