Napoleon used to say that “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich,” highlighting not only its relevance within society but also implying that is religion the responsible, in some degree, of upholding the class hierarchy that has permeated since Napoleon until our days.
Nowadays, the news of the killing of Afro-American activist George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, brought to light racial sentiments as the fuel behind the police brutality, not only in George Floyd’s case, but in other cases across the US. The happening triggered protests and disturbs all around the world under #Blacklivesmatter motto, demanding the defunding of police corporations, recognized as racists at its core, and the deinstitutionalization of the systemic racism, heavily intrinsic within US society.
United States of America has struggled with racism since its colonial times. First by the killing and submission of Native American, but most relevant to the topic at hand, by importing African slaves, from whom their offspring would become the actual African American population.
Then, could it be that the US racism problem was imported during colonialism rather than generated in recent times?
All historic signs show that yes, racism emigrated from Europe along with the colonizers, but went by unnoticed in the ships that crossed the Atlantic, like the plague. Racism crossed the seas into the new world in the shape of an asymptomatic virus of the mind called religion.
That’s right, Christianity is responsible for generation, validation and perpetuation of most of the conducts that today, we define as racist. But to have a better understanding, we need to go back in time to darker times: The Middle Ages.
Lindsay Kaplan in her book “Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity” (2019, Oxford Press) shows a formative role of Christian Theology in the trope of Jewish enslavement and how expanded towards Muslims and Africans, playing in the construction of modern racism.
Medieval religious discourses give rise to a racist idea of hereditary, cursed inferiority. These discourses authorized power to pronounce hierarchical relations as if it were reflecting divine will. In 1234, decretals of Pope Gregory IX invested the doctrine of perpetua servitus iudaeorum—perpetual servitude of the Jews—with the force of canonical law. According to this, Jews would have to remain in a condition of political servitude and abject humiliation until Judgment Day. The doctrine then found its way into the doctrine of servitus camerae imperialis, or servitude immediately subject to the Emperor’s authority, promulgated by Frederick II. Why Jews were being punished? We would ask. Simple as a consequence of crucifixion.
Paul’s citation of Hebrew scriptures, specifically of Esau and Hagar simultaneously develop a figural interpretive practice to construct a servile spiritual status of the Jews. Augustine writings sharpened the definition of Jewish servitude and expanded the figures to include the characters of Cain and Ham, as cited by Pope Gregory IX. And finally, a citation of Matthew 27:25 “His Blood be upon us and our children” was used to show the hereditary and enduring nature of the curse of the Jews.
Although the servitus iudaeorum does not signify actual enslavement of Jews to Christians, it relegated the Jews to a position of inferiority, in which they were discriminated basically in all aspects of life. It was the figural slavery implemented by the canon law which created a new racial status: second-class citizenship.
The development of this racial construct enabled the reapplication of these figures to use similar justifications to subordinate other infidels: Muslims and the pagan inhabitants of Africa. How? We might ask if they didn’t take part in the crucifixion.
Christian religious might point out that the idea of natural slavery conflicts with the Christian teaching that “God created humans equal and free.” But in Christianity, slavery results from sin, but since all are participants from the original sin, this servility does not appear to create a hierarchy. However, the elaboration of Christian freedom through salvation creates a category of cursed hereditary slavery that subordinates to Christians, producing a theological inherent inferiority.
In the late medieval Iberian blood purity statutes, they marked the bodies of converts to Christianity as retaining a trace of their inferior Jewish or Muslim status, considered being indelible, perpetual, and unalterable. A proof of this is exemplified in the analysis of Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, “Sumario de las cosas de Japon,” written during the sixteenth century. Valignano delves into the receptivity to salvation of different peoples, ranking as the most hopeless the converts from Judaism and Islam, “At the bottom, chained to the deepest suspicion of incapability, are the conversos (or marranos) and moriscos.” Valignano locates Africans with these New Christians.
Then Christianity begun its positioning of identity within European (white) identity and fully outside of the identities of Jews and Muslims.
“So God created man in his own image,” can be read in Genesis 1:27, however, great artists during the middle ages and centuries after dedicated their creativity in producing the biggest case of white-washing the humanity have seen… converting Jesus into a Caucasian man of white skin and blue eyes, despite the opposing traits and features of Jewish population inhabiting Judea at that time.
From this point, Christianity institutionalized the religious disdain for darker skin colors. In the thirteenth-century, the illustrations of Christ’s passion in the New Testament represented Jews as dark-skinned individuals, and many medieval literatures represented black Muslims who become white upon converting to Christianity. Many scholars have cited the association of the dark-skinned “Ethiopian” with sin, hell, and devil, as the colors black, blue and gray (used to depict them) were associated with death and damnation.
This way, Christianity used the curse of slavery imposed by Noah on Ham’s offspring in Genesis as justification for the enslavement of the habitants of Africa by the association of Ham with blackness. All this being recorded in canon law that worked as a way of international law back then, which was present in the fifteenth century during the Iberian establishment of the Atlantic trade of enslaved persons. Which ultimately led to the import of African slaves to America.
Racism didn’t arrive to America in the shape of as prejudice as is considered today, but as an enforceable law, considering there was no clear division between the state and the church. This racial division was (and still is) present in the religious practices, ranging from having dedicated churches and services for white and black people or specific racist doctrines like the ones claimed by Joseph Smith, who reasoned that the black skin resulted from the Curse of Cain and Ham, as discussed before. Joseph Smith even went further in claiming that the spirits of black people were lest valiant in the soul pre-existence in a distant planet where Elohim and Jesus live, according to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which congregates over 17 million members.
Across human history, we can observe that humans are not strangers to slavery, forming part in the dynamics of tribal wars, but it was until the involvement of medieval Christian theology that race is used to ascribe inferiority to a set of traits that would translate into skin color or blood.
During the disturbs associated the #Blacklivesmatter movement, the mob have targeted multiple statues of “enslavers” like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Christopher Columbus, but interestingly, even when out of those three only Columbus formed part of the colonizers, he didn’t invent slavery. The sin of the three was to be good Christians/Catholics and follow the canonic law that dictated “God created humans equal and free… unless you are Jewish or Muslim or African.”
M. Ch. Landa