Is the Bible racist?

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the US – and more recently of Rayshard Brooks – has galvanised anti-racism activism under the 'Black Lives Matter' banner.

In the UK, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour. Other statues of figures believed to have had links with slavery or racist views have been defaced or threatened with removal, like the one of the Scout movement's founder Robert Baden-Powell.

As artefacts and institutions come under the spotlight, is the Bible itself free of the taint of racism? In terms of public opinion, the jury's very much still out. Bible Society recently undertook a survey of the views of nearly 20,000 people through the YouGov polling agency, in which they were asked what they thought about life, faith and the Bible. One section dealt with racism, and it found a sharp distinction between the views of churchgoers and non-churchgoers. Of those with no religion, 24 per cent think the Bible is actively against racial equality, while a further 21 per cent think it's 'mixed' in its messaging. So a total of 45 per cent, or nearly half, think the Bible's position on race is questionable. Compare that with the views of churchgoers, 81 per cent of whom think the Bible is in favour of racial equality – a huge perception gap.

But what's the reality behind the perception?

It's complicated by the fact that the Bible reflects the prevalence of slavery in the ancient world. It regulates it, but it doesn't condemn it as an institution. And because of our deep awareness of the evils of the transatlantic slave trade, with consequences that are urgent realities in the lives of millions today, it's impossible to separate slavery and racism – and any white Christian who writes about this has to acknowledge with shame that the Bible has been terribly misused to justify both. For instance, a Bible produced in the early 1800s for the use of slaves in the British-ruled West Indies removed all references to freedom. Large parts of it were cut, including the book of Exodus – not just because of the story of Moses liberating the enslaved Hebrews, but because of this verse: 'Whoever kidnaps a man, either to sell him or to keep him as a slave, is to be put to death' (Exodus 21.16). The Bible explicitly forbids what the slavers did. Galatians 3.28, which speaks of there being 'neither slave nor free', was cut – but Ephesians 6.5, which tells servants to be obedient to their masters, was not.

Another abuse of the Bible was in the hugely popular Scofield Reference Bible of 1917, which popularised a reading of the 'curse of Ham' in Genesis 9.1 after he saw his father Noah naked. This was taken – without a shred of evidence – to refer to the 'black races' and used to justify their continued oppression: 'A prophetic declaration is made that from Ham will descend an inferior and servile posterity.'

In these and other ways, the way the Bible is seen is affected by the way it's been used. It's seen in the light of Western colonialism by black people, and in the light of the Crusades by Muslims. So the Church in the West needs to learn how to remember these historical events and acknowledge how they affect people's perceptions today, and realise that there are some hard conversations to be held.

But is the Bible itself racist? We ought to admit there are parts of it that make for uncomfortable reading. In Ezra 9, after the Jews have returned from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem, he learns that some of them have married non-Jews. He says he was 'crushed with grief' by this (verse 3). Every case of intermarriage is investigated (10.17) and the culprits were named and shamed. 'All these men had foreign wives. They divorced them and sent them and their children away' (10.44).

This is unquestionably harsh to modern eyes. However, it has to be seen in its religious or spiritual context. It's not about skin colour but about faith, and a need to maintain the purity of the worship of God. The history of the Jews had been one of repeated failure to keep God's commandments, and intermarriage with people of other nations – who would bring their own gods with them – was a sign and cause of this.

Are there other clues about race in the Bible? Arguably our common descent from Adam and Eve is one. In Exodus 19.6 the people of Israel are told that they are to be 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' – priests to the world, in all its glorious variety of skin colours.

Another clue is in Numbers 12, where Moses marries a Cushite woman and his brother and sister criticise him for it. Cush was a region covering parts of what's now Ethiopia and Sudan, meaning this woman was certainly black – and possibly a slave. When Aaron and Miriam criticise him, they are objecting to her skin colour. As a consequence, God strikes Miriam with leprosy – and the writer says she 'turned as white as snow' (verse 10): blackness is honoured, while whiteness is associated with leprosy. There are other things in play in this story, too – Moses' authority is being challenged – but it's very noticeable that it's race that provides the spark for the conflict, and that Moses is on the right side. God hates racism so much that he gives racists leprosy.

In the New Testament, the first chapter of Matthew includes Gentiles in the lineage of Jesus: the biblical message is that God's kingdom is made up of one human race. Paul's famous words in Galatians 3.28 are about the status of believers in the Church, rather than about race. But they stand for an idea of radical equality, and they sum up what Christians hope for: 'So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.'

Is the Bible racist? No – and Christians should be outraged that it's been misused to justify racism in the past, and determined that it should never happen again. As Malachi 2.10 says: 'Don't we all have the same father? Didn't the same God create us all?' (GNB).

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