Racism in the Church
It is easy to see why churchmen owned slaves. They could find sufficient evidence in the Bible to support their views. In Gen. 9:25 we read Noah's curse on his son Ham and all of Ham's descendants: "A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." Theologians understood that Ham was the very first ancestor of black Africans, and Noah's curse became justification for Christian Europe, and later for America, to enslave black Africans. The same excuse was used as biblical justification for racial segregation.
That part of the Bible could, of course, be interpreted in the opposite direction; that Ham was the white man and his brothers were black. But black enslavement suited the Europeans, so that was that.
The Bible indicates that Ham had sinned by having an incestuous relationship with Noah's wife, and hence cursed by Noah. Well, it's understandable that Noah was a bit miffed, but on a point of law, this happened before incest was a sin (Lev. 18 and 20). In any case, a curse like this is a rather pagan idea. God does not hold an offspring accountable for the actions of ancestors. As we see in Ezek. 18:20 and Deut. 24:16, each soul, each person, is responsible for their own actions.
There is no commandment from God that anyone should be a slave to anyone else - on the contrary1 - yet it took a long time before European and American Christians began to realise that.
About 250 years later, when slavery was abolished in the United States, many blacks were freed and wanted to participate in white churches. Well, the slavery might have officially ended but racism was still very strong. If any white church actually accepted former slaves into the congregation, they were either told to sit or stand at the back. In many cases, they were refused permission to enter the church at all, so they founded their own black churches, involuntarily enforcing segregation and self subjugation.
Until 1967, anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial marriage in several American states. It wasn't until 1978 that Mormon Church doctrine stopped segregating blacks and even today, many other individual churches continue to bow to their bigoted leaders.
Racism outside religion
'White' means 'morally pure'. A 'white lie' is not really a lie and a 'white-collar worker' is superior. Our dear leader, of course, lives in the White House. 'Black' is dirty. Wool from a black sheep cannot be dyed and consequently worthless. Black arts and black magic draw on malevolent powers. Nobody wants to be blackmailed or blacklisted for working on the black market. Black widow spiders are not so friendly and that thing which never lets you escape from the office, the infernal Blackberry.
Conversely, a 'white feather' is a symbol of cowardice and 'to whitewash' is to hide one's mistake. A 'white elephant' is something that's a waste of time, effort or money. And talking of money, if your account is in the black then that's pretty good.
In other words, the issue is not so black and white. There is nothing logical about one colour or one race being better than another. We all know, whether we are black or white, that our race, our colour, is the superior one.
That seems natural.
And yet interestingly, white people trying to get a sun-tan spend about as much money on ointment as black people do trying to lighten their skin. Peddlers of both darkening and lightening treatments claim their products will improve appearance. Also interesting is that the word 'black' stems from the Proto-Indo-European bhleg-, meaning 'burn' or 'scorch'. The same root produced 'bleach', 'bright' and 'white'. We all share the same ancestors and come from the same first seed.
If we think back to the times of earliest man, defence of his property, territory and family would be of paramount importance. Any other person in the vicinity would be competition and threat to the survival of the man and his family. People from another settlement or tribe would be an even bigger threat, because their intentions would be unknown. People from another race would be the biggest threat, simply because they are furthest from the family. And if the language or skin colour differed, then this would just compound the fear.
(Here's our one and only racist joke)
Racism and Christianity today
Today's racism is a legacy from the days of black African slavery, which was based on a misunderstanding of Gen. 9 mentioned at the top of this page. In the past, most Christians never read Genesis to the point that they fully understood what the Bible was saying. And they didn't need to read it; the Church did the thinking for them.
Today we are a little bit more enlightened. We realise that people of other countries, colours and cultures are people too, of the same human race, and that cooperation can be beneficial to both sides.
Conservative Christians leaning towards white supremacy forget that Ethiopia was a Christian country long before most of Europe and it's unlikely that Jesus was blue-eyed and blonde. We still harbour some of the survivalist fears that threatened our ancestors, but generally racism is recognised by all sane people as illogical, and by the Church as sinful. Racism elevates and exalts the superiority of one's own race and therefore becomes idolatry, which is something else Christians are supposed to avoid.
Corporately, churches have made and continue to make reparations and issue apologies. But of course, money cannot fix all injustices. And money certainly cannot pay for the sin. Only love can do that.
There is an ominous resurgence of slavery in the 21st century, and the victims quite probably outnumber those of the 17th and 18th centuries. One way to repair the past is for the Church, and its members, to work toward abolishing today's version of slavery.
If we don't, then we are like Noah; cursing our descendants to generations of future racism.