Theology, Racism and Religious Intolerance
How can the Christians and other religious groups look at the phenomenon of racism and racial discrimination? How do these appear in the context of a belief in God? The World Conference Against Racism and Racial Discrimination at Durban in South Africa in 2001 was an opportunity for some of the world’s religious leaders to concentrate on this topic where, included among the personalities giving speeches were Yasser Arafat of Palestine and Fidel Castro of Cuba, as well as indigenous populations including the Dalits (indigenous peoples of India) and Amerindians (indigenous of the Americas). A follow-up session took place in Geneva at the United Nations office.
Racism does not appear to be a ‘religious issue’ since no divine realities are included within it - it is a ‘human’ phenomenon with religious implications however, since it is considered as an ethical issue with which religion must be concerned. It is like war, one of those moral issues which concerns humanity and indirectly, human religion. Moreover, most religions oppose racism on principle.
Racism means setting off one group of humans against another group of humans, based upon the fact of origin, color or history of each of the different sides and the secondary criterion of ‘superiority’. The racist usually believes his / her own group is superior to another group and considers it quite allowed to demean the other group in words and actions.
Is there any aspect of theology which can touch upon racism and racial discrimination? Theology as a term means speech and philosophy about God and divinity, and about how God created human beings and controls them throughout history. Thus, we could say that racism concerns God’s creation. In specific terms, it concerns ‘evolution’, a topic about which many so-called ‘theological’ battles have been fought between the liberals and the fundamentalists within Christianity. Ask the question ‘how many years ago was the universe created?’ And answers will vary from billions of years ago to a few millenia of years, depending upon our view of history from a Christian perspective. Most scientifically-oriented Christians accept ‘evolutionary theories’ of the development of the universe and the human species, however. And by doing so they can forge a sound theological basis against racism and racial discrimination.
But certain ‘fundamentalists’ can find in the Bible indications of racial differentiation among peoples which provide a basis for racism. Moreover, within evolutionary theories we have all the recent discoveries about DNA and the ‘genome’. These discoveries show us that, logically, the human species began from the primate branch of animals and that - at the beginning of those animals we might call ‘human’ - there were only a few (or even only two) copies. One might say that every human being has a descent from a primitive couple. The finding of the remains of ‘Lucy’ dated 2 million years ago is typical of the discoveries related to the evolutionary beginnings of humanity. Even the various early ‘humans’ including homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, homo sapiens etc. – all are offshoots of the first ‘humans’. And from these first humans who began to populate the world all the way to the jungles of the Amazon or the prairies of Australia, all of us - today’s humans - descend. I have shown in my series of volumes on Only One Human Language that the proto-language of some groups of Amerindians in the Amazon and some aboriginals in Australia had the same language, and an DNA specialist at the Harvard School of Public Health, David Reich, has concluded that these groups also had the same DNA. This shows that all humanity began with only a few individuals. (1)
Whether this could convince ‘white supremacists’ to give up their ideology is perhaps doubtful, but it might dent his/her condescending pride that he/she has nothing to thank Africa for. Moreover, according to DNA research his/her skin color unfortunately was disclosed late in history after passing through some eras of blacker skin. Unfortunately, anti-evolutionary beliefs can buttress white racism by impeding the holding of a true knowledge of human history and its evolutionary aspects.
It is quite possible to be a Christian and also to believe in the evolution of creatures into animal and then into humans without denying the truths of the Christian religion, where the biblical basis rests upon Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are a good example of evolutionary thinking and DNA research, pointing back to our original couple. And these are symbols of our first ancestors. White nationalists and Africans as well as all others are their descendants and there are no ‘differing’ sources of the world’s human population. We could replace Adam and Eve by Lucy’s husband and Lucy herself if we so desire and the reality would be the same.
This is not to say that the reality of differing cultures in history is unimportant – studies in ethnology and cultures is also a way to compare peoples and bring rapprochement between them, but besides such differing manifestations of human activity and art, there is - behind it all - a unity of the DNA progression and genetic belonging. ‘White supremacy’ may find some support in looking at empires in history, but it has no genetic basis at all when we consider DNA research.
This is a god reason for Christians, in their concepts of history, to accept evolutionary theses about the origins of humankind. It will impede racism, which (if it has one) is an ideology of discrimination based upon ignorance of human evolution
Unfortunately, like disease, racism is another side of ‘evil god’ against which religions must struggle. It is one of those aspects of the world, perhaps unwanted but still existing, which challenge humans to resist. The ‘evil-god’ was in that special Tree in the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve were not supposed to pillage for its fruit. It held ’the knowledge of good and evil’ and since humans were not to use it for food, it indirectly symbolizes the mystery of the ‘evil god’ reality.
The biblical message of this part of the Book of Genesis means that ‘no-god’ and ‘evil-god’, as we have described them in this series of articles in our web-site, are aspects of God’s creation (like disease) for which we humans have no precise explanation as to their ultimate meaning except that we must fight against them, with God’s help.
The International Conference of the United Nations Against Racism and Racial Discrimination and Intolerance in 2001 was a good example of humanity naming this struggle and mobilizing various populations in the combat against it. It took place within the wider context for ‘human rights’ and the leader of the combat against Racism was the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations. That post had been created in 1993 in Vienna at the World Conference on Human Rights also sponsored by the United Nations, in which I recall both the Dalai Lama and a representative of the USA-based CDC (Center for Disease Control) took part. So, disease, racism and violation of human rights are three of the principal phenomena around which humanity must be mobilized, sharing in the challenging reality of ‘evil-god’. A few other realities may be named in this category, such as ‘ignorance’ or ‘deprivation of education’, and ‘lack of development’. Identical challenges face Christians and other religions in these spheres, and combats for improvement are necessary usually in the context of United Nations institutions and NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
The Conference at Durban in 2001 also concerned Intolerance, in particular religious intolerance. And intolerance of one culture or religion vis à vis another could easily be grouped together with racial discrimination. Religious Intolerance is certainly a theological topic par excellence. What does Almighty God ‘think about’ the various religions in the world, in the universe? In the mind of most religious leaders the ‘master of the Universe’ has a major concern and it is about the welfare of sentient beings that have evolved as part of Creation. Religious leaders have a similar major concern, which is the recognition of the master of the Universe by their fellow believers. These categorizations could be accepted as true for all religions. So, as the word re-ligio means ‘to tie together’ (in Latin), religions are links between God and creatures, each looking towards the other one.
Hence by definition, religions, having this aim as a general goal, should be tolerant of each other. In the context of Jesus’ sayings, we might remember his statement ‘he who is not against me is for me’ which is a helpful generalization for inter-religious dialogue. In today’s world - which seems united by new technology and reduced time of air travel - religious believers of all kinds contact each other closely every day, and for most people the religious belief of these, shopping or travelling, is not even known.
But it is the religious leaders who, in the very nature of their profession, illustrate the multiplicity of religions and beliefs, and it is difficult to avoid recognizing that these differences have a public relevance since there may be conflict over such differences (as there are conflicts over other human differences).
Hence the arrival of the World Council of Churches on the scene in 1948 at Amsterdam, the various dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches, and the Pontifical Commissions for Ecumenism and for Dialogue with Other Religions – all of which deal with problems arising within Christianity and beyond Christianity.
Moreover, there are a multitude of interfaith institutions sponsored by the various religions or between branches of the same religion, and large interfaith conferences such as sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan at Astana, within the beautiful building meant specially for these conferences. Such activities also take place at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and also at universities where ‘comparative religion’ is offered in the curriculum. The World Council of Churches in Geneva also has a special department for ‘Dialogue with other Religions’. Hence the Christian churches are presented with many opportunities for inter-religious dialogue and thus can combat ‘religious intolerance’ through these institutions.
But the ‘missionary movements’ in all religions have caused difficulties in this sphere. It is no secret that religions promoted outside one’s own religion can cause resentments and even open conflict. This is why the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 added ‘intolerance’ to its list of objects to be discussed. Religions must learn to be tolerant of each other. Thus, persons within the whole spectrum of world religions participated in the Durban Conference and two special daily seminars lasting a week discussed Religious Intolerance in its various aspects. I was in the secretariat for one of them. The other one discussed Anti-Semitism and my colleague participated in that one.
After working twenty-five years in the interfaith field, I have concluded that Christians are obliged to accept the fact of the existence of a certain number of other ‘world religions’ and that they should try to understand their inner workings, appreciating what we learn from them. We can have our own religious beliefs but we can also appreciate that others believe differently. If we are called upon to explain our faith and its theology, we should do it frankly and allow others to follow what they believe if they consider it best for themselves. This kind of ‘dialogue’ includes a simple statement of where each one stands.
Missionary work can also be supported, on certain conditions, whereby it is clear what the mission organization is trying to do, and if those of other religions accept it willingly as an alternative to their own beliefs, yet not accepting it as their own belief.
And besides this, if there are common battles which religions can do together such as for health, human rights or education, members of different religions can work together on these issues which all believe to be important.
Also, as we learn more about the human genome, we find that the word ‘love’ means a great deal in religions of all types, and on the basis of wide interpretations of this word (which is crucial to Christians) dialog and action partners can be found in any religion which is active in behalf of human progress. I have not found ‘love’ in Sufi poetry and Sufi morality much different than love in Christianity. In any case we are taught to love God and our neighbor in almost all religions, and this s a good basis for respecting any of the world religions.
Probably, at the ‘End of Time’ there will have been believers in all different religions who are ‘justified’ by the actions they performed in their lifetimes. Each will be judged on the basis of what they have learned in life and how they have lived. Otherwise, history would not make sense if only the Christians had such justification.
Photograph: ‘rock painting’ in Australia photographed by Graeme Churchard, Bristol (UK)