Letters to Phil, #4 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

“What is this ‘race’ that you continue to mention?” you asked in your most recent letter. “People receive their identity from their families, their native lands, and their ancestral nations,” you continued. “What does the color of one’s skin have to do with anything? After all,” you noted, “I have at least four different shades of olive-brown skin in my own household, Why,” you repeated, “should that make any difference at all?”

Why, indeed, my friend? Skin tone should make no more difference to us than any other accident of birth. But, in my world, one’s skin color makes all the difference. Thereby hangs a tale that requires some lengthy telling. I’ll do what I can to clear this up. Bear with me, good Phil.

In my time and place, informed and enlightened people know that this thing we call “race” is what our scholars describe as a “social construction.” Race is a made-up classification and set of categories created to serve the economic and political interests of people in power.

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Europeans wanted to justify their oppression and enslavement of Africans, Indigenous people, Asians, and even some other Europeans. I know those labels mean little to you, since Africa, Asia, and Europe are not “nations.” But that’s how we talk about each other now (and some folks, wandering in ignorance, think those places are “nations” in some sense).

Skin color and related physical characteristics were a handy way to label some people as “other” and then “inferior” and even “sub-human.” That’s the real key here. The practice of enslavement and the concept of racial “difference” fit hand-in-glove for the (soon-to-be “white”) European invaders. The idea of race was and is the primary tool of imperial and colonial oppression and exploitation.

But “race” isn’t real.

As soon as I say that I have to qualify my statement. The concept of “race” isn’t rooted in any biological differences among human beings. It isn’t based on any inherent cultural or historical or political inferiority on the part of Black or Brown or Indigenous or Asian people. Nor is “race” founded on any inherent superiority on the part of white people.

“Race” isn’t “real” in any of those senses.

But race is very real as a tool for keeping the powerful in power. This social construction, this imaginary idea, justified huge intercontinental systems of Black enslavement and Indigenous genocide for three hundred years.

The idea of race provoked a massive civil war in my country. The war was between those who committed life and limb to Black enslavement and those who opposed that institution. After that war, race was the basis for a system that kept Black people enslaved, although covertly. It was the rationale for turning about one-third of my country into a one-party, totalitarian state.

Race has been the defining issue in my country for my entire life. Unfortunately, I have been hardly aware of that fact until recently. Race is the reason for state-sanctioned imprisonment and monitoring of millions of Black people, extra-judicial murders of Black people by police on an almost daily basis, and the continuing segregation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people into the poorest housing, schools, medical care, and jobs available.

So, Phil, “race” is not real. But race is powerful, and even deadly for the people who have been racialized by our system. It is a system that is perverse and demonic. I am ashamed to report that I have been and continue to be a beneficiary of that system because I am regarded as “white.”

You, my friend, know and understand prejudice. We humans tend to regard others with suspicion. The less the other is “like” me, the more likely that suspicion will become disdain. Prejudice is part of the human condition and requires spiritual and emotional maturity if it is to be managed well.

You are familiar also with stereotyping. Our scholars tell us that much of your social understanding is rooted in stereotypes. You and I remember, for example, blessed Nathanael’s words about our Lord – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

You expect specific characteristics and behavior based on ethnic status or social class status. Greeks are one type, for example, and Scythians are another. Slaves must be tortured into giving testimony, according to Imperial law, because slaves are inveterate and unrepentant liars. Thus, the power of stereotypes.

Ethnic superiority is, I believe, a concept familiar to you as well. The Greeks were certain that their civilization exceeded all others in scholarship, education, sophistication, and nobility. The Romans were sure they were superior to all their imperial conquests. After all, they won, right?

In addition, the Romans brought their laws, their roads, their indoor plumbing (including, alas, lead-lined piped), and their administrative and engineering genius with them. They had reasons to feel and act superior – and to impose that superiority on their supposed “inferiors.”

The only reasonable response was to agree to assimilation – to pay the social price associated with becoming “Roman.” Most folks were quite happy to accommodate to that assimilation because it brought great economic, political, social, and cultural benefits to individuals.

So, Phil, you have lived in and with your own social constructions, I think. I’d be interested in your thoughts about whether I’ve gotten this right or not. It’s true that some of your “constructions” are not nearly so “constructed” as is the idea of whiteness. Being a Greek or a Roman was connected to a place and a history. Being a Carthaginian or a Scythian connected one to a real culture and lineage.

Whiteness doesn’t do that for us. None of your constructions – some of which were used to justify the Roman system of enslavement – have been as effective or as permanent for you as race has been for us.

For example, when Onesimus slipped away from your house, it wasn’t that hard for him to melt into the crowds in Ephesus. Unless you had him branded or dog-collared – did you? I know it’s a bit indelicate to mention, but I think you see my point. Differences in skin color provided such a convenient handle for hanging on to and manipulating Otherness. That’s still the case.

You wondered in your letter how Christians could allow “race” to supersede our sibling relationships in Christ. You shared how this became a spiritual and moral concern for you shortly after your conversion to the faith. You also noted that Paul appealed to this reality quite strongly in his letter to you. He used all that family language about becoming Onesimus’ “father” and hoping that the two of you would be “brothers” in Christ.

You noted that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. Rather, all are one in Christ. Yes, we know that letter very well. No, it wasn’t lost to the Church for a time, as you speculated. If only we had that excuse.

That letter should have kept our system of enslavement from arising in the first place. At the very least, Christian faith and discipleship should have created intolerable tensions for slaveholders who converted. Clearly that happened in your case. Throughout history, that has happened in a few cases. But those cases were exceptions to the indecent, obscene, and unfaithful rule.

You know better than I how exceptional you were – even in merely having such struggles of conscience. Our archaeologists, for example, have recovered a slave collar from a few centuries after your time. The inscription on the collar reads, “I am the slave of Felix, the Archdeacon. Hold me, lest I flee.” Thus, my indelicate inquiry earlier.

Felix, a mid-level church bureaucrat, felt no pangs of conscience regarding the enslavement of other human beings. We don’t know if the slave in question was a Christian, but it’s not unlikely. In fact, most of our ancient theologians provided intellectual, ideological, and administrative support for the ongoing enslavement of humans in the Roman Empire.

Troubling as it may be, it would appear that Christian identity had little impact on the identity of slaveholding.

That record of hypocrisy continues to my present time. A Renaissance pope drafted the papal bulls to undergird and authorize African enslavement by Europeans. The Anglican church declared in the 1600’s that Christian baptism did not affect the “physical condition” of the baptized if you can imagine! That “physical condition” was, of course, enslavement.

Christian clergy taught the Good News of Jesus Christ to enslaved Africans in a truncated form with the hopes that this Good News would make them happy with their enslavement. Clergy preached sermons to keep the slaves docile and obedient. I am sad to report that Paul’s letter to you was often used for precisely that purpose – not to free anyone, but to keep them enslaved!

Hebrew scriptures were interpreted to justify Black “inferiority” and subjugation by white slaveholders. Christian churches became divided by race and continue to be divided in that way to my present time. White Christians continue to support the system of subjugation with overwhelming majorities. “Race” has become that “other gospel” against which Paul warned us in his letter to the Galatians. But we White American Christians have not listened much.

I’m sure, Phil, that I have raised as many questions as I’ve answered. Sorry about that! I’m anxious to hear your thoughts about what I’ve shared and your views on whether we’ve gotten your time “right” or not. Thanks for writing and reading.

Yours in Christ,

Low