Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity, Apartheid and Racialism



Thank God I am black. White people will have a lot to answer for at the last judgement
Desmond Tutu (1931- ), Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa

The idea that racial or ethnic groups should be persecuted is very popular in the bible. God himself was keen on the extirpation of whole peoples, such as the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:3).

Believing that they had replaced the Jews as God's chosen people, Christians deduced that they were free to persecute and extirpate non-Christian peoples, and even that they were under a moral obligation to do so. When the Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain towards the end of the fifteenth century, racial legislation was passed to 'purify' the blood of the upper classes. Anyone with Jewish or Moorish blood was suspect and penalised. Under statutes of limpieza de sangre, the descendants of Jews and Moors, even though they were Christians, were debarred from universities, religious orders, military orders, and public office. In theory anyone who had any Jewish or Moorish ancester, however remote, was of "impure blood" and suffered accordingly. Such people were second class citizens. Moreover they were second class citizens for racial, not religious, reasons. There was no question about it: according to the rules even the most devout Christian should be punished for having even a single distant ancestor of the wrong race. In some places these second class citizens were obliged to intermarry well into the nineteenth century because the eclesiastical authorities refused licences for mixed mariages. Every candidate for the priesthood had to show purity of blood going back four generations. The last limpieza de sangre laws were repealed on 16th May 1865.

The prevailing Christian view by the end of the Middle Ages was that non-Europeans were inferior creatures. The Catholic Church debated for a long time whether newly discovered peoples around the world were even human. The problem was that there was no way of establishing whether or not they possessed souls. Indians in the Americas were a particular problem because they clearly had a high culture of their own, and the Catholic Church debated with itself for a long time over the nature and quality of these peoples. When a debate held in 1550 at Valladolid in Spain lead to the conclusion that American Indians were indeed fully human, it became difficult to justify keeping them in slavery. The short term solution was a system which was not called slavery, but which amounted to slavery (econmienda). The long term solution was to import slaves bought in Africa. No one in Christendom seems to have worried about the morality of enslaving Africans.

The Anglican Church was concerned about mental capacity, and was wary of trying to bring Christianity to people who might not be able to understand it. The most common view amongst Christians had been made explicit by the Barbados Assembly in 1681 when it stated of black slaves that "Savage Brutishness renders them wholly uncapable" of being converted . Most Christian slave owners had no doubt that the Assembly was right. There was however a lively debate, mainly among senior Anglicans, about the theological justification for converting slaves. It was commonly held that any drive towards conversion should be tailored towards the their greatly inferior mental capacities. Fed an appropriate diet of quiescent theology, blacks could, it was claimed, become perfect slaves: compliant, accommodating and socially calm. But this view was not universal amongst the slave masters, and few slaves were converted . One problem with converting slaves was the danger that some of them might win a place among the elect. As one slave owner asked "Is it possible that any of my slaves could go to Heaven, & I must see them there?" . It was generally believed that Heaven was reserved for European Christians. If for the occasional non-white were to qualify for Heaven, it was obvious to all that their sooty countenances would have to be transformed.

One reason why Christianity found it so difficult to make voluntary converts around the world was that it was so difficult for locals to become priests. They were usually denied the right to learn Latin or read the bible, and therefore could not hope for a career in the Church. The few who did could not hope to become bishops, largely because European priests were not prepared to serve under them. Such racism limited the spread of Christianity in many places, but most notably in India. In Africa the Churches changed their approaches in the twentieth century. East Africa saw its first black Catholic bishop in 1939, and its first black Anglican bishop in 1947.

The belief of European Christians that other races were inferior, led to colonisation and large scale abuse. The extirpation of native peoples in the Americas, in Australasia, and elsewhere around the world was of little consequence since these peoples were only pagans and might not even possess souls. They were slaves by nature. God had made them like that. Christian scholars and pseudo-scientists concurred. Sample non-Christians were kept in western zoos in the nineteenth century. There was an Australian aborigine in London Zoo. A Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga shared a cage with an orang-utan in the Bronx Zoo as late as 1906 .

Colonisation by European powers was seen as a God given opportunity for spreading the gospel to the heathen. It was a Christian duty, even when it led to the deaths of millions. God encouraged colonisation. He showed the way. He spoke to churchmen. He cleared the path for colonialists. His Churches were keen to convert or replace native heathen populations. Both Catholic and Protestant Churches encouraged colonialism. Typically, in Africa, missionaries would advance into new territories. Sooner or later they would sow discord, encouraging rebellion against unsympathetic local rulers. When bloodshed followed the Churches would appeal to European governments to intervene, and another territory would be annexed. This process seems to have accounted for more than half of the European colonies in Africa.

Churches were often guilty of complicity in massacres and atrocities resulting from colonial policy. For example King Leopold was granted control of the Congo in 1885 explicitly to bring Christianity to the benighted heathen. The atrocities perpetrated by his government in the Belgian Congo - the extensive use of slave labour and assorted murderous practices - were first concealed, then minimised by the Roman Church. The truth was published and international opinion mobilised by nineteenth century freethinkers. Indeed, almost the only criticism of colonisation and its evils came from freethinkers. The most notable critics were Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century and George Holyoake in the nineteenth, but their views were generally regarded as wicked, sinful, and contrary to God's will. Colonisation was regarded by almost all Christians as wholly good, divinely sanctioned and necessary, well into the twentieth century. European children were removed from their mothers and sent out to the colonies help stock these new lands. The children of single mothers in Britain for example were often entrusted to Church charities who told the children that they were orphans, and sent them to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other colonies. As the Archbishop of Perth pointed out in 1938 "If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teaming millions of our neighbouring asian races" .

Long after public opinion had forced Christians to abandon the practice of slavery, the prevailing orthodoxy was that non-whites were inferior spiritually, morally, and mentally. Once again the bible was cited as proof. A favourite prooftext was "Let them live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water…" (Joshua 9:21). All Churches maintained systems of racial discrimination and sustained them well into the twentieth century, including segregated churches and church-schools. Racial segregation was opposed largely by atheist intellectuals and other free thinkers. It was not bishops or clergymen, but unbelievers like Bertrand Russell who spread the idea that all should be treated equally.

In the USA where Christian values were strongest, millions of whites belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, an organisation extolled by all manner of churchmen. The Klan was so well accepted as a desirable part of Christian American life that it commonly featured in the media - both factual and fictional, and was enormously popular. The Rev. Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, for example was made into an influential film in 1915: D. W. Griffith's famous The Birth of a Nation, which explicitly glorifies the Klan. (The film is now rarely shown, and then only with heavy cuts).

Apartheid ("Segregation") remained longest where Christian belief was strongest. Black people were denied education, denied the vote, and denied civil rights. Segregation was the norm in health care, in church, on public transport, in places of entertainment, housing - almost every aspect of life. Inter-racial marriage was illegal in many states of the USA until the 1960's. The iniquity of such laws was brought to public attention by various black rights groups and white liberals. In the course of a few years public opinion shifted to such an extent that discrimination was made illegal. Once again the most strongly Christian states, like Alabama, fought a rearguard action in the name of God, and inter-racial marriage remained illegal in nineteen states until as late as 1967 .

It had become clear by the mid 1960s that world opinion was moving away from the traditional Christian acceptance of discrimination. In the future racist views were going to be politically and socially unacceptable. If the Churches continued to hold to traditional views they were likely to be left out on a limb. Suddenly most world Churches became aware of a new duty in the field of race relations. Now that the tide of battle had turned, they declared their opposition to all kinds of racism. To prove how deeply they held their new beliefs they joined in the badgering of those who stayed constant to the beliefs that they themselves had just abandoned. Ten years earlier many had shared with Mormons the view that black people were descended from Cain. He and his descendants had been cursed by the Lord with a black skin and prohibited from the priesthood . This sort of belief had been commonplace among white Christians - Catholics, Protestants, Baptists and other non-conformists alike. Now it was no longer acceptable to say such things openly. Mormons were pressed to fall into line with the new orthodoxy. They held out for as long as they could. Then God stepped in (as he had previously done over polygamy) to announce a politically astute change of policy. In June 1978 the church presidentannounced a divine revelation which reversed the Church's position. Black people could now become full members of the Church.

Attention next turned to the last bastion of Christian racism, South Africa. Through the 1960s the Dutch Reformed Church claimed biblical authority for the practise of apartheid, and no other Church had seriously opposed it. As Dr Verwoerd, the Prime Minister of South Africa had said "We did what God wanted us to do" . In the 1970s this line was no longer tenable. All other world Churches had performed a volte face, and were now aligned against their erstwhile ally. For a while the Dutch Reformed Church held out on its own against its fellow Christian denominations, still advocating the traditional Christian line. But the pressure became stronger as the chorus against it became louder. Eventually the Church gave way. By the 1980's the Dutch Reformed Church was assuring us that God did not approve of apartheid after all: in fact he disapproved of it. Within a generation the Church went from supporting apartheid to condemning it as "the Antichrist", just as other Churches had done a few years earlier. Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches even withdrew their full-time chaplains from the South African armed forces .

By the end of the 1960's the only remaining avowed white supremacists in the world were Christians. The hard-core of white supremacists in South Africa are still strong Christians, as are those in other countries. In America, Christians with traditional views keep alive the Ku Klux Klan. The well-known cowls and robes worn by members are the traditional garb of Christian penitents and pilgrims. The Christian cross plays an important rôle in their activities. They proudly wear the emblem on their robes, and use burning crosses to encourage a fear of God. They are, they say, conducting a Christian Crusade. This crusade has involved dozens of bombings and arson attacks on black churches, up to the 1990's. The Macedonia Baptist Church of South Carolina sued the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1996 after members had been arrested in connection with such arson attacks .

In many places throughout the world whites still go to one church, and blacks to a different one on the other side of town. Christians of one colour who try to attend Christian Churches of another are sent on their way, sometimes with a discrete word, sometimes with a less discrete word. This practice is very largely responsible for the growth of separate black Churches. So it is that all 14 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA happen to be white, although there are roughly as many black Baptists in the country . Black Churchgoers usually belong to all-black denominations . Black Catholics in the USA want a distinctive black American rite, and periodically threatened to set one up, with or without backing from the Vatican .

Effects of traditional Christian teachings still continue today, not only in organisations like the Ku Klux Klan, but among the mass of Christian believers. Traditional Christian attitudes cannot be obliterated in a single generation. Sociological studies in Britain and the USA have demonstrated that Christians still tend to be more racially prejudiced than non-Christians. In a book comparing the results of studies concerning prejudice the authors state that "The basic finding that church members are more prejudiced than non-members has been widely confirmed in American studies" . According to these studies Roman Catholics were the most prejudiced major denomination in the US. Similar studies showed that Anglicans were the most prejudiced in Britain . In another study religious orthodoxy was found to be positively correlated with belief in racial segregation .