I’m so excited to have Drew Miller share his perspective on the injustices in our theology:
(And we can always use a preached word from Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil!)
In Genesis 10, the author gives us a genealogy explaining the nations that descended from Noah. In the American interpretive tradition, this passage was used as an excuse for slavery, arguing that the descendants of Ham were black, and since Ham was cursed, blacks must be too. This passage comes just after the chapter when God told Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply” (9:7). The genealogy, then, is not a condemnation of a certain people group–a reading which is clearly not in the text–but rather a fulfillment of Noah’s son’s faithfulness to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. The genealogy celebrates the many different people that came from Noah, their lands, and their languages–using it to condemn slavery is mission the whole point.
In the next chapter is the story of the Tower of Babel. The writer of this passage seems unaware of the previous genealogy of Chapter 10, which suggests that the descendants of Noah developed different languages (10:5, 20, 31), as he begins the passage, “Now the whole earth had the same language and the same words.” Such a beginning seems to suggest an ignorance of the culture–indicated in Chapter 9–which spoke various languages. The text however, undercuts this worldview later in in the same passaging, critiquing the ethnocentrism the first verse seems to suggest. Once the people begin to build the tower, God declares, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s language” (11:6-7). The text continues to say “from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of the earth.”
Another genealogy follows this passage; thus, two genealogies straddle the story of the Tower of Babel. On each side of God’s concern that nothing will become impossible for humans is the fulfillment of God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply, a fulfillment which creates a world of diverse peoples. While some might argue that in the story of Babel, God tries to maintain power over humanity, a more careful reading suggests that this passage declares God’s love and will for diversity, which Ched Meyers, to whom I owe much credit for this reading, has argued more extensively both here and in his essay in Buffalo Cry, Salmon Shout. If God’s issue was with human invention, God probably would not have allowed for much of the technology humans have created. The issue is not with the Tower of Babel itself, but rather with the way it was being used: to create a powerful, monocultural regime. God, throughout history, has sought to liberate humans from these kind of monoculturalism because it tends to ostracize outsiders.
In America, our tower of Babel has pinnacled in the white supremacy and normalcy. Like Babel, white America has developed a tower of power, both literally and figuratively; just look at the White House, which has only just now been occupied by a man of color. Our political, educational, and ecclesial institutions are dominated by a white presence, and whites often view themselves as “normal” rather than white, as if being a part of the majority made one “normal.” This is nothing against white individuals who hold positions of power, for as we see in the Tower of Babel, its not usually individuals who cause problems, it is communities.
White Christians need to be aware of the power we hold in institutions, because people of color already know it. In our blindness to our own culture and privilege, whites often fail to see ways our communities–intentionally or unintentionally–create monocultures that perpetuate racism and ostracize people of color. If we are to follow God’s action in the story of Babel, we need to learn to disperse our power, and to avoid the tempting power of monoculturalism and white normalcy.
This is not to say that white advocates can merely fix the problem of racism by putting on a smile and having good intentions. As Bruce Reyes-Chow has written here, and as Dr. David Leonard has established here, there are great problems with the paradigm that an ally can come and fix a problem that people of color have been fighting for centuries. The first thing whites need to do is become aware of the problem, and listen to the people who understand the nature and structure of racism. From my own experience, I know that in the conversation of racial reconciliation white people can feel fear and guilt–race is a taboo topic in white communities, and being a “racist” is highly frowned upon. But compared to the risk and pain people of color feel in their everyday experience of being a minority in a monoculture often unsympathetic or unaware of racial dynamics, the challenge white people must face in the conversation is minimal.
As Paul wrote to Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). White Christians need to realize the smallness of our fear in discussing race, and trust that the Holy Spirit that gave diverse Christians the ability to understand each other at Pentecost will help us understand each other today. Whether we are trying to or not, white communities enforce racism by remaining passively monocultural, becoming comfortable with he privilege and dominance imperialism has won us. God has not called us to build towers of power that enforce this monoculturalism, but rather calls us to disperse our power and share in community with those different than us. White communities need to take responsibility for the ways we enforce racism through an unawareness of the communities and cultures around us.
How may monocultural structures in your community make it harder for underrepresented people to be there, and how might you better listen to those who are excluded?
Drew is a writer and graduating senior at George Fox University. He has lived in Rwanda and France, and recently received a grant to study Native American and postcolonial theology. You can find more of his writings at whitemailbox.wordpress.com.