Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama, Race, and the Bible (Through Indian Eyes, Part II)

It's hard to imagine countries like Germany, France, Russia or Spain electing someone like Barack Obama to their highest office. America did so because the Bible wrote the principle of human equality into its cultural DNA. That made it possible for Obama to overcome racial barriers and win the election.

The Declaration of Independence begins with the line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." But Jefferson was wrong about one thing: Human equality is not "self-evident." Inequality is self-evident.

My ancestors were not dumb, but for them, inequality was obvious. They explained it with the ideas of karma and reincarnation, and they institutionalized it in caste and sex discrimination. Souls are born unequal-into different castes and sexes-because of their good or bad karma in previous lives. To be religious meant to respect these differences. An upper caste person would be polluted if he touched a lower caste person, excommunicated if he ate with one, and maybe killed if he married one.

People like Jefferson did think that belief in equality could be grounded in the Enlightenment philosophy of universal "reason" and "common sense." But what is called common sense differs in every culture. For instance, nearly all societies think that it is common sense that women are inferior to men. When Jefferson and Thomas Paine talked about "Common Sense" they were drawing upon a peculiar attempt of the Scottish Enlightenment to find an epistemology that could be a secular basis for ideas revealed in the Bible. The radical biblical idea of human equality had so deeply penetrated American culture that it appeared self-evident to the founders.

Of course, most Americans atheists will tell you that they believe in human equality too. But that's only because the Bible wrote that notion into America's cultural DNA. If atheists were writing the Declaration of Independence, they would have to write something like, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings have evolved equal, and are endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights..." But that would be absurd. There is no observable way in which all human beings are equal. Natural selection has never created political and social equality; if it did, we wouldn't need cultural revolutions and civil rights movements to bring it about. No, equality is a moral and theological idea that evolutionism can't support because evolution is a theory created to explain inequality in nature.

The Bible wrote the principle of human equality into the American soul by its insistence that all human beings, male and female, are made in God's image. We're all descended from one set of parents, Adam and Eve, and therefore are brothers and sisters. So no race or group is inherently superior or inferior to any other. We're all equal because we're all sinners, and yet because God loves us all equally. So we're all equally valuable in the eyes of the most important Valuer. We're all bound by, and protected by, the same moral law that originates from the same God. No one - not even the king - is exempt. This is the basis for political equality.

Jesus challenged the racism of his own culture by showing equal concern for the social outcasts--lepers, prostitutes, women, Samaritans, Greeks, Romans... He taught, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and expanded the scope of "neighbor" to include everyone. He told his followers to make disciples from "every nation," for every race had an equal right to the kingdom of God.

Later, some of Jesus' Jewish followers-called the Judaizers-tried to inject racial issues back into the early church, but the apostle Paul fought against it. He argued, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

In the 1500s, the German reformer Martin Luther discovered the truth of human equality in the New Testament doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers." The job of a housewife or a shoemaker was as sacred as the job of a priest. As the new vernacular translations and the printing press technology spread the Bible throughout Europe, this idea came with it. In the hands of public figures such as William Wilberforce, it led to the abolition of the slave trade. In America, it led to a civil war over the issue of slavery, then to women's liberation and racial civil rights movements.

Because Americans believe that everyone is already morally equal, they believe that everyone should be politically and socially equal. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin ran for office because women have not yet experienced themselves as politically equal to men. Barack Obama ran for office because black people have not yet experienced themselves as politically equal to white people. And the majority of white people in this country voted for him because they, too, shared this moral vision. This is the latest climax of a long, Bible-inspired movement for human rights.

Obama has chosen to put his hand on Lincoln's Bible to take his oath. This is especially fitting, because it was Lincoln's Bible that gave Lincoln the moral strength to preserve the union and free the slaves.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent comment. As reading your "The Quest for Freedom and Dignity" and found similar statements about inequality being self-evident rather than equality. A significant thought that I will incorporate into my own teaching among persecuted Christians. Thank you