Does God Recognize Race?

Rev. Dr. Terence K. Leathers is pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, North Carolina and a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action. Dr. Leathers received the Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Howard University, Masters of Divinity Degree from Howard University School of Divinity and Doctors of Ministry Degree from Wesley Theological Seminary.

<i>Rev. Dr. Terence Leathers</i>
Rev. Dr. Terence Leathers

Robert: Dr. Leathers, is there racism in the Bible?

Dr. Leathers: There is a story in the Book of Genesis concerning the origins of racism often referred to as The Curse of Ham. It was sometimes used by white slave owners to justify the industry of slavery. According to the story, Noah got drunk (perhaps in celebration of the flood being over and finding land). Ham, his son, saw his nakedness and disrespected him (and, perhaps, even worse). Noah issued a curse on his son Canaan. The curse indicated that he and his progeny would be in servitude to Noah's other sons and their progeny. Ham is considered to have become the father of most African and Middle Eastern dark-skinned people. This belief became a major plank in constructing racism. Therefore, the notion was that this biblical prophecy ought to be accepted and lived out by people of African descent. Certainly, this was a myth devoid of facts. But if a myth is promulgated long enough, it becomes truth in the minds of people.

Robert: Does God recognize race?

Dr. Leathers: I believe that God is a God of diversity. I believe that we are all individual masterpieces, unique and special in our own way. If we are made in God's image, we are reflections of God's identity and spirit. If this is the case, God's identity is much more than we can imagine and inclusive of all humankind. We may see race, but I think God sees past that. Our race is a part of us but not the sum total of who we are. Jesus gives credence to my argument. On many occasions, the Bible indicates that Jesus, while aware of outer appearance, sees past that and offers unconditional love. We can look at his encounter with the Samaritan woman. She was of a different racial and ethnic group than he was. Yet he engaged her in conversation because of the essence of who she was not how she looked.

Robert: There is a long list of discriminatory policies that have been instituted in the U.S. - from Jim Crow to unfair arrests and prison sentences that have exploded in recent decades - targeting Americans of color. Is it a sin to institute and knowingly support discriminatory polices?

Dr. Leathers: Yes, anything that limits the capacity of all of God's children to exercise their right to live their life in the fullness of God's love -- be it discriminatory or otherwise -- is counter to the belief that all humans are created equal. That's why the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was so critical to the social fabric of our country. We were being torn apart by injustice, segregation and the power elite refusing to acknowledge the role they played in a diseased society.

Robert: Does the issue of race come up in your church? In what context?

Dr. Leathers: No, not to a great extent. My church is located in a small southern community in North Carolina. While blatant racism is less evident, its remnants are visible. Unemployment among African Americans is higher than whites. African American boys are and continue to be suspended from school at a higher rate than any other racial group in the county.

Robert: Should religious leaders play a role in confronting racism? How so?

Dr. Leathers: Yes, we should. It is our calling to bring about the "Beloved community." We must insist that everyone be invited to the proverbial table of humanity (whether or not they are of a different racial or ethnic group). However, we must first deal with our own biases and prejudices. Second, we must be willing to start (if need be) the conversation about race in our communities of faith. Third, we must be willing to hear and receive all that will come from honest talk. Lastly, we must continue to develop outlets for further conversation.

Robert: As a spiritual leader, how would you advise us all to better embrace human diversity?

Dr. Leathers: That is simple--be open to love people regardless of their differences and your reluctance. As the old Nike commercial puts it, "Just Do it".

Robert: Thank you, Dr. Leathers. This is excellent advice.