Racism: A Legacy of Monotheism?

Nestor Ravilas

Racism is evil, and to root its origin to monotheism is quite distressing!

Monotheistic Christianity, along with other monotheistic religions, has been blamed for racism together with other forms of discriminations this world can name. The practice of classifying people on different categories might have been with us even before monotheism was introduced in Israel, or say, in Egypt by Akhenaten in 1400 BCE, few years ahead of Sinai story. Accusation has been lodged, however, that the dawn of belief in “one and only god” inadvertently intensifies not only racism but all forms of discrimination. Regina Schwartz herself on her book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, stresses this point which seemingly validates monotheism as the root of evil that has disintegrated us into warring factions.

What disdainful with racism is the idea that there are people who are less human and therefore innately dispensable. The unrecognizable, killable and therefore ungrievable people described by Judith Butler in most of her works. Among these ungrievable are the black people who figuratively and literally pinned their neck down by the knees of the superior white race. Count among them are the thousands of poor Filipinos wearing “tsinelas” (sandals) – fair games and unrecognizable — murdered without giving a fair chance to legal trial under the fake drive to clean the Philippine society of illegal drugs. If racism indeed was born out of monotheism, Christianity as monotheistic religion is, therefore, implicated and has to respond to those crimes committed against humanity.

The accusation actually is not hard to prove. We remember Nehemiah, driven by pious anger, had beaten and pulled out the hair of Israelite men who had taken foreign wives for themselves. Phinehas on his part, moved by divine zeal, pierced with spear both the Israelite and the Midianite woman he brought into the camp. And what remarkable in all these, Yahweh was seemingly delighted on both horrid acts. No wonder, therefore, the two incidents have been well utilized every time Christians have to justify their modern version of discriminating people. And when things starting to go out of hand and proportion like the disturbance now accelerating in the United States, we shrink back to our sobriety and ask, “Was it the true intention of monotheism, an exclusive relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people?”

Monotheism is a complex subject. When was the idea introduced to Israel is one convoluted strand of the study. The amicable position that wished to reconcile the tension between two major contesting opinions is that monotheism was introduced in Sinai event, but was not seriously followed, and later on, during the Babylonian exile, its implementation was suddenly intensified. My personal bias is with this middle position with an emphasis on the intensification during the exile.

The popular reading now is that monotheism was introduced as a revolutionary innovation and reform to cope with the trauma of defeat, destruction and eventually, the exile. It was propounded as a response after a thorough evaluation of reasons why they ended up in deportation with the city of Jerusalem left desolated. Monotheism, as it says, went as mere heading to various revolutionary reforms wished to mend the “sins” they considered responsible for Israel’s debacle. There are many of them which I cannot mentioned all here since I wish to make this monologue brief. Let me then begin by dropping a few of them as they pop up one after the other in my mind.

Covenant Theology – It is monotheism’s twin idea which refer to the contract of exclusivity of Israel’s relation to Yahweh. Covenant theology is actually not new in the Bible. But what is novel and radical in covenantism under monotheism is that Yahweh entered into a contract with the entire population. That is the revolutionary concept of monotheism in Exodus and was reiterated in Deuteronomy by Moses himself. In the past, God established covenants with individuals: Abraham, Lot, Moses, David, etc, and the population in general came as mere corollary to these covenants. People was placed at the receiving end of this individual covenant which means access to Yahweh was mediated by the chosen few. A kind of arrangement which became paradigmatic in pre-exilic Israel that resulted to the pattern of abuses, injustices, and oppression by the privileged few. To nullify this arrangement and in turn hinged Yahweh into a covenant with all the people is to get rid the pattern of discrimination, and consequently equalize and democratize access to the divine table.

Image of God – This phrase has been used primarily to propel human dignity. Though it bears little reality, it fails however to plumb the revolutionary content of the idea. You don’t confer image of God to anyone; that is profanity! In Egypt, where the Hebrews lived for many years, the image of God was a title accorded to Pharaohs, and was actually etched in the tombs of every dead Egyptian ruler. That conveys the significant role of kings in the cosmic order as mediator between the gods and the people. Along the way in the progression of Israel monarchy, and alongside with the eviction of the prophets from the royal court, Israel kings had adapted the high royal theology based on the “image of God”. The royal throne had begun to consider as throne of Yahweh in kingship psalms which was best exemplified in the report of the Chronicler where those who bowed down to Yahweh had bowed down at the same time to Solomon the king. To say therefore that all humans, men and women, black, white, brown and yellow, tall and short, fat and thin, rich and poor, were all created after the “image of Yahweh” is to say that we are all equal since we are all equally bearer of the image of the divine. To introduce the idea during the exile is to take away from the kings, from the political leaders, from anyone else the privilege of being a “second god”.

Son/s of God – This is another idea which was regretfully explored under the rubric of Christology to prove the divinity of Jesus which resulted to immense failure to appreciate how revolutionary it was when re-defined during the exile and afterwards. In surveying the Bible and other archaic literatures such as the Ugaritic texts, the phrase was used in ancient period to refer to divine beings. Later in monarchic time, the son or sons of God was used to refer exclusively to Israel kings. In Psalm 2 and other coronation psalms and coronation narratives, the king was addressed as “son of Yahweh”. What is interesting development in materials and literatures written during and after the exile, the title “sons of God” was democratized by taking it away from exclusive monarchical use and applied it to the entire population of Israel. The title that made the royal family especial and privilege is now being used to refer to the people’s relationship with Yahweh. All of them, not only the kings, are the sons of Yahweh!

Elusive or Transcendental God – This is an intricate one and a little harder to support since Yahweh or the gods are known to be present both in nature and in human families. What surprises us, however, is why the monotheistic reformers of the exile took pain to remove Yahweh from the temporal world and relocate Her outside. This removal or distanciation of the divine gave birth to the theological irony of God’s immanence and transcendence. Prior to the exile, however, Yahweh believed to dwell both in the Temple and in the palace (the throne of the king is the throne of Yahweh). Such indwelling of God accorded divine legitimacy to both religion and politics of Israel and the claim for monopoly of divine power, which is understandably susceptible to arrogance and despotic rule. To remove God and relocate Her outside, therefore, is to strip off both institutions with this sacred authority, and make God accessible and available to the entire population of the world. The elusive and transcendental God will never be an exclusive property of any temple or palace, but a God available to the entire sphere of the cosmos.

Universal God and Creator– This is directly related to the transcendental God discussed above in preceding section. It was generally presumed that Yahweh in the beginning was known among the Hebrews as their warrior God. The birth of the nation and the coming of the monarchy necessitated to promote Yahweh as Israel’s national God. Surprisingly, during the period where Israel was pitted against supreme powers in the latter part of 8th century up to the Babylonian exile in 6th century, the national God of Israel was elevated to universal and creator God. Literatures written during and after the exile highlighted this new understanding of Yahweh’s power and domain. The suspicion that this expansion of Yahweh’s domain was done to accommodate the role of Cyrus, a pagan king, as the new Moses or messiah who saved the Jews from the exile sounds reasonable. And to say that it was probably triggered by the motivation to compete with Marduk, the god of the Assyrian, who was also launched as creator and universal god during that same period might also be true. But more striking and reasonable among these is the fact that the idea has liberated Yahweh from the monopoly of one race, of the Israelites.

For emphasis, the notion of God as universal God and creator of the universe is a revolution within a revolution. Along with the notion that all humanity and not only the Israelites were created in “image of God,” the notion of God as universal God and creator counter the idea of covenant theology understood as the exclusive relationship between Yahweh and Israel I just discussed above. The divine emancipatory project of inclusivity and collectivism did not stop in Israel, or to any religion that claimed heir to Israel’s monotheistic faith like Christianity. It goes beyond Israel as implied in the mission of the universal God who created all humanity after his own image. No one has the monopoly of Yahweh, not of any eminent personality, not even the kings, nor Israel itself. Yahweh is the God of all creatures, and this was demonstrated in the new covenant with Yahweh’s son, Jesus, who was born, lived and died for all. The trajectory of the process of freedom and collectivism runs from the patriarchs, to the kings, to the entire Israel, to all human race, and finally, to the entire cosmos. This is what described now as mature monotheism, which subverts the immature version displayed by Phinehas and Nehemiah, who were probably driven by their particular social context but inadvertently set as paradigm for modern monotheistic religions like Christianity for its own practice of racism and discrimination.