Thursday, September 3, 2009


Over the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that racism is a lot more insidious than I used to think. Hardly anyone nowadays would openly admit to being a racist, of course. But there are fashionable ways of expressing racist sentiments. And these covert outlets allow it to thrive. The absolutely insane reaction of some segments in our country to the immigration reform proposals of 2006 and 2007 is one sign of racism’s endurance. The utterly inexplicable charges of racism brought against the first Latina Supreme Court nominee are another. Most of all, the fact that the “Obama is a Muslim” and “Obama wasn’t born a citizen” memes could spread so quickly and remain so ingrained, despite all the countervailing evidence, is clear evidence of residual racism in America. No white president would have this problem. And as anyone who reads the comments section after any news article, blog post or YouTube video dealing with Jews in any way will tell you, anti-Semitism is alive and on the rise around the world. The average culprit in any of these cases would probably deny being racist. But make no mistake: whenever we view someone negatively even partially because of their heritage, racism is present. I am definitely guilty of it. You are probably guilty of it. That’s human nature. If we acknowledge it, we can fight it. If we deny it, it will only grow.

I bring this up because today in my international relations class, in the course of a discussion about terrorism, my professor suggested that terrorism will be a permanent feature of the world system from here on out, and that any war to eliminate it will necessarily last forever. One of my classmates – who is in his fourth year of Christian higher education – agreed, and suggested that the reason for this is that the terrorists are “of a-RAB descent,” and are thus descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, who God cursed to fight with Isaac forever.

Srsly? Srsly.

Naturally, I took exception to this. I’d like to elaborate on the exception I took here. This idea, which is probably more common among American Christians than I’d like to think, is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. So I’ll just start.

1) Not all terrorists are Arab.

2) Not even all Muslim terrorists are Arab – Muslim terrorists operate in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia. (On that note, Muslim and Arab are not synonymous, anymore than “Christian” and “European” are.)

3) The idea that God favors some races above others is totally incompatible with Christianity. God will redeem “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

4) And finally, in case you were wondering, God did not curse Ishmael. God blessed Ishmael and his descendants.

And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.”

(Genesis 17:18-20)

God kept his promise. The Arab nation is a great nation. They have huge problems, of course, but I will put Arab art, architecture, music, language, literature, philosophy and food up against any other culture’s. The Arab world preserved Greek and Roman wisdom for us during the Dark Ages. The Arab traditions of family and hospitality put the West to shame. The Arab church is strong in every Arab nation where they haven’t been driven out: Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and more.

(On that note, some people also think that God cursed Ham and his descendants in Genesis 9, and that this is the reason for Africa’s woes. God did not curse Ham and his descendants. Noah, a sinful man, cursed Ham’s son Canaan. Look it up.)

What my classmate said might sound shocking because of its bluntness, but I believe it reflects a strong racist undercurrent in Christian culture. Think about it. When you’re talking with friends and neighbors, and some recent atrocity in the Middle East comes up, what’s our default reaction? Something I hear all the time is, “They’re just never gonna stop fighting,” or “Violence is the only thing they understand,” or “They’ve been at it for thousands of years, it’s never gonna change.” First of all, the current Middle East conflict is only a hundred years old, by the broadest measurement. (Things didn’t really get rolling until 1936). Second of all, what makes us think that Middle Easterners are incapable of living in peace? Does any other people group in the world have this problem? Have you ever met a person who prefers - honestly prefers - fighting and killing and being killed to peace? Such people surely exist, but they are not limited to the Middle East. (See: Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo, Alexander “the Great,” etc.)

Europe was in an almost constant state of warfare from the fall of the Roman Empire till the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – and after that treaty came the Napoleanic wars, World War I and World War II, to name only the biggest ones. If we’re justified in condemning Middle Easterners to endless warfare after a mere one hundred years of fighting, surely a Middle Easterner living in 1945 would be justified in condemning the white race as hopelessly violent. But he would have been wrong, wouldn’t he? And so are we.

Middle Easterners are created in the image of God. They were created to live at peace with each other and with their God, just as we were. And when we write them off as incapable of that, we are being not only racist but blasphemous.


  1. Hear, hear. Especially to realizing that racism is insidious.

    I almost took International Relations this semester; now I almost wish I had, just so I could watch you "take exception" to something... Haven't seen a vigorous example of that yet.

  2. Thanks, Robert.

    International relations is fun so far. But my exception wasn't that exciting. I think I just said, "I strongly disagree with that," and then said why. I was a lot more vigorous at the Justice Week Palestine discussion last spring.

  3. Excellent Joel! Good point with the Ishmael thing. A lot of people focus on Genesis 16:12, and treat that as having to do with all his descendants, not just his own life.

    It is kind of scary how easy it is to justify racism that we are not even aware that we carry with us.