One of the most popular stories of the Bible is the story of Noah who survived a great flood in an ark that he built himself. The story describes Noah and his family as having been chosen by God to be the sole survivors of this devastating disaster due to his superior character and exemplary virtues. The Bible said that Noah was a righteous man.
But like other Biblical, cultural or historical heroes, Noah was not perfect. The story about Noah continues to describe his life after the flood. An early post-flood incident reveals Noah’s human frailty and imperfection. According to Genesis chapter 9, Noah got drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent. Noah’s son, Ham, discovered his drunkenness and his nudity. Rather than to cover his inebriated and exposed father in a respectful and empathetic manner, Ham spread the inglorious news to his brothers about his honorable father’s insobriety. What the narrative describes as having followed this discovery has contributed to thousands of years of religiously based racism.
Noah was so disturbed about Ham having disrespected him (and perhaps even worse) that he issued a curse. A curse in Biblical parlance is an infliction of adversity including limitation, restriction or punishment, executed by some power for behavior that violates certain acceptable standards. A curse subjects the person or persons who were cursed to calamities that are attributable to their infraction or misdeed. In light of this understanding of a curse, one would assume that Noah would curse the person with whom he was displeased – Ham. But the text says that Noah cursed Canaan who was a son of Ham and who did nothing wrong. For reasons that have been speculated by all sorts of scholars, Noah skipped a generation and cursed one of the sons of his son who violated his moral expectations. While the explanations vary, they are unanimous in asserting that the curse was on Canaan. Despite this fact, various influential Jewish and Christian traditions have assigned the curse to Ham who is considered to have become the father of most African and Middle Eastern dark skinned people.
And that is a key link between western religious practice and racism. On its face it is incomprehensible that the same people who prayed to God, accepted Jesus as Savior, believe in Heaven and Hell, could also promote and practice the enslavement and maltreatment of Africans as they did. One must wonder how the highest court of a land that was founded by God fearing men could legally define a black human as being only three fifths human. The fact is that many of these justices like almost everyone in power at that time had been raised in a religious environment that taught that blacks were the descendants of Ham who was cursed by his father. This doctrine has been taught in Sunday schools and preached in pulpits throughout this country. It has been dubbed “The Curse of Ham.”
What we have inherited is a legacy of racism that is deeper than simple racial preferences or even basic ethnocentrism. American racism has had the aid and comfort of a theological construct perpetuated by churches that attribute racist intentions to God. This was the underpinning of American slavery, Jim Crow laws, and South African Apartheid.
Until religious leaders from all backgrounds are willing confront this historical reality and exorcise this demonic apostasy from religious culture, we will persist in very shallow, reactionary discussions about race and fail to address the underlying causes that define our thoughts and guide our deeds.