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Illusion of race too-often supported by religion

By Ray Waddle

Some Americans say the election of Barack Obama proved we’re now a post-racial society – and his re-election proves again that race no longer matters.

I wish they were right, but I suspect they know they aren’t.

Brutally or subtly, racial animosity is still a defining American problem. In October, an Associated Press survey said racial prejudice has actually increased since Obama’s 2008 election. The poll shows high levels of anti-black sentiment – and anti-white feeling.

Can Christian belief rescue us from these old habits of thought? Religion, of course, has long been used to shore up racial hostility. In the U.S., Christianity has been abused to defend the indefensible – black slavery and white supremacy. Whenever race is tied to religion, religion never wins. It gets steely-eyed and narrow-minded and stingy-hearted and becomes a weapon of death.

Jesus didn’t talk about race. He had more interesting things to say about human potential and human identity. He talked about abundant life, the coming Kingdom of God, the first shall be last. These never had anything to do with racial identity, and they never will.

Some firmly established arguments still come as a shock to people who assume racial identity is the natural order of things. As the PBS documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion” says, race is a social and political idea, not a biological one. Race has no genetic basis. It’s an illusion used to justify social inequities and unfair advantages. And so racism remains a stubborn factor in dire U.S. statistics. Disproportionate numbers of African Americans are in prison, disproportionate numbers suffer from poverty, unemployment, poor health care access. Obama's election hasn't changed that.

The fact that race is an illusion shouldn’t shock people who believe in God. They should welcome it. The image of God is imprinted on each person, far deeper than any skin color. If I deny that divine image in anyone else, then I deny it in myself.

The truth of God should liberate people – victims and oppressors both – not reinforce discredited slogans and fear-based instincts. The body of Christ is one body moving forward. It’s waiting on us to get going.

There’s also this odd trend: despite the fact that this president is a Protestant, the number of people who believe Obama is Muslim has increased. My theory is: people who say the president is Muslim don’t really believe that. It’s a socially permissible way of saying, “He’s not one of us.”

– Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.

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