Race and Religion: The Elixir of Separation

By Maxwell, William W. | Cross Currents, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Race and Religion: The Elixir of Separation


Maxwell, William W., Cross Currents


Race--it is America's rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From
Birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting.
--Sig Gissler, Summer 1994

I add the following comment to Gissler's observation: From birth to death, race is one of the most personal of human experiences.

As a black male, I live race. I am acutely aware that my race constitutes a master status. In the eyes of whites and other non-blacks, my skin color, my most visible characteristic, is the most important piece of data about me. This condition is inescapable.

No scholar has definitively theorized about race, at least not to my satisfaction. Fancy language cannot explain it. And the voguish genetic and anthropological reports of late--arguing that humankind is one big family--have not generated useful clarity and better race relations.

Race produces racism, and racism naturally enables discrimination, from the most benign to the most horrific. Paradoxically, race is so familiar to us as groups and as individuals that we assume we understand it.

The truth, I believe, is that race actually confounds our understanding precisely because, besides being ever present, it is subconsciously lived by the victim and by the perpetrator, making it a seamless shroud of complex and often conflicting sentiments and behaviors. Furthermore, it is so familiar that many of us fail to realize that just as it harms the perpetrator and the victim alike, it indicts us in the same way, joining us, black and white, at the hip. In the United States, race is destiny, a reality that explains, in part, why when race comes up in conversation, even very smart people begin to, among other reactions, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, or excuse themselves from the room.

While most of us view ourselves as being decent, honorable, and ethical, the acknowledgment of race shames us and reminds us that for all of our laws and claims of believing in equality, we are creatures of exclusionism, which leads me directly into the relation between race and religion in America, the theme of this issue of CrossCurrents. The effects of race, our "rawest nerve," are most insidious when they emanate from the pulpit, from the pews, and from interpretations of passages in the Bible. Indeed, the uneasy and often volatile mix of race and religion constitutes a spiritual darkness that, ironically, strengthens the ignorance, the intolerance, and the aggression that have divided and morally diminished Americans since the first African slaves touched our shores, carrying their unique religions and Weltanschauungen.

Like race, the religious faith an individual practices is one of the most personal and most powerful of human experiences. The lessons we learn, the philosophies we adopt, and the styles of worship we internalize in the sanctuaries of our choice, or by family tradition, tend to anchor our lives permanently.

My personal journey

Each time I am in a situation involving discussions of race and religion, I find myself tiring of academic treatises. I always gravitate to the lessons I learned in the presence of my grandfather, Robert Albert Bentley, a Pentecostal minister who died in 1995 at age 92. He initiated my personal journey through the maze of religious faith, and he sparked my awareness of the role that race plays in religion. Born in Tampa, Florida, my grandfather dropped out of school in the 6th grade and went to work for the railroad. Years later, he became a fruit picker. I discuss my grandfather, with whom I lived for ten years in Crescent City, Florida, during the first fourteen years of my childhood, because this self-taught black preacher--who rarely had his Bible out of reach--was a wise man who read everything about religion that he could get his hands on.

In his special way, he apprehended the meaning of the intersection of race and religion. He did not have a complex theory. I began to pay attention to my grandfather's theology when I was about twelve years old. …

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