The Bible and Race in the USA: Dating Human Worth

For many Christians, the season of Advent is a time to reevaluate what is worthwhile in the world. The idea is that at season’s end, the birth of Christ brings a new formulation of life’s fundamentals. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law  but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The gospel becomes an accounting of who and what is truly of value in God’s kingdom.

Even before I professionally delved into the study of the Bible, I was fascinated by the rather conspicuous rhetoric involved in this accounting. Luke 2–arguably the most referenced gospel in Christmas liturgies–kicks off with a census.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV)

Caesar is in the midst of making a list (checking it twice?) to see who, what, and how much is in his kingdom. In a textual version of Google Earth, we zoom from the seat of the Roman Empire to the governor of Syria to residential  Galilee and into a manger in Judean Bethlehem. Augustus’s books, if you will, are kept in serious order.

All the while we see a counter-currency on the rise. Word of a heavenly bitcoin is circulating, and people are finding it appealing. See the ruckus in one of the most value-laden prescriptions of Christianity in American culture (and my favorite).

As I went through my annual viewing of Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, I couldn’t help but recognize the competing narratives of value. Schulz makes no attempt at concealing his critique of capitalist culture with the “true” Christmas spirit. Of course the very idea that Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown is itself a Christmas institution suggests that the relationship between Christ(mas) culture and “more” culture may be more genealogical than oppositional.

Craig Martin-Capitalizing Religion.jpeg
To wrestle with the socio-economic complexities of commonplace like “Christ v. Culture” and “Spiritual But Not Religious,” see Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie (New York, Bloomsbury: 2014) or listen to the companion podcast episode by The Religious Studies Project or The New Books Network

My point here is not to belittle a heralded classic, no more than I am trying to defend a supposed vice. I’m just reminded of how difficult it is to work through such superstructures. This has been a real struggle throughout my Bible and Race in the USA seminar, especially as we’ve looked to accountings of American value around the label “Hispanic Americans.”

For starters, how do we properly inventory the people(s) we’re studying. This is a question that has lingered with us since our discussion with Israel Dominguez and Andie Alexander about Native Americans as a single designation for a plethora of communities. In the case of Hispanic Americans–a label that gained significant cache with a Nixon-era census–there’s considerable discussion as to what is to be gained (e.g. political-ethnic cohesion) or lost (i.e. cultural-ethnic specificity) with the term.

Again, gain and loss are in a much more dynamic relationship than simple opposition. When the class took stock of biblical engagement in Hispanic-American communities, we  saw how gains from one discourse served to compensate for losses in another. Such interpretive games may sound taxing, but humans get so invested in the product they overlook (even forget) the struggle involved. “Vale la pena con las scripturas.” “With the scriptures, it’s worth it.”

This dynamic is at play in this sign that’s making the rounds. Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA erected a trilingual side (English, Arabic, and Spanish) to bring unity in the midst of the 2016 presidential election. 

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“No Matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” Picture taken at Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren.

The nativist hispanophobic and islamophobic rhetoric of the President-Elect provides the context for the unity sentiment. Note how the ethnic discourse shifts to a biblically-inflected understanding of community (Mark 12:31 NRSV). Some interpret these signs as an “apolitical” contrast to a highly political moment, but a better explanation to me is that we’re witnessing one group saying that another’s accounting of human worth is outdated in comparison.

In this third volume of blog posts, we see the fascinating ways that Hispanic Americans align despite their different stances on current events. Each piece attempts to explain the way groups date their logics in biblical history and the socio-political work this entails.

Twila McAdams, “A Stand for Diversity.”

Amanda Robbins, “Pentecostalism’s through Hispanic Americans.”

Dr. Lloyd Barba, a C3 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Williams College, responds with a piece called “An America Past Time: Latina/o Pentecostals and the 11/9 Election.”

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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