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A prophet's perspective

During my high school years in the Deep South, I attended two different churches. The first, a Baptist church with more than 1,000 members, took pride in its identity as a "Bible-loving church where the folks are friendly," and in its support of 105 foreign missionaries, whose prayer cards were pinned to a wall-sized map of the world at the rear of the sanctuary. That church was one of the main watering holes for famous evangelical speakers. I learned the Bible there.

In the sixties the deacon board mobilized lookout squads, and on Sundays these took turns patrolling the entrances to keep out all black "troublemakers." Lester Maddox himself sometimes attended there, approvingly. And when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, that church founded a private school and kindergarten as a haven for whites, expressly barring all black students.

The next church I attended was smaller, more fundamentalist, and more overtly racist. There I learned the theological basis to racism. The pastor taught that the Hebrew word "Ham" meant "burnt black," and that in his curse Noah consigned his son Ham to life as a lowly servant (Genesis 9). "That explains why black people make such good waiters and household servants," my pastor would say from the pulpit. "Watch a black waiter move through a crowded restaurant, swiveling his hips, balancing a tray of food above his head. He's good at that job because that's the job God destined him for in the curse of Ham." (No one bothered to point out that the curse was actually directed to Canaan, not Ham.)

That theology is still being taught today, in South Africa and in pockets of the American South. But far fewer people accept it now, and one of the main reasons, ...

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