Why Americans Believe in the Illusion of Meritocracy | A Long Repentance Post #5 | New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa

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The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

Read Post #1.  Post #2.  Post #3Post #4.

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Meritocracy Displaced Natives

In our previous posts, we addressed how European Catholics and Protestants united racial ideology with theological heresy to assert that people of other races had different spiritual and intellectual capacities. In this post, we trace how these Western Christians used ‘racial differences’ and a misreading of Scripture to create a racist justification for colonization and white supremacy, which led them to enslave black people, and seize land from Native Americans.

White Protestants, in particular, developed a race-based justification on the philosophy of John Locke.  Since white Protestants could not look to the Catholic Pope’s ‘doctrine of discovery’ as their justification for seizing Native land, they turned to a twisted interpretation of the biblical text.  In his work, Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke draws out his notion of ‘property’ and those entitled to property from his reading of Genesis 1.

‘God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies (sic) of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to [land];) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.’[1]

Locke argued that according to Genesis 1, God gave land in common at first, but intended a shift of ownership to those who practice a certain kind of ‘labor.’  In Locke’s mind, God’s command to subdue and cultivate the land was synonymous with European-style settled agriculture and ‘improvement.’  For Locke, labor entitled people to property because, in his reading of Scripture, God did not want the land to remain ‘uncultivated’ and ‘wild’, but wanted the land to be used for ‘fruitful’ production. Therefore, Locke asserted that land should be given to those who are ‘industrious’ and ‘rational’, those capable of ‘working the land.’

To Hide the Racial Hierarchy

Correspondingly, Locke intentionally misrepresented Native Americans, even though he had better information in his own personal library,[1] becoming one of the earliest white people to accuse non-white people of ‘laziness.’[2] He said they were not entitled to the land because they did not ‘labor in’ or ‘improve’ it.[3] Using the white European as the exemplar of labor and industry, Locke asserted that Native Americans waste the gift of rich lands.  In his view, they refuse to improve it by labor.

Locke also interpreted Native Americans as ‘poor’ because they did not exhibit signs of European farming, technology, and wealth.  Locke simply did not have a place in his mind for nomadic and semi-nomadic people, despite Biblical Israel’s nomadic history and even Jesus’ commending his own pilgrim lifestyle to his disciples, ‘The Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Mt.8:20; Lk.9:58).  To Locke, the Natives’ relationship to land did not conform to European views of land, labor, and productivity; it therefore failed to win biblical support.

Locke’s reasoning was the product of theology distorted by race which Jennings describes in his book. Following Locke, the European colonizers used (racial) categories of ‘rational’ and ‘industrious’ supported by a heretical reading of Scripture to claim that they were biblically entitled to seize Native lands as their own.[4]

Locke’s influence on the U.S. founding fathers regarding property cannot be underestimated. Explicit in Locke’s view of property is the notion that those who ‘work’ the land should ‘deserve’ it and its benefits.  However, this false notion of meritocracy was (and is) still governed by a theology of racial hierarchy so that even once the white European Christians acknowledged that black and brown people were human, they continue to treat them as less than human based on race. ‘Whiteness’ became not just a skin tone, but the permission slip for the divine right to take stuff – the Doctrine of Discovery – for a few decades by the Catholic Church.

‘Whiteness’ was also the badge of belonging to a group God supposedly favors.  If you were white, you were thought of as more rational, more cultured, even more spiritual.  You were considered capable of citizenship and property ownership.  So in 1667, the colony of Virginia passed a law so that enslaved people who were baptized did not become free.[5]  Church tradition going back over a millenium stated that baptism did set any previously enslaved person free.[6]  White Protestants in Virginia decided to stop that.  They made being a white Christian the most important factor.

Many Americans, following Locke, believe that American society is a simple meritocracy for all people, when in fact it is not.  In reality, it continues to reflect a racial hierarchy.  Our next posts will examine this notion of ‘meritocracy’ and how it has actually been practiced in American society.

Check out this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

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[1] Morag Barbara Arneil, ‘All the World Was America’: John Locke and the American Indian (University College London, 1992), http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1317765/1/283910.pdf in this doctoral dissertation shows how Locke relied very selectively on travel journals and books in his library for information about Native Americans to portray them unfavorably.

[2] Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Nathan McDermott, ‘Homeland Security’s Head of Community Outreach Once Said Blacks Turned Cities to ‘Slums’ with ‘Laziness, Drug Use and Sexual Promiscuity’, CNN, November 16, 2017; https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/16/politics/kfile-jamie-johnson-dhs/index.html which is significant because Jamie Johnson, head of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was a pastor and ordained minister.  Rev. Johnson apologized for his comments, but it is significant that he was ‘a fixture in grassroots Republican politics in Iowa, serving as a GOP state committeeman and working for Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Donald Trump in the state. He also frequently appeared on the radio airwaves as a guest and as a host of his own weekend program and guest host for other conservative talk radio hosts.’  See also Lacey Young and Mari Hall, ‘The Lazy Mexican: A Damaging Stereotype That’s Far from the Truth,’ Montana Kaimin, May 3, 2017; http://www.montanakaimin.com/opinion/the-lazy-mexican-a-damaging-stereotype-that-s-far-from/article_8ef41c22-3034-11e7-95b9-83d270d08b2d.html writes, ‘According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average Mexican worked 2,246 hours in 2015, exceeding all other countries involved in the study. The average American worked 1,790 hours that same year.’

[3] Locke, Ch. 5, Sec. 41(emphasis added): ‘There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniencies [sic] we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.’

[4] John Quiggin, ‘John Locke Against Freedom,’ Jacobin Magazine, June 28, 2015 argues even more strongly that Locke legitimized expropriation and enslavement. Quiggin notes that even SCOTUS case Keto v. City of New London, Connecticut (2005) relied on faulty Lockean assumptions

[5] Virginia Slave Code of 1667, Act III, stated, ‘Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth… should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.’

[6] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p.28 notes, ‘Slavery ended in medieval Europe only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).  Within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition.’

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