Color of Sin/Color of Skin



Nick Gier, Professor
Emeritus, University of Idaho (


Click here for
full scholarly article

Part of Equality Don’t You Understand?

Principles of Civil Disobedience: Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Rustin: The Gay Man Who Organized the 1963 March on Washington


We are whiter in our souls than the whitest of you. 

–The Black Queen of Meroe in the
Alexander Romance


I would like to
celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday with an instructive history lesson. We
tend to think that the two great scourges of humankind, sexism and racism, have
been around since the beginning of time.


With regard to sexism,
this is true. Aristotle, for example, believed that women do not have rational
souls, and he supported the traditional belief that women were simply the
property of men. Aristotle did justify slavery, but, up until 400 years ago,
just as many white as colored people were enslaved. Discrimination among the
ancients was based primarily on judging people as barbarians rather than being


Ancient Mediterranean
civilizations were genuine multiracial societies.  Africans were respected as
statesman, craftsmen, priests, soldiers, writers, and musicians.  Homer praised
the Ethiopians for their justice and their piety. Terence, a black writer from
Carthage, was given the same recognition as the white Roman Horace. No
occupation was denied them, and every temple, church, or synagogue welcomed
them. There were no laws against intermarriage and mixed couples were common.


Early Christian
communities had the advantage of not only being nonracist but nonsexist as
well.  Going against the grain, Jesus, the ancient world’s first true feminist,
developed close relations with women, and the apostle Paul traveled with women
preachers who were apparently equal in all respects. One of the first churches
was at the home of Mary, John Mark’s mother, and we now have evidence of women
priests officiating in early Christian services.


The conversion of the
Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) is proof that the early church meant what it
said when it declared that all are equal in the Body of Christ.  Early
theologians drew an amazing, at least for us, analogy between Moses representing
the Jewish Law and his black wife Zipporah symbolizing the Gentile Church. 
Protestant Bishop Joseph Hall preserved this traditional view: "Moses married a
Blackamoor; Christ [married] his church.  It is not for us to regard skin, but
the soul." 


The ancients
distinguished very carefully between the color of sin and the color of skin. 
They color coded sin in the same way that most of do today: Black was the color
of sin, evil, and death; and all things good and spiritual were white. In Indian
souls with bad karma are colored black, but light as well as dark skinned
Indians can possess these black souls.  Indian discrimination is vicious only
because it is based on caste not race. 


Discrimination on the
basis of skin color appears to have begun 400-500 years ago.  In the middle of
the 16th Century black immigrants in England were described as
"barbarous, treacherous, libidinous, and jealous."  Just as the juices of
English racism started flowing, Shakespeare chose to throw out a challenge to
his audiences.  Othello, a former slave and Muslim, is presented as a virtuous
Christian gentleman, while the white Iago, who himself admits that he has
committed "the blackest of sins," is the incarnation of evil. Cassio celebrates
the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as the union of a perfect soldier and
perfect woman.  A free, black man has risen to the top of Venetian society and
he falls only because of Iago’s deceit and his own blind jealousy.


In another article, I
have explored the philosophical reasons why we lost the ancients’ tolerance for
racial differences.  My conclusion is that modern people have emphasized the
individual so much that they now view other people more as objects rather than
subjects. It is supremely ironic that those people who
have been the victims of slavery and discrimination have a concept of human
nature that is social and relational. As Bishop
Desmond Tutu states: "In Africa we say a person is a person through other
persons. . . . The law of our being is that we have been created for
togetherness, for communion."  This is what Martin Luther King called "the
beloved community."


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