By Christopher Cudworth
Opening the Chicago Tribune the morning after the Boston Marathon, I read a wonderful article by Philip Hersh, one of the leading sportswriters in America. Not only was the article beautiful, so was the photo inside. The shot of the lead group flying through the early stages is such a wonderful illustration of what the race is all about.
And there’s that word: race. It means several different things of course. The word “race” can be used to describe an event in which we compete and it can also be used to refer to an indentifiable group of human beings.
Therein lies the problem. The idea of “race” also describes the manner in which some so-called human beings choose to use skin color or cultural characteristics as the basis for discrimination.
We’re all quite familiar with the history of racial strife and discrimination in America. The massacre of Native Americans was racially motivated, as was forced bondage of African-born people brought to the continent by slave traders.
So the history of race discrimination in America is not a pretty picture. That is why the photo of racers flying down the streets of the Boston Marathon is all the more compelling. There have been Boston Marathon victors from many races of people over the years. Black. White. Asian. People from all over the world converge on the streets of Boston to run as fast as they can and prove themselves equal to the day, the task, and the humanity of a footrace.
Yet the temptation to question the American citizenship of Meb Keflezighi proved too strong for some commentators to resist. Meb move to America with his family when he was 12. He spent his entire adult life here and earned his citizenship. But for some people that’s apparently not good enough. In their heads, the idea of being a true American is to be born here.
Sure, that’s one of the primary qualifications to be President of the United States. Lord knows we’ve heard enough of those citizenship questions about President Barack Obama, who was borne of a multi-racial marriage in the state of Hawaii.
That is just too confusing a scenario for some people to take. Demands for Barack’s birth certificate were politically motivated, yet those pursuits also held an underlying racism that has barely been concealed at the public level. Behind the scenes and on the Internet, racists have not held their tongues. They call our President racially provocative names and hold the man in contempt. That’s how small-minded people always act. They endeavor to empower themselves in creating a sense of “the other” through some set of rules they create to support their own supposed logic about purity of soul or race.
It happens on all kinds of fronts. Just try arguing a theological point sometime with a group of people who view the bible literally and see what transpires. First there’s the adamant denial that you have any sort of right to question their interpretation of the bible. When you persist in arguing the symbolic logic of the bible and how Jesus himself used metaphor in his parables, biblical literalists will argue that you are “picking and choosing” what to believe in the bible. Finally, when you point out that the Christian faith has indeed evolved, having long ago dumped its support for things like slavery, their heads just about explode. Slavery is a tarsnake of sorts in the bible. It is mentioned with such frequency and is even advocated as a form of tolerable punishment in Genesis 44:10 and as a sign of obedience in Romans 6:16 to name just two of hundreds of references to slavery, both positive and negative, in the Bible.*
So the Bible is not entirely innocent if you do not apply some form of cultural filter to its context. As a global society we’ve grown in our understanding of human and racial equality. Currently we’re engaged in a massive cultural debate about sexual orientation. Gay people are yet another category of human beings ostracized by a literal interpretation of the bible. Forget that Jesus never mentions the issue. If a clearly brilliant yet tortured soul like St. Paul can’t get his brain around a basic biological fact, then the rest of us aren’t allowed to do so? That’s a piece of cultural insanity that might possibly be the result of Paul’s own struggle with his sexual identity.
Here are the facts: We know from genetics that the human race is the same species. All the colors of skin and racial characteristics evidenced in the human race are simply adaptations to the many environments into which human beings have migrated. Being black or gay or transgender does not reduce the humanity of any individual. That should be the end-all in human philosophy.
And the genetic evidence points to the fact that we all likely descended from people who evolved in Africa. Those people moved out from the continent to other parts of the world, where genetics and environmental conditions went to work on the species, producing varieties of skin color and characteristics within the human race. We find the same principles of evolutionary adaptation at work in birds, fish and other living creatures. It’s how the world works. Yet we recognize that a species such as Homo sapiens is defined by identifiable characteristic such as the ability to reproduce. And humans certainly know how to do that.
Yet instead of celebrating this diversification and the enormously brilliant ability of evolution to enable the human race to thrive wherever it occurs, there are people who want to deny all this evolutionary history. They consistently use a literal interpretation of the bible to do just that.
Taken at a shallow, face-value level, the bible can be interpreted to suggest that all the races of the people in the world as well as animals, plants and living things right down to a microscopic level suddenly appeared in a 7-day period at the hand of God.
One must choose to forget the fact that there are giant holes in the Genesis story to believe such a thing. The moment when wives suddenly appear for Cain and Abel has never been sufficiently explained. Not without jumping through all kinds of inventive hoops.
The whole literal interpretation thing is nothing more than a massive denial of the fact that the bible was recorded from an oral history that mashed together creation stories from the Middle East into a tenable whole. While inspiring in its wisdom about the nature of human beings, the bible was never intended as a historical or scientific document.
Yet that latter contention is still being used to argue and contradict real science in American classrooms. And pathetically, the same form of literal interpretation has been used to create philosophies such as Manifest Destiny that led to the slaughter of Native Americans on grounds that the white race was divined to own America. The same sort of dull-headed view of Christians as a solely white and ostensibly superior race of human beings was used to justify slavery in America as well.
It’s a sickly disturbing worldview that is not easily debunked. The harder you try to argue with biblical literalists the more they entrench themselves in the “God Said It, And I Believe It” form of theology. They simply believe you can’t question anything in the bible or the whole thing falls apart.
And indeed that is true when you take the bible literally. That form of faith really is a house of cards. That’s why the cult inside the Christian religion that abides by the literalistic worldview is so determined to defend it at all costs. Deep inside their ideology they sense a tectonic fault in logic because the practical, everyday science used to produce modern medicine and science is so clear and demonstrable. But because it runs afoul of their simplistic worldview–the one thing that gives them a sense of control in this world–it must be resisted on supposedly holy grounds.
But when you gaze at that picture of the leaders of the Boston Marathon, and consider the wonderful visage of humanity it represents, you realize the small-minded threat of anachronistic worldviews is not destined to win the day. All the communal support for Boston this year is evidence as well of the humanistic philosophy that drives so much good in this world. Despite claims to the contrary, people are capable of doing good, serving others and reaching out in mercy to those impacted by an evil act like the bombings of last year’s Boston Marathon.
The terrorists who set off bombs in Boston may not have been religiously motivated, but the terrorists who crashed planes into buildings on 9/11 were. It is important to remember there are Christian terrorists and Muslim terrorists and the nationalistic terrorists who started World War II and massacred millions of Jews. The unfortunate fact is that the dark specter of a fundamental form of religion lurks behind it all.
Those of us who choose to find commonality in our evolutionary history embrace a competitor such as Meb Keflezighi as a fellow human being and American. Those who view him as an American carpetbagger and the member of an inferior race completely miss the significance of what he represents. That is, he symbolizes the best in human achievement.
Meb also struck a victory for the aging and the ages. Rising to the occasion for an American victory, and at the age of 38, proves that it is the human spirit that matters, not the color of one’s skin, the origin of one’s nationality or even how many years you’ve collected along the way. It’s more about who you are than what you are.
And to the point, whether some people care to admit it or not, we’re all Africans deep down. Bearing that knowledge, we can appreciate that every race we run is about human achievement as a whole, not whether one race or nation is superior to the other.
*“Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have it will become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”