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Racist extremists use Bible verses to justify killing


How did the Creator become a white racist? This question lurks behind the recent shooting rampage by Benjamin Smith, who spent the July 4th weekend cruising in his car in the Chicago and Northern Indiana areas, taking random shots at Jews (visible by their garb), African-Americans and Asians. Two were killed and another nine wounded before Smith shot himself in a police chase. Smith was a disciple of the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group boasting a few thousand members across the United States, whose members have been involved in racist leafletting and violence since l991.

The question occurs with new intensity in light of news reports about Buford O’Neal Furrow Jr., who opened fire in a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, Calif., and who later killed a Filipino-American letter carrier. Furrow likewise had ties to the underworld of white supremacists and allied far-right Christian groups.

The World Church of the Creator was founded in 1973 and is currently led from the home of Matthew Hale of East Peoria, Ill. It teaches that only white Anglo-Saxons are true human beings, descendents of Adam and Eve. Jews, according to this teaching, are the illegitimate offspring of Eve and Satan. African-Americans and other people of color are descendents of inferior non-Adamite anthropoids. This church believes that the United States should be “cleansed” of all Jews and non-whites. Officially this church claims this should happen by deportation, but the church also harbors scenarios of a coming apocalyptic holy war between the races.

Smith and Furrow both moved in this mental universe. An acquaintance from the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations explained the cause of Furrow’s shooting rampage this way: “The war against the white race. There’s a war of extermination against the white male.”

Mainstream Christians can only be repelled by such ideas, which seem to have little to do with Christian tradition. But such ideas have an old, if largely unrecognized, history in the churches generally and American Christianity in particular. There are four themes that have been woven together to produce the “theology” of the World Church of the Creator and other churches of the Christian Identity movement. These themes are: 1) the doctrine of orders of creation, 2) the belief in an elect nation, 3) theories that Jews and other races are not descendents of Adam, and 4) apocalyptic holy war between God’s elect and the minions of Satan.

The doctrine of the orders of creation is found in Scholastic thought, but was particularly developed by Calvinism. It draws on the household codes (for example, Colossians 3:18, 4:1; I Peter 2:13-3:7) of the New Testament to define the hierarchy of men over women, masters over slaves and parents over children as God’s ordained ordering of society, established by divine decree at Creation. With European colonization and enslavement of Africans, this doctrine was expanded to define the white race as fundamentally distinct from and superior to non-whites.

What God has created separate, humans may not mingle. To do so is to violate God’s order of creation and produce degenerate offspring. This idea underlay anti-miscegenation laws that forbade racial intermarriage in the United States, laws that remained on the books of some states into the l960s. South African apartheid, backed by the Afrikaner Calvinist theology, also drew on this theory.

The idea of the elect nation of Jewish tradition was appropriated by European nationalism in the 16th century to declare that one or another European nation is God’s elect. One expression of this was l9th century British Israelism, which taught that the British are the descendents of the 10 lost tribes of Israel who migrated to the British Isles. Americans appropriated with gusto the idea that they are the True Israel, God’s elect nation and residents of the Promised Land. In Christian Zionism this theme has been used to welcome Jews to America as special “kin,” as well as to establish a favored relationship between the United States and Israel.

But in the l930s, with the rise of fascism, this idea took an anti-Semitic turn. Jews were seen as engaging in a world conspiracy against God’s elect American nation. This was reenforced by an idea popular with l9th-century racists, namely that only people of the white race are descendents of Adam and Eve. Other races descend from pre-Adamite anthropoids or the coupling of Eve and Satan (which some rabbinic traditions saw as the source of Cain). American racists identified the Jews with this spurious offspring of Eve and Satan, and non-whites as the pre-Adamites.

These ideas were revived by Wesley A. Swift, Ku Klux Klan leader and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian, in 1948. Swift’s teachings became the root of various Christian Identity movements, such as the Aryan Nations, that rose in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a far right wing of the Christian right’s reaction against the successes of the civil rights movement.

While such Christian Identity groups number perhaps 50,000 core members, they have recently targeted alienated white youth in affluent suburbs and have considerable presence through a number of Web sites and the promotion of racist music aimed at the young. Thus, their potential for violence in a paranoid, gun-saturated culture on the eve of the second millennium is considerable.

Christian churches need to do more than wring their hands in dismay over such misunderstandings of Christian teaching. We need to take responsibility for more mainstream patterns of thought that feed racist extremism: belief in a God that ordered creation as a hierarchy, who approves the power of the rulers over the ruled, who favors some nations and religions over others, and who mandates war and violence as a way to establish God’s reign on earth.

(For further reading, see Michael Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, University of North Carolina Press, l994.)

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999