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From The Word

A Black Power in the First Testament

by Stephen Charles Mott

    Ethiopia represented the southern end of the world. The Ethiopian eunuch, the first identified Gentile convert (Acts 8), is theological significant for Luke's purpose in showing the faithfulness to Jesus' mandate to be witnesses to the end of the earth. The first extension of the gospel beyond Israel to the Gentile world is to and through the Ethiopian. The witness was brought by this black believer as he returned home. In reaching the ends of the earth, the good news extended to people of all colors.

    The Cushites, mentioned several times in the First Testament, prepare the way for this interpretation. The Cushites are clearly black and African. Professor J. Daniel Hays demonstrates this thoroughly in a recent two-part article (Bibliotheca Sacra, 1996). Cush is the land upstream from the fourth cataract of the Nile River in what today is Sudan. This is the area of the great bend in the river as it flows southwest before resuming its northerly flow. The Greeks called the black people south of Egypt "Ethiopians," but most of these were Cushites. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates Cushite as Ethiopian.

    The Cushites were black people with classic negroid features. Professor Hays shows how this is portrayed in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. Many of the artistic portrayals can be found in beautiful color pictures in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. 1, edited by Ladislas Bugner (1976). One picture shows a battle between a 14th century B.C. Pharaoh and the Cushites. These famous archers are black, not merely dark-skinned or tanned. The Cushite king who ruled Egypt as pharaoh around 700 B.C. is not portrayed in the art style of the Egyptian pharaohs. His features are thick lips, broad nose, and tight curly hair. A scene from about 1120 B.C. shows individuals of four nationalities; the Cushite similarly has traditional negroid features. As Frank Snowden demonstrates in his Before Color Prejudice (1983), the Cushites (i.e. Ethiopians in Greek usage) in ancient literature not only are described as black, but also have flat noses, thick lips, and woolly hair.

    The Cushites were not a marginal, backward people in relationship to the surrounding nations. They were one of the major powers in the ancient Near East for over two thousand years. Professor Hays argues that they should be given a proper place alongside the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and other significant nations of the ancient world. In the earlier period, around 2000 B.C., their culture produced some of the most advanced pottery of that period. Their area was the general gold-mine of the ancient world. Adept as warriors, they served other nations as auxiliary troops. Later in the Assyrian period there was an iron-smelting industry in their major city.

    In the late second millennium B.C. they were under Egyptian control and had considerable intermingling with the Egyptians. Some were of a wealthy high social standing; some were slaves. They embraced many aspects of Egyptian culture in this period. In 720 B.C. the Cushite king Piye led the first successful invasion of Egypt in over one thousand years and established the twenty-fifth dynasty of rulers over Egypt. The Assyrians then took Egypt but were unable to invade Cush. This similarly was the case for the Persians, Greeks under Alexander, and the Romans. The Roman period was one of peace and prosperity with a flourishing of art and architecture.

    The Cushites are referred to fifty-four times in the Bible. Many of the references picture them as a known and significant people but one which dwells at the farther limit of the known world (Esther 1:1). They are cited often in descriptions of the extent of God's care and judgment (e.g. Ezek. 30:4-8). Isaiah pictures them as an attractive and powerful people at the end of the world, yet who also are under GodŐs power and judgment. In Psalm 87:4, God states that there are citizens of the city of God among representatives of all the nations of the world, including Cush. "'This one was born there,' they say." As James Luther Mays interprets it (Psalms, 1994), "those who acknowledge the Lord have a birthright status in Zion, no matter where they live." This includes this black people on edge of civilization.

    In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron grumble against Moses because he married a Cushite wife. God responds in anger and judgment against Miriam and Aaron. Miriam becomes leprous. John Holder interprets that the racists opposing Moses' black wife are ironically made "white as snow." The message when confronted with racism is that "God is not a racist, and neither am I" (Journal of Religious Thought, 1993, p. 50). I don't see, however, that skin color is the issue in these cultures although it is noted. Jeremiah asks, "Can Cushites change their skin?" but not because they would be expected to want to change anymore than leopards would want to change their spots (13:23). Rather, the issue in Numbers 12 is that she is a foreign woman; and, as God's answer indicates, even that is a smoke screen for challenging Moses' unique role.

    In his conclusion of the significance of the many references to the Cushites in the Bible, Professor notes that black people were a regular part of the Biblical world. As far back as nations go, Cush was there (Gen. 2:13; 10:6). The black heritage in the Bible and ancient world is rich and deep. We could add, we are the ones who are out of step when we leave it out and exclude its bearers.

    As representing the significant people at the far extent of the world to the south, the Cushites in the First Testament also prepare for the extraordinary role Luke gives to the black witness to Ethiopia.

From The Word

The Black African Who Brought the Gospel to the End of the Earth

by Stephen Charles Mott

    The first Gentile convert in Acts, at least first identified, is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). The Samaritans, with whom Philip had ministered earlier in the chapter, were ethnically related to the Jews. This perhaps made their religious "departures" all the more hateful and threatening. The Ethiopian eunuch, however, came from a people completely Gentile. (His being a eunuch was also significant, because eunuchs had been excluded [Deut. 23:1]. I want to concentrate in this column, however, on his Ethiopian identity.) Would Luke's readers understand an Ethiopian to be African as we know it? Is racial inclusiveness being brought into the scheme of Acts? The answer has to be a strong "Yes!" to both questions.

    Ethiopian (in Greek Aithiops) was "the most common generic word denoting a Negroid type in Greco-Roman usage." This statement is made by Professor Clarice J. Martin in his strong essay on the Ethiopian eunuch (reprinted in The Bible and Liberation, ed. N. Gottwald and R. Horsley, 1993). Professor Martin draws also on Frank Snowden's study, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (1970). Prodigious evidence from the ancient Greek and Roman writers and artists indicates that whether in the land of their origin or as expatriated in Mediterranean lands, skin color was uppermost when Greek and Romans described Ethiopians. Black and Ethiopian were almost synonymous. "To wash an Ethiopian white" was a proverbial expression. Their skin was viewed as blacker than that of any other people. The Indians whom Alexander the Great visited were said to be blacker than the rest of humankind with the exception of the Ethiopians. They were also characterized, or stereotyped, by "puffy" or "thick" lips, tightly curled or "wooly" hair and a flat or "broad" nose.

    Professor Martin found that the ethnic identity of the Ethiopian in Acts 8 had been ignored by most writers. When it was admitted, often the significance of this for the theological perspective of Luke and Acts was not drawn.

    The central concern of the book of Acts is to show how the early church by the power of the Holy Spirit fulfilled Jesus' departing statement that they were to be his witnesses "to end of the earth" (1:8). This meant the remotest parts of the world. In this as the redeemed people, they were fulfilling the prophesy that the Servant of the Lord was to be "a light to the nations," bringing God's salvation "to the end of the earth" (Isa. 49:6).
Acts' main story line is to show this witness brought to Rome, the geographic, political, and psychological center of the empire. That is a long journey to the center. Rome is not the end of the earth, however. Acts 8 and the Ethiopian is thus crucial for its portrayal of the early church. 

    Luke-Acts has an interest in the scattered ends of the earth. For example, as Professor Martin notes, when Jesus describes from where the peoples in the Reign of God will come, only Luke includes "from the north and south" along with the words from "east and west" (Luke 13:29, cf. Matt. 8:11). These are the four ends of the earth. 

    Ethiopia represented the south. It referred to area of the upper Nile, the corridor where the cultures of the Mediterranean and the African worlds met. As Professor Martin notes, the geographer Strabo (1st century A.D.) in fact called all peoples south of Libya "Ethiopians." Each end of the world was represented by Greek and Roman writers with a particular group. The Ethiopians represented the south, as the Indians did the north, the Indians the east, Scythians the north, and Celts or Iberians the west. 

    For Luke the Ethiopian represented the ends of the earth. The Christians witness extended not only to the political capital; it reached the margins. In reaching the ends of the earth, the good news extended to people of all colors. In fact the first extension of the gospel beyond Israel to the Gentile world is to and through the Ethiopian.

    Professor Martin raises the question, how did the gospel then actually reach the ends of the earth? The witness was brought by this black believer as he returned home. Martin cites C. Eric Lincoln, who saw the empowering significance of this text. The Ethiopian is not merely recipient. He is participant. He "symbolizes from the beginning the African involvement in the new faith that was to spread throughout the world" (Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma, 1984, p. 24). Whenever the Christian church has fallen from that full inclusion or seeks anything less in life around it, it has fallen short of its standard in the book of Acts.

From The Word

God the Creator and the Destruction of Racism

by Stephen Charles Mott


    The most dominant attack on racism in the Christian tradition has been the conception of God as the universal creator. The creation account in Genesis discloses the nature of God's relationship with the world. All human beings have a common origin in the man and woman created by God. The dignity of the original human beings is established not by a description of their attributes. Their dignity rather stands in the fact that God is their creator, that God blessed them and declared them good (Gen. 1:28, 31), indeed that they were created in the image of God. No human being is an exception to this common origin.

    Such an universal egalitarian foundation to humanity is not inherent in creation stories. One of the oldest Chinese creation myths, for example, stated that humans were made from the yellow earth. Among them, however, nobles were sculpted, but the poor were made by dripping mud from a rope. In Scripture there is no possibility for such distinctions.

Scripture also demonstrates the marring of the human creation in the primordial fall into sin. This fall, however, is just as universal in its implications as the creation. The fall is attributed to the original man and woman, from whom all peoples descend, no matter their race, class, or culture.

    The fall, however, provides a basis for showing that racial discrimination lies in sinfulness, not in hierarchical differences established by the Creator. John Holder, a Caribbean First Testament scholar, notes in a recent article (Journal of Religious Thought 49,2 [1993]), that right after the description of the Fall, the biblical account shows how sin will exploit the perception of human differences. The very first qualities identified of first two human offspring were differences in occupation. "Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (Gen. 4:2). "Sin lurked at the door" (v. 7), and the differences created a tension and a disruption that ended in death. Cain and Abel had unbreakable bonds in the same parents, but their differences prevailed. Racism persists in our day as evidence that sin continues to lurk at the door. It continues to capitalize on the tension that differences produce among the fallen and insecure children of Adam and Eve. Racism continues to drive toward death.

    If people with certain distinctiveness in appearance are treated with abuse despite the fundamental teaching of equality in a common Creator of all, sin must establish a rationalization for the abuse. The humanity of the victims must be denied. Holder notes how Martin Luther King parodied this rationalization: "All human beings are made in the image of God; God, as everyone knows is not a black; therefore, the black is not a human being" (quoted from King, Strength to Love, 1969). The muddied thought of sin makes the unfounded assumption that God is any less black than white.

    The Creator, however, does not abide such distortion. The dignity and care bestowed on every human being is held jealously by the Creator, who continues in history as the protector of the creatures and finally as the restorer of their original beauty. The implications of creation for social justice are explicitly drawn out in the Bible. Let the racist exploiter be warned. If I do not respond to the just cause of the human creature placed by fallen society on the lowest rung of life, "What shall I answer when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb?" (Job 31:13-15).


From The Word

The Royal Law and Discrimination

by Stephen Charles Mott


    Discrimination constantly creeps into the church from the world. This occurred already in the first century church. James 2 deals with a situation in which the rich are given preferential treatment. The rich are described as oppressing the poor (2:6; cf. 5:4). They also come with gold rings and fine clothes, which in the prophetic tradition are signs of wasteful luxury at the price of failing to provide the poor with the minimum requirements of life. Despite all this the rich are honored with the best seats, while the poor are made to take positions which suggest inferiority and subjection (v. 2).

    James states that this is no small matter. It is a serious evil incompatible with faith in Christ. He questions whether with these "acts of favoritism" "they really believe in our glorious Jesus Christ" (v. 1). Such distinctions come from evil thoughts (v. 4), that is, from a deeper source of evil. At the final judgment "those who do not carry out mercy will receive no mercy" (v. 13).

    Equal dignity of the poor was established firmly in the Hebrew Bible on the grounds that they have the same Creator as the rich, and their Creator undertakes their cause when they are abused (e.g. Prov. 22:2, 22-23). James, like John Wesley, supplies a even more powerful argument for the equality of the poor. "Has not God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith" (v. 5). The greatest dignity that anyone has is that the Son of God died for their salvation--and Christ died for all. Treating anyone with indignity is dishonoring one for whom Christ died.

    How do we know when we are being impartial in an unjust way? James provides a guide which he calls "the royal law": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 8). This ruling principle of conduct has helped Christians see full implications of Scripture not previously discerned, such as with slavery and the equality of women. It still helps us to acknowledge further injustices.

    Recently, a United Methodist pastor in Madison, Wisconsin, had her dog maced in her back yard. This followed the burning of the house of the Wesley Foundation, which she directs at the University of Wisconsin. The reason was the opening of its ministry to gay and lesbian people. The violence to gay and lesbian folk about which we read in the newspapers is only the extreme form of discrimination, including name calling, ridicule, and constant slights. How do they know that the church is any different?

    One response is the Reconciling Ministry movement. Its affirmation is not new, but it states clearly that gay and lesbian people are included in the call of all people to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. It affirms not particular gay or lesbian lifestyles, but the biblical and Wesleyan principle that the church of Jesus Christ invites to its midst all persons, who, as Wesley said, are fleeing from the wrath to come.

    The weakness in the Reconciling Ministry movement is that some interpret it not only as rejecting discrimination which blocks people from the Gospel, but also as challenging the social stance of the United Methodist church on homosexual conduct. Those who regard the current Social Principles as biblical then may find a vote to be a Reconciling Church or Conference too confusing or too open to an undesired interpretation. When that is the case, we have a obligation to find other ways explicitly to invite with tender love and compassion gay and lesbian persons to the love and discipline of Christ. It is in this context of discrimination that James goes to say that faith without works is dead (vv. 14-26).


From The Word

Lazarus, Dives, and Affirmative Action

by Stephen Charles Mott


    The best theological and ethical case made for affirmative action is Daniel Maguire's book, A Case for Affirmative Action (rev. ed., 1992). The strength of Maguire's approach is that he grounds his argument in a biblical understanding of justice.

    The sentiment seeking to undermine affirmative action is different. It argues that people should be understood abstractly as individuals, not in terms of the groups to which they belong. This position also holds that the degree of inequality that people endure is politically irrelevant as long as they have equal opportunity, which again is an abstraction, separated from from long-standing barriers which the groups to which they belong have endured.

    In the perspective upon justice in the Bible, however, human beings by nature live in community and belong to groups. Thus much of biblical responsibility and accountability is presented in terms of groups: rich, poor, stranger, widow, priest, Pharisee, powerful. Biblical justice also has an active and central concern with the actual inequalities of life. The story of Lazarus and the rich man illustrates well the biblical perspective.

    Jesus tells this story according to Luke 16:19-31 to respond to the Pharisees, religious leaders who in time of Jesus increasingly were becoming also political leaders. Because they were "lovers of money, they were unhappy with Jesus' rough choice of God or money (vv. 13-14).

    The story begins with a harsh contrast. Jesus bluntly begins, "A certain person was rich." This person is immediately described in terms of his clothing: He was "dressed in purple and fine linen." Clothing reflects how he appeared to the public, showing his social status and ranking. Everyone knew where he stood. He was admired and powerful in his wealth. Jesus' next characteristic of the rich person was that he lived in excess, the treasures that Jesus has earlier said are to be given away to the poor (Luke 12:33 [cf. 12:15-21]; 14:33). "Everyday he enjoyed himself sumptuously" in splendid feasts.

    Jesus then paints the sharp contrast. "A poor man by the name of Lazarus lay at his gate, covered with sores." The poor man's desire was to satisfy himself with the scraps from the rich man's table. Not only was his material fate miserable, he had the lowest social position. His sores were licked by dogs, which were not regarded as kindly pets, but disliked and considered unclean.

    The text starkly deals with these individuals in terms of their socioeconomic identities. Who are they and what do they deserve? They are the rich and the poor. It goes on in this fashion to simply state, "The poor man died . . . ; the rich man died . . . " (v. 22). They then encounter the anticipated eschatological correction of earthly social injustices in a social reversal of both physical and social status.

    Similar stories are known in Egyptian, Jewish, and Hellenistic sources. Richard Bauckham in a recent study (in New Testament Studies 1991) shows that Jesus' parable is unique in that he makes no ethical evaluation of either the rich or the poor man. Lazarus is not said to be righteous. Like the prophets (e.g. Amos 6:4-7; Isa. 3:13-4:1), Jesus' condemnation is solely of the stark inequality of the living conditions of the two. What is intolerable is luxury existing side by side with poverty. The scraps received from the rich man were irrelevant since he remained rich and the poor man remained poor.

    One does not need someone appearing from the world of the dead to know this, the parable states in closing. Just read the Hebrew Bible.

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