Black Consciousness: religious racism has even appropriated the Bible to attack everything that comes from Africa

Racist interpretations of the Bible formed the basis for slavery and still sustain racism and religious intolerance today


One part of the Cain and Abel story is very well-known: the former killed the latter out of envy.  But the story has other layers. One of these was the target of racist theological interpretations which served as the basis for slavery and still sustain racism and religious intolerance today.  When Cain killed his brother, he was marked by God.  The Bible doesn’t describe this mark but there’s no mistaking its goal: to protect Cain.

“But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord  put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” (Genesis 4:15).  That’s what the passage says.  Nevertheless, between the 15th and 16th centuries, racist theologians developed a discourse indicating that the mark was black and was a sign of sin; that, as a punishment, God had turned Cain into a black man.

According to Ras André Guimarães, popular educator and pastor of the Philadelphia Methodist Church, this is not the only biblical passage to have been distorted in this way.  When Noah gets drunk, his son Ham sees him lying naked in a hammock.  After witnessing this scene he reports it to his brothers, which was considered disrespectful.  When Noah finds out what his son had done, he threatens his grandson Canaan, son of Ham.

“Noah says that Canaan will be his brothers’ slave.  And a discourse was constructed in which Canaan is Africa, so all Africans will be the slaves of these brothers.  So, the curse of both Cain and Canaan are used to justify slavery.  And then we see the whole process of occupying territories in America through this type of discourse – that the black man is the product of sin,” Ras André explained.

According to this Methodist pastor, the insinuation is that there is a divine order that justifies the exploitation of these people.  “And therein lies the great problem: the religious mentality, from both Protestants and Catholics, absorbs this idea, this racist perspective, to justify their distance from black people, the descendants of Africans.   From then on, the constructed Bible reading is all about denying the black figure,” he added.

From this perspective, he also noted that the Christian church has not broken away from this slave mentality. “When it comes across a majority black nation and this majority is suffering, there is no response from the churches to this pain and suffering.  Who is going to cry for children killed by 111 shots?  For young men imprisoned and tortured in a supermarket?  There is a notion that this is destiny, permitted by God.”

And all this racism extends to the religious arena. “In the midst of the 21st century, spaces are ripped apart, people are prevented from working in their traditional dress, they can no longer get jobs. All of this because of a mentality that was constructed long ago, by someone who used the Bible to say that everything that came from Africa was cursed.  Our task is to use the same Bible to denounce these crimes, this sin,” he asserted.

Intolerance against African origin religions

Among other forms of attack, religious racism involves the demonization of African divinities.  It is said that they are “evil”, but this is so deeply rooted that people don’t even know why they think it.  It has become a normalized social notion.  But we need to consider: religions such as Buddhism or Spiritism do not suffer from attacks in the same way that African origin religions do.  Sometimes they are even romanticised.

Iyá Márcia de Ogum, a ialorixá raised in Candomblé, mocked the Christian demonization of African origin religions.  She noted that people from the Candomblé worship houses are accused of worshipping the devil, but that the devil doesn’t exist in their culture.  “Devil is a name from Christian religions.  In Candomblé, there is the worshipping of ancestry and of the Orixás – Ogum, Oxum, Oyá, Iroko, logun edé.”

As an overt example of racism, she cited the case of a mother who lost custody of her daughter after the young woman underwent Candomblé initiation rituals in São Paulo.  “This only happened because it was related to Candomblé.  This attitude wouldn’t have occurred with any other religion.  We grow up hearing that Justice should be impartial, but when our justice stops listening to a mother and listens to third parties, it ends up biased.”

She also denounced the negligent State structures that deal with this subject.  “Unfortunately, we don’t have specialized police stations to receive reports of religious racism and take suitable measures against criminals in our country. Very often, criminals are not called to be heard in cases.  Only if they are caught in the act, as happened once with the bust of Mãe Gilda.”

The bust of Mãe Gilda, located in the metropolitan park of Abaeté in Salvador, has twice been the target of religious racism in the form of vandalism – in 2016, when it was restored, and in 2020, during daylight, in the midst of the pandemic.  In the more recent case, the perpetrator said that they attacked the image of Mãe Gilda “at the behest of God”.  At the time, Mãe Gilda’s daughter, the ialorixá Jaciara dos Santos, asked: “what God is this?”

Iyá Márcia highlights the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the fight against intolerance.  She grew up seeing her mother ask for and give blessings to pastors, reverends, priests.  “I questioned her, I said that those people weren’t from Candomblé and she replied that we can take a blessing from anyone.  ‘It’s very good to hear a Jehovah bless you, God bless you,’ she would say. Inter-religious dialogue promotes peace.”

Ras André preaches the same thing.  “If a church positions itself as Christian – whose basis is the life, testimony, struggle and service of Jesus Christ – there is no way to separate its role from the anti-racist struggle.  If there is no embrace or welcome, if a child suffers bullying because they are from Candomblé, it is the church’s task to denounce this.  To talk to the faithful, to present texts that encourage their sense of justice.  To hear reports from those who suffer religious intolerance.  I think this is our greatest task.”

For him, all the Bible’s texts could be used to combat racism. “Bible texts need to be read through the lens of the practices of justice, of the change that Jesus wrought.  Salvation is people liberating themselves from this hell of racism, of religious intolerance.  Who are the Samaritans of present times? They are the subordinate people of today.  They are in the impoverished communities, in the indigenous population, in the Candomblé worship houses.”


CESE in the anti-racist struggle and in its practice

CESE understands that racism generates injustice against black people and has always supported movements, organizations and groups from this section of society.  In the last 15 years, it has supported approximately 660 projects in the anti-racist struggle, benefitting 314 thousand people and investing 5 million Brazilian Reals.  On this Black Consciousness Day, CESE reaffirms its Institutional Racial Equity Policy which sets out its strategies for combatting racism at management level and in institutional activities.

Helivete Ribeiro, pastor for the Alliance of Baptists of Brazil (Aliança de Batista do Brasil: ABB) and President of CESE, noted that, as a black evangelical woman she is aware that the racism in society is reflected in the faith communities. “Few black women are pastors, deacons or seminarians.  There is a lack of representation in the churches, in history and in the Christian tradition, which is still often presented in a Eurocentric, white and heteronormative manner,” she declared.

She emphasized the need to enable the construction of a more inclusive theology, incorporating elements from black culture, without demonizing them and valuing black identity.  “As an evangelical, I understand that we must study the universal liturgy, which accepts all people without discrimination.  We cannot deny that there is a rejection of African cultural and religious heritage, which has led many of us to deny our own racial identity in order to be ‘good Christians’”.

“As Lélia Gonzalez, the female black writer says: ‘becoming a black woman is an achievement’. Being a black woman, an evangelical pastor, an activist, divorced, yes, that is an achievement.  This is not just about me. As President of CESE, I am proud to be part of an organization that recognizes the existence of racism – institutional, structural, environmental, religious – in the historical construction of the State and of Brazilian society, that works in the defence and guarantee of rights and has a commitment to the anti-racist struggle and its practice,” she concluded.

Pastors Sônia Mota and Bianca Daébs, respectively CESE’s Executive Director and its Advisor for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue, reaffirmed the importance of dialogue between religions for the promotion of peace.  “Exclusionary attitudes, absolute truths, the demonization of one religion or another, do not contribute to a culture of peace, which is what, in principle, religions defend,” they declared.