Subverting the American Creation Myth

(From Isa 61 - 5.13.12)

People who imagine history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. 

 This is the place in which it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves.  Impaled.  They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.  This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues white Americans sometimes entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.

The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea: Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway, it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present on the middle passage.[1]

In the so-called colorblind America of the 21st century in which we live, there is a conversation that we need to have.  And when I say “we,” I am imploring you to remove the race-less spectacles we’ve been told to wear, so that we can acknowledge the extraordinary colors of the human family, and see where a great many of us have been divided and conquered along those lines.  When I say “we,” I’m talking about American white folks.  Specifically, I’m talking about my people.  And as an upper-middle class, straight, American, white male between the ages of 18-35, I know how our collective posterior can tighten at the mention of a talk about race.  I understand the uncomfortable position to be put in where there seems to be no good answer to any question put to the white man about race in America today.  Can’t we just move past this?  Wasn’t the Civil Rights Movement victorious?  Can’t you see that we have a black man in the White House?  I understand the hot flush that runs up the back of our necks for something we can’t quite name, and the incredulous frustration over the guilt that is sure to be heaped upon us.  I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys being force-fed shame over original sins committed years before his birth.  And I certainly understand the response of good white people of every political stripe to advocate the move to colorblindness, so that the race-less virtues of merit and accomplishment, of strong families and solid faith, may overcome the social challenges of the regrettable behavior of distant ancestors.  So let me assure you that while this conversation is sure to be difficult, it is one that we must have in order to move forward along the great arc of human history bending towards God’s justice.  And while we must all accept our responsibility to do the heavy lifting of kin-dom building, I promise you that shame and guilt are not burdens we are designed to carry.

As people of faith, we have ways to engage the truth of God, of who we are and of what we are designed to do.  And while we may all agree that Biblical texts are an entry point to that engagement with the divine, careful study of how those texts have interacted and responded to the world since its original composition is crucial in order to sift the Word of God out from a desert of lies and misinformation.

As we examine the Genesis creation story handed down to us through the descendants of Abraham, let us consider the Babylonian creation myth, Enûma Eliš.  This narrative tells of gods who war with one another, who resort to violence, and who create the world out of the corpse of the defeated.  The gods who have been conquered become servants of the victorious, until it is decided that humans are to be created in order to assume the burden of labor for the gods.  This story served the dynastic kings, who were legitimized by the supreme deity, in order to preserve and maintain the Babylonian power structure.  You see, it was necessary to assure people who were forced to labor for the building of the empire that they had been created for slavery.  If the status quo must be protected, then it becomes critical to tell a narrative that asserts the righteousness of the status quo.

The Abrahamic faith narrative, however, reveals that God has a way of subverting unjust power structures the status quo.

The ancients who first heard and recorded the creation story we find in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, people who were aware the Babylonian myth, would have detected the bold and subversive claim that humans were not created for slave labor, but rather to rule over the created world and all the abundant life within it.  The Genesis story claims that human beings were not conceived at the end of a series of bickering, failures, annoyances and war among the god, but rather created intentionally good.  We see in Genesis the boundless delight of God, pleased with God’s creation of male and female, made in the very image of God.

So God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:27-28, NRSV).

And the climax of our creation story is not that the point of life is for toil under the oppression of the state, but for Sabbath rest.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  And on the seventh day God finished the work that [God] had done, and [God] rested on the seventh day from all the work that [God] had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that [God] had done in creation (Gen 2:1-3, NSRV).

You see, we have a remarkable story of who we are and what we are designed to do in this grand mystery of incarnation, in this beautiful and abundant world.  But the power of this story is uniquely revealed when we consider the dominant narrative that it challenges.  The power structure says that humans were created as an afterthought for the leisure of the gods.  Genesis says that we are created in the image of the Divine.  The power structure says that humanity was created for endless toil.  Our God says that we created for empowerment and the benevolent rule of an abundant world.  The power structure says that life is a burden of work from the cradle to the grave.  God declares a holy day of Sabbath rest.  God compels us to have faith that creation is so abundant that six days of work will fill seven days of life.

So what does this have to do with the conversation that we must have about race today?

When I say that the world is abundant, that God wills us to have prosperity and leisure, upper-middle class white people like myself hardly skip a beat.  We look at our broad, green lawns and clean suburban streets and think to ourselves, “of course.  I have been blessed by God.  The abundance of God is evident in my life.”  When we excel in our private or parochial schools, graduate college, secure comfortable, air-conditioned jobs, and vacation in resorts overflowing with amusement and pleasure, we earnestly think to ourselves that the American dream has come true.  We logically associate our dedication and resourcefulness to material success and earnestly believe that anyone who perseveres with such industriousness can have the leisure and consumptive lifestyle that we enjoy.  We figure that it must be something about the determined American character of sacrifice and hard work, combined with the favor of God’s blessings on exceptional people that make the United States of America the greatest nation on earth.

But the fact of the matter is that we have been sold a lie.

We’ve been duped.

And like the Babylonian creation myth that was circulated among ancient people in order to protect an oppressive power structure as well as the elites who were privileged by it, we too have been told a story about our origin and identity that simultaneously privileges a few with power, and oppresses a great many without.  And just as the Genesis creation story subverts a narrative of social control, we too must confront the lies that have blinded us with a liberating faith that speaks truth to power and seeks to dismantle unjust social structures for the kin-dom of God.

The reality is that hard work and ingenuity are admirable values that are worth preserving.  But the truth of the matter is that the world we live in provides access and advantage to some people, so that hard work has the suitable environment to manifest itself in material prosperity, while preventing a great many people from having enough to even survive.  Extensive data reveal that inadequate schools, ethnic and racial disparities in health care, vastly disproportionate rates of employment and incarceration among our sisters and brothers of color are undeniable.  And the myth of individualism, that in order for someone to make it in our world is to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, is not only false, but dangerous.  This is the contemporary Babylonian myth sold to us by a selective telling of our American history.  It is the fiction of an egalitarian nation that earned its wealth with every drop of honest sweat.  But the creation myth of this nation leaves out the millions of Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose people were forcibly displaced.  The story fails to acknowledge that the great wealth of this nation was built on centuries of slave labor, justified by an emerging capitalist ethic and doctrine of white supremacy.  The selective history defames the bravery of impoverished folks who were conscripted to fight and die in wars abroad.  It overlooks the tremendous irony of black and brown men and women who fought overseas for rights they did not enjoy at home.

Now some may say, “sure, we are not a perfect nation.  There have been many sins committed in the past.  But we are beyond that now.  Slavery is over.  Jim Crow has been outlawed.  Haven’t we evolved?  Can’t we move forward?”  The answer is no.  So long as white folks like me benefit from an unresolved and impartial telling of history, and so long as folks of color continue to suffer disproportionately from that same past, then truly we are held captive still.  For it is not the sins of malicious people from which some of us have benefited and others have been abused.  It is the inherently unjust system by which this nation was born and operates still that enslaves us all.  And yes, we are all in bondage.  Some of us are bound by the system as the privileged, and many others are held captive under the weight of its machinery, oppressed generation after generation.  Those of us who are the privileged prisoners are duped into giving our consent to an abusive system that crushes our sisters and brothers under God.  We are taught that our possessions and good fortunes are blessings.  But the truth is that they are the bribes of the empire, paid for with the lives of the oppressed.

And here’s the thing.  This is not about guilt.  None of us built this unjust society by ourselves; it was not even built in our lifetime.  We should not feel guilty.  We should feel angry that we have been coerced into being accomplices to crimes we would never knowingly commit.  We should come to grips with the truth that our economy has been built on two lies:  that scarcity requires us to compete for limited goods, and that the aim of life is unconscious and unbounded consumption.

And here’s another thing.  We need not fall into despair.  Trust me, it’s tempting to leap into the abyss of hopelessness when we open our eyes to the extent of abuse against the most vulnerable and innocent, to the depths of injustice against all of God’s people.  We must look again to the revelation of God in the scriptures, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.  But we must have this conversation of the injustice of race in this nation in order to hear what the voice of God has to say in defiance and revolution against such sin and evil.  Because as long as we do not hear the suppressed voices of the marginalized, we cannot hear the voice of God.  So long as we hear only the seductive coddling of the empire, we are deaf to hear anything else.

The Genesis creation story told an ancient people that the myth of the Babylonian Empire had sold them a lie for the sake of social control.  Today, the same truth that we are created fundamentally good in the image of God in order to rule justly in the world subverts the contemporary lie that maintains an oppressive status quo.  It is difficult to see such systemic sin in the world from the perspective of privilege, when we have been told our own selective historical myth, but that is precisely why we must not shy aware from having the difficult conversation of race in our society.  We need to see that truly we are all held captive, so that we realize that no one can be scapegoated for injustice, neither the oppressed nor the privileged.  This is a system that must be recognized and defeated, because as Christians, we believe in something greater for which we strive as the Body of Christ.  We are not guilty of the past we did not commit.  But we are responsible.  We are obligated to respond to what has happened, because we follow Jesus Christ who responded to the sins of the world with indomitable love.  First we are going to need a shift in perspective in order to dissolve our blindness, and we’re going to need the faith in a God big enough, powerful enough and compassionate enough to replace the empires of humanity with the kin-dom of God.  And to find that God, we are going to need to listen to the lived experiences of people of color who do not share our historical illusions, and to follow closely the narrative of love and liberation we find in our sacred texts.  It is the true story of where we came from.  It is the story of who we truly are and what we were created to be.  And through our faithful lives, it will be the story of how a God who is madly in love with us flows into the world to overturn dehumanizing powers to set us free.

It’s time to reclaim our identity.

[1] James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt” Ebony, August 1965