We read a portion of scripture today from the first letter of John that includes words from one of my favorite hymns—a hymn I want sung at my funeral some day. It’s “I want to walk as a child of the light” and the words from John’s epistle can be found in the chorus, “In him there is no darkness at all.” The song goes on to say that the night and the day are both alike, and how Christ the Lamb is the light of the city of God. It closes with the request, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” (And if this weren’t “Covidtide,” I’d be asking our organist to play that song for us at the end of the sermon, throwing him an audible call in the middle of the service.)
It’s just that one sentence though that comes from 1 John in the hymn, although John then goes on a riff about the imagery of light and darkness. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” I love the imagery of God bringing light into a dark world—John’s gospel also begins with this concept of the Word, that is Jesus, shining in the darkness and how the darkness could not overcome him. Language however can be a slippery slope if we’re not careful. And while I find the imagery helpful, the light and dark binary in scripture has been used for a long time to support the subjugation of Black persons and to reinforce White supremacy.
You might think I’m stretching it a bit here, but let me give a few details. We begin with Noah and his sons after the time they rode out the flood in the ark. In that newly watered land post-flood, Noah’s crops took off. He made wine out of the grapes, and, Genesis tells us, he “became drunk.” And, the author adds, “he lay uncovered in his tent.” The youngest son Ham came in and saw his father’s nakedness and laughed and went to get his brothers, Shem and Japheth so they could get a laugh at the old man’s expense too. But they didn’t think it was funny. So they grabbed a tunic, walked into the tent backwards, and covered their father.
Once Noah awakened from his stupor and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham’s descendants, the Canaanites, and declared that the should be the lowest of slaves and serve the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Notice that the word darkness does not appear here in the text. However, the interpretation for centuries has gone like this: Since Ham’s heart was dark, the curse was that the darkness from inside would make its way out to the skin, and he’d be marked with dark skin forever. Further, since Ham’s descendants are supposedly cursed with that dark skin and to be slaves for the other two brothers’ children, then slavery of Black people was fine. You hopefully think this is not a proper interpretation, but sadly it shows up again and again. If you do an internet search on “Curse of Ham” you’ll see what I mean. It’s mentioned over and over in relation to slavery here in the US. It played a role in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rawanda. It is the focus of academic research even in the current day because it still shows up to indicate how skin color denotes whether one is in God’s favor or not. And so this bad interpretation takes hold and darkness becomes associated with dark skin.
It continues on, especially in connecting darkness both with evil and with Satan. St. Paul in his speech to King Agrippa in Acts says he was called “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” And in Colossians, Paul writes, “For God rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” Jesus tells a parable that includes these words, “Then watch out that the light in you is not darkness.” And in his letter to the Thessalonians Paul tells them, “you are all children of light and children of day. We are not of night nor of darkness.” And then you add to that how our sins will be washed away so that our hearts might become white as snow, and it’s easy to start making connections.
You may be saying, “Yes, but that’s not about skin color. This is much ado about nothing.” And I might have agreed, if not for the statements of those who are African American. Because they’ve noticed that for centuries this darkness associated with evil and the devil has turned into the devil having dark skin whenever he is portrayed in art or film. Not surprisingly Jesus generally looks less like a Middle Eastern man with brown skin and more like a European with white skin. Prof. Edward J. Blum who co-authored the book The Color of Christ, writes, “During the Civil War, one northern African-American, T Morris Chester, had announced that just as it was time for slavery to end, it was also time for women and men of color to refuse the language and images that associated darkness with evil, and whiteness with good.” In more current times, Martin Luther King, Jr. when asked about the skin color of Jesus, wrote, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence. The whiteness or blackness of one’s skin is a biological quality which has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the personality. The significance of Jesus lay, not in His color, but in His unique God-consciousness and His willingness to surrender His will to God’s will. He was the Son of God, not because of His external biological make-up, but because of His internal spiritual commitment.” And yet it still continues in making the connection between dark skin and dark hearts.
A 2017 essay in the journal Scientific American details the association made between dark skin and moral uprightness. Participants in a study were first asked about their views on race and then were shown two grainy surveillance images and a description of one doing a virtuous act and one an immoral act. The participants were then shown headshots, and asked if it was either of the men from the image, and, if so, which act they believed they did. Finally they were asked to indicate the color of each man’s soul—their moral uprightness—using a spectrum from black to white, with white being good. Something surprising emerged in the study, “When the researchers analyzed people’s headshot choices based on what ‘color’ they thought the men’s souls were.” Hear their findings, “Even after statistically controlling for participants’ racial attitudes, the researchers found that participants who thought the man who committed the immoral act had a darker colored soul were also more likely to think he had darker colored skin. In other words, regardless of race, dark skin was associated with evil in the minds of people who saw a link between darkness and badness.” As I said, it’s a slippery slope, and for African Americans—and others who do not have what is perceived to be white skin—it’s a sad and harsh reality. We need to be careful when we speak of the things of God, especially when scripture tells us, “In him there is no darkness at all.”
Yet an interesting side note, one even I was unaware of until I started digging in. In Exodus 20 when Moses has received the Ten Commandments and declared them to the people of Israel, the mountain there where Moses met with God is thundering and billowing smoke. The people don’t want to get too close, and say as much to Moses. The writer of Exodus tells us, “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Ex. 20:21) The darkness is where God was. And then in one of my favorite psalms, 139, we learn this about God, “If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night, Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.” Even in the language of Scripture, darkness does not hide one from God; the night and the day are both alike.
So what does all this mean for us now? Where’s the good news?
First, I think as people who follow the Risen Lord as an Easter People, we must recognize how easily we allow these perceptions about others to creep in both to our language and in our thoughts about them. We make determinations about people’s worth based on things as inconsequential as where they went to college, or what their zip code is, or their ethnicity, or the color of their skin. Jesus in his earthly ministry healed Gentiles, and Jews, and Romans, and spoke to Samaritans and women and prostitutes and the guys working for the IRS and military personnel and the outcasts and the religious leaders and those who had no faith at all. In other words, he cared more about the relationship with others than those things we tend to use to place people into buckets and label them as good or bad.
Second, while we need to be careful about the use of language and imagery, I don’t think we should give it up entirely. John’s broader point is one of illumination, about the way that God shines upon our hearts in order to lead us to repentance and find reconnection. It’s important than to make that distinction, and call out the misuse of the light and dark imagery into a black and white distinction where white is good and black is bad, and reject any language that couples skin color with the interior of one’s heart.
Third, we must listen to the experiences of others when it comes to determining these things. It’s easy for me to say that as a white male I don’t get it or that this isn’t what I intended to mean. Yet when sisters and brothers of color say again and again this is how they are understanding the situation, I need to give them the benefit of the doubt and the honor due them as a child of God. While it may be difficult at first to find other language, when we take the time to do so it signifies to the other person that they are valued and loved as a child of God.
Finally, we are called to love. A few verses after where our reading ended, John writes this: “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates a brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.” We cannot be people of the light if we choose to hate others. God calls us to love, fully. Beloved, I know this is not always an easy task. People do things, say things, choose things that rub us completely the wrong way. We cannot choose hate. We are called to offer love. Because the hate will eat away at us. It’ll destroy our souls. It’ll make us lose our ways.
So let us choose love. Let us choose the way of the resurrected Lord. Keep listening and learning and growing and loving. It is not an easy path, but it is the path toward God. The Risen One is among us, offering us peace and love. Let us share that love just as he did with abandon and care so that others too may know the joy of Christ.