Before there was the “other,” there was the heathen.
Christian believers have a long and troubled history of calling people names as a means of explaining their inhumane ways of bringing them to Jesus.
Kathryn Gin Lum’s new book Heathen: Religion and Race in American History is a must read for anyone doing the work of deconstructing and decolonizing a Christianity known for its name-calling. It is not merely a history lesson, as heathen has been replaced with “third world” country.
In brilliant detail, Lum shows the historical connection between paganism and Christianity.
Released last month, it is a timely resource for Christians who are seeking a version of Christianity that does not require cultural assimilation and that does not make excuses for a religion that employed and endorsed race as a means of othering.
Lum wastes no time naming race explicitly in her opening as the dividing factor.
“Race works here as a binary us versus them: the White and the Black, the helpers and the helpless, the ‘civilized’ and the ‘heathen,’” she writes. They are categorized as opposites both religiously and racially.
Heathen is more documentation of the connection between complexion and Christian conversion.
Citizens and immigrants alike have been “called everything but a child of God” because they are not socially colored white. And it’s time for Christians to find the words to address this hypocrisy.
To be sure, one could point to Jesus as an example of this bad behavior. He called a Canaanite woman a dog, and I gave him the side-eye as soon as I read it in the Gospel of Matthew (15:21-28; see also Mark 7:24-30).
“Who are you talking to, Jesus?” In my mind, I stood by her side, ready to defend her and not pretend that Jesus was just a victim of the times.
In those days, women were not called by their name. Instead, it was replaced with a familial role or social position: wife, mother, daughter, slave, girl, concubine.
But in Jesus’ case, the name was used to separate her as a Gentile, a heathen not worthy of the same treatment as the Israelites. Today, it is much of the same – meant to separate and to marginalize.
Before the designation of “woke” — initially used by African Americans to inspire vigilance (“Stay woke.”) — was culturally appropriated and then weaponized in the ongoing culture wars, there was the heathen.
Before women affirmed their natural independence, intellectual prowess and body autonomy as feminists and womanists, both of which are considered “man-hating” identities, there was the heathen.
Before gun or abortion debates were coupled with descriptors of the “gun crazy” or “baby killers,” there was the heathen.
Before we were divided into far-right, moderates and liberals, into “snowflakes” (which in the 1860s was used to describe Missourians who were opposed to the abolition of slavery) and Trump loyalists, Europeans segregated people into two groups: the civilized and the heathen.
Also used to infantilize, persons indigenous to what is now the United States and those Africans who were brought to America in chains suffered under this false dichotomy.
Today, this false salvation narrative desensitizes us to the autonomy and experience of other human beings, who are told to assimilate or go back to their country.
Name-calling as a means of sorting and dividing is not new, but authors are rightly continuing to show the connections between religion, racialization and othering. They work in concert, one supporting the other, one swapped out for the other.
As Lum points out in what she calls “the replacement narrative”: “It holds that the figure of the heathen represents an older binary form of religious difference that was eventually replaced by newer racial hierarchies.”
She writes later, “The religious subject is thought to be changeable through conversion, while the raced subject is thought to be perpetually inferior by the color of their skin.”
Consequently, race sorts us out and color-codes our bodies for positions within America’s capitalist hierarchy.
Theologically, from Lum’s point of view, race cannot save us all.
While the Bible suggests we share the same creation narrative, the product of a single set of parents and are, in fact, one blood, race calls all of this into question (Acts 17:26).
This raises a question for me. What do we mean when we say, “I am a Christian”?
Because it shouldn’t be heard as a category, one that renders us civilized or heathen. It also shouldn’t represent a racialized identity, which is based on the social coloring of skin and is not accessible to everyone.
Instead, as Pentecostal people, Christians are called to embody a boundaryless and borderless community. People called to “share all things in common,” there are no distinctions (Acts 2:44).
Lum’s book is necessary reading for Christians who are tired of the name-calling and ready to say something different.