08/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Imagining God in Color

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
Three in 10 Americans acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, and yet 9 in 10 say they believe in God. How does racial prejudice reflect on one's religious beliefs?

It's very hard not to see God in color. From childhood everyone is taught to imagine God as a person, and inevitably that person has skin the color of those who worship him. Not that the gender "him" is any more accurate than the color black, white, or brown skin would be. A humanized God in any faith is a projection, not a reality. Blue-skinned Krishna is symbolically significant to Hindus but not to believers who see that image as pagan and primitive. Cultural judgments abound in religion, and these quickly deteriorate into the inane argument over whose God is better than someone else's. Matters grow worse when the argument turns violent.

Religion has always been linked with conversion, and conversion with "lesser" races. For centuries the map of the world had two kinds of blank spaces: the places yet to be explored and the places yet to be Christianized. The moral duty to spread one's faith doesn't always imply using force, but the whole enterprise of converting the heathens was tied up inextricably with empire and conquest. And so, if military power was needed, squeamish missionaries and monks could avert their eyes until persuasion had cost enough blood. Generally they didn't bother to avert them, however, since God had damned the lesser races anyway, salvation being their only hope. Kipling thought he was being supremely moral when he wrote "The White Man's Burden." (This isn't to say that other religions didn't convert by force, since of course they did.)

In the aftermath of colonialism, deep scars remain, and the question of racism is entangled in people's minds along with religion. Outright condemnation of the British empire, for example, doesn't erase how successful Livingstone and less famous missionaries were -- the Anglican church today is dominated by Africa, not the home country of England. In the U.S., outright condemnation of slavery can't erase the tradition of black churches and their stabilizing role in the community. Sadly, the general tendency remains the same: defining yourself by your faith also defines who you aren't. Racism won't disappear from religion until religion stops being exclusionary, a profound flaw that modern believers (some of them, at least) struggle to overcome.

In any system of organized religion, belief trumps first-hand experience. Such an experience, when it is truly spiritual, brings a sense of universality, far beyond our concepts of race and creed. In the most liberal denominations, one senses the color-blindness is real and sincere. but as long as other denominations preserve the concept of "pagan," the specter of lesser races will hover over the altar.

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