The Christian Origins of Racism

M. Lindsay Kaplan on Antisemitism to Racism

Medieval claims about the Jews’ criminal role in the crucifixion consigned them to an enslaved status, indicating their inherent inferiority relative to Christians. Ecclesiastical law required Jews to behave in accordance with their subservient position; violation of these regulations constituted an additional Jewish crime. Myths of continuing Jewish violence against contemporary Christians also contributed to a view of Jews as inherent criminals, permanent and eternal enemies of Christianity. This idea undermined neighborly relations between the two faith groups, eroded sympathy for Jews, and licensed state, church and popular hostility against them.

The same elements used so effectively to racialize medieval Jews are also at work in American anti-Black racism. (While a similar argument could be made of the intersection of charges of crime and inferiority as constitutive elements of Nazi anti-Jewish racism, this era falls outside the focus of my research.) The charge of Black criminality was employed during and after the period of slavery to delegitimize the Black struggle for freedom. Although Blacks were the victims of violence from the dominant culture, they were presented as perpetrators.

Today, the threat implied by alleged Black criminality serves as the rationale that drives not only white supremacist hatred but also the use of excessive police force against Blacks. This stereotype serves to normalize brutality against Blacks and renders them ‘deserving’ of violence and death, ultimately leading to the further devaluing of Black life and suspending compassion for Black suffering. Studying the historical role that charges of criminality play in the creation of inherent inferiority helps us understand, and thereby resist, the ways in which they continue to operate today.

We often use the word ‘race’ when we are talking about racism. Since ‘race’ can carry neutral or even positive meanings, as in designating ethnicity or in group self-definitions, it doesn’t always effectively advance attempts to analyze racism. Since negative definitions of ‘race’ are produced by a logic of racism, focusing on the latter helps us see the roots of the problem. I define racism as a system or ideology that creates hierarchy between at least two groups by defining one as inherently inferior so as to justify its subordination to the other. The content of that ascribed inferiority can draw from various sources of authority or “fact” – science, culture, physical appearance, religion – that are used to “prove” the lesser status of one group in relation to another. Exploring the process that reduces a class of people to a place of inferiority helps us perceive the construction of racism and recognize attempts to legitimize its enforcement.

An early racializing process developed in medieval Christianity to define the inferiority of Jews. The servitus Judaeorum, enslavement of the Jews, employed the concept of slave status to posit that Jews were inferior relative to Christians. While not consigning Jews to actual chattel slavery, this idea created a spiritual hierarchy that aimed to demonstrate the superior truth claims of Christianity relative to Judaism. Determining the authoritative meaning of the Hebrew Bible constituted a central ground of this conflict. While Jews understood Hebrew Scripture as G-d’s revelation, chronicling their relationship to Him and His commandments to them, Christians developed an allegorical reading practice that transformed this meaning. Figural interpretation of the Bible reread the persons and incidents in the Jewish narrative as conveying a deeper, more authentic significance that predicted events in Christian history and proved the superior truth of Christianity.

Figural reading of Hebrew Scripture produced the concept of servitus Judaeorum. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians offers an early, authoritative allegorical rereading of the Jewish understanding of Scripture to authorize the superior interpretive truth of the early Jesus movement. Paul construes the Genesis narrative of the conflict between the mothers of Abraham’s children as one between the free woman Sarah, whose offspring are the true children of the promise, and Hagar, the slave woman whose children are born into bondage (4:21-31). These relative statuses don’t refer to the actual social or legal positions of those who believe in Jesus versus those who don’t, but rather suggest superior and inferior spiritual states.

Paul draws on contemporary implications of enslaved and free to delineate a gradation between spiritual statuses without providing a clear causal explanation for this distinction or specifically indicating the identities of the two groups. The influential Church Father, St. Augustine, adopts and develops Paul’s interpretive approach in considering the additional figures of Cain, Abel, Ham and Noah from Genesis, specifically designating persons as representing Jews or Christians, and offering a causal explanation for the subordination of the former to the latter. In doing so, he lays the foundation for the racialization of Jews in the medieval period. Drawing from the claims advanced in earlier Christian polemics against Jews, Augustine explains that the Jews suffer divine punishment for the crime of killing Jesus. He employs the story of Cain and Abel to prove that God punishes the Jews, represented by Cain, for the murder of their brother Jesus, represented by Abel.

This reading establishes Jews as perversely criminal for killing their brother Jesus who offered them salvation, rendering them deserving of punishment. Similarly, Augustine interprets Ham’s ambiguous dishonoring of Noah (Genesis 9:20-26) as the Jews consenting to the crucifixion of Jesus, for which they are punished by servitude. This enslavement extends beyond the moment of the crucifixion to affect Jews throughout time. The model of slavery as punishment for crime that Augustine developed through the example of the Jews provides the basis for his broader theorization of the institution of chattel slavery in The City of God. Formulating crime in terms of sin, Augustine defines slavery as its appropriate, divinely-imposed punishment. In the initial order established by G-d, humans would rule only over animals, not over other humans. However, the advent of sin creates a hierarchy in which sin reduces people to the inhuman status of animals through the punishment of slavery. Slavery is the sign of the demotion in status to the subhuman. Charges of criminality justify the punitive imposition of enslavement to diminish the humanity of a person.

Medieval Christian biblical interpretation understands Augustine’s concept of servitus Judaeorum as perpetual servitude, which I define as hereditary inferiority. This racial concept makes use of biblical figures as proof-texts to prove that the punishment imposed on the Jews’ for their crucifixion of Jesus not only reduces the alleged perpetrators to eternal enslavement, but also their offspring. Canon law incorporates these figures for the Jews to establish their criminal inferiority and requires the enforcement of their subordination to Christians in medieval Europe. Innocent III introduces Jewish perpetual servitude into the texts of church law in his influential ruling Etsi Judaeos (1205), an admonishing papal letter to French rulers demanding the subservience of Jews:

Christian piety accepts the Jews who, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord, . . . We, therefore, asked [French rulers] so to restrain the excesses of the Jews that they shall not dare raise their neck, bowed under the yoke of perpetual slavery against the reverence of the Christian Faith; more rigidly forbid them to have any …kinds of Christian servants in the future, lest the children of a free woman should be slaves to the children of a slave; but, that rather as slaves rejected by God, in whose death they wickedly conspired, they shall, by the effect of this very action, recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Christ’s death set free at the same time that it enslaved them. . . . henceforth the perfidious Jews should not in any other way dare grow insolent….

He opens with the Jews’ crime and divine punishment, which has subjected them to spiritual enslavement. However, when exercising authority over Christians by employing them as servants, Jews wickedly refuse their deserved punishment by failing to enact and accept their inferiority. Innocent makes a passing citation of Galatians 4 in his reference to the impropriety of Christians, the children of the free woman Sarah, becoming enslaved to Jews, the children of the slave woman, Hagar. Innocent’s letter effectively doubles Jewish criminality by first citing their original transgression against Jesus, which resulted in their cursed hereditary inferiority, and then characterizing as an additional offence their rejection of this lesser status. This twofold wickedness justifies the exercise of discriminatory legal action to force Jews into their proper subjection.

The Jewish “crimes” of killing Jesus and rejecting their divinely imposed subordination develop in popular fictions into a menacing threat against contemporary Christians. The blood libel and charges of ritual murder imagine Jews murdering Christians to eat their blood or to reenact the crucifixion on the body of a young boy. A similar invention accused Jews of stealing and torturing a consecrated Eucharist, which released blood when stabbed. As Gavin Langmuir argues, these false claims represent variations on the Jews’ original crime of deicide, with the host or Christians representing Jesus. The affective piety movement, which encouraged Christians to identify with the suffering of Jesus, also gave rise to narratives that emphasized his cruel treatment at the hands of the Jews. Portrayals of Jews attacking Jesus pervade medieval visual art. These images take creative liberties with the Gospels’ account of Jesus’s suffering and death. Largely ignoring the Roman participation in these events, these illustrations focus on the Jews’ sadistic cruelty in mocking and tormenting Jesus, reinforcing the message that contemporary Jews continue to threaten violence and death to Christians.

The imagined cruel, inveterate criminality of Jewish enmity towards Christians implicitly justified Christian attacks against Jews. While Augustine taught that Jews, as witnesses to the divine truth of Scripture, should be protected and tolerated by Christians, this defense increasingly eroded in medieval Europe, where Jews were the frequent victims of popular and state violence. In constructing a fiction of Jewish criminal threat to Christian life, racist images and concepts effectively degraded the humanity of Jews, justified violence against them and suppressed compassionate responses to their sufferings. The Iberian context, which accomplished the mass conversion of thousands of Jews, nevertheless produced a new racial Jewish status with the idea that converts retained in their blood an immutable inferior element of their prior criminal identity. Medieval Christian anti-Jewish racism produced a nexus of powerful ideas that deployed permanent criminal inferiority to use violence, devalue life, and repress compassion for Jewish suffering.

Early modern authors reinterpreted the Biblical narratives proving criminal Jewish inferiority to explain and ascribe the same status to Black Africans. Augustine’s coordination of the figures of Cain and Ham to signify Jewish servitude as punishment for crime reappears in Iberian justifications for the enslavement of Blacks. In his fifteenth-century Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, Gomes Eanes de Zurara conflates Cain and Ham in his etiology of slavery. He explains that the enslavement of Blacks resulted from the curse Noah inflicted on his son “Caym,” which resulted in the subordination of his offspring to all other peoples. The name “Caym” combines the persons Ham and Cain, who respectively originate slavery and criminal murder in Biblical history. This amalgamation echoes Augustine’s use of both figures in his formulation of the Jews’ criminality that establishes their cursed hereditary inferiority. Alonso de Sandoval’s seventeenth-century Un tratado sobre la escalvitud explicitly pairs Cain and Ham in his account of hereditary African enslavement. He offers two explanations: the first identifies Ham as the original slave, whose offspring, the Ethiopians, were punished with dark skin; the second posits that because of Cain’s irreverence for his father, Adam cursed him with enslavement. This primal servitude manifests in the color of Cain’s skin, who, as Sandoval explains, “was of light-skinned lineage, [although] he was born dark. Thus blacks are also born as slaves, because God paints the sons of bad parents with a dark brush.” This account confusedly ascribes to Cain the punishment for Ham’s dishonoring of his father that results in the curse of hereditary slavery. While skin color does not appear in either Biblical account, by early modernity Blackness has become a sign of slavery. Transgression results in the enslavement of the perpetrator’s offspring, and Black becomes the color of permanent criminal inferiority.

To be clear, the spiritual servitude that racialized Jews differs diametrically from the relegation of Black people to chattel slavery. As divergent as these experiences are, they nevertheless share a racializing process of criminalized inferiority. Beginning with the assumption that both groups were already in a state of inherent inferiority, the law could be used to enforce that position as well as punish those who rejected it. If subjection is your “natural” state, then mere refusal of that position constitutes an unnatural rebellion. Such laws enforcing Black inferiority and punishing resistance predate and thus shape the very founding of America. The 1680 Virginia act for “preventing Negroes Insurrections” prohibits any “negroe or other slave” from carrying weapons, leaving his “master’s” property without certification, lifting his (sic) hand against any “christian”, or hiding from his master and resisting apprehension. These “crimes” would be met with increasing violence: twenty, then thirty lashes on “his bare back well layd on” or death for the last offence. This code equates Black and enslaved people, applying the consequences of the law to any free Black person. Thus it debases blackness itself to servitude, and, as in the case of Jews, renders Blacks inferior to white Christians. Similarly, in both cases, this subordinate status persists even after adopting the Christian faith. While the widespread rationale for slavery justified the practice by arguing that it conferred the “benefit” of Christianity by effecting the salvation of many enslaved Blacks, conversion did not produce equal standing for Black and white members of the faith. Rather, for Black people compelled into an enslavement affirmed by American law, any rejection of this condition rendered them criminal. Defiance of one’s ‘legal’ owner, collective organized resistance, whether in the form of the Underground Railroad or in the numerous acts of armed defiance mounted by enslaved Blacks, all constituted transgressions of the law that endorsed and perpetuated slavery. All of these actions could thus be met with legal, albeit unjust, forms of corporal punishment or execution.

Given that the constructed inherent inferiority locates in blackness, not chattel servitude, the abolition of slavery did not confer full humanity on Blacks. The 13th amendment to the Constitution, even while it eliminated one form of legal slavery, made crime an exception that reestablished and enforced inferior status. The amendment includes a clause of criminality that effectively returned Blacks to a de facto slave status: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Immediately after emancipation, new forms of “crimes”, such as loitering or vagrancy, were developed and disproportionately enforced to convict and jail Blacks. Throughout the subsequent history of America, laws and movements that attempted to establish Black freedom and full humanity have met counter-movements charging Blacks with “crime” as a means of delegitimizing their struggle and opening them to vigilante and state violence.

As in the case of chimerical ritual murder charges against medieval Jews, in 19th and 20th century America myths developed that imagined the violent threat of Black criminals to whites, particularly white women, which incited and ‘justified’ murderous popular and state action. The real Black “crime” here was not any substantive unjust or violent behavior on the part of Blacks; rather white resistance to the Black demand for equality perverted this call for justice as threatening and therefore illegal. As in the case of the Jews, the refusal to submit to an inferior status becomes redefined as criminal action. The grossly disproportionate use of mass incarceration as well as the continued exercise of excessive force and murder by police against Blacks demonstrates the pervasive success of this ideology of inherent Black criminal inferiority.

By blaming criminality on the victims of racism, Trump and his ilk not only absolve themselves of finding reparative and just solutions to the sources of violence in our society, but more disturbingly, evade responsibility for their own history of violence against Blacks that continues to perpetuate racism today. The idea of Black criminality works to normalize and justify violence against Blacks, rendering them “deserving” of incarceration and death. It gives white people an excuse not to care, leading to the further devaluing of Black life and suspension of compassion for Black suffering, just as similar attitudes held by medieval Christians produced the same outcomes for Jews characterized as criminally inferior.

Recognizing these pernicious thought systems helps us identify their modern manifestations in order to discredit chimerical, racist allegations of criminality, resist them, and commit to changing the institutions that devalue and debase Black life. Studying the long history of racism sadly again proves William Faulkner’s dictum, invoked by candidate Obama in his 2008 speech on racism, that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Recognizing the continuing effects of the past may help us more effectively challenge and abolish systemic racism today.

M. Lindsay Kaplan is Professor in the Department of English, Georgetown University, where she teaches courses on early modern drama and culture, focusing on law, gender, race and religious difference. In addition to numerous essays, her most recent publications include a monograph, Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity, (Oxford, 2019) and a volume of essays on The Merchant of Venice in the Arden State of Play series (Bloomsbury, 2020). Her next book, Medieval Merchant of Venice, will center the play in an analysis of residual medieval Catholic ideas as well as emerging Reformation concepts of Jewish identity in early modern English culture.