Last month, I took two of my kids to one of my favorite museums. It’s the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Tennessee, built on the Lorraine Motel the very place where Dr. King was assassinated.
We got to board a bus just like the one that Rosa Parks sat on, we saw actual slaveship manifests, and re-visited some of histories most inspiring and damning moments.
At one point early on, my kids started asking questions like “How could anyone ever think this is okay?” And I think I said something to them like “The Devil gets people to do some evil things and if you do them enough, eventually you will stop realizing that they are evil.”
I really do believe that racism in America is a Principality and Power, and like my friend Sean Palmer says, “If we don’t recognize this we won’t understand how people can swear their not racist (and mean it).”
But like demons in Jesus day, they must be named. So here’s the name I want to tell you for this one.
Here’s the story I want to tell my kids when they get a little older:
Naming the Demon
What you’re seeing around you is not your fault. You didn’t start this story, it existed long before you ever arrived on this earth.
In 98 A.D. the Roman historian Tacitus wrote what has been called “one of the most dangerous books ever to be written.” And maybe it is, after all, it was a book that helped lay the ground work and inspire the Nazi myth of their racial superiority and thus the justification for the ruthless elimination of “lower breeds of humanity.”
The book is called Germania, and in it, Tacitus is making some observations about the Germanic tribe of people who fought off Rome’s empire, and how impressed he was with them. He’s impressed that they’ve never intermarried, describes them as people unlike anywhere on earth: Red hair, blue eyes, and a strong build.
Tacitus praises their moral character, and how they don’t “laugh at vice” and that they have “good moral habits” He loves their system of governance, a way of self-governance that he describes in detail, one that values participation by everyone. He praises and describes a form of governance that captured the imagination of people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the like.
And he connects this form of government, these people of noble character, with a particular kind of skin color and ethnic background.
And the Anglo-Saxon Myth was born.
I first read about this in Kelly Brown Douglas ‘s excellent book Stand Your Ground:Black Bodies and the Justice of God. And I found it fascinating that I had never heard this story before. It never dawned on me to ask, “Where did the first white slave owners get the idea that they could justifiably treat another human being as beneath them?”
The Great White Hope
I can’t emphasize this enough. The United States was built on this strange and toxic idea that people of Anglo-Saxon descent were more moral, smarter, better people. From the Constitutional declaration that African-American slaves were only 3/4th of a human being, to no less than the people who drew up the founding documents (including many Presidents) explicitly describing their belief about God’s calling for their ethnic group the.
The founder of American democracy, Thomas Jefferson, saw democracy as an virtue given to him by his race…and he got this idea from a book 1600 years old at the time.
Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter Anne, “Tacitus I consider as the first writer in the world without exception,”
So yeah, he was kind of a fan.
Douglas points out that Jefferson believed, like many others, that these new Americans had been chosen by God to “implement an Anglo-Saxon system of governing. He considered Americans to be the New Israelites.”
Douglas notes that this has implications for things much broader than slavery.
It will lead President Theodore Roosevelt to later be concerned about an influx of immigrants who aren’t people of color, but aren’t of Anglo-Saxon descent (Roosevelt refers to them as “new stock” and was very concerned about the birth rate of people from “old stock”). It will lead to the Jim Crow laws of Segregation. It will lead to Dylan Roof walking into a church in Charleston and murdering people in cold blood and to people of color having to point out that black lives matter.
It is the myth that is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny (which I’ll talk about next week). For a closer look at all the implications of this story weaving it’s way into the fabric of the western world, check out this by my pastor friend Sean Palmer.
It is the story that is behind so many other stories that we today. It’s behind many of our headlines and the news feeds, it’s a story that crawled it’s way out of German forest through the pen of a 1st century historian with some bizarre ideas about how race is connected to morality and character, and how one race in all the world is better than the others.
And it’s a lie.
But at least now you know it’s name.