Christian Justification for Racism: Cursing Messenger Ham

In Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson claims that Christianity and Hinduism both believe that social stratification by birth is divinely ordained. In Hinduism, social hierarchy is thought to have been structured into creation as the right order of things. While racism and caste are deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, in is not from creation itself. The Christian God did not create some people to be below others. In Christianity, the solidification of caste by inheritance came later. Oddly, it came from God’s chosen person Noah. While the Christian God had not created race and racism, Noah did. It is time to call him out as part of dismantling racism within Christianity.

The origin story of caste within Christianity is in Genesis 9, which begins by stating that God blessed Noah and his sons. This is important. No distinction is made among any of them by God. Then comes the account of how Noah came to create caste. Noah had planted a vineyard and made wine. One day he got so drunk he passed out naked in his room. His son Ham saw what had happened and went and told his two brothers. The brothers took a blanket to cover Noah, taking great care to not gaze upon his naked body. When Noah woke up, he got angry with Ham for seeing him naked and telling his brothers, thereby bringing shame to him. But Ham was only the messenger of Noah’s fallen state.

It is important to note that the story says nothing about Ham having any disrespect toward his father. It is simply assumed from Noah’s reaction that he must have. Ham’s reaction, however, may have been one of concern for his father’s state. How often was Noah getting drunk like that? Rather, it is assumed that Ham told his brothers for them to have some fun at Noah’s expense. But that is impure speculation. Speculation is unfair to people. The content of our speculation says more about us than about them. The story only states the facts. But somehow tradition has it that Ham deserved Noah’s wrath. No longer.

Now, we can see Noah’s reaction as being abusive. He got angry with Ham and put a curse on him as well as his son Canaan and all their descendants, forever. He condemns them to the lowliest status among humans. It is thought that Ham and Canaan, in their banishment, went to Africa and became dark-skinned.

Many Christians have taken this curse to be real, and even of divine origin, which is not in the story. While Wilkerson gives this story as an example of divinely ordained stratification of society, it is not. It was Noah, not God, who put a curse on Ham, Canaan, and their descendants. After that, Noah does invoke God to elevate the status of his other two sons. But they had already been blessed by God, so what Noah was asking for is for them to have power over others.

This incident is simply the punitive action of an abusive father diverting attention from his shameful drunkenness by spiritually attacking his son. When an alcoholic is exposed, watch where the attention goes from the drunk to the messenger. Noah disowns and condemns Ham in the strongest possible way, feeling justified in doing so. Also typical of an abusive attitude.

So why has Christianity been fooled by this misdirection? Why not rally to defend Ham, his son Canaan and all their offspring? Do we believe that Noah’s curse of Ham is greater than God’s blessing of Ham that preceded it? While this might all seem inconsequential today, it is not. As David M. Goldenberg points out in The Curse of Ham: Race Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this curse has been widely believed to be real and is still so by some white people today. The enslavement of people from Africa was justified by belief in this curse. Why believe it? When given the lamest of justifications, we will assume power over others.

Until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not allow Blacks in positions of leadership because they believed Noah’s curse. Christian colonizers of Turtle Island equated the people here with descendants of Canaan, meaning it was right to take their land and treat them poorly, in the tradition of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites that is celebrated in a children’s song.

This is all like some giant conspiracy theory that has somehow persisted for millennia. It has served to benefit masses of white Christians, after all. Drunk from being chosen by God, Noah may have believed he had the power to curse Ham, Canaan, and their descendants to be the ‘lowest of slaves.’ But why would anyone else believe it except that it serves their self-interest? The curse only has power if we buy into it.

It is time to call out Noah for the abuse of his precious son, Ham, who was blessed by God, and his son Canaan. If Ham were guilty of anything, of which there is no evidence, the punishment far exceeded the crime. For all we know, Ham went straightaway to his brothers out of concern for his father’s drinking. Rather than cover him up, and cover up the problem, Ham wanted his brothers to know how bad it was. As the righteous man he was supposed to be, Noah should have apologized to all of them for what he put them through and done what was needed to stay sober.

We should feel only compassion toward the descendants of Canaan, whoever they are. We should only feel compassion toward the people of African descent who have been and continue to be mistreated from the fallacy of the curse of Noah. With that curse exposed as a ruse, the last may finally become first.