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The KKK, a Black Musician and the Bible

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What do the KKK, a black musician, and a misinterpretation of a Biblical story have in common?
A few nights ago, I watched a new documentary on Netflix titled Accidental Courtesy. The film is centered on a black musician named Daryl Davis who has spent years befriending members of the KKK and other White Nationalist groups in the hope answering a fundamental question.
“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
The film goes through Davis’ life and many of his interactions and even friendships with KKK members. In an interesting scene, Davis shows us an entire collection of KKK robes and hoods in his closet from past KKK members who have left the Klan due to their interactions.
However, there was one scene during the movie where my inner Bible scholar was quickly awoken. In a brief conversation between Davis and an imperial wizard (a leader in the KKK), Davis asked about the motivating factor behind this man’s ideology.
Our belief comes straight from the divine, the man began to explain. We have a clear imperative from the Bible that God does not want the races to mix. Humans tried to build a tower (Tower of Babel) which would unite all of the different races and this greatly angered God, causing him to spread out the nations. You see, God himself has commanded us to keep the races apart from one another - we are just doing his work!
Now this is a fantastical bit of Biblical interpretation and one that goes against both a simple reading of the verses and the way that various Biblical exegetes throughout the ages have read the story.
Just to give some background: The Tower of Babel is a good example of a etiological tale. It is a story which attempts to explain why the world is as we see it today. In this case, the Biblical authors were attempting to answer and explain a very simple question. If all of mankind was born from one couple (Adam and Eve) just a couple of generations ago, how is there so much racial and cultural diversity in the world?
The Tower of Babel is a great mythological answer to this question. A long time ago, the Bible suggests, mankind was culturally and racially homogenous and began to build a massive tower up towards the heavens. For whatever reason, God decided that this was not a good thing and decided to mix (literally babel) up people’s languages and spread them out upon the Earth.
What is crucial to note about this story is that God did not separate and spread out mankind as a punishment. The Bible, especially the first few chapters of Genesis, does not hesitate to note when God is doing something specifically as a punishment (think the punishment for eating the fruit in Gan Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, etc.), but here the language is different. The reason why God did not want all of humanity to be “of one language” is that then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6). Now the reason why God would not want the humans to be able to accomplish “what they plan” is a mystery and is the subject of much debate between Biblical interpreters.
However, I think that we can view this story as a radical call for cultural and religious pluralism, especially given the historical backdrop of when it was written. The Bible is teaching us that God purposely created multiple cultures and that they are all equal. Given that all cultures were creating during this mythological story, none can claim primacy or supremacy to any other. If we want, we can even go one step further and argue that God viewed pluralism as such an ideal, that in his mind it was even more important than humanity being able to accomplish “what they plan”. In other words, God wanted the world to be diverse and pluralistic, even at the cost of everything running smoothly at all times.
Now I am not naive enough to think that if a white supremacist actually understands the story of the Tower of Babel they will change their mind. However, I do think that it is important to understand the arguments (and their underlying flaws) of groups who we not only disagree with, but repudiate. Furthermore, political philosophers and social psychologists across the board agree that the easiest way to dissuade someone of a belief is to approach it from their worldview. In this case, as much as we would love to stick out our middle finger at a KKK member and shout them down, it would be much more helpful if we were able to rationally and emotionally show them where they went wrong. That is, after all, the entire message of the movie Accidental Courtesy which I highly recommend.
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