Throughout the world, kinship used to define the limits of morality. The less related you were to someone, the less moral you had to be with him or her. We see this in the Ten Commandments. The phrase “against thy neighbor” qualifies the commandment against bearing false witness and, implicitly, the preceding ones against killing, adultery, and stealing. For the modern reader, “thy neighbor” is helpfully explained as meaning “the children of thy people” (Leviticus19:18).
In some cases, this kin-based morality gradually ceased to apply the farther away one went from home and from immediate kith and kin. Usually, however, the limits of one’s moral community coincided with some kind of boundary: a geographic barrier, a political border, and/or an ethnic frontier. Beyond lay the world of “strangers.”
Toward a universal morality
The first efforts to universalize morality—to create a single moral system that could apply to everyone—”arose simultaneously around 500 BCE in various parts of the world, from China in the Far East to Southern Italy in the West” (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p. 121). These efforts were initially driven by the need to form alliances between different peoples:
Alliance – the formation of treaties – proved the most important instrument of internationalism. Forming an alliance required mutual recognition of the deities which served as patrons. The treaties which these empires formed with each other and with their vassals had to be sealed by solemn oaths invoking the gods of both parties. The list of these gods conventionally closes the treaty [...]. They had to be equal in their function and rank. Intercultural theology became a concern of international law. (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p. 125)
As ancient empires expanded and absorbed different peoples, this intercultural theology became useful for internal peace, notably with the Hellenistic empires that arose in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests. By affirming that different religions are interchangeable, it became possible to create a common civic culture for diverse peoples:
Hellenization had two faces. On the one hand, it referred to the diffusion of Greek language, ideas and customs all over the Ancient World; on the other hand, it appeared to be more of a construction of a ‘common culture’, suggesting a similar change in Greece as in the other cultures. Flavius Josephus did not speak of ‘Greek’ but of ‘common culture’, ho koinos bios, as the goal of Jewish assimilation or reform in the Hellenistic age. (Assmann and Conrad, 2010, p. 127)
One result would be the emergence of a universal religion. We like to associate this development with the teachings of Jesus, but a kind of proto-Christianity was already emerging near the end of the pre-Christian era. At that time, many Jews were adapting their belief in one God to the universal worldview of Hellenistic culture:
Thus, while biblical universalism was founded on a notion of the mission of Israel to save all of humanity and bring them to the true worship of the only God, Hellenistic notions of universalism involved the assumption that all the gods were really different names for one God. (Boyarin, 1994, chap. 3).
The two belief-systems merged among the increasingly Hellenized Jews of the eastern Mediterranean, thus setting the stage for Jesus and making it easier for his movement to succeed.
The Christian impulse
This new religion became a vehicle not only for moral universalism but also for belief in human equality. For if morality is universal, all humans must have the same capacity to follow its rules. In Christ, asserted Paul, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).
While Christianity would steer people in the direction of universalism, there were limits to how far it could go. Theologians sometimes spoke of the need to set lower aims for average people and higher aims for saintly men and women. We see this realism in Augustine’s position on prostitution: “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust” (De Ordine ii, 4). The same could be said for the Church’s position on war, slavery, prejudice, and other manifestations of human inequality. These were the realities of an imperfect world.
Such imperfections nonetheless became harder to accept over the following centuries. First, there was “mission creep.” Once the Church had established certain ideals, there was continual pressure to bring human behavior into line with them. Second, the geocenter of the Church was shifting away from the eastern Mediterranean, where the absolute morality of Christianity had been constrained by the relative morality of kinship. Farther north and west, beyond the Hajnal Line, kinship ties were weaker and people more receptive to universal principles. There was thus a “fruitful encounter” between the Christian faith and these northwest Europeans who were more willing to internalize such principles and apply them more thoroughly (Frost, 2014a).
Within this region, Catholicism would radicalize to the point of splitting away and becoming Protestantism. Here, too, Christian ideals would increasingly be taken to their logical conclusion.
The Abolitionist movement
Abolitionism began in the 17th century among English Quakers as a movement to abolish the slave trade. Over time, it grew more radical, seeking not only to free black slaves but also to extirpate racial and ethnic prejudice. Although “antiracism” did not yet exist as a word, its form and substance were already recognizable by the early 19th century. This was particularly so in the American northeast, where radical abolitionists denounced not only slavery but also fellow abolitionists who wanted to settle freed slaves in Africa. “In the 1830s, for the first time in American history an articulate and significant minority of Americans embraced racial equality as both a concept and a commitment” (Goodman, 1998, p. 1). This militant minority wanted more than simply an end to slavery:
Believing that racial prejudice underpinned slavery, abolitionists committed themselves not just to emancipation [...] “Our prejudice against the blacks is founded in sheer pride; and it originates in the circumstance that people of their color, only, are universally allowed to be slaves,” Child argued. “We made slavery, and slavery makes the prejudice.” Color phobia, abolitionists contended, is irrational, wicked, preposterous, and unmanly. It is contrary to natural rights and Christian teaching, which recognizes no distinctions based on color. Race prejudice, Elizur Wright Jr. exploded, is “a narrow, bitter, selfish, swinish absurdity.” (Goodman, 1998, p.58)
Decline … and resurgence
That first wave of antiracism subsided in the late 19th century, partly because of the rise of Social Darwinism and partly because of disillusionment with the Civil War’s aftermath. Radical abolitionists had long set their sights on ending slavery and crushing the American South, yet achievement of both goals failed to bring the final goal of human equality any closer. In the face of growing self-doubt, they lacked the ideological stamina to keep the faith and push forward, come what may. The movement thus fell into decline, remaining dominant only in the American northeast.
This first wave did not die, however. It was resuscitated in the early 1930s and would give rise to a much more dynamic second wave. The rise of Nazism convinced many Jewish intellectuals, notably the anthropologist Franz Boas, of the need to fight “racism” in all its forms, this word being initially a synonym for Nazism (Frost, 2014b). The war on racism would outlive the defeat of Nazi Germany, as a result of continuing fears of anti-Semitism in the postwar era. Moreover, it had now taken on a life of its own, much like its 19th-century predecessor.
Today, some eighty years later, that war is still being fought. What began as a reaction to Nazism has become a permanent cultural revolution.
Assmann, A., and S. Conrad. (2010). Memory in a Global Age. Discourses, Practices and Trajectories, Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies, New York
Boyarin, D. (1994). A Radical Jew. Paul and the Politics of Identity, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Frost, P. (2014a). A fruitful encounter, Evo and Proud, September 26
Frost, P. (2014b). From Nazi Germany to Middletown: ratcheting up the war on racism, Evo and Proud, July 19
Goodman, P. (1998). Of One Blood. Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality, Berkeley: University of California Press.