The Curse of Ham. It sounds like something from Game of Thrones, but it is actually a misreading of an Old Testament scripture that has been used for hundreds of years to justify racism and slavery. This week we take a look inside the Southern Baptist Convention's controversial 2017 meeting and interview pastor Charles Hedman from Capitol Hills Baptist Church.
The "curse" comes from Genesis 9. Noah (yes, the guy from the flood) is back on dry land. He gets drunk and his boys cover him up out of shame. Enraged by their behavior, Noah places a curse on one of his family members: his descendants will be in service to the others. Trouble is, despite the Bible saying that Canaan is cursed, many people pretend that Ham is in order to oppress his descendants: those of African descent. This obvious fallacy has been used for decades to justify terrible acts-- and all because we refuse to see what's so clearly there.
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CS: Chris Staron DM: Dwight McKissic CH: Charles Hedman SG: Steve Gaines
CS: It's June 2017. The middle of a conference. This is one of those boring slogs right before dinner. People approach podiums and present motions and resolutions. This meeting is titled: the Committee on Resolutions Report.
Then an African American man with a short grey beard steps up to microphone 4. The camera operators can't find him in the crowd. It takes a long time for the video to leave the front of the room. When it does, it captures the man who will define the way this entire convention is remembered. He speaks.
DM: Mr. President. I'm Dwight McKissic, a messenger from Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
CS: This is pastor Dwight McKissic and he's asking for something bold. That the Southern Baptist Convention, the SOUTHERN Baptist convention, would speak out against the alt-right. This is the denomination that was founded to promote slavery before the civil war. But history has a funny way of sticking around.. McKissic is pulling some old skeletons from the closet.
Then, in the middle of his speech, he says something that sounds cryptic, even to people who really know their Bibles.
DM: ...the alt-right movement, that many years ago, by embracing the curse of Ham, the Southern Baptist Convention gave the theological license to do what they're doing right now. Richard Spencer, Jane Edwards, who says he's a Southern Baptist, and many of them claim to be Southern Baptist...
CS: The curse of Ham. It sounds like something you'd hear about in an ancient horror story, but it's not. He's referring to a verse from the Old Testament that has been misread for hundreds of years to oppress people of African descent. He wants the curse to be denounced as well. It does not go well for him. I'm Chris Staron. This is Truce.
To understand McKissic's proclamation you first have to know about the curse of Ham. It doesn't make any sense at first glance, not until you understand it's cultural significance.
Genesis chapter 9. Noah and the Ark. [Lightning and rain SFX] There is a big flood, killing everyone except Noah and his family. According to the Bible, everyone living now is descended from one of Noah's sons. Each son went a different way. The youngest, Ham, went to Africa. So if you're from Africa you have your great great great grandfather Ham to thank for your existence.
At one point, Noah gets upset at his children and places a curse on the youngest boy. Ham is to be the servant of his brothers. Remember Ham becomes Africa. That means that Africans are supposed to be servants of everyone else. You can see how some people made the logical leap to slavery.
Next time you turn on your television and hear someone say that the Bible says Africans are supposed to be slaves this is the passage they're referring to. There's just one problem. Ham is not the one who's cursed.
Here is what the passage actually says. "When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son (that's Ham) had done to him. So he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers." (NASB)
Canaan is cursed. Not Ham. Now, Canaan is Ham's son. Chapter 10 says he didn't settle in Africa. His children would later be conquered by the Israelites in the book of Joshua. The land of Canaan became Israel.
And, maybe you noticed... Israel is not in Africa. Africans aren't cursed. The Bible does not condone the slavery or mistreatment of the African people. That idea is founded on a blatant misreading.
Which brings us back to Pastor McKissic. Before he stepped up to the microphone at the Southern Baptist Convention in 2017 he submitted a resolution. That resolution was denied public discussion by a committee. So McKissic stood up in the crowd and asked for a vote to reconsider.
DM:... and I'm asking that you bring this out of the committee and let the convention discuss it and not be silent.
SG: Thank you so much, Mr. McKissic. Appreciate that.
DM: God bless you.
CS: He needed two-thirds of this room to vote yes even before his motion could be discussed in an open forum. Whoever directed the live feed pulled away to a wide shot so we couldn't make out individual voters on the screen. There's no way to tell which way it's going to go. And then...
SG: There are not two-thirds to amend it, so that motion fails.
CS: The motion never even got to the discussion phase. It's died.
The media picks up the story and it's trending online within hours: "The Southern Baptist Convention is Racist."Just like that... it's national news. It means that people who were already angry at Christianity had new reason. And the alt-right was ecstatic. Some people inside the convention saw what was happening on social media and tried to get the attention of their leaders.
CH: Yes sir, it's Charles Hedman from Capitol Hills Baptist Church. In light f the fact that we are being labeled as racist as the Southern Baptist Convention by the media as we speak, I'd like us to reconsider Dwight McKissic's referendum from earlier. Or have the president condemn the alt-right from the stage as we speak right now so there is no misunderstanding from the press or this convention.
CS: I caught up with Pastor Hedman a few months after the convention.
CH: You know, we said effectively, 'this is what it's going to be made out to be'. And perhaps rightfully so. If we don't act we are in effect saying that the alt-right is okay. Rightfully or wrongfully we knew, we figured that that would happen. And sure enough, as we started getting text messages and emails in we started realizing, yes, this is even worse than we thought it would be. That put more pressure on us to need to do something.
CS: Behind the scenes, outside the ballroom, people were meeting to try to get forward movement on calling out the alt-right. But these things take time.
CH: You know, if the resolution doesn't come to the floor it can't be voted on, and so my whole goal was to get the resolution to the floor so it can be voted on by the messengers. Because I have faith in the messengers that they will do the right thing and denounce white nationalism and racism. They just weren't given the opportunity.
CS: After Pastor Hedman talks, another pastor steps up to the microphone. These men know that the only way to diffuse a publicity storm like this is to have the leadership respond. I don't envy Steve Gaines here. He's the president of the SBC in a very public moment in its history. What he says here will be broadcast all over the world and he must have known it. His answer is diplomatic.
SG: I'll speak for myself. I don't know that I can speak for everyone in this room. But I believe that God loves everyone. I believe that there is only one race and that is the human race. I believe that Jesus died for everyone.
CS: He got applause, a lot of it. But it was the wrong thing to say. The pastor who stood and asked for a condemnation of racism didn't get it. Instead, he got a political answer. Something that wins you votes but not a place in history. But it may have kept his denomination together. Again, Charles Hedman.
CH: A lot of pastors who had African-Americans in their congregation, they were thanking me for doing what I did. And they expressed concern to me that not something happened, had the resolution not been brought back, or something not going on... they would have had to consider leaving the SBC because there wouldn't have been a way for them to go back to their constituents, to their members and explain to them why the SBC failed to condemn white nationalism.
CS: The good news is that a resolution was passed – but it took a whole day to do it. An eternity in a news cycle. And it wasn't McKissic's resolution. It left out any mention of the curse of Ham. The Southern Baptist Convention was trapped. They had to do something to keep the denomination together. And their solution was diplomatic. But they should have had the courage to address the curse of Ham. They are, in fact, a religious body. Their goal is to clarify scripture. But, instead, they overlooked it. Here's why it's important. The Atlantic followed the story with some well-written pieces the day after McKissic took the podium. The articles, and others like them, refer to the curse of Ham as a theory or an interpretation of the book of Genesis. The curse of Ham is not a matter of interpretation. It even doesn't exist. The curse of Ham is not a failure of interpretation, it is purposeful deceit that is easily debunked with even a passing glance. This story proves, if nothing else, that theology matters. Reading the Bible for what it says really matters. Otherwise, we're destined to take other people's word for it. Even if that word is racist, fraudulent, or patently false.
Special thanks to everyone I interviewed and to the Southern Baptist Convention for use of their audio of the conference, for which they hold the copyright. For more information on all things Truce, please go to trucepodcast.com. There you can also support this show, find other episodes, and learn more about my novels and films.
I'm Chris Staron. This is Truce.
About the Show
Truce is a listener-supported podcast that examines issues within Christianity that impact our culture and our witness. Hosted by Chris Staron, author of Cradle Robber, writer/ director of Bringing up Bobby.