Original Research - Special Collection: Christina Landman Festschrift

The religious roots of racism in the Western world: A brief historical overview

Izak J.J. Spangenberg
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 75, No 1 | a5187 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v75i1.5187 | © 2019 Izak J. Spangenberg | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 17 July 2018 | Published: 22 May 2019

About the author(s)

Izak J.J. Spangenberg, Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


Racism is again a burning issue in our country. One may define racism as the conviction that not all humans are equal, but that some are ‘worthier’ than others. Usually those who are regarded as ‘unworthy humans’ are not treated on par with the rest. The ‘othering’ of humans in the Western world did not commence in the 16th, 17th, 18th or 19th centuries. It is argued that the roots of racism in the Western world date back to the 1st century CE when the early Christians severed their ties with the Jewish people and their religion, and started humiliating and denigrating them. Traces of this can be found in the New Testament in inter alia John 8:44, Revelation 2:9 and 3:9. The Jewish people and their synagogues were associated with the Devil. However, Paul also contributed to the anti-Judaism sentiments of early Christians. He argued that the gospel superseded the law. This eventually led to the conviction that Christianity superseded Judaism, and that Jews and Judaism ranked lower than Christians and Christianity. These beliefs created fertile soil for the development of racism in the Western world. The article presents a brief overview of the history of Christianity, how it developed, how it became the state religion of the Roman Empire and the dominant religion in the Western world, and how the religious convictions fed into the sociopolitical and economic policies of the Western world. The article delivers a plea for accepting the view that all religions are human constructs and that their adherents need to meet the ‘other’ on an equal footing. The Western world especially needs to look at how Christianity contributed to the way it treated other people during the course of history.


Augustine; Christianity; Judaism; Islam; Racism; Skin colour; Western world


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