This is an edited version of the speech given by Jeremiah Camara at FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. He was introduced by FFRF’s Director of Operations Lisa Strand:
It is my pleasure to introduce filmmaker Jeremiah Camara. He directed and produced the documentary, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America.” Those who were here at our convention a few years ago had the pleasure of seeing his other movie, “Contradiction,” also about religion, and it’s on Amazon Prime. Jeremiah is also an author, whose books are Holy Lockdown: Does the Church Limit Black Progress? and The New Doubting Thomas: The Bible, Black Folks and Blind Belief. He is the creator of the widely watched YouTube series, “Slave Sermons,” a mini-movie series addressing the harmful effects of religion. Please welcome Jeremiah Camara.
By Jeremiah Camara
I’m honored to be here. Thanks to [FFRF Co-Presidents] Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker for inviting me to this event, to an organization that’s so important, and not only to this country, but to the world. We definitely need the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
They say that America’s going to hell and going wayward because of the rise of secularism. That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It is really crazy. Do you realize that once upon a time there was something in this country called slavery — and religious belief was the driving justification behind slavery? And now they’re saying that we’re going to hell because of secularism.
My film, “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America,” attempts to explain how the beliefs in a biased supreme being during Colonial America led to beliefs in supreme human beings. If you believe in a supreme being, it’s a seamless transition to believe in supreme human beings.
There is a legal component behind racism that we tend to forget, and it ultimately turned racism into an institution. When you believe in a god, you bring your baggage into that belief, you bring your beliefs, your bigotry, your bias, your superstitions, your stereotypes and your ignorance into that belief. And one of the most fundamental beliefs in America since Colonial times and even today, even if it’s on a subconscious level, is the belief that there is a god who created whites to be superior and blacks to be inferior. This was the prevailing precept.
We moved from Virginia, but many of us still have a Virginia state of mind. Virginia is the boss of this country. You can call it the District of Columbia, if you want. That’s Virginia. And I tell people, if you don’t understand early Virginia, it’ll be a challenge understanding racism in this country, because Virginia is the place where the party started. They perfected racism.
You can’t talk about racism without talking about white supremacy. You can’t talk about white supremacy without talking about Christianity. They’re tied. They’re interwoven. And it’s the root of racism. You don’t enslave. You don’t create systems of apartheid. You don’t create systems of Jim Crow. You don’t implement systems of redlining. The prison-industrial complex is for people who you believe are equal to you.
I think one of the least appreciated but most powerful elements that keeps the wheels of Christianity spinning is white biblical imagery and iconography throughout this country and the world. It does three things: It promotes Christianity, it promotes white supremacy, and it ensures and preserves racism. There’s a lot of talk about the separation of church and state, but there’s also the separation of church and the state of one’s mind.
Imagery is more or just as powerful than any speech that any attorney general or any president or vice president can give in promoting Christianity. Iconography is one of the most powerful weapons in support of Christianity. It’s the unnoticed elephant in the room.
Before there was television, there was imagery. Before there were magazines, there was white biblical iconography. I remember when I was about 6, my mother had a picture of a white Jesus in the kitchen and it was sitting on the table and I noticed that everywhere I went, the eyes followed me. So, I knew that there was really something to this religion because I never saw a picture do that, where the eyes actually followed you.
To people of color, especially blacks being the antithesis of white, seeing white biblical imagery causes immeasurable psychological damage, which has helped to lead to severe cases of lack of self-worth. And deep illness of Stockholm syndrome, as we witnessed in the Botham Jean-Amber Guyger case. And the humongous statue of a white Jesus in the country of Nigeria.
Since Colonial America, the imagery throughout the land continues to support the notion of white supremacy. We see mythological white biblical imagery every day in the magazine and book sections of Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS and all throughout Hobby Lobby. We see the iconic biblical imagery in doctor’s offices. We see it in hospitals, airports, billboards. We’ve seen it in schools and, of course, in churches and movies.
You look at some of the big blockbuster movies that we’ve had, like “The Passion of the Christ,” that took in close to $400 million. Blacks go to these movies, too.
I always tell people that Jesus is white, even though he never existed. Jesus is white and they ask, “Why do you think that he’s white?” Because he’s white in Walmart and Walmart is the largest retailer in the world. My phone is packed with imagery that I just collect everywhere I go. It’s all around. And that’s something that’s really not talked about a lot.
I was born and raised in Cincinnati, and I used to work at a place called Half Price Books. I was a buyer there. People would bring their old books in and I would assess them. I was really the best assessor that they had and I was the only black. A lady came up with her books and she needed them assessed, and said, “I don’t want a black person touching my books,” even though she was giving them up anyway. I was like, “OK, no problem.”
Honestly, I wasn’t offended. I was cool with it, but what really pissed me off was my white co-worker who assessed her books. That’s the problem. If I can’t do them, you, as my co-worker, should say, “Look, take your books somewhere else.” So, if we’re not all offended and all appalled when we go to Walmart, when we go to these places, I don’t care. I was at the Miami airport and there’s white biblical iconography all around. It’s all over, it’s everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. We all should be upset about that.
Let’s not ignore imagery. Imagery is deeper many times than the spoken word. If there’s no legal justification to end the onslaught of white biblical imagery based on the Constitution’s protection of free speech, then the Constitution is flawed. You should not be able to walk into a store and see white images of Moses and Abraham. To a person of color, it does immeasurable psychological damage. There’s no way we can put a measure on the damage psychologically.
Black people don’t even embrace their own culture. We have Stockholm syndrome to the highest degree in Africa. I don’t know how many have been to Africa, but it is amazing the reverence. They have a saying in Africa that if you’re on your way to church and you see a white man, turn around, because you’ve already laid eyes on God.
This is all about imagery. But what is racism? There’s a lot of talk about it. We hear that word all the time, but racism is the legal backing of a group’s prejudices, stereotypes, bigotry, bias and ignorance. It’s when all that is backed legally it becomes racism. We’ve been mentally conditioned to perceive an all-knowing and all-powerful creator as a white male. And no matter what our current beliefs are, our memory, an association of a white Jesus, are permanently locked in our minds. I’ve been this way since I was 22 years old, since I’ve been out of religion. Done with it. But that image when I was 6 years old is still there. It will always be there.
I’ve got a little part in the film that addresses that imagery. Racism actually stems from one group believing to be of more value and more worth than another group. And it’s time to end all of that and I’m glad that I’m here. I wish there were more blacks here. I wish there were more Hispanics here. It’s a long process, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate you guys.