We all know that one of the darkest moments in our history as a nation was our participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In looking at it all a little deeper, it was shocking for me to understand the SHEER NUMBER of people we took from Africa in order to secure our desired future. Not thousands, but millions. Depending on the historian, it is estimated that 12.5 MILLION Africans were forcefully brought from their homeland to the New World over the span of 340 years. Nearly 2 MILLION didn’t even survive the trip to the Americas.
It can certainly seem barbaric and unthinkable to us today (as it should!) and as I looked at this more, I began to see the deep cultural norms that were supporting this ideology for centuries leading up to this time. Different forms of slavery and race domination were common practice. Many colonial settlers made passage to the New World with indentured servants, some of their own will, but many forced. When we look at slavery, we have to also look at and understand that our treatment of the First Americans was an outgrowth of these same ideologies. The idea of seeing another race of people as inferior to the White man runs deep, and the all-consuming quest for a better life, even at the expense of another race, was a trade our ancestors were willing to make.
One of the questions I had when looking at all this was related to the influence of Christians in these conversations and ideologies of the time. What were they saying, and how did they engage in this cultural moment? What I found was disheartening.
They justified it.
In his book, Divided By Faith, Michael Emerson paints a clear picture of the dominant religious thought in the early 1700’s: “According to one clergyman: ‘To live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible.’ This perceived necessity for slaves influenced Christian doctrine on the issue. For white ministers and commoners alike, at least in the South and border states, ‘a deep feeling of the misery of life without enslaved blacks often provided the hidden premise of theological and ethical statements about slavery.'”
By the 1830’s up until Emancipation, in response to a new wave of abolitionists, Southern whites began USING THE BIBLE and Christian ideals in a systematic defense of slavery.
We in the Church often like to blame “the world” for our cultural woes. But history is clear on this one: the Church has to own and recognize that we slept in a moment when we should have stood.
Like the potential for us today, we can become so used to the giant systems of corruption and oppression around us that we don’t even see the poison for what it is. We can take the Bible and read the same passages with an angle of justification, even though we know deep down inside, at the core of our being, it just isn’t right.
All of this has led me to see 3 sobering implications for us today:
1) Let’s take real caution in saying that our nation was founded on Christian principles. For sure, there were some values of the Judeo-Christian ethic that influenced our founding fathers, but this narrative tells a more complete picture. To say America began as a Christian nation is dangerous, and frankly, untrue. In light of our history, how would this be received today by a person of African descent? Our words carry weight, and we must be careful how we speak.
2) Let’s listen more intentionally to the contrarian voices in our culture. Let’s be discerning and keep ourselves grounded Biblically, but let’s not shy away from the voices of those outside our circles. Do we read books by authors of different theological backgrounds than us? Do we listen to podcasts and follow people that are often “hated” or “shamed” by our version of Christianity? We are in danger of so controlling the voices we allow in that we miss Truth that could set people free.
3) At the core of the Gospel and Jesus’ teachings is an intentional move AWAY FROM domination and control of our fellow man. Instead, a true understanding of the Gospel moves us TOWARDS selflessness, humility, and equality as it relates to all interactions with our neighbor. If I’m dominating another person I’m not living out the Gospel. And if I’m not speaking up for the vulnerable because of self-preservation or self-advancement, I’m not following the path of Jesus.