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Christianity, Slavery, and Evil Done in the Name of Christ

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Recent weeks saw a furor over President Obama’s remarks about at the National Prayer Breakfast engulf parts of the blogosphere. In his speech Obama said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” The ensuing controversy focused largely on the Crusades, but it also prompted some interesting defenses of the President’s words from Ta-Nihisi Coates at The Atlantic and Jamelle Bouie at Slate. Coates and Bouie both cite some historical evidence to back up President Obama’s statement that “in our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Yet in their rush to defend the President, Coates and Bouie produced a response characterized by an historical and religious illiteracy of its own. While we should remember that some justified “Jim Crow in the name of Christ,” we must also recall that when thoughtful Christians reflected back on the scripture and tradition offered to them, they relied upon their faith to help eradicate slavery. These were not simply two equal expressions of Christianity: one was a flimsy attempt at maintaining power through theological ignorance and the other was the full fruition of an idea seeded in scripture.

In his piece, Coates shows two contradictory impulses. Early on in the piece he writes, “there were a fair number of pretexts given for slavery and Jim Crow, but Christianity provided the moral justification.” At the risk of being pedantic, there’s a gaping chasm between saying that “Christianity provided the moral justification for slavery” and saying that slavery “was justified in the name of Christ.” It’s the difference between saying that a religion itself provides the justification for an action and saying that people claim the religion justifies the action. Just because people attribute their actions to Christianity or Islam doesn’t mean that the religious justification that they provide is actually authentic Christian (or Muslim) theology.

Bouie makes the same mistake when he argues that the nearly 4,000 lynchings of blacks that took place under Jim Crow could only be conceived of as full of Christian symbolism by men who “understood their acts as a Christian duty, consecrated as God’s will against racial transgression.” Even if he succeeded at demonstrating that this group of white Southerners who self-identified as Christian used religious imagery, that wouldn’t necessarily cause an invested observer to conclude that it was rightfully defined as Christian imagery (assuming, as most of Obama’s critics would, that there might be a proper definition of Christianity beyond self-identification).

Coates in his piece—and later, on twitter— did acknowledge these points in his own way. He writes that perhaps it was not Christians’ fault for slavery, pointing out that “the interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power.” He also asserts that “Christianity did not ‘cause’ slavery, anymore than Christianity ‘caused’ the civil-rights movement.” In fact, in a series of tweets that showed more sophistication than his piece, Coates went on to make more distinctions along these lines:

Notion that getting rid of religion gets rid of war seems to miss one of the great lessons of the 20th century. I wrote about Alexander Stephens justifying secession through Christianity, but I am sure he would have found some other reason. Nothing intrinsically “Christian” about America’s slavey society. “Christian” is simply the means of legitimization. All sorts of ways of legitimizing evil, by the way. Late 19th century America used “science” to sanctify white supremacy. Frankly it’s not even clear that some “religious wars” are actually “religious.” Thirty Years War? Really?

Yet even if Christianity is merely a “means of legitimization” we might ask whether it is being used coherently. The question is whether the sanctification of that power is easily justifiable or whether it demands cognitive dissonance. Will future followers of the religion be able to use it sensibly to reform bad practices and misapplied scriptures, or are the ideas of the religion itself dangerous?

I suspect that Coates and Bouie, given a different set of circumstances, would have made these distinctions more consistently if they were asked whether communism “provided the moral justification” for the tens of millions who died under Stalin and Zedong. As Orwell illustrated rather well, it could be argued that much of what happened in 20th century communist regimes proved to be the anti-thesis of communist ideology. Take another look at the quote that Coates’ cites, from the Vice President of the Confederacy:

With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system… It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.

If anything, Stephens’ quote is a good example of the dangers of proof-texting any religious text – that is, taking it grossly out of context. The hermeneutical task of interpreting scripture requires taking the most explicit verses to interpret the less clear verses. Stephens’ hermeneutics is poor because it is not at all clear that “one star to differ from another star in glory” should mean “therefore, we’re right to beat and rape slaves.” In fact, there are a whole host of other verses that would challenge not only the treatment of slaves, but the idea of racial inequality altogether. Can you really get to “he has made one race to differ from one another” from “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus?” Can you really go from “And they sang a new song, saying, “’Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth'” to “subordination is his place?” Can you really take “truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” and conclude that Christianity provided the moral justification for chattel slavery?

Stephens was using a religious argument, even quoting Christian scripture, but clearly he wasn’t using Christianity – insofar as he failed to draw on what Christianity actually teaches. By simply saying that slave-defenders like Stephens took “the name of Christ” without suggesting that they were doing so fairly, President Obama made a claim far more defendable than those of his defenders. By failing to acknowledge this difference, Coates’ and Bouie’s arguments are far less compelling. The question at hand really ought to be is the religion in question actually capable of being used to defend coherently the practice that is occurring or is it intellectually inconsistent with that practice? This is why Christians were a bit upset over Obama’s comparison.

But of what of other texts slavery defenders could have used? One of the hardest passages for modern Christians to understand is in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, where he writes:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

This is a far cry from the abolitionist movement we might hope for Paul to demand, but even so, it is still an insistence upon mercy and kindness. Christianity commands masters to render service with good will to their slaves and to stop threatening them. Though it does not offer a universal condemnation of slavery, this passage would clearly condemn American slavery in the South.

Moreover, though Christianity may have not explicitly condemned all slavery at its outset, once you’ve studied the history of the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement, its deeply Christian roots are obvious. Coates and Bouie display their own religious and historical illiteracy by failing to appreciate this potential reformative power of Christianity. As quoted above, Coates denies that Christianity “caused” the civil rights movement. Bouie for his part wants to argue that Christianity itself is dangerous, suggesting through a quotation of NAACP leader Walter White, that “it is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity.” This ignores, of course, the fact that lynchings have taken place in India, Palestine, Guatemala, and Haiti—not only in the last century, but within the past 10 years. A quick study of history, more than an isolated quote, actually begs the question, “could the systematic abolitionist movement have possibly emerged under any religion than Christianity?”

First of all, the Catholic Church condemned slavery many times. It was directly responsible for the elimination of slavery in Europe in the middle ages, when theologians argued that as an extension of the ideas in Scripture and a Christian understanding of brotherhood in Christ, it would be wrong for Christians to enslave other Christians. In 1435, Pope Eugene IV wrote “Sicut Dudum” which unequivocally demanded that the Portuguese release their slaves claimed on the Canary Islands. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI condemned the practice in slavery in the South in “In Supremo,” citing a centuries-long tradition of being critical of slavery and the treatment of the Native Americans.

Devout believers like William Wilberforce fought in Parliament for 20 years to ban slavery in England. John Brown, at his trial in the United States, said, “I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction.” Sojourner Truth pointed to Christ’s role as Savior of all mankind to suggest that Heaven has no racial prejudice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the influential abolitionist novel, is bursting at the seams with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s faith in specifically Christian teaching.

The Civil Rights movement was also deeply inspired by Christianity. Icons like Jackie Robinson relied on prayer and the command “whosoever small smite thee on the thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” to keep himself from attacking those who sought to oppress him. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches bellow with the echoes of Scripture. In “I Have a Dream,” he echoes Robinson’s discipline as demanded by Christ: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” But he also captures his hope that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

There were, of course, prominent non-Christians who also played key roles in the abolitionist and civil rights movements. But the repeated refrain of Christian teaching and principles—drawing on a diverse and deep understanding of Scripture, rather than isolated proof-texts —demonstrates that specifically the Christian faith helped bring the west to finally end slavery and promote equality for all men.

Coates should have made the distinction that Frederick Douglass was keen to make at the end of his Narrative. In the following quote, Douglass allows the distinction between proper and improper expressions of a specific religion, rather than treating Christianity as simply a cultural idea that can be used equally for evil or for good: “What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”

Jordan Monge

Jordan graduated from Harvard in May, with a degree in Philosophy. A former militant atheist, she converted to Christianity her freshman year and became the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Ichthus. She currently works as a tutor in Orange County, CA, in between writing and figuring out what to do with her life. Unusual fact: her highest aspiration is to be a stay-at-home mom. Intellectual interests span most anything, with a special affinity for NT Wright that approaches the fervor of teenage girls for Justin Bieber.