Friday, March 11, 2011

True Religion

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10: 27)
African slaves in America embraced Christ despite whites' best efforts to prevent it. At first, white slave-owners feared that if they permitted their slaves to be baptized, Christian law might require that they be freed. That, in itself, says a lot about what whites actually knew about Christianity. That fact alone ought to raise at least a shadow of doubt about the sincerity of later, popular Biblical exegesis arguing that chattel slavery was condoned by the Bible.

It wasn't until colonial governments began to enact legislation explicitly prohibiting the manumission of baptized slaves that slave-owners came on board with the idea of allowing Christian missionaries to teach and convert their slaves. Even then, they permitted missionary efforts among the slaves only reluctantly. Even then, they didn't allow evangelization of the slaves until white Christian missionaries had struck a kind of devil's bargain with them.

The missionaries promised slave-owners that Christianizing the slaves would make them more submissive, more obedient, harder working and more honest. Christianity, they promised, would make better slaves. That's the bill of goods they sold slave-holders in order to be allowed access to the slave quarters on the plantations. But missionaries knew that in order to deliver on that bill of goods, they had to preach a kind of truncated gospel to the slaves, something a little bit less than the full Gospel saints and martyrs had died for. There were certain Bible verses you had to be careful about bandying too much, such as, "There is neither bond nor free... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," and, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."

Very careful provisions were made to ensure that when slaves went to Church, they heard only a certain kind of preaching. And though Protestants had fought and bled for the right to have Scripture translated into the vernacular, and had democratized literacy in the belief that true faith could not be possible without the right and the ability to read the sacred writ for oneself, literacy among slaves was made illegal.

Whites knew at bottom that the form of Christianity they were trying to foist over onto the slaves was an apostate, man-made mockery of the Gospel they claimed to love. As Alfred Raboteau points out in his classic study, Slave Religion, many wrestled with guilt over what they were doing. What they perceived perhaps less clearly was that in the process, they had not only denied the full Gospel to the slaves, they had ceded it for themselves as well.

White Christians failed to appreciate what they had lost I believe in part because of a tendency that had been growing since the Enlightenment to characterize true religion in terms of profession of correct creeds. Ironically, it was the slaves who learned -- despite whites' best efforts to prevent them from learning it! -- that true religion had always actually been nothing more nor less than a relationship with the living God.

Even without literacy, even with an abominable mock gospel being preached to them over white pulpits ("servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh," etc.), the slaves understood the core of the gospel message. When master wasn't looking, they'd "steal away" to some quiet place, where they could sing the songs of redeeming grace, and hear real preaching, and find real salvation. Many slave preachers carried around with them an oral Bible. They knew that when God gets involved in human history, he does so for the purpose ruining Pharaoh's plans and delivering slaves out of bondage. And they knew that Christ would soon be "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

Much has been made of the form of Christianity practiced by the slaves. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why slave worship tended to be "ecstatic," why people would shout out in worship, leap up and fall to the ground, why they would weep, or laugh, or spontaneously sing. Did that come from their African roots and heritage? Was it cultural? Or was it a by-product of their oppression? Was it psychological?

But if we listen to the slaves themselves, if we pay attention to the accounts we have preserved of their own explanations of what precisely was going on, what they tell us is that the slaves' worship was ecstatic because they had God in their midst. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ was walking among and ministering to his people. He was caring for them, tending and healing the awful wounds of wicked slavery, poverty and race hatred. If you got that kind of healing, wouldn't it make you want to shout?

The terrible, beautiful truth was, the slave-owners couldn't keep the truth from their slaves. Terrible for the slave-owners, if God is just and if he is real. And beautiful for the slaves, who learned first-hand that God is real and that God is love.


  1. John I find this anaylsis honest and thoughtful. It appears to me that often times throughout history groups have tried to explain the full bodies worship style of people of slave experience.This process occurs while ignoring the very words and anayslis done by the very people they are trying to understand. While reading Roboteau's Slave Religion i became struck by the sharp contrast of how the oppresors attempted to use religion to further opress the slaves. He brings up the way the slaves disregarded the slave masters informing the slaves that the bible commands them not to steal. the slaves were able to do this because they saw the irony involved in being told not to steal while at the same time being stolen property.

  2. That whole discussion in Raboteau is so powerful... There's a lot of those kinds of moments in Raboteau. That's what makes Slave Religion such a powerful read, I think.

    The whole thing about stealing really kind of underlines how morality doesn't make any sense without a broad social/spiritual framework. Slave masters really had distorted the principle of "Thou shalt not steal" to the point of its losing any meaning... Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel...

    That's why one of the major abolitionist arguments was that slavery undermines society's whole basis for morality. You can't foster this profound injustice at the heart of your society, and think that it won't corrupt everything you value. We're still paying the price for this...