How slaves adopted and transformed Christianity

Every now and then, Christianity Today publishes something I find really thought-provoking. Recently, they published an article about why black slaves adopted the religion of their masters. As a history buff and a Bible nerd, I find things like this fascinating. The article re-enforced my understanding that there are two competing Christianities in the world today: the liberation kind, and the kind that creates slaves rather than freeing them.

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At first, it makes absolutely no sense that slaves would be remotely interested in embracing a religion that their captives used to justify enslaving them in the first place. I am reminded of the final words of Hatuey, a Taino chief from the island of Hispaniola, who was burned at the stake by Spanish inquisitors for refusing to convert to Christianity. Before he was executed, he was asked by a priest to convert, one last time, so he could go to heaven. Hatuey asked if the Spaniard would be there, to which he answered yes. Hatuey responded that he would rather go to hell than spend eternity with such monstrous people.

We’re all familiar with the destructive form of Christianity that justifies unspeakable cruelty. But many more of us are familiar with the kind of Christianity that sets captives free – metaphorically, if not literally.

In the CT article, Dante Stewart writes:

In [biblical] texts they found not just an otherworldly God offering spiritual blessings, but a here-and-now God who cared principally for the oppressed, acting historically and eschatologically to deliver the downtrodden from their abusers. They also found Jesus, a suffering Savior whose life and struggles paralleled their own struggles.

In the biblical narratives that described these characters the enslaved Africans found reasons to believe not only in the liberating power of the God of Scripture, but in the liberating emphasis of Scripture itself. Because they learned that the Bible did not denigrate African identity, they were able to use it to ground their humanity, subversively to rebut biblically based supremacist readings, to validate their right to be free and function as equals in this nation.

As they came in contact with this God, they found a different reality in him: the reality of Resurrection power. It was this reality that provided the basis for what would be deemed by historians Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood as “perhaps the defining moment in African American history” because “it created a community of faith and … provided Afro-Atlantic people with an ideology of resistance.” The Resurrection had proved its power; there are Christians—even among African Americans.

From both a Jewish and Christian perspective, the Bible is an ongoing story of slavery to freedom. It’s understandable, then, that slaves would have identified with the plight of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, and found hope in the promise of deliverance when God lead them out from under Pharaoh’s iron fist. It’s also understandable that they might derive hope from the apostle Paul’s advice on how to make the most of their miserable situation by encouraging them to work for God rather than for man.

Of course, it would be nice if the Bible more explicitly condemned slavery. I struggle with the reality of this, even knowing that it was an accepted practice at the time. Despite this, I have learned that a big part of holding on to faith is choosing the perspective you want to see.

It’s easy to focus on the racist, exclusive Christian narrative that discriminates against gays, Muslims, and immigrants. After reading one depressing news article after another on what Christianity in America has become, I was about ready to give it all up. Thankfully, I discovered the Episcopal church, and was reminded that the world-changing, compassion-based Christianity still exists.

The Christianity that uses Scripture to justify cruelty is real, and unfortunately cannot be dismissed as fringe. But the kind that promises freedom for the slave, and emphasizes equality in the eyes of God is real, too – and that’s the kind I choose to follow.

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