I’ve been rereading Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. It’s a relatively short book, but packed with information that all Christians should be educated about. The “theological crisis” in the title that led to civil war was, obviously, about slavery — and whether or not the Bible justified the slave trade.
Christians literally went to war over the concept that God not only condoned slave ownership, but actively encouraged it. Abolitionists were even considered heretics for disobeying God’s “clear” word on the subject.
Tempted as I am to dismiss racist theology as something fringe, I know that I can’t. The slave trade takes up too many centuries, and has tainted the legacies of far too many influential Christians to go all “No True Scotsman” on it. I’m sure the faith of slave-owning Christians was genuine, but our surrounding culture can have more of an influence on how we read Scripture than we realize. The rest of the contradictions can perhaps be blamed on cognitive dissonance. We all are guilty of this to some degree.
The question of how I can still defend and be part of a tradition with such ugly, oppressive history has come up in my mind more than once, as pastors today condemn the Black Lives Matter movement and tearing down confederate monuments. Is it really enough to say “My denomination isn’t like that” or “That’s not how I interpret the Bible”?
For starters, I believe the legacy of Christian cruelty is evidence of something that Jesus himself predicted: the way to life is narrow, but wide is the path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Picking up your cross and living the life of a disciple is intentionally hard, and none of us will do it perfectly. The flesh is weak, and eager to please the status quo. So it’s no surprise to me that Christian history contains a mix of social progress as well as social regression. Because bad news tends to travel faster than good news, the names of the saints who healed, fed, educated are easier to forget than those who killed, tortured, and enslaved.
While it’s important to remember and learn from Christianity’s violent history, we also have to do justice to the lives of marginalized people who found profound hope and healing in the Bible — and even used it against their oppressors. The story of how Moses lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt was actually omitted from Bibles given to slaves so they wouldn’t be tempted to rebel and make a similar escape.
It’s likely that many victims of Christian oppression converted for reasons that had more to do with Stockholm Syndrome than genuine conviction. I’ve heard it argued that black Christians (and probably Jewish ones, too) are something of an oxymoron, because their ancestors never would have heard of Christianity if not for colonialism. But many freely chose it — and helped shape America’s spiritual legacy. When white American Christians embrace prosperity theology, we would do well to remember the lives of influential black Christians who remind us what “picking up the cross” actually looks like.
Every time I see a social media post that says “Religion poisons everything,” I’m reminded of a quote from singer Ani DiFranco: “Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right.” The Bible can be a weapon or a balm, depending on the heart of the person reading it. That’s a reflection of humanity — not Jesus. And if not for him, I probably would have left the faith a long time ago.
For more resources about the intersection of faith and colonialism, I highly recommend the following:
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin