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Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Christianity and the American Slave, part 2

Frederick Douglass addresses the paradox of Christian freedom and American slavery more directly in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. While describing the freedom of the mind that he obtained upon absorbing The Columbian Orator, Douglass, 10 years after he escaped, let loose again on Christianity as practiced in America:

“The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of [British statesman] Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery.

“With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff.”
There’s a component missing from Douglass’ understanding, unfortunately, but the fault is not his. When Paul wrote “slaves, submit to your masters” (which applies to all working relationships, not just slavery itself) he was saying so from prison. Paul was beaten, whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, spat on and so on, all in the name of Christ—and not just by Romans. Romans were stepping up their persecutions—and Paul knew all about persecution, both as receiver AND giver (back when he was Saul), and the great persecution under Nero was but a few years away. He did not lightly say, “slaves, obey your masters,” knowing full well that many a master was cruel.

Of course, the admonishment was accompanied by a similar admonishment to masters to treat their slaves well, as alluded to in part 1 and explained below.

Like I wrote in the previous part, most masters in America ignored that component by treating slaves as less than human. Therefore, it was very easy for the slave to reject Christianity—or, at the very least, chose Moses over Paul. How can you tell someone to submit willfully and silently to someone who treats you worse than a piece of garbage? Paul did tell first century Christians (and all subsequent Christians) to do just that—even when the situation was intolerable. But could not a man run from such a situation? Could he not act in his own defense? The Lord warned against retaliation—but not self defense. Indeed, He even told his disciples after the Resurrection that they were to buy a sword, presumably for self-defense. In other words, a man comes at you with a knife or whatever intending to do you serious harm or death, you can defend yourself—but you cannot therefore take up your own knife and seek him out later to enact revenge.

But cannot a man run from a cruel master?

The answer is an emphatic yes. When Paul wrote to Philemon, he was not writing to a cruel master. Rather, he was writing to a fellow believer about a runaway slave whom Paul had also led to Christ, and asked that Philemon accept him back as a fellow believer, not as a slave. In America, most slave owners, overseers and traders were cruel toward their “charges.”

Therefore, under Biblical authority, as identified in Acts 4, an American slave could rightfully rebel against master by running away because the master’s exercised authority violated God’s higher law. The cruelty and indifference to the slave justifies it, because God mandated that those in positions of authority be just. When authority defies God’s will and ways, the Christian may safely rebel against authority.

Ephesians 6:5-9
Let’s look more specifically at what the Bible teaches about slave/master (as well as employer/employee) relations—information denied/ignored by slave owners and denied to the slaves:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
Because the last two verses were denied/ignored in American slavery, men like Douglass came to despise Americanized Christianity.

How could, in fact, a slave hear the Gospel on a Sunday from a slave master, or just about any white person for that matter, yet the rest of the week be treated no better than a piece of sack cloth? Would that not turn him from God? At the very least, it would turn him from the church.

Now, it’s true, Jesus was not out to start revolution—against Rome. Against sin, certainly, but not against the earthly powers, because Christ was about His Father’s business. That’s why, when the people repeatedly sought to make Him king to overthrow the hated Romans, He declined, because such was not His purpose.

“Treat your slaves the same way.” Rare was the American slaveholder who did that. Of course, it was easy to dismiss or ignore Paul's admonisment—really a detailed exploration of Christ's words to (paraphrased) treat others as you would like to be treated—when the slave owner did not even consider slaves to be on the same level of humanity as the white man!

The Descendants of Ham
Along those same lines, American slaveholders twisted scripture in other ways, too. At the beginning of his Narrative, Douglass describes the plight of mixed-race slaves, of which he was one. These were slaves whose father was white—often the master himself. Douglass wrote in chapter 1:

“…it is nevertheless plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase do no other good, it will do away with the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…”
A small grain of twisted truth is at play here. After the Flood, Noah’s descendents spread out across the world (Genesis 9). His sons, Ham, Shem and Japeth, were the ancestors of the world’s people. When God scattered Ham, Japeth and Shem’s immediate descendents at the Tower of Babel, they spread out across the world. Shem’s descendents formed the Semitic peoples (Jews and Arabs) who populate what would become the Middle East, and also formed the “oriental” peoples. Japethites formed the basis of Europeans. And Ham’s descendents became the Phoenicans and other Mediterranean sea-faring peoples…and Africans. Ham’s tradition was “servile,” meaning service.

Now, take this to 17th, 18th and 19th century times, and you get a twisting of scripture that the descendents of Ham were to be slaves. The above excerpt from Douglass reads as though he wrote it with wry mirth instead of anger, as if he realized fully how ignorant the slave holders were.

* * *

In part 3, I’ll look more at Douglass’ cry against the hypocrisies of Americanized Christianity of the 19th century, and explore some conclusions.

***to be concluded***

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