Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a writer, speaker, and activist and serves as an associate minister at the historically black St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.
America’s original sin of race-based slavery is rooted in our bodies. Every man loves his body and will, under most conditions, do what he can to save his own skin. Given the collective experience of childbirth, women are perhaps more inclined to offer their own flesh for another. But nobody enjoys pain. Our bodies bear the curse of human rebellion—the sweat of the brow and the pains of labor. The sins of our fathers (and mothers) bear down on bent backs and sciatic nerves.
Slavery has always been one means humans employ to skirt this curse. “To the victor belongs the spoils,” is an ancient truism of war. Often in human history, the spoils included people. But war is not the only way some bodies became subject to others. Remember the opening lines of the Exodus story? “There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph…” In the messiness of politics, favor comes and goes. But the people who are in power almost always make sure someone else carries the weight and does the dirty work.
The unique contribution of slavery during the establishment of the American colonies was the employment of skin color to assign a class of people to perpetual servitude. Originally, white and black people came to the colonies as servants of the settler class, but race-based slavery emerged as an efficient means of building up the plantation economy by permanently assigning people of African descent to the status of slave. Africans who’d survived the Middle Passage were no longer seen as enslaved people. They became, as race-based slavery developed, human chattel. In contrast, people of European descent began to imagine themselves as white. By virtue of their whiteness—and for no other reason—they imagined a divine right to own black bodies.
For the people whose sable skin rendered them subject to use and abuse, this arrangement was obviously anathema. “Before I’d be a slave / I’d be buried in my grave / and go home to my Lord / and be free,” they sang when white folks weren’t listening. Tactics of resistance varied, but people of African descent always knew in their bodies the basic heresy of race-based slavery.
And in their bodies, white people knew it, too. To comprehend the moral contradiction of America’s original sin, you must consider what it meant for a young, white man to come of age on a plantation. Imagine yourself growing up on a plantation in the early 19th century, a half-day’s horse ride from the closest city. Like any child, your world is the people you’ve known and the places familiar to you since birth—the Big House, which you’ve always called home, and the barn where your daddy tied a rope swing from the rafters so you could fly down from the loft and land safely in that mound of hay by the horse stalls. For as long as you can remember, you’ve always had your studies and your chores to do. Mother always insisted that you learn responsibility. But you always felt closer to Betsy, the enslaved woman who changed your diapers and cooked your food and picked you up when you fell and skinned your knees. You never remember running down to the barn to play without Betsy’s two boys and Imogene, the girl between them—the one that was born just three months after you.
For you, a son of so-called privilege, puberty means beginning to make sense of why you kissed Imogene down in the hay pile when y’all were six and why you both always knew you could never tell a soul. It means coming to terms with the fact that you and Imogene both share your father’s nose. And it means beginning to internalize an arrangement in which you will one day own the woman who both competed with your mother for your father’s love and nursed you at her breast.
If you were a good Episcopalian, as most plantation families were, this is also about the time you would be confirmed as a living member of the body of Jesus Christ.
“Now at one’s feet there are chasms that had been invisible until this moment,” the Southern writer Lillian Smith wrote in her book The Journey, a century after slavery’s end. She was describing an experience shared in silence by generations of white Christians. “And one knows, and never remembers how it was learned, that there will always be chasms, and across the chasms will always be those one loves.”
To observe that race-based chattel slavery was a gut-wrenching experience which white people also experienced in their bodies is not in any way to equate their suffering with that of African-Americans. It is, instead, to try to understand the lived experience which informed the ways they read the Bible and imagined their world.
Because even though slavery ended in 1865, most white Christians went on reading the Bible and seeing the world around exactly as they had before.
Growing up Southern Baptist in North Carolina, I memorized Scripture in the King James Version and engaged in a serious program of discipleship as a white adolescent without ever giving serious consideration to the “Southern” in our denomination’s name. Then in 1995, the summer before my freshman year of high school, the Southern Baptist Convention issued an official apology for its endorsement of slavery. There it was. We’d separated ourselves from our American Baptist sisters and brothers some 150 years earlier in order to stay “Southern” and keep our slaves. Enough water had passed under the bridge for our elders to decide that it was time to burry that hatchet. They said they were sorry.
But their concession stirred up old fears. Before I had finished high school, a conservative movement within the denomination insisted we’d become too liberal, took over the denomination, and forced everyone who worked for the International Mission Board to sign a statement of faith to which they added an article about female submission. It was the first time in my life I’d seen people on the local evening news being interviewed about my church.
I remember a professor from the local university explaining how the text from Ephesians that SBC leaders were quoting as a basis for their insistence on female submission was, in fact, one of the primary texts apologists for slavery had quoted in the mid 19th century. “Slaves, submit to your masters,” followed right on the heels of “Wives, graciously submit to your husbands….” The opening line of the whole passage was glossed over in both cases: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
It was a 10-second spot on the evening news. But it touched me deeply. They were talking about my people and how we read our Bible. I studied Greek and Hebrew and went to seminary, in part, because I wanted to learn to see. A decade of education taught me a lot, but it took Mario spitting rhymes on the curb to really open my eyes.
Being out of touch with my own body kept me from reading the Bible well.
And this wasn’t just a personal problem. It was part of the collective psyche that came with assuming I was white. It was the implicit bias that could be measured, but couldn’t simply be erased. It was all the racial habits I hardly noticed: a lifetime of attending all-white Bible studies, locking the car doors in predominantly black neighborhoods, assuming my white professors knew what they were talking about, and silently boycotting rap music. Racial blindness was in my spiritual DNA.
If Adam and Eve ate the apple, infecting us all with sin, I wanted to know who in my lineage had taken away my sight. I read that Thorton Stringfellow, pastor of the Stevensburg Baptist Church in Virginia, had made one of the most popular arguments for slavery when Baptists in the mid-19th century were deciding to secede from the American Baptist fold. In a university archive, I found a copy of Stringfellow’s Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery. I poured over it like cancer patient might read her oncology report.
Stringfellow did what Christians have always done to justify injustice. He assumed that the status quo was normal. Abraham, the father of our faith owned slaves. So did New Testament Christians. Jesus himself had not condemned the practice, so it must have been acceptable. Stringfellow, like many before him, read in the curse of Noah’s son, Ham, a divine cause for the race-based subjection which had become a matter of law in America.
But Rev. Stringfellow was haunted by the moral argument of abolitionists. The organized coalition of free blacks, Quakers, and white evangelicals on fire for justice had only just begun to speak out when Bishop Freeman wrote his treatise on the rights and duties of slave masters in the mid 1830s. But by 1850, when Stringfellow took up his pen, their moral courage had created a movement. Hundreds of people who knew they were not property had risked life and limb, trusting hearsay that an “underground railroad” could carry them to freedom. With little more than a Bible, a pistol, and moss on the north side of a tree, Harriet Tubman would eventually lead as many as 500 souls to freedom.
As real people like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth shared publicly about the experience of being enslaved, white Christians began to feel in public life the gut-wrenching moral contradiction they had only considered in private. Ministers like Rev. Stringfellow took it upon themselves to ease the conscience of white congregants by helping them feel good about themselves. He concluded his defense of slavery by asserting that it was not only defensible, but that it was a great good for Christianity.
Stringfellow claimed with rhetorical flourish that slavery “has brought within the range of Gospel influence millions of Ham’s descendants among ourselves, who, but for this institution, would have sunk down into eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the Gospel.” He went on to argue that enslaved people would probably live better lives in America than they would have as free peasants in Africa. But the truth of his claim hardly mattered because he had, by his very logic, severed his Gospel from the real, bodily conditions in which people live. Because his so-called Gospel prioritized the eternal security of souls above the temporal living conditions of bodies, Stringfellow simply could not see the inherent connection between bodies and souls.
This couldn’t simply be the way he imagined enslaved people. The logic of Stringfellow’s argument reveals how the enslavement of human beings led to a Christianity that struggles to this day with the challenge of reconciling soul and body for all people.
Even though Jesus took on flesh for my sake, I don’t know as a white man how to live in my own skin. And I’m not alone. What’s more, my struggle to connect soul and body on the personal level mirrors a struggle I share with millions on the societal level. Even though Jesus proclaimed the advent of a new political reality—the “kingdom of God”—we consistently fail to connect faith and politics in meaningful, consistent ways. Instead, Christians who think we are white vacillate between naïve nationalism and a pseudo-spiritual disavowal of politics. Not only do we not know how to live in skin; we’re often notclear about what it means to live in the world.
We see, as Paul said, through a glass dimly. Which is to say, everyone looks like trees walking around.
Taken from Reconstructing the Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Copyright (c) 2018 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com