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Christianity and Empire
Christianity and Empire

Slaveholder Christianity

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Christianity and Empire

Slaveholder Christianity
Thursday, October 21, 2021

Fr. Richard offers a critique of how Christianity aligned with empire and colonialism manifested specifically in the United States:

The form of Christianity that has grown in the United States and spread throughout much of the world is what we have to fairly call “slaveholder Christianity.” The founders of our nation drew on a Christian tradition that had been aligned with empire for more than a millennium. It must be said that this form of Christianity is far, far removed from the Gospel and the example of Jesus as it has failed to respect the divine image in all beings. [1]

Culture, tradition, and power can keep us from recognizing the true message of the Gospel, which is why listening to other perspectives and voices is so necessary. Historian Jemar Tisby shares the writing of Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797), a formerly enslaved man, who published his autobiography in 1789:

By the time he wrote his autobiography, Equiano had converted to Christianity. As he reflected on his life, he viewed his experiences through the lens of his faith and commented on the hypocrisy of slave traders who claimed to be Christian. . . .

On the kidnapping of unsuspecting Africans and their separation from family, Equiano asked, “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” [2] Black people immediately detected the hypocrisy of American-style slavery. They knew the inconsistencies of the faith from the rank odors, the chains, the blood, and the misery that accompanied their life of bondage. Instead of abandoning Christianity, though, black people went directly to teachings of Jesus and challenged white people to demonstrate integrity. [3]

In her study on the religious experience of African Americans, Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland shares the “dark and hidden wisdom” of the enslaved:

In the dark, enslaved people slipped away to the quiet of thick brush arbors, hollows, or river banks to pray, to sing, to experience God in their misery and obscurity. There, as Susan Rhodes declared, God met them [4] and became their consolation and their joy. There they sang “songs what come a-gushing up from the heart.” [5] Like Spanish Carmelite mystic John of the Cross [1542–1591], they too were inflamed with “love’s urgent longings”; they too went out into the dazzling dark with “no other light or guide than the [flame] that burned in [their] hearts.” [6] The Spirit of the Lord descended, and they experienced an inflow of divine love that gushed up, uniting their hearts in prayer and song and shout that “made heaven ring.” [7] [8]

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, interview with Jen Hatmaker, “Live Yourself into a New Way of Thinking: Richard Rohr,” For the Love of Faith Groundbreakers, series 16, episode 5, audio podcast.

[2] The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, ed. Werner Sollors (W. W. Norton and Company: 2001), 43.

[3] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Zondervan: 2019), 30–31.

[4] Susan Rhodes, quoted in Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, an Oral History, ed. James Mellon (Grove Press: 1988), 195.

[5] Carey Davenport, quoted in From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, George P. Rawick (Greenwood Publishing: 1972), 34.

[6] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” stanzas 1, 3.

[7] Rawick, 40.

[8] M. Shawn Copeland, Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience (Orbis Books: 2018), 34.

Story from Our Community:
As a retired psychologist, I did not believe in evil. One could always provide a diagnosis and explain “bad behavior.” As I reread the words of Jesus, who commanded us to “love one another” and to help the poor, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry… then to witness my own Government take funds from the poor and give it to the rich— I knew this was evil. I look forward to learning more from these meditations. —James M.

Learn more about the Daily Meditations Editorial Team.

Image Credit: Barbara Holmes, Untitled 13 (detail), 2021, photograph, United States.
The creative team at CAC sent a single-use camera to Dr. B as part of an exploration into contemplative photography and she returned this wonderful photo.
Image Inspiration: Our state-sanctioned history celebrates explorers who chose separation, conquest, and domination. What if we chose differently and looked instead through our own “windshields” with humility, reverence, and awe for the diversity of God’s creation?
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