Ok, I know. We didn’t exactly get out of port on schedule. My apologies for leaving you guys at your sea and anchor stations so long. I just haven’t found any spare time to dedicate to writing over the last several months. But let’s do this – take in all lines, sound one prolonged blast, shift colors. We’re underway.
So, what I promised all those months ago was to start off with a discussion of race and religion. And here’s the unanswered question that has long baffled me – how in the hell can any black American be a Christian?
Let’s start by considering one of the key reasons that leads me to conclude that all religion is crap – the importance of geography to religion. Isn’t it remarkable that the vast majority of adherents to each religion happen to follow the religion most prevalent in the place they grow up? If a person is born and raised in Saudi Arabia, what religion are they going to be? We all know they will be a Muslim. Why? Because that’s how religion works – it indoctrinates kids into the religion of those who surround them, particularly their parents. Virtually all of these religions claim to be the one true path to a one true god. They can’t all be right, only one could be right. So if one of them actually is the one true path to the one true god, why are only certain segments of the world’s population going to be exposed to that one universal truth? If the one true religion is Christianity, why does everyone born and raised in Saudi Arabia basically get an eternal death sentence thanks to the geography of their parents? If the one true religion is Islam, why won’t anyone in South America get a chance to go to paradise for eternity? In short, if there is an all-knowing, all-powerful god, why does he suck so badly at getting his all-important message out to everyone?
In the beginning, what religion were the ancestors of today’s black Americans? Although there had been some missionary work in western Africa, they most likely weren’t Christian. Islam was the only one of today’s major religions which had spread to Africa in any significant level at the time, but it was mostly in eastern Africa. Based on their geography in western Africa, they held a multitude of varied religious views. Most believed in a single, supreme deity who was responsible for all of creation, but some practiced polytheism. Perhaps the most common religious view amongst those western Africans who would be enslaved and brought to America was the pursuit of a harmonious balance between nature and a chosen deity not unlike what we typically associate with Native Americans. So the first question that I can’t get beyond is if these western Africans held a sincere religious belief that had been passed on to them through generations of their ancestors, why would they discard it in order to adopt that of their captors? Why toss aside what your parents and grandparents had taught you was that one universal truth in order to side with the one universal truth of the people who had enslaved you, brutalized you, and destroyed your family? A large part of that answer is that it was a long process that didn’t happen overnight. Early generations held firmly to their customs, language, religion, etc. But it still happened. Perhaps another part of the answer is that the god of the master must surely be perceived as more powerful than the god of the slave. I don’t know.
One might think that part of the answer could be that the captors forced or encouraged the slaves to convert, and that did happen eventually. But initially, the Christian slave owners were not big on the idea of sharing the story of Jesus with their slaves. It seems they didn’t think sharing any ideas of spiritual equality with the slaves was a good idea. I’m not sure why they were so hesitant because I do know there were plenty of lessons in the bible that could have been taught to slaves that had nothing to do with equality. A small sampling of passages:
- However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)
- If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)
- When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. (Exodus 21:7-11 NLT)
- When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)
- Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
- Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
- The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)
And yes, if your religion’s official guidebook details the rules for people freaking owning other people, please don’t hold it up as any source of moral authority. Thanks.
Now to be fair and honest, I understand that this was not an overnight conversion by the masses. I get that there were a lot of factors that contributed to the eventual conversion to Christianity by black Americans and that the conversion happened over the course of many years. So I understand that it can be explained away through a multitude of rationalities. My point on abandoning the African religions in favor of Christianity is just that I personally don’t think I could have ever taken on the religion of my captors and I don’t understand anyone else genuinely doing it either.
And beyond the fact that regardless of how long it took to occur, black Christians have denied the religious views of their ancestors in favor of those who initially enslaved their ancestors, let’s look at how Christianity has been used against black Americans throughout their struggle for equality in this country.
As I mentioned earlier, Christian slave owners were initially reluctant to share their religion with their slaves. But, eventually they used their religion as a tool to further control their slaves. They figured out a way to avoid the message of spiritual equality and instead convince the slaves that they were slaves because God had cursed them to be slaves. African-American theologian James Cone notes that “In the old slavery days, the Church preached that slavery was a divine decree, and it used the Bible as the basis of its authority.” In E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, he makes the point that, “Not only did Christianity fail to offer the … [Black] hope of freedom in the world, but the manner in which Christianity was communicated to him tended to degrade him. The … [Black] was taught that his enslavement was due to the fact that he had been cursed by God. … Parts of the Bible were carefully selected to prove that God had intended that the…[Black] should be the servant of the white man.”
The greatest crime against black Americans was carried out by using the Bible and Christianity as a justification. Let that sink in for a second. Slavery was said to have a Christian Biblical justification and yet black Americans today are Christian. WTF?
Following the end of slavery, things weren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows for black Americans. Jim Crow and segregation made things extremely difficult and really kept blacks in a position closer to the slavery they had just escaped than to true equal membership in our society. And where did Christianity stand on these issues? Of course, it was once again used as a justification for the supposed racial superiority of whites and the need to maintain “separate but equal.”
Following the Civil War, a new organization named the Ku Klux Klan was formed. It waged war against against black Americans. The Klan was formed as a Christian organization. Go to their website today and the first message you read is from Pastor Thomas Robb which urges potential members to follow the “Christian way.” That “Christian Way” has always been the Klan way as they brutalized black families across this country, carrying out a campaign of terror and murder all in the name of Christianity.
Now you might view the Klan as a fringe element, a minority group with warped views of the religion that operates outside mainstream society. Fair enough, one doesn’t need search long to find mainstream elements of society who use Christianity to justify segregation and white superiority. Take the case of Theodore Bilbo, a two-time Governor of Mississippi and former US Senator. During his successful reelection campaign of 1946 Bilbo made a call to action, “I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the n—–s away from the polls.” Bilbo was a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, telling Meet the Press that same year that “no man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.” During a filibister of an anti-lynching bill (yes – Christian conservatives supported lynching), Bilbo claimed that the bill “will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”
I obviously could provide innumerable examples of Christians using their religion not only to prove their racial superiority, but also to oppress races they found inferior, but I hope you agree that’s not necessary. The fact of the matter is that Christianity was once again used as a justification to segregate, discriminate against, disenfranchise, lynch, terrorize, and oppress black Americans.
Recently it seems some people (especially white, religious people in my experience) have started to believe that there are no more racial issues in this country. They make the case that racism was a dark chapter in our collective history that we have overcome. One need look no further than the Supreme Court of the United States to see just how prevalent and mainstream this opinion has become. I disagree. It is a current problem.
Please understand that I am not black and to make any statement that I understand the black experience in this country would be pretentious and disingenuous. But, that said, I do have some personal experience with racism visiting my front door. My oldest daughter is a brilliant, beautiful, and accomplished young woman of whom I could not be more proud. She lives in Orlando with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend is everything a parent could hope for in a partner for their child – he is an intelligent, accomplished, caring, good person who aspires to greatness. He happens to be black. My neighbors apparently don’t approve of that fact and have taken to voicing their disapproval amongst each other. Of course none of them addresses it to me. But it struck me that all of these Christian neighbors of mine still find nothing incompatible between their racist views of my future son-in-law and their religious beliefs. To me, that really goes to the point that while we may have made progress, we aren’t there by any stretch. And religion continues to hold us back in getting there.
Take slavery for example. People like to pretend that it happened hundreds of years ago. No. It didn’t. It was 150 years ago. I have known people who knew people who were slaves. That’s insane. My great-grandparents lived in a world with people who were once owned by other people. That isn’t some hundreds of years ago experience, it is real. And think about just how recently it was illegal for an interracial couple like my daughter and her boyfriend to marry. It wasn’t until 1967 (my dad was 24 years old) that the Supreme Court struck down all anti-miscegenation (no interracial marriage) laws. That decision in Loving v. Virginia, impacted 17 states. 17 states in 1967 had made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry. Those 17 states also happened to be the most religious/Christian states in the union. Hmmm. And it wasn’t until 1998 in South Carolina and 2000 in Alabama that official bans against interracial marriages were removed from all state constitutions.
And don’t kid yourself in thinking those bans had nothing to do with Christianity. Christians supported those bans and did so with more Biblical justification. Consider this quote from Judge Leon M. Bazile, the trial judge in the Loving case. “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
As I look at the word counter below and see that I have exceeded 2500 words, I recognize it’s probably beyond time to wrap this up. So, to wrap up, I again ask, how in the hell can any black American consider himself to be a Christian? It was not the religion of your ancestors, it was the religion of the people who enslaved and brutalized your ancestors, it is the religion that was used to justify the enslavement of your ancestors, it is the religion that was used to justify segregation, it is the religion that was used as justification for discrimination, and it is the religion that is at the heart of the root cause of every struggle Black America has faced. Again, I recognize that I can’t say I get the black experience, but I can take a guess as to how I would have reacted to these issues had I been a black man. And my guess if that I would have been much more Malcolm X than MLK, much more Black Panther than NAACP, and any god-damned thing ever but a Christian.