This article and series was first published on John C. Richards’ personal blog. You can click here for the original and more great content.
This is part 4 of the African-Americans and the Religious Okie-Doke series.
If you are an African-American, I’m sure you’ve heard this argument: Christianity is a white man’s religion. Just look at what all those so-called Christian plantation owners did to indoctrinate slaves with their Bible that supported slavery and kept the slaves in bondage.
Is Christianity really a white man’s religion? What do we do with the biblical passages that seem to condone slavery? How can African-Americans faithfully practice Christian faith in good conscience? I hope to give you some answers to those questions in this post.
The White Man’s Religion?
Many proponents of the Black, anti-Christian movement falsely argue that the Transatlantic Slave Trade and centuries worth of enslavement (both physical and mental) forced many African-Americans to adopt the religion of their masters. In making that argument, they assert that nothing about Christianity says Black or African. The underlying assumption is that Africans had little to no presence in the Christian church, and did not contribute to the shaping of Christian doctrine.
Either they are willfully ignorant of Christian history, or their own history of Christendom begins in Jamestown—and not Jerusalem. Let’s walk through a brief Cliffs Notes version of Christian history through an African lens, shall we?
When Jesus was headed to be executed on the cross, a Black man from Africa helped carry his cross. How crazy is that? Tons of people were lining the street to see Jesus walk with a cross to his execution. And this African man was randomly selected to help Jesus carry his cross.
The Book of Acts records that Egyptians and Cyrenians were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.1 Acts also records the personal conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch.2 We later encounter men from Cyprus and Cyrene who are now “preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ”.3 As you can see, there is a significant African presence in the Christian Church in its infancy.
Probably more significant was the contribution of men of a darker hue to the doctrine of the early church. Yes, Africans helped develop some of the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith. Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Tertullian, and Augustine are all significant figures in the early Church. And they are all Africans. These men defended the Christian faith from heresies that threatened the message of the gospel.
To assert that Christianity is a white man’s religion is to erase these figures from the annals of history and presents a revisionist account contrary to the multi-ethnic reality of the Christian faith throughout the centuries.
The Insensitive Paul and Peter
What about the Bible, though? It talks about slaves. You can’t look past that, right? Paul writes, “Slaves obey your masters.” Paul writes. And he writes those words on more than one occasion.4 Even Peter joins the fray and tells slaves the same thing.5 Thy are two of the biggest names in Christendom. Why do they seem so insensitive? Who would tell slaves to obey their masters? That just seems wrong on so many levels.
You can’t read Paul’s words with Jamestown plantations in mind. You need to read them with the system in place in the first century.
At first glance, the apostles’ words are a slap in the face for any descendant of American slaves. It doesn’t get any clearer than what the Bible says about slavery, right? So, even conceding historical evidence of African influence in the Church, it would seem right that many anti-Christian Blacks are vehemently opposed to all things Christian. Not so fast.
Here’s an important interpretative principle. You have to first read passages in the Bible through the lens of those who they are written to. Never start with your own lens (your own personal experience). Paul is writing to slaves in the first century. He’s not writing to slaves on plantations in rural Georgia. You can’t read Paul’s words with Jamestown plantations in mind. Read them with the system in place in the first century.
Slavery Through the Right Lens
Here’s something staggering. There is significant evidence that a good majority people in the Roman empire were slaves at the time of Paul’s writings.6 We read that and we’re appalled. What kind of system is that?
For starters, it was nothing like the American system. It was a system of voluntary servanthood. In that culture, slaves were allowed to own property, save money, start businesses, and live like other citizens. The system was in place to work off debts. Slaves could eventually buy their freedom.7 Slaves were physicians, architects, administrators, and teachers. They held what we’d call today…everyday jobs.
Even the Jews had laws—many found in the Old Testament—that protected slaves and gave them certain rights. In fact, Jews celebrated Jubilee every 50 years; slaves were released to commemorate their own release from Egyptian bondage.
Slavery was a normal, majority experience in the apostles’ culture. So Paul and Peter spoke to people living in that culture. We must remember also that Paul does encourage slaves to gain their freedom if they can.8
What about Slaveowners?
But what about American slaveowners? They abused these passages to keep slaves subservient, right? I agree.
The hermeneutical (a fancy word for interpreting a text) faithlessness of slave masters created a culture of fear, pain, and death that no race of people should ever experience. But that abuse shouldn’t be understood as Christian orthodox belief. An abuse of a thing doesn’t nullify its proper use.
If I hear about a parent emotionally abusing a child, I wouldn’t condemn all parents. In the same way, you cannot condemn the faithful remnant of Christians who genuinely engage in counter-cultural, moral, and ethical practices. How else could you explain white Christians who actively participated in the abolitionist movement? They were Christians too. One group—between slaveholders and abolitionists—was right about what the bible meant of slavery. And I think we all know which group that was.
Slaveowners did to the Bible what many Christian Scientists9 do with it today. They handpicked Scripture out of context to ensure their economic success, and to keep a race of people enslaved. And the passages on slavery were the pick of the litter. Somehow, God used that experience in a redemptive way to shape a people whose faith outpaces many other racial groups.
UP NEXT: Nicaea and Constantine’s Agenda
- The crowd included people from “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,” (Acts 2:10, ESV) ↩
- Phillip was sent to proclaim the gospel to an influential Ethiopian man headed back home from Jerusalem. “And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27, ESV) ↩
- “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 11:20, ESV) ↩
- “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,” (Ephesians 6:5, ESV); “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” (Colossians 3:22, ESV) ↩
- “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” (1 Peter 2:18, ESV) ↩
- In the first Christian century, one out of three persons in Italy and one out of five elsewhere was a slave.James A. Brooks, “Slave, Servant,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1511. ↩
- This process was called being manumitted, or set free, by the owner ↩
- “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” (1 Corinthians 7:21, ESV) ↩
- Christian Scientists is a bit of a misnomer. The group is not an orthodox Christian group and only uses portions of Scripture to shape its faith practice while ignoring others. ↩