Is Christianity to Blame for Slavery?

To Answer This, Terms Have to be Defined

Guest Contributor / 8.13.20

This one comes to us from our friend Jeanette.

Recently in a polemical piece for the New Republic, historian Bruce Bartlett wrote that Christianity is responsible for slavery. The claim is pithy, irritating, and particularly slippery. Necessarily, in polemics, language has to be as vague as possible in order to stir up the maximum amount of agitation. By not defining “Christianity” nor, really, “slavery,” Bartlett ties a wide lasso and ropes in his readers, myself caught up among them.

First celebrating the 1619 Project, he then decries certain Republicans who feel the New York Times is a waste of time. (No startling claims there!) Much of slavery’s legacy remains obscure, he continues, though some issues are perfectly “salient.” One such issue is “the responsibility of Christianity in the establishment and perpetuation of slavery as well as its role in present-day support for white supremacy and discrimination against racial minorities.” This is so obviously misleading that Bartlett hastily backpedals in the conclusion to the very same article: “It would be wrong,” he eventually admits, “to suggest that Christianity bears primary responsibility for slavery, racial discrimination, or white supremacy.”

What is happening here?

First of all, a link does exist between biblical literalism (that every word in the Bible should be taken at face value) and the justification of slavery. Ultimately this comes down to the problem of stupidity, which is a human issue, not a Christian one, though Christians are human. Someone could read a historical passage about slavery and determine that it is prescribing slavery, but that person would receive an “F” in reading comprehension. An is (“slavery exists”) is not an ought (“slavery ought to exist”). Take for example the household codes of Colossians 3. These troubling verses become even more so when taken out of context. In context, Paul can be accused of failing to visioncast a Graeco-Roman social overhaul, but he can’t be accused of trying to justify the institution of slavery. After all, he is the same Paul who, in Philemon, pleads on behalf of the enslaved man Onesimus, that he would become “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother … [I]f you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (16-17).

There are, in any case, terrifying parts of Scripture. These have consequences, and must not be ignored. Specifically, Bartlett refers to a curse early in Genesis, which many white supremacists have used to justify their beliefs. (Probably because it’s only 9 chapters into a long book they never finished.) Bartlett writes, “The utterly nonsensical theory that black people are born cursed by God because of some trivial event millennia ago could easily be dismissed” — and it should be. I’d wager that you could walk into any church in 2020, and the vast majority of professing Christians would agree: how ridiculous. But not being a sociologist, I have no evidence for that.

What I have evidence for — because there is no question — is that slaveholders and racists subscribed, and do currently subscribe, to Christianity. I heartily concur that “Christians should understand” this. Questions should be asked, corrections made. Why does Jesus look so white all the time? Perhaps the Spirit is revealing something now, granting sight to the formerly blind—the truth that all people, including churchgoers, are sinners capable of great harm. Beyond this, there is far too much glory in Christianity, too much optimism, and not enough of the cross, of the cold face of reality. Richard Rohr once said, “Reality is an ally of God,” and Jesus once affirmed this, too: “The truth will set you free.”

But Bartlett’s question — the question on the table — is the degree to which Christianity is responsible for “the establishment and perpetuation of slavery as well as its role in present-day support for white supremacy and discrimination against racial minorities.”

To answer this, terms have to be defined. “Slavery,” you could easily point out, pre-dates Christianity by at least 3500 years. Evidently the impulse to subjugate, objectify, belittle, and dehumanize cuts through all demographics and time periods; no human is immune to their humanity. As Camus wrote, “Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.” This means that “slavery” in a broad sense could never result from one religion, movement, or event. But that does not dilute the particular horrors of American slavery and the sheer hypocrisy of many (all?) Christians.

So Christianity also needs defining. Is any person who professes to be a Christian a Christian? Maybe it seems cagey to even ask. But to me, the answer seems obvious. “Evil be thou my Good,” Satan declaims in Paradise Lost. What calls itself one thing can easily be the opposite. That is one lesson we learn from the old serpent in the garden: Deception works actively against God. The so-called Slave Bible, which was “gifted” by “Christians” to their enslaved laborers, conveniently excised scenes of liberation, like Moses leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt — as well as vast swaths of the Old Testament that refer to that as a poignant mark of God’s love. So yes: Christianity bears responsibility for American slavery; that is, a kind of Christianity.

But there is another Christianity. It goes by the same name, but its tactics couldn’t be more different: often it’s quieter, more passive. Instead of power, authority, and manipulation, it is a still small voice defying expectations, watching for the valleys to be raised and the hills to be made low. It seeks to bless the poor, the sick, and the suffering. It gives life, or in today’s parlance, empowers. This is the Christianity that inspired abolitionists, early among them Gregory of Nyssa, who in the 4th century audaciously called for the end of an institution that had existed long before humans could pick up a pen and write about it. This Christianity also inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who, quoting St. Paul, preached, “God that made the world and all things therein … hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” The racist idea that some people are categorically better than others — Dr. King utters, “This is blasphemy.” (And Aristotelian!)

Better yet, hear Frederick Douglass. The distinction between Christianities was something with which he was deeply familiar:

Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity

It is the “Christianity of Christ” that I, also, love — and sadly so does everyone else, they would probably say. Sadly, most of us belong more often than not to the “Christianity of this land.” Like Jesus’ earliest friends, we are the “league of the guilty.” We follow in the footsteps of denier Peter and the abandoning apostles and a whole crowd of other moral failures. In this sense, “Christianity” is defenseless against accusations of complicity and evildoing. It has been, and will be, used to justify any number of horrors. In good conscience, we should assail it — and all other religions while we’re at it. And also every act of treachery ever committed. Give each a good look, raise it up for the world to see, and then crucify it, along with the self-righteousness we all consider so precious. Then our crimes will at last bleed out. Then maybe we will be raised to start again, with a second chance, a new life. That’s my hope, at least.