This blog post is the second post of a three-part series from Jonathan Leonard, a doctoral student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The series will highlight the challenges presented by a history of racism in America, the church’s unique position to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity as a result of racism, as well as the church’s historical endorsement of the slave trade, and modern pastoral care practices that allow ministers to acknowledge, discuss, and listen to congregants in a sensitive fashion concerning this weighty issue. A new blog will be posted every month. We hope you will follow along and leave comments below.
Continued from The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part I.
Slavery had a diminishing effect on all involved. There is much research left to be done on the damage done to people of European descent and their descendants regarding slavery. Historian Milton Meltzer writes of the detriment of slavery to both the slave and the master:
For both, it is a moral disaster. It seems safe to say that a sense of one’s own worth is at the root of morality. By denying a man’s humanity, slavery prevents him from developing a sense of human dignity. As for the master, the habit of domination tends to poison every aspect of his life. For when the master’s whim controls every movement of his slave, the master’s power of self-control is weakened and destroyed. The master who recognizes no humanity in his slave loses it in himself. 
Were all slave masters cruel? Not across the board. Slavery and the interpersonal interactions varied throughout the institution. Yet the common theme remained: the slave was viewed as lesser and inferior to their master. As Meltzer points out, this interaction poisoned the master’s life. The image of God in humans was not meant to dominate the will of others or to be dominated by the will of others.
There were people who lived in the slave holding society of the American south who saw the monstrosity of the system. One such person was Mary Chestnut. Chestnut was a part of the wealthy landed planter class of the south and viewed the behavior of fellow whites with disgust while writing in her journal:
God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system & wrong & iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad. This is only what I see: like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children & every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.
Could Mary Chestnut’s reaction to her society be the image of God within her revolting at the injustices around her? Mary Chestnut was a member of a family that profited greatly from their ownership of slaves and the production of unpaid labor. She inherited the racist attitudes of her society, yet the image of God is reacting with disdain at the state of affairs.
The diminishment of the image of God in European Americans can be seen at the inception of the U.S. and its declaration of independence from British rule. America was founded on the premise of freedom, equality, and the right of all men to pursue their destiny. Yet it was also founded in an era where slavery was common. The founding fathers, many of them slave owners themselves, were not idiotic men. They were keenly aware of the contradiction that this represented. Thomas Jefferson, the architect of one the greatest documents of freedom, the Declaration of Independence could be seen as attempting to grapple with the evil of the transatlantic slave trade in this clause that was omitted from the final draft of the declaration (Jefferson is referring to the king of Great Britain):
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the person of a distant people who never offended him; captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.
Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, was forced to omit this clause from the Declaration in order to appease the slaveholding colonies. Could this clause be a manifestation of the image of God in Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Jefferson was a benefactor of the slave system and held white supremacist views. Yet he was also keenly aware of the injustices inherent in the institution of slavery.
People like Thomas Jefferson and Mary Chestnut saw the hypocrisy and evil inherent in the institution of slavery. Yet they were themselves benefactors of that same pernicious institution. What could they do but look around at the state of the society they lived in and feel powerless to change it?
Meltzer recalls an account of a Northerner visiting the South for the first time. He passed through many southern cities and observed a fortress-like society: “You come to police machinery such as you never find in towns under free government: citadels, sentries, passports, grape-shotted cannon, and daily public whippings.” Southern whites had to go to great lengths to repress the slaves in their society.
The image of God in the slaves manifested itself in revolt to bondage through acts of sabotage, running away, poisoning, suicide, and rebellion to name a few. Historian John Blassingame records 55 mutinies on slave ships from 1699 to 1845 as well as passing references to over one hundred other mutinies. The image of God in whites was diminished as their will and efforts were considerably expended on the management and repression of an entire race of people.
What about the defenders of slavery in the American south? Where they all inherently evil? It would be easy to lump all of the men who defended slavery as evil. There were many arguments formulated by defenders of slavery pulling from diverse disciplines in order to justify their practices. If these people were so evil, why would they go to such great lengths to formulate arguments to justify their institution of slavery?
A Theological Response
The burden of the history concerning the transatlantic trade is weighty indeed. Study of this massive historical injustice hits on so many levels. As an African-American descendant of slaves, I read about the conditions my ancestors most likely endured and think about how I would have reacted in such a situation. I look at my children and think about my great-great grandfather Gray Sr. who was put on the auctioning block in North Carolina in 1830 along with his five brothers, and was sold away from them to Louisiana, never to see his brothers again. I look at my wife and think, how would I feel if the slave master who had the right, could take my wife from our bed and take her to the bed of a visiting friend for the night. Studying this topic has been infuriating, traumatizing at times, and exhilarating all at once. It’s as if I am studying the history of crimes committed in broad daylight without any redress. Yet the resilience of the Africans under such circumstances is inspiring.
Delroy Hall formulates the idea of re-imagining the Middle Passage as an existential crucifixion. In his article, he links the suffering of African slaves to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ using Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday as models for the African experience in the Middle Passage. What Jesus experienced on Good Friday is paralleled to the experiences of Africans. Jesus endured the humiliation of being stripped of clothing, mocked, flogged, and publicly crucified. Hall links the suffering of Africans to Good Friday.
In Christianity, the focus is usually placed upon Good Friday and a fast forward to Resurrection Sunday. Silence seems to fall in the middle of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the place of the grave. It represents mourning and a dark night of the soul. Jesus was in the grave. Hall calls the cargo hold of the slave ships tombs for Africans. These makeshift coffins where places for existentially dead people. Yet just as Holy Saturday was not the end for Jesus, so the Middle Passage was not the end for the Africans involved.
Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection. Hall highlights four aspects of Resurrection Sunday for the enslaved: forming relationships, maintaining their original languages and developing new ones, mutinies, and suicide. These were actions of protest that against their enslavement and it was an assertion of their humanity, constant expression of the image of God. The resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity. Jesus rose but carried the scars of Good Friday which were a testament to his suffering. The present day descendants of enslaved Africans of the Diaspora in the New World are survivors who may not have been enslaved but still carry the scars of slavery, Jim Crow, or colonialism.
The church is in a unique position to play a significant role in this process. While the church was duplicitous in the continuation of the slave trade, it also was instrumental in its demise. The Quaker movement in North America would become the early leaders in the abolitionist movement. Strong Christian leaders such as William Wilberforce inspired by the effects of the Second Great Awakening would lead the charge to abolition. Ministers such as John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, and Charles Finney spoke out against the evils of slavery. Women such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth utilized the spoken word and the pen to motivate others to see the injustice of slavery.
At the heart of Christian theology is reconciliation, reconciliation of a broken relationship between God and humanity. As the relationship between God and humanity is restored, so it is with the relationship between members of the human family with one another. Thus far in the U.S. reparations have not been offered. Affirmative Action, a modest form of reparation, used as a redress for slavery have been met with routine opposition. Roy L. Brooks in his book Atonement and Forgiveness: A Model for Black Reparations, offers a model for meaningful reparations: 1) Apology/Atonement 2) Reparation 3) Change in behavior. Brooks writes, “When the government makes a tender of apology, it is attempting to reclaim its humanity, its moral character, its place in the community of civilized nations in the aftermath of the commission of an unspeakable human injustice.” Implementation of these steps can be facilitated by the government. This can be achieved utilizing the legislative process, yet it should not be forced or coerced. The power of asking for forgiveness from those wronged is a powerful act which could cleanse the perpetrators or their descendants from the taint of the atrocity.
Yet before the church gets heavily involved in the reparations/atonement process, it must come to grips with its own role in its endorsement of the slave trade. Horrible exegesis and conformity to the status quo helped to secure the business of slavery in America.
Continued...This blog post is the second post of a three part series.
Read the entire series here:
The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part I
The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part III
 Meltzer, 4.
 Mary Boykin Chesnut, Mary Chestnuts Civil War. Edited by C. Vann Woodward. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 29.
 Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African-American Odyssey. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000), 595.
 Jefferson would go on to pen Notes on the State of Virginia in which he explicitly expressed his views of the inferiority of blacks to whites utilizing the disciplines of history, science, political theory, and racial theory. (Finkleman, 20).
 Meltzer, 209
 John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1979), 11.
 Delroy Hall, “The Middle Passage as Existential Crucifixion.” Black Theology: An International Journal 7 (2009):51. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (13 August 2016).
 Hall, 51.
 Hall, 54.
 Hall, 54.
 Roy L. Brooks, Atonement and Forgiveness: A Model for Black Reparations (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 144.
 Brooks 144-145.
Jonathan Leonard currently works for Safe Alliance, a 501(c)(3) based in Austin, Texas, which serves victims of domestic violence and children who are victims of neglect and abuse. Jonathan has worked in the non-profit realm with at-risk youth for nearly 10 years. He holds an M.Div and M.A. in Biblical Literature from Oral Roberts University. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He resides in the Austin area with his wife Tausha and three children, DeAnnah, Jonathan Jr., and Justin.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.