This blog post is the first in 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.
The image of God within people of African descent has been marred and consistently challenged from the beginning of the American experiment. This has been quite evident throughout the nation’s history. Yet the racism practiced in U.S. history can be seen as a manifestation of humanity’s fall in Genesis 3. In Genesis 1 and 2 God establishes order and proper relationship between Deity and creation and healthy relationships within the created order. Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that God created humanity in His/Her image and likeness. This endowed humanity with an innate dignity and a value. Every human regardless of gender, age, skin complexion, or physical ability is valuable.
God gave humanity dominion over the animals of the earth, yet did not give humanity dominion over other humans. The desire to dominate fellow human beings came when humanity chose to move from a position of relationship with God to exultation and centering upon self. This was a veritable Pandora’s Box where sin in many forms manifested. Racism is one such sin that has particularly plagued humanity within recent centuries. Slavery throughout the millennia has had the pernicious characteristics of greed, brutality, and exploitation. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle stated this while questioning the humanity of slaves:
For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave (for that is why he belongs to someone else), as is a man who participates in reason only so far as to realize that it exists, but not so far as to have it himself…other animals do not recognize reason, but follow their passions. The way we use slaves isn’t very different; assistance regarding the necessities of life is provided by both groups , by slaves and domestic animals. Nature must have intended to make the bodies of free men and of slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do, those of free men upright and not much use for that kind of work, but instead useful for community life.
Aristotle’s animalization of slaves is clearly dehumanizing. It seems to render them as tools, or rather some sort of animated tools. The same way a saw is the extension of its user, so the slave was an animated tool and extension of their master’s will.
While slavery in the ancient world was clearly exploitative, it was also strangely egalitarian in that nearly anyone could become a slave in that world. An aristocrat whose city was conquered or an enemy combatant captured on the battlefield could easily become the property of their conquerors. Pirates swarmed the seas and routinely preyed upon ships, islands, and coastlines enslaving people in raids. In the Greco-Roman world, many nationalities and races were represented in the slave markets of the empire. Yet it was during the transatlantic slave trade that slavery would gain a racial component. This would be the first time in Western history where a specific racial group of people became universally tied to perpetual bondage. David Brion Davis writes, “As slavery in the Western world became more and more restricted to Africans, the arbitrarily define black “race” took on all the qualities, in the eyes of many white people, of the infantilized and animalized slave.”
The challenge to the image of God in people of African descent in America continues this day and can be witnessed in the various forms of police brutality. In June of 2015 in Austin, Texas, a police dashcam captured a white Austin police officer slamming a slender African-American woman to the ground. The woman’s name was Breaion King, a twenty-six year old elementary school teacher. She was pulled over for speeding, but things quickly escalated which led to her being slammed to the ground and handcuffed in the back of a squad car. Yet it was King’s interaction with another officer in the vehicle that seemed to raise eyebrows even further. King questioned the officer: “Why are you all afraid of black people?” The officer then replied to King’s question stating blacks have “violent tendencies” and “intimidating” appearance. He went on further to state: “Ninety-nine percent of the time … it is the black community that is being violent,” the officer told her. “That’s why a lot of white people are afraid. And I don’t blame them.”
These comments started an avalanche in my mind concerning racism, American history, the image of God, and the role of religion in justification of slavery. These comments from the officer are a manifestation of generations of thought formulated in the realms of politics, economics, law, science, and religion. Many Americans are woefully ignorant of the basics of U.S. history such as naming the victorious side in the Civil War, who the U.S. gained independence from, or naming the vice-president. This presents a greater challenge to understanding the historical underpinnings of white supremacist thought and how it undermines the ideals espoused by the country’s founders.
How does this link to understanding the image of God and slavery? In the encounter between King and the officer, was the image of God exulted or diminished? (When I refer to the image of God, it is in reference to the image of God in Breaion King and the officer who slammed her as well as the officer who made those comments about African-Americans).
Continued...This blog post is the first in a three part series.
Read the entire series here:
A Diminished Image of God in Europeans, Part II
The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part III
 For more elaboration on the shift from slavery being a status that nearly anyone had the possibility of falling into to the racial component later imposed by Western nations on Africans see David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. See also Milton Meltzer’s work, Slavery: A World History. Chicago: Da Capo Press, 1993.
 Davis, 128.
 Michael E. Miller, “Austin police body-slam black teacher, tell her blacks have ‘violent tendencies,” (22 July 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/07/22/video-austin-police-body-slam-black-teacher-tell-her-blacks-have-violent-tendencies/ (10 August 2016)
 Americans of all ages seem to fail to answer basic questions about U.S. history. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 Americans, found that only half of adults in the country could name the three branches of government. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report found that only 18 percent of 8th graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics. (Saba Naseem, “How Much U.S. History Do Americans Actually Know? Less Than You Think.” Smithsonian Magazine http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-much-us-history-do-americans-actually-know-less-you-think-180955431/ (10 August 2016).
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.
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