This blog post is the final 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.
The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part I and
A Diminished Image of God in Europeans, Part II
The scars of the transatlantic slave trade are present with us today. The numerous incidents of police shooting unarmed black men in the U.S. highlights the lingering legacy of the power of the sinful slave trade to damage relationships within humanity. Racial ideas formulated to justify slavery and dehumanize Africans linger and are ever present in modern day law enforcement. Early in the NFL season, controversy brewed surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the treatment of minorities, in particular African-Americans. The tentacles of slavery even reach out into the sphere of sports entertainment. Americans, who are woefully ignorant of much of their history, are learning more about Francis Scott Key, slave owner/white supremacist, and the author of the Star Spangled Banner.
Knowledge of history is a first step. Open and honest dialogue is another step. Wynnetta Wimberley highlights America’s reticence in engaging in meaningful dialogue concerning slavery and its legacy:
Today, America appears to be at an impasse, opting for trendier dialogue bent towards concern for a more ‘global’ community, rather than addressing the anguish ‘in her own backyard’. It appears more palatable, even en vogue, to rally to concern for Israeli women, Czech children, or Malaysian families than it is to broach the subject of poverty and devastation in the African American community (which finds its origins in slavocracy).
Euro-centered scholarship concerning the transatlantic slave trade has trended toward placing emphasis on the role of Africans selling Africans into bondage. Whites are therefore allowed not to acknowledge the extent to which they were involved in the slave trade and to take responsibility for their part in making slavery a multinational lucrative business. Wimberley writes, “Many of the contextual details of a traumatic past become lost when someone else presumes to articulate a narrative that is not one’s own. It is therefore important for the ownership of the narrative of slavery be in the hands of the descendants of slaves. This is not an exclusion of European scholars from the study of the slave trade, but serves as accountability to telling the whole story while recognizing their own biases.
Scholarship tends to gloss over and leaves the brutal/bestial nature of slavery in obscurity. One such book is historian Hugh Thomas’ nearly 900 page book entitled, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. As a reader I was quite disappointed in Thomas’ approach to telling of the story of the transatlantic trade. The scholarship displayed in his book did a wonderful job of breaking down the industrial complex of the slave trade and its connections to trade and commerce. Yet he focused little if any in the nearly 900 pages on the destruction of humanity due to white supremacy. Readers would be better served to read S.E. Anderson’s The Black Holocaust for Beginners or John Henrik Clarke’s Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism in order to get a better view of the soul crushing and immoral nature of the slave trade. John Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South has the ability to give a broad scholarly view of slavery in the American south while still being able to touch on the smaller details of the sufferings, hopes, and motivations of both slaves and masters.
The church has been both proponent and detractor of slavery. Theology and twisted exegesis was used to justify the slave trade along with pseudo-science and racial theory to highlight the superiority of Europeans to Africans. Pastoral care should be informed concerning the history and legacy of slavery upon the descendants of slaves. Depression and anxiety in the African-American community are strongly linked to social conditions that were created during slavery and subsequent Jim Crow years. The pastor is suited to listen to individuals in a manner that affirms their personhood (a personhood that has been attacked since arrival in America) and sees them as valued members of the community. This values the image of God within the person and views their depression or anxiety as the image of God attempting to protect itself and preserve its dignity.
There are several practical ways for ministers to acknowledge, discuss, and listen to congregants in a sensitive way around this issue:
Concerning people of European descent, more research in academia should be done in the fields of psychology, sociology, theology, and history concerning the psychological, social, and spiritual effects of slavery upon Europeans during slavery and their descendants. Slavery did not just affect African-Americans; it was torrid, brutal, grotesque, and intimate all in one. Centuries of establishing a racialized system built on exploitation changed Europeans and their descendants. It seems as if the surface is just being scratched upon this topic.
Wynnetta Wimberly, “The Culture of Stigma Surrounding Depression in the African American Family and Community.” Journal of Pastoral Theology 25:1 (2015): 20. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (12 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).
Read the entire series here:
The Image of God and Slavery in America, Part I
A Diminished Image of God in Europeans, Part II
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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