Tag Archives: slavery

When The Gospel Becomes a Tool for the Oppressor: Lessons from the Life of Nat Turner

slave

I recently watched the film, “Birth of a Nation” and was struck by one of the themes in the film. The story seeks to tell the story of Nat Turner and the slave revolt that he led in the year 1831.The story is an adaptation of the real account of Nat Turner, a slave, and  a preacher who in retaliation against his unjust treatment snaps and led a rebellion that resulted in the deaths of over 50 white men, women and children. It was a horrible event, one that would eventually spur both sides on the slavery debate to bolster their arguments; the abolitionists pointed to the evils of slavery that would cause such a response, while the southerners reacted by issuing even harsher laws against slaves and fighting against the education and rights of the slaves to engage in church services.

One of the more moving themes in the movie centered around the use of Nat Turner to suppress any agitation or frustration that the slaves had against their master. The movie depicts Nat Turner as a traveling preacher who is called upon by other slave owners to encourage the slaves to submit to the cruelties and obey the commandments of their slave owners. Nat was shocked to see that in some plantations many of the slaves were treated worse than those in his community. He saw many slaves who were, maimed, broken down, both mentally, spiritually and physically. He was told by the slave owners to specifically preach on passages of the bible that focus on service and obedience and submission, neglecting passages that speak about cruelty, the evils of slavery, and the evils of turning a blind eye to such atrocities.  It became difficult for Nat to reconcile his message for obedience and submission when he and those he loved were being brutalized. In the film, Nat’s wife was gang raped, and he ends up being beaten for resisting his master’s increasing attempts to dehumanize his slaves. In one instance Nat’s master allows one of his guests to rape the wife of his fellow slaves. The dissonance between the gospel that Nat read in the Bible and the failure to apply that gospel by his “christian masters”was one of the chief driving forces that caused Nat to snap. Nat Turner saw himself as a biblical prophet whom God would use to inflict his judgement on the slave owners.

Though the movie was an adaptation, it did carry true themes. During those times there was often indiscriminate killing of slaves, raping of women, and brutal violence that was perpetrated by “god fearing” men.

In many places slaves were forbidden to meet and worship, even though one of the justifications for slavery was for the christianization and civilization of the heathen.

In 1834 the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky wrote:

“Slavery deprives its subjects, in a great measure, of the privileges of the gospel. The law, as it is here, does not prevent free access to the scriptures; but ignorance, the natural result of their condition,does. The Bible is before them. But it is to them a sealed book. Very few of them enjoy the advantages of a regular gospel ministry.” *

Again another account

In 1800, South Carolina declared: “It shall not be lawful for any number of slaves, free Negroes. mulattoes, or mestizos, even in company with white persons, to meet together and assemble for the purpose of mental instruction or religions worship, either before the rising of the sun or after the going down of the same. And all magistrates, sheriffs, militia officers, etc., etc., are hereby vested with power, etc., for dispersing such assemblies.”

WEB Dubois in his work, “The Negro Church” writes the following:

Moreover, the masters clung to the idea that, the chief use of religion among slaves was to make them “obey their masters.” When it was charged that slaves were not allowed to rend the Bible, one naive answer was that it was read to them, especially “those very passages which inculcate the relative duties of masters and  servants.” An intelligent Negro, Lundsford Lane, thus describes the religious instruction of slaves :

There was one hard doctrine to which we as slaves were compelled to listen, which I found difficult to receive. We were often told by the ministers how much we owed to God for bringing us over from the benighted shores of Africa and permitting us to listen to the sound of the gospel. In ignorance of any special revelation that God had made to master, or to his ancestors, that my ancestors should be stolen and enslaved on the soil of America to accomplish their salvation, I was slow to believe all my teachers enjoined on this subject. How surprising, then, this high moral end being accomplished, that no proclamation of emancipation had before this been made ! Many of us were as highly civilized as some of our masters, and as to piety in many instances their superiors…

There was one kind-hearted clergyman whom I used often to hear; he was very popular among the colored people. Rut aft,er he had preached a sermon to us in which he urged from the Bible that it was the will of heaven from all eternity that we should be slaves, and our masters be our owners, many of us left him, considering, like the doubting disciple of old, ‘This is a hard saying ; who can hear it?

What was of note in the film and in history  was the political use of preachers to legitimize and authorize a system of economic oppression, corruption and greed. The Bible contains many passages about slavery, but what was interesting is the selective use of scriptures to validate their message. Just as scripture had mandates for the slave to the slave owner, they also had mandates for the master to the slave.These passages were not emphasized by many. In fact it was the silence on slavery’s appalling aspects that allowed  slavery to be  accepted despite the abolitionist’s best intentions.

A gospel that speaks only to individual sins and not against the systematic sins and fallenness in our earthly kingdoms is an incomplete gospel. Christ did not just come to redeem individuals. He came to redeem humanity. 

A church is not a mature church if it fails to speak out against the atrocities of the  powerful against the “least of these”. 

A church is not a mature church if it fails to act in compassion to serve and minister to the broken citizens and sojourners in its midst. 

I believe the evangelical church has lost much of its influence and its prophetic ability to speak against some of the systemic problems that plague our country. Just as in earlier times many leaders focused on certain issues while ignoring others. It happened in Nat Turner’s day, it happened in the Civil Rights Era and it is happening today.

I have often heard admonition to the poor and needy to remain patient and to hold on such as passages in James 5:7-12

 Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation.

However how often have you heard Elders teach on the judgement on the perpetrators and on the fallen system found in  versus 1-6.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.

Now we have  a host of issues that are plaguing our nation that the evangelical church ignores often to avoid the charge of being political such as

  • Mass incarceration ( The United States has a higher incarceration rate per capita than any other nation)
  • Immigration problem (What do we do with those who are here illegally. What is a way that we humanely deal with families, how do we deal with deportations)
  • Military industrial complex (War for profit)
  • Racism ( Americas primordial national sin)

However many in the evangelical community have no problem getting political when it comes to these issues:

  • gay marriage
  • abortion

These are complex issues and how a church should get involved is tricky. Rather than speak about policies, I think at the least we should speak about principles and values that undergird the policies that are created. How should we treat our neighbor, not just overseas, but the one on the other side of the tracks. How do we treat people whose faith is different from ours. We live in an age of division, and we need to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath. The more we are connected to our neighbors the more understanding and nuanced we will be in our beliefs and in our politics.  The church can never lose its focus on Christ’s work on the cross and our call to biblical fidelity and discipleship. However we do need to at least have these discussions.

Our politics should not limit our ability to be truth tellers. The onus of the church is not to come up with the solutions to these issues because some of these issues will only be dealt with when Christ returns. However, morally awakened men are more likely to create godly legislation. The onus of the church is to call foul, those things that are foul and to be the moral voice and conscience of the nation. It should definitely not be the media.  

Now more than ever we need the church to hear the cry of a divided nation and be able to unite us all not into a political party but unto a kingdom. If we our too entrenched in a political side we will not be able to reach those outside our political ghettos.  Our politics is killing us. It is diluting our ability to be salt. It is blinding us. We need to pray for our leaders. Pray for our president.Pray for those who agree with us and for those who disagree.

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Straight Out of Egypt

The connection between terrorism and post-christian society. How God uses challenges to communicate his purpose. God is preparing you for your destiny.

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Freedom Ain’t Free

You ever have one of those conversations where all of a sudden someone says something so simple, and then you get one of those aha moments. In the course of conversing about the ills and perils of America with a very nice young man from Africa, he said something profound; Americans have too much freedom.

Now I know some patriotic folk are going into convulsions and epileptic seizures reading this; “thur aint no such thing as too much freedom, I gots the rights to carry this here musket anywhere; who knows i might just meet a terrorist on a way to the grocery store buyin one of dem, what you call it fa laugh fulls.”

Some of my liberal folk on the other extreme are somewhere parading and protesting down some street or on some media outlets, about their freedom to be able to live with, have sex with, or marry anyone they choose, and though they have the freedom to do these things; you do not have the freedom to disagree. I guess this is the home of the brave, and the land of the free only for some. In a related point, although not in the United States, but in our older brother state the UK, did you hear about the couple who was denied the right to adopt because they stated that they did not agree with the practice of homosexuality? I fear America is not too far behind, after all in only a couple of years I can imagine churches and pastors who refuse to marry same sex couples losing their tax exempt status.

Then there are those who have forgotten that the act of sex though pleasurable was biologically created for the act of reproduction. So in the course of sleeping with eight, five or in reality one too many guys, find themselves with another fatherless child, or an infant who’s life will be snuffed out by a vacuum, forceps or some other metallic prong before he’s ever able to see the light of day; after all a woman has the right to choose what happens to her baby, and you little embryo have no rights at all, not until your able to wear a onesie.

Speaking of choices, what about those who speak about legalizing drugs, and I’m not just talking about marijuana, but cocaine, meth, PCP; I’m sure they had their kids in mind when they thought of that. Billy here’s some money why don’t you buy yourself some candy, and while you’re at it get dad 10 grams of crack. While you’re at it if you feel like becoming a man today, there will be a prostitute around the corner, don’t worry about the cops; it’s all legal now so the prices should all be cheaper. Wow what a wonderful world we live in.

Heh brother, I believe you are getting to political.

Well lets talk about some basic things like dating.

So I guess its okay for me to date six girls in three months, kiss, rub on and touch them in places that only their husband should touch them, tell them I love them, and then break up with them, because they were just crazy and had issues; and heh I didn’t have sex with them, but I sure did lie to them, and heh she wanted to make out just as much as me.

Then for the married folk who are fortunate to get married, after a couple of months of arguments find out you didn’t marry “the one”, divorce him, marry someone else who again turns out to be only about money, divorce him, and then find out I’m just not into marriage, I’ll just live with my boyfriend, who happens to change every 6 months. People marry and divorce like it’s a game of checkers; but heh we have the freedom to, so let’s do  it.

What about the movies and songs we listen too. Lets listen to 2 hours full of profanity,blasphemy, and slandering of the name of God, for a couple of cheap laughs or thrills. Then when we’re finished let’s go online,  illegally download some songs we didn’t buy, because after all that is what technology was made for. Who needs to go to the movies when I can burn or stream it from a million different websites.

One of the passages that never ceases to amaze me is the passage in Exodus 32. The Israelites lived as slaves for over 400 years, during such time they were forced to hard labor, whippings, marginalization, and psychological oppression. They were forced to believe they were less than the Egyptians, had no history, and even worse that their God was just a myth. In one the greatest displays of power and love, their God sends them a prophet Moses, who with his guidance and assistance , performs a series of miracles, that reveal He is the only true God, and that he  has chosen the Israelites as his holy people to worship him, all while breaking the back of the most powerful empire in the world. The people literally walk through the sea, with 50 feet walls of water on the side. They are delivered from slavery, and then only a short time later they are in distress because their prophet has been gone for a couple of weeks. Freshly delivered from their chains, they wallow in their freedom, their prophet is gone, their God who saved them is absent, or not dependable, so they say heh, lets do what we want to do.

So they decide to throw the biggest party ever. They get the drummers, get the dancers, the singers,  and lets not forget the lovely ladies,they pool all of their money together and with assistance of the religious leaders, form a marvelous golden idol. This party is so off the chain, that when Moses hears them coming down from the mountain he pauses while Joshua and himself try to figure out what kind of noise is emanating from below. Its so crazy, that they compare it to it sound of people getting ready for war, with all the drums beating, and the people screaming, and howling. Some scholars point to the fact that there were literally orgies going on. After all 400 years of oppression, means that there will be one hell of a liberation. Literally. This is the picture of freedom. Or let me clarify, a freedom without God. Romans 1 paints the picture like this

What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.

24-25So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!

What we end up with is a sad mess, where people who are left to their own devices without God end up destroying themselves.

As Christians the bible tells us we have freedom; but to use it cautiously. Here’s Paul in Galatians.

13-15It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

In conclusion, we have to be responsible with what we are given. When we recognize our limits, or weaknesses we need to continue to seek out help. Think of yourself as a millionaire with a gambling problem in Vegas. You have the money, but left to your own devices you will be broke, homeless, and in jail. God has given us freedom, but let’s not live selfishly, lets live selflessly, and help those still bound in sin. Remember freedom ain’t free, because we were bought with the precious blood of the Lamb.

In Christ,

The Herald

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