Four Practices to Help You (and Your Ministry) Break Free from “Slaveholder Religion”

On Easter Sunday in 1873 white men in Colfax Louisiana massacred over 100 black freedmen.

The freedmen were defending the courthouse where their fragile, newly gained freedom was being legally protected. The intent of the Colfax massacre was the reassertion of white power over former slaves. The white men in Colfax would find their act of violence imitated by others who also rejected the post-Civil War social order known as Reconstruction. To them, the thought of living as equals with former slaves was not just wrong, it was against what they understood to be the will of God. It’s no wonder then, that they called themselves Redeemers and chose the theologically pregnant term Redemption to define their movement.

Historians highlight the significance of the Colfax massacre in hastening the end of black progress in Reconstruction and leading eventually to Jim Crow laws and the lynching era in American history. In his book Reconstructing the Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove highlights the significance of the massacre and the subsequent racial terrorism of the “Redeemers” as representative of the default expression of American Christianity as “Slaveholder religion.” The religion of the slaveholder equated the power of the Master with the power of God. Consider this excerpt from a slave catechism reported by Fredrick Douglass:

Q. Who gave you a master and a mistress? 

A. God gave them to me.

Q. Who says that you must obey them?

A. God says that I must.

Q. What book tells you these things?

A. The Bible.

The truths taught in the slave catechism weren’t theoretical realities for the Redeemers in Colfax, they were lived experience. They were passed down through generations of experience and tradition. They were the normal way of life. This is the worldview that captured the imagination of the Redeemers.

We don’t live with a slave catechism any more (thank God!). But just as racial inequity remains a default setting in American culture, it’s evident that a similar default setting remains in the American church. Our worship services remain divided by race. And even when racial integration is present, Korie L. Edwards reports in The Elusive Dream, that the preferences of white people remain a dominant force in guiding church culture and decisions. According to Edwards, this tends to remain true, even for churches lead by people of color. The poison of racism, inherent in Slaveholder Religion, has taught all of us – descendants of slaveholders and descendants of slaves – to yield to the preferences and priorities of whiteness. So, what is a missional church leader, endeavoring to lead a congregation to a faithful expression of racial righteousness and justice, supposed to do? I know I don’t I have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions. What is a missional church leader, endeavoring to lead a congregation to a faithful expression of racial righteousness and justice, supposed to do? Click To Tweet

  1. Question your “Normal”

Wilson-Hartgrove calls them “racial habits.” They are the personal and communal decisions that we make around where we spend our money, our time and energy. They are habits that we define as normal but stem primarily from the injustices that began with slavery, continued through Jim Crow and remain evident today as remnants of slaveholder religion. For example:

In the 40’s blacks were legally forbidden to purchases houses in the newly developing suburbs. In the 60’s white churches fled to the suburbs in the face of a growing urban, black population. Are mostly white, wealthy suburbs “normal” or a reflection of the division white folks found comfortable in slaveholder religion?

Are there traditional black churches struggling to survive economically in your denomination while white, well-resourced churches in your denomination use their funds to improve facilities? If the economic injustices of slavery are true (and they are) why is it “normal” to all of us (black folks too) to watch a black church struggle to stay alive while a white church thrives on inheritances that trace back to slavery?

  1. Tell the WHOLE story

If your church has aligned itself in service to a local, underfunded public school, have you helped your congregants and volunteers understand how the funding system in your municipality creates the injustice reflected in your adopted school? Do they understand the systemic issues that give some schools laptops while others struggle to have enough pencils and paper? The theology that keeps us silent among fellow believers about political/civic issues often leads to a public faith practice that offers charity in tutoring but leaves justice at home when it’s time to vote on sharing our tax resources with poor neighborhoods.

Additionally, in order to tell the whole truth, we need to teach our white congregants to dig deep and reclaim their ethnic heritage. “White” is a construct invented to subjugate black people to the power of “whiteness.” [For more on this check out the Missio Alliance book, White Awake, by Daniel Hill (IVP).] Slaveholder religion finds its power in propping up whiteness as a dividing line. Teach your congregants to dismantle the power of racism by letting go of their white identity.

  1. Practice Justice AND Charity

The injustice and inequity created by racism manifests itself in personal decisions, communal realities, and systemic rules. Our personal observations of injustice typically elicit a charity response. If our poor, inner-city neighbors don’t have food, our faith leads us to the grocery store as an act of loving our neighbor. Consistently remaining in this posture, of only seeing the personal impact of injustice and responding accordingly can unintentionally reinforce the power dynamic of slaveholder religion.

Isaiah 1:17 calls us to “defend the oppressed” but an equally viable translation for this verse is “correct the oppressor.” In this verse, God charges all of us to see more than just the personal impact of injustice. We are called to see how our communities are organized to reinforce the status quo of racism. We are called to know the systemic rules around who is eligible to get a loan to move into our neighborhood and who is not. Slaveholder Religion stamped God’s blessings onto unjust, inequitable, racialized realities. Breaking free from the legacies of Slaveholder Religion will involve defending the oppressed with our personal action but also correcting the oppressor wherever we find them, in our communities and even in the systems around us. We must pray for the “eyes to see” and the courage to act. Which leads me to my last point.

  1.  Prioritize Marginalized voices in your life and ministry

I’m talking about breaking free from Slaveholder religion, so, of course, I’m referring to black voices. But at the intersections of injustice you’ll find a variety of marginalized voices to lead you on a course away from what Fredrick Douglass referred to as the “Christianity of America” toward the “Christianity of Christ.” At the intersections of injustice you’ll find a variety of marginalized voices to lead you on a course away from what Fredrick Douglass referred to as the 'Christianity of America' toward the 'Christianity of Christ.' Click To Tweet

The Jesus that slaves met in their secret worship services isn’t the same Jesus who comforted slaveholders as they vacillated between worshiping their image of “god” and brutalizing the darker-skinned children of God. The power of the true Gospel couldn’t be hidden from those slaves, even in the face of unspeakable suffering. You will find the Jesus who kept calling those slaves forward in hope by listening to the voices of their descendants.

Our collective journey to be free of Slaveholder Religion isn’t over. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. But Jesus is calling us forward. And, in faith, our task is to keep walking.

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