We’ve just commemorated Black History Month, which in itself is an admission of failure. It should be unnecessary, redundant, should be part of the daily history of an equality-based society. But it’s not. At our church in Burlington we discussed the iconography of the white Jesus, what it meant, and the damage it caused. Yeshua and his people were, of course, first-century Middle Eastern Jews, and while there was a certain variety of looks because of the mixed composition of the Mosaic exodus, most would have been dark-skinned and certainly not the Scandinavian messiah so frequently and inaccurately depicted. Is it relevant? Surely, Jesus’s appearance matters far less than what he did and taught. Problem is, the obsession with the iconography of a white Jesus has so infected the faith historically, and continues to do so even today, that Christians have felt enabled to treat people of colour appallingly.
This has been most keenly seen in Christianity’s relationship with slavery. Few churches have clean records regarding the obscenity; as early as the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church gave it official endorsement in a set of papal bulls. In the years before the U.S. Civil War, the church was one of the largest slave-owning entities in four states, and in South America, various religious orders enslaved countless men and women, working them to enormous profit. The Church of England was an integral part of the emerging empire and did much to develop and institutionalize the transatlantic slave trade. When the British 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was passed, paying out £20-million — around $1 billion today — to slave owners across the British Empire, many of those who received this “compensation” were Anglican clergy.
The Methodists were nobler, with founder John Wesley denouncing slavery as “the sum of all villainies.” Various non-conformist Christians outside of the mainstream were similarly convinced. As a church, the Quakers were probably the most vehement in standing against the evil of human ownership. And the Christian abolitionist movement, which produced heroic figures such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was extraordinary in its courage and determination.
But this is the point, really. The abolitionists were extraordinary when they should have been ordinary. Their spirit should have been commonplace within organized Christianity, and it wasn’t. They should have been some of countless, but they weren’t. Wilberforce and his followers were often opposed by other Christians, and those who weren’t actively against them were often indifferent, or disguised their apathy with excuses. In this case the cry was, “If Britain abolishes slavery, the French will take over. Or the Spanish, the Dutch, or Portuguese. We’ll deal with it later.” It’s chilling how eerily similar this sounds to those contemporary complainers who reject policies to counter climate change.
Christians also struggled to end U.S. slavery in the 19th century, but other committed believers led the Confederacy, and continued to regret the loss of slavery, and to embrace racism. It’s a painfully disarming story, and the fact that so many Africans and people of African heritage remain faithful Christians is a tribute to their ability to see the authentic Jesus, the Rebel Christ, through all of the racist distortion, and to their invincible grace to forgive.
The Bible itself is at best ambiguous. The Old Testament writes of slavery, often without censure and even with approval. As such, it describes a society that differs little from many of the other slave-based cultures of the ancient world. The New Testament may not be as absolute, but the few specific references to slavery are far from encouraging. Over the centuries, churches have evolved and matured, with Christian institutions often confessing the darker sides of their histories. But it would be disingenuous to argue that the present is not somehow a product of the past.
Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put it well: “The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors.” Ultimately, this shouldn’t be some morbid attempt at historical justification, but rather an opportunity to move forward with full disclosure and crisp transparency. Christians should be in a condition of permanent revolution and embrace the constant admission that we can be better and do more. It’s the correct thing to do, it’s the Christian thing to do.