Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Legacy of Shame

Recently Danielle at From Two to One wrote a powerful article describing a visit she and her husband made to an old slave fort in the country of Ghana. I won't try to retell her story; you must read it yourself in her own words. Her tale has remained in my mind since I first read it, disturbing my efforts to ignore unpleasant truths. One detail that she shared sticks out particularly: that over the dungeon where the captured Africans were held, abused, tortured and dehumanized until they were sold and shipped away, the white masters of the fort and the territory had their chapel. Danielle writes:

As they [the white masters] sang worship songs to the Almighty God, the captives who had been beaten and raped and tortured shouted for mercy and rescue.

How, I ask myself, could people who call themselves by the name of Jesus Christ engage in such behavior? How could they so casually worship God while under their very feet were hundreds of humans whom they had abused, raped and tortured and whom they were going to sell into lives of slavery to serve the economic interests of other white Europeans?

I asked my wife this question and she gently reminded me that humans have a remarkable ability to justify their behavior, often by dehumanizing others. The white masters didn't feel any sense of guilt because to them the black Africans were not really fellow humans. They were fundamentally inferior, even inhuman. Therefore it was not immoral to treat them as beasts. Worse still, these people who considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word turned to the book of Christians, the Bible, for justification of their actions. This book which speaks of God's love for humanity, which describes the great lengths to which God has gone to restore humanity—all of humanity—to harmony with the divine as it was intended, was read in such a way as to support the dehumanization, abuse and degradation of people created by that same God.

The painful truth is that one can read the Bible in that manner.

In fact the Bible has often been used to justify the mistreatment of various groups of people throughout history. One can cite verses in which slavery appears to be normal and acceptable. One can cite verses in which God commands one group of people to annihilate entire cities and other groups of people. One can cite verses in which a woman who has been raped must marry her rapist. One can cite verses to argue that women are subordinate to men. The list could continue. What troubles me is that I so rarely hear anyone in my circles speak of how they are bothered by these verses or how they are interpreted to justify and support the exclusion or abuse of entire groups of people. In the past year I have found a growing number of voices who do speak openly of this, but I'm still not hearing it from the pulpit, at least not very often.

Instead I continue to hear voices that call for the submission of women as the biblical model. I hear voices that would have us deny equality to women, homosexuals, immigrants and other groups. These voices cite the Bible as their authority, often pointing to specific texts as support. How does one interact with a text that can be so freely used to support the subjugation of other members of God's creation? How is it that the message of redemption, liberation, restoration and renewal are so often drowned by the voices of exclusion and privilege? What am I to do with this book that has been used to condone some of the most inhumane behavior humans have committed?

I'm not sure we really have learned much since the time when the white British and Dutch masters ruled that slave fort in Ghana. Yes, we no longer buy and sell slaves openly as we did then, but we continue to tolerate slavery. We continue to use the Bible to justify our exclusion of women and others from full participation in society. We may not be just like those slave masters, but are we really so different? Am I really so different? How do I in my reading of the Bible and in living out my faith support either explicitly or implicitly the abuse of others? How do I need to think, read and act differently to stop participating in these acts of injustice?

I appreciate the many voices I have found that are speaking up openly and powerfully on these questions. Thank you Danielle, not only for this thought-provoking post but for your consistent advocacy for those who are marginalized, excluded, abused and cast off. If we are not to remain blissfully ignorant or complacent of the evils which our faith has been used to justify, we must learn to see, read and think differently. I would hate for my legacy to be looked at with the same scorn and shame that we now look back at those slave traders.

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