I recently heard a powerful piece connected to what we focus on here on Progressive Redneck Preacher.
The piece is “Son of Ham”, a recording by Glynn Washington, the producer of NPR’s Snap Judgment radio program. In this piece, Glynn tells his experience growing up in the Adventist sect, the Worldwide Church of God, at a time it was dominated by a form of what I call “slave-holder Christianity”:
One theme of Progressive Redneck Preacher has been the question of how to liberate Christianity from what I call slaveholder Christianity. Slaveholder Christianity is the approach my ancestors and the ancestors of many other southern white Christians once used to justify buying and selling other human beings as property. To do this, these white Christians had to interpret Scripture and Christian tradition in a way that propped up their own prejudice, and justified oppressing other people. Even though we don’t have race-based slavery in the US south anymore, Washington’s piece shares a powerful testimony of how the same mentality that uses Scripture to marginalize others was used in my own life-time — in fact in a church tradition my own family attended at one point.
I actually spent part of my life in the sect Washington described. As a young white person I noticed more its exclusivist approach and its legalism — banning things like Christmas, Easter, pepperoni pizza, sports from Friday evening to Saturday evening. I remember more how it used its exclusivism to frighten and control others. I didn’t notice in my childhood the same racism and bigotry that Washington did, but know now about it through the testimony of others. The difference in what we both remember shows how slave-holder Christianity’s abuses are easy to overlook if you are not its intended victim.
It was through the ministry of Curtis May that I came to become aware of the power of what I now call slave-holder Christianity. Curtis had experienced much of the same experiences of systematic racism which Washington had faced. He took these experiences as one who had been systematically discriminated against in the name of God and used them to help move that group out of racism and into a ministry focused on racial reconciliation, as well as to reach out in the larger world inviting people of all faiths to engage in the work of racial reconciliation. When I ministered some in Los Angeles I came to know this man and was blessed to see how his Office of Reconciliation Ministries worked to un-do some of the slave-holder mentality in his denomination and in the larger community. I remember how striking it was to hear for the first time what Washington so tellingly describes in his piece “Son of Ham” — how Scripture had been used in that church to promote sort of prejudice. This ministry made me aware of how faith could be used to either tear down
walls of prejudice and discrimination or build bridges just as much as how it could be used to promote bigotry and hold people in oppression. The few years I served in some churches in Los Angeles that partnered with his ministry, I was blessed to be a part of presentations he led where he welcomed people to share their experiences of racism and abuse which came out of such approaches to Scripture. I believe Curtis’s heart for this ministry came from sharing experiences like Glynn Washington’s. I think a starting place for people like myself, who grow up without having Scripture or faith used to justify oppressing us or putting us down, is to simply listen to their stories and especially to pay attention to how their experiences with similar times in life and situations is so different. And to become more mindful of the unintended ways we may be going along with those around us to buy into to these patterns of prejudice and discrimination.
We need to realize as Desmond Tutu has said a number of times, Scripture and Christian are tools. They are like a blade. A blade can have wonderful useful purposes — being used to do the cutting and preparation to build something or even as a scalpel by doctors and nurses to help the injured and sick heal. Yet a blade can become a weapon used to hurt and kill others. So Scripture and tradition can be used either way, and have been.
This mentality to Scripture and the church which Washington and May both confront in their work as radio personality and minister respectively continues. Even though the denomination that promoted it in Washington and May’s case ended up, largely through the work of individuals like Rev. May moving in a direction standing against racism that uses Scripture to heal the experiences of prejudice, racism continues to exist in all our churches. Its presence in our society is something I witnessed when there was race-based conflict in communities in Los Angeles when I lived there, and which I recently saw in a presentation here in North Carolina about patterns of racial profiling in police work in the Raleigh and Durham area. But I don’t think this slave-holder mentality is limited to issues of race.
I saw it in the churches I served in as an evangelical minister which, though they worked together with Curtis May’s ministry on racial reconciliation, at the time frowned on women having more than a second-rate place in the church and which I saw horribly mistreat community members who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. (In truth, Rev. May’s ministry does not confront or discuss the issue of how Scripture is used to prop up such discrimination, nor offer workshops aimed at reconciliation for those affected by heterosexist and homophobic abuse). Seeing that double-standard and how those churches continued to use Scripture to mistreat “the other” and marginalize people who were different was the wake-up call that led me on the long journey out of conservative evangelicalism into a more open, progressive approach to Christianity.
I feel though, that you only have to open your eyes and look around to see this same mentality at work in our communities.
Here in the southeast US where I live, just this past month we’ve seen a number of states working to try to pen discrimination into law, working to make it so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered can be discriminated by companies, workplaces, and rental offices if those people have religious beliefs that ban being gay. This is similar to if the US had allowed people in the group Washington describes to have discriminate against inter-racial couples penned into law again. Lucky for us, in Loving V. Virginia, the Supreme Court upheld that there is no real justification for discrimination and has overturned such attempts. Yet the logic behind such attempts to apply this to gay couples and transgendered people is grounded in a slave-holder approach to the Bible. It is attempting to use Scripture as a tool of oppression and marginalization.
On the flip-side you can see how here in the south, others are finding in their faith a call to speak up against injustice. In the beginning of March, my wife Kat was able to join a group from the United Church of Christ in Chapel Hill, who took part in the Moral March on the NC State Capitol. That church joined a number of other churches, mosques, and synagogues in raising their voices against the way in which the poor, the outcast, children, and others who are the most vulnerable are being forgotten by our state government.
Spear-heading this event was the Rev. William Barbour.
Barbour’s work is inspired by that of Dr. Martin Luther King and grows directly out of his faith. It grows out the vision of resurrection city.
Recently I was able to begin reading Peter Heltzel’s book Resurrection City. In it he begins to paint a picture of what a Christianity would look like that is used not as a weapon but as an instrument of healing. In it he uses King’s vision of a “resurrection city” as a picture of what it could be.
“When Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the civil rights movement stopped in a shock. Shaken and confused, seeking and searching, its leaders decide to continue King’s Poor People’s Campaign by building a tent city on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. People from around the country converged on the nation’s capital to bear communal witness to the ravages of poverty and homelessness. They called it ‘Resurrection City’, a parable of loving, equal, and just community…”
This image of people from all walks of life setting up a tent city where the poor and disenfranchised camp out on the capital grounds, with the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders standing up alongside other the broken-hearted and dejected, with African-American people whose faith was forged in resistance to a southern society bent on holding them down, taking the lead, is a beautiful image of what Christianity can be.
I’ve only just begun to read Peter Heltzel’s book, but I want to recommend it to my readers. In it he attempts to paint a picture of a Christianity centered on compassion, on justice for all; on a Christianity focused on upending slaveholder mentality. I think this is the call we must hear: the call to discover how the old old story of our faith can be the liberating force people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and William Barbour know it to be.
Whether from his example or not, ultimately we are called to pick the city where we pitch our tents. Will it be the past Washington and May spoke of – where faith was used as a way to prop up injustice? Or will it be a modern version of “resurrection city”, where our faith inspires us to build communities of healing, of justice, that tear down the walls that divide us?
The choice is yours — and mine.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive redneck preacher,