In America’s beginning was slavery, and slavery was in America, and slavery was America. Slavery was with America in the beginning. Every American system, structure, ideology, and cultural expression was created through slavery, and apart from slavery not one thing in America has ground to stand upon.
These intentionally hyperbolic lines were written to mirror the prologue of John’s Gospel, because it’s critical to begin to understand the degree to which American history and politics, culture and religion are dependent on the way American Christianity has traditionally read the Bible.
The Bible is God’s inspired Word, spoken and written by human beings moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Sadly, however, it has sometimes been used as a tool of miseducation to support the extermination, enslavement, subjugation, exploitation, and exclusion of selected people groups, and even as a prop for popular and pious display when that might serve political ends. Its misappropriation has made it a weapon many fear, and Christianity a religion many cannot accept.
An Outrageous Experience
Howard Thurman, in his critical work Jesus and the Disinherited,writes of his experience caring for his maternal grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who was born a slave. He would read the Bible aloud to her a few times a week, but never, she insisted, from any Pauline writings except 1 Corinthians 13. When Thurman worked up the courage to ask why she would not let him freely read Pauline epistles, she explained that during the days of slavery, the master’s White minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves, and he would always using texts from Paul. “At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ’ [Eph. 6:5, KJV]. Then he would go on to show it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”1
Thurman’s Grandma Ambrose may not have known phonetically how to read. But like Old Testament patriarch Job, she knew that despite the supposed experts’ categorical interpretations, their text-supported God of brutality could not be the real God; could not in truth be God. Grandma Ambrose recognized the intellectual surrender that reading involved, the act of allowing oneself to be shaped and molded by another person’s text. She saw it and resisted it. Rejecting the textually authorized tyranny of the minister’s distortions was her inspired act of spiritual and moral liberation.
An Escape From Outrage
Today, God expects and demands of America an enlightened Bible reading that respects historical, social, and religious contexts that were probably lost to America’s slave masters. Their descendants and those of Nancy Ambrose today have access to the healing balm of Scripture in much more ample drafts. Today, no one is to be controlled by the agendas of anyone’s selective reading. Today, God would have all readers—from pulpit and pew, from officialdom and alleyway—repudiate any reading of Scripture that perpetuates notions of racial inferiority and superiority. Today, God will not allow the conscience of America to overlook or explain away either the systemic or the so-called accidental racism that has blighted us consistently since 1619.
Speaking of America’s yesterday, Frederick Douglass wrote: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”2
Douglass’s words suggest that popular American Christianity, not biblical Christianity, deserves the fierce and constant criticism that will distinguish it from the winsome Word of God and the caring character of Christ.
And America desperately needs that winsome word of Truth. The time when an officer can kneel on the neck of his fellow citizen for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, hands in his pockets the entire time, is a time of desperate need for a God who cares, a God who saves, a God to whom life matters.
Go find Grandma Ambrose’s God, America, the God who cares completely, and sacrifices everything He has to emancipate you to the bliss of freedom forever from internal and external tyrannies that have too long enslaved you, inside and outside. America, open your Bible and read.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), pp. 19, 20.
2 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003), p. 100.