“Christianity,” he said, “made everything the best of its kind.”
Most folks probably read that and said, “Amen,” right? Sounds like preacher talking. Which is true.
Some who tend to be a little more skeptical may be wondering about that statement. And exactly what does it have to do with the title of this post?
That statement comes to life a bit more when we find out who said it. And when he said it. And why he said it.
A preacher did say that; a preacher by the name of Joseph Wilson, father of late President Woodrow Wilson. (You’re probably tracking with me now.)
Joseph Wilson was a southern, Presbyterian preacher who was also proslavery. And when he said Christianity “made everything the best of its kind,” he very well included the institution of slavery.
For my potential Masters Thesis later next year (I like to get a head start on research papers), I’m studying up on pacifist or nonresistant Christian abolitionist groups not directly related to William Garrison. I am really interested in groups in the south before the Civil War. As a part of these studies I’ve been encountering proslavery Christians and engaging their mentality, message, and practice. I am not calling it a justification of slavery because I am not wholly convinced the Christian slaveholders in the south (at least the majority) would have thought of the connection of Christianity and slavery as something that needed to be justified. Slavery was a part of the American way, and the American way was imbued with Christianity.
“Antebellum evangelicals did not believe in biblical literalism as twenty-first century Americans understand it. The frequency of positive biblical references to slavery definitely bolstered southern confidence, and southern evangelicals had no doubts that the Bible supported their position and that abolitionism had been defeated. But the southern evangelicals expected the Bible to be in perfect harmony with beliefs about contemporary science, history, political freedom, economics, and even current events. Southerners did not simply stamp slavery ‘Bible approved.’ They articulated how slavery fit into the ‘genius of the American system,’ and how slavery was only right as part of that system.” (John Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom)
This sort of attitude reveals a more subtle racism. It’s definitely not as overt as some of our historic friends who said that whites were superior and blacks inferior, if they were people at all. No, I’m not talking about Hitler, but of people like Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.
Subtle racism is very dangerous. When it hides, when it parades as something more comfortable, it takes control of a society. It tricks people, much like the statement from Joseph Wilson above can trick a reader or listener if they don’t have their eyes and ears open.
As of 2009, blacks (including hispanic blacks) made up less than 14% of the US population. But non-Hispanic blacks alone made up just under 40% of the prison population. (Here’s an excellent PDF for the numbers.)
How is that possible? Are blacks more prone to being criminals? Is there some black gene that causes a predisposition to crime and incarceration?
Be very careful how you answer those questions. That is exactly how powerful and dangerous subtle racism is. Racism is a grave evil from the dawn of humanity, and it does it’s best work when it seeps in as a philosophy, a mentality. Then when it has grabbed hold of enough minds and hearts it steps out of its shell and ravages a society.
Don’t be offended but fools believe slavery in the US ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. That is incredibly wrong. Slavery lived on for many decades afterwards, just taking on different shapes and forms. You’ll read or hear about de facto slavery. And this was especially the case with incarcerations and the prison system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, there are plenty who will argue (myself included) that this subtle, hidden form of slavery and racism lives on today and point right at the prison system as proof positive.
Subtle racism, which I’m certain goes by many names, is a pervasive problem that we Christians have to face and deal with. I know it’s going to keep popping up in my studies, but am hoping to find where these Quaker, Mennonite, and other groups were active, and providing an example of love and hope, and a voice of light in the darkness. I want to see what we can learn and implement within our own communities to help our society, the people in our society, have ears to hear and eyes to see, and to repent of this evil.