Slave Jesus

A meditation on the intersect of Christianity and slavery | Susan Sontag’s indictment of the white race | The surprises of ancestral DNA testing | Michel Quoist’s Christ

I have just read an article at Christianity Today titled, The Secret Religion of the Slaves by Albert J. Raboteau.

He describes how many slave-owners feared the subversive elements – if the Gospel is to be considered subversive – in the very religion they themselves supposedly believed:

“Slaves faced severe punishment if caught attending secret prayer meetings. Moses Grandy reported that his brother-in-law Isaac, a slave preacher, “was flogged, and his back pickled” for preaching at a clandestine service in the woods. His listeners were flogged and “forced to tell who else was there.”

Thinking about slavery

How did the white man – both in the Americas and in Africa, in Asia and Australasia – become the enemy of Christ? Ostensibly bearing the word of salvation, destruction inevitability followed in the wake of his “good news” – and often preceded it. Of course in the The South there were exceptions to the rule as the article above shows: there were ‘benign’ slave owners, yet significantly they were slave owners. There were abolitionists, but the norm was oppression. Even well into the 1960’s segregation was happily endorsed by a majority of American Christians; anti-miscegenation laws (laws against interracial marriage) were only ruled unconstitutional as late as 1967 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I know the arguments in mitigation: there was the Arab slave trade¹; there were complicit african chiefs selling rival tribes into slavery: all men turn easily to evil – just look at Africa’s recent (and current) genocidal rulers. Just visit your vulgar white supremacist websites and you’ll find all manner of justifications for bigotry and excuses for historical evil.

Nevertheless it troubles me how the so-called “white race” imposed so much harm on the world, how Christians managed to reconcile human cruelty and societal injustice with their proclaimed love for God. Of course Christianity and Western political expansion into the New World were not identical phenomena, and I  must resist the inclination to conflate Christianity with imperialism and colonialism even if they were intertwined.)

Whether it was the plantation owners of the Americas or the Calvinist Afrikaners of South Africa or the slaving nations of Europe with their imperialist agendas, it is difficult for me not to see some validity in Susan Sontag’s indictment against the “white race” in Against Interpretation:

“If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. … The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”

Of course Sontag’s racist diatribe is itself problematic (what blade will we use to cut out the “cancer”? Who will wield the blade? And is it ever acceptable – especially for a Jew, of a people who have long been themselves the victims of analogies of pathology  – to refer to people as a disease?)

Ancestry-DNA testing poses an interesting challenge to our notions of race and racial guilt. The Jewish Sontag may “guilt” me because I am white in appearance (my skin is fair, my hair is straight) but if my genes show I am in part Jewish – and indeed I have Jewish ancestry – do I get a magical reprieve based on the percentage of my Semitic genetic material? Should we use genetic testing to establish racial culpability irrespective of our past and present moral commitments? If Sontag wants to play the blame game, do Israeli Jews get a victim card to excuse injustices in Gaza and The West Bank? Do the Hutu get a “benign” diagnosis in Sontag’s clinic of moral health, for their genocidal murder of Tutsi’s? How in fact do we apportion guilt and blame according to the dubious construct of “race”? Should third generation Germans carry the guilt of the Nazi era? The entire debate, presupposing racial hegemony, becomes a bizarre morass of stupidities and prejudice.

And then again, perhaps “my people” –  a category I resist but which is assigned by Sontag – are a cancer. How else do you explain Western Civilization’s horrors? And does a Bach Cantata mitigate the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or the Atlantic slave trade?

I recently met a black American woman in Johannesburg, who was on her way to Ghana in search of her roots. Her ancestral DNA tests showed she was at least 22% Finnish, so she might be visiting Finland soon. Is she of the race offff. C the victim or the guilty, and how is this to be determined without recourse to a crude, Verwoerdian prejudice? The apartheid comb-test comes to mind.

And yet present-day racial complexity is no balm for the the evils of the past which remain indelibly with us now in structural and spacial distortions, in social and societal inequality of opportunity.

I wanted to believe that Christianity was a resolution to the conundrum, and yet as the article on slavery illustrates Christianity too is multivalent and multi-differentiated, being the religion of the oppressor and the oppressed. The 20th century saw revolutionaries sustained by revolutionary theology up against regimes buoyed by conservative religious values.


Is Jesus a white Jesus or a black Jesus? Is He in a clandestine meeting in the woods with the slaves, or in the plantation-owner’s majestic Georgian house? As a teenager in apartheid South Africa, I first read the words of the Catholic priest Michel Quoist. I wasn’t a Catholic (I was a shabby-enough protestant), but was deeply moved by his theopaschite theology, and its challenge – both practical and mystical –  to be Christ in the world.

I failed hopelessly in my imitatio christi of course, failed his Christ; but my failures do not invalidate his vision:

Son, I beseech you, don’t sleep any more
by Michel Quoist

“I shall be in agony till the end of time,” God says.
I shall be crucified till the end of time.
My sons the Christians don’t seem to realise it.
I am scourged, buffeted, stretched out, crucified. I die in front of them and they don’t know it, they see nothing, they are blind.
They are not true Christians, or they would not go on living while I am dying.

Lord, I don’t understand; it is not possible; you exaggerate.
I would defend you if you were attacked.
I would be at your side if you were dying.
Lord, I love you!

That is not true, God says. Men are deluding themselves.
They say they love me, they believe they love me, and, as I am willing to admit, they are often sincere, but they are terribly mistaken. They do not understand, they do not see.
Slowly everything has been distorted, dried up, emptied.
They think they love me because once a month they honour my Sacred Heart.
As if I loved them only twelve times a year!
They think they love me because they keep to their devotions regularly, attend a benediction, eat fish on Fridays, burn a candle or say a prayer before a picture of my Sacred Heart.

But I am not made of plaster, God says, nor of stone nor of bronze.
I am living flesh, throbbing, suffering.
I am among men, and they have not recognised me.
I am poorly paid, I am unemployed, I live in a slum, I have tuberculosis, I sleep under bridges, I am in prison, I am oppressed, I am patronised.
And yet I said to them: “Whatever you do to my brothers, however humble, you do to me”…Thats clear.
The worst is that they know it, but that they don’t take it seriously.
They have broken my heart, God says, and I have waited for someone to have pity on me, but no one has.

I am cold, God says, I am hungry, I am naked.
I am imprisoned, laughed at, humiliated.
But this is a minor passion, for men have invented more terrible ordeals.
Armed with their liberty, formidably armed with their liberty,
They have invented…
“Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
They have invented war, true war.
And they have invented the Passion.

For I am everywhere that men are, God says,
Since the day when I slipped among them, on a mission, to save them all.
Since the day when I definitely committed myself to trying to gather them together.

Now I am rich and I am poor, a workman and a boss.
I am a Union member and a non-Union member, a striker and a strike-breaker, for men, alas! make me do all kinds of things.
I am on the side of the demonstrators and on the side of the police, for men, alas! transform me into a policeman.
I am a leftist, a rightist and even in the centre.
I am this side of the Iron Curtain and beyond.
I am a German and a Frenchman, a Russian and an American,
A Chinese from Nationalist China and one from Communist China,
I am from Vietnam and from Vietminh.
I am everywhere men are, God says.

They have accepted me, they possess me, the traitors!
Hail, Master!
And now I am with them, one of them, their very selves.
Now, see what they have done to me…
They are scourging me, crucifying me,
They tear me apart when they kill one another.
Men have invented war…
I jump on mines, I gasp my last breath in foxholes,
I moan, riddled with shrapnel; I collapse under the volley of machine-gun fire,
I sweat men’s blood on all battlefields,
I cry out in the night and die in the solitude of battle.
O world of strife, immense cross on which, every day, men stretch me.
Wasn’t the wood of Golgotha enough?
Was this immense altar necessary for my sacrifice of love?
While around me, men keep on shouting, singing, dancing, and, as if insane, crucify me in an enormous burst of laughter.
Lord, enough! Have pity on me!
Not that! it isn’t I!

Yes, son, it is you.
You, and your brothers, for
several blows are needed to drive in a nail,
several lashes are needed to furrow a shoulder,
several thorns are needed to make a crown,
and you belong to the humanity that all together condemns me.
It matters not whether you are among those who hit or among those who watch, among those who perform or among those who let it happen.
You are all guilty, actors and spectators.
But above all, son, don’t be one of those who are asleep, one of those who can still fall asleep…in peace. Sleep!
Sleep is terrible!
“Can you not watch one hour with me?”

On your knees, son! Do you not hear the roar of battle?
The bell is ringing,
Mass is starting,
God is dying for you, crucified by men.

(Taken from Prayers of Life by Michel Quoist (Logos Books 1954, 1963) translated by Anne Marie de Commaile & Agnes Mitchell Forsyth.)


Further reading:

[1]R. segal, Islam’s Black Slaves: A History of Africa’s Other Black Diaspora

R. Segal, The Black Diaspora

imitatio Christi:  imitation of Christ :  the attempt to live and act as Christ lived and acted

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