I've recently read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass, who eventually made his way to freedom and became a famous speaker for the abolitionist cause, tells the account of his early life, a story filled with tales of the brutal mistreatment of himself and other slaves at the hands of white owners and overseers. Douglass describes whippings and starvation. I'd expected that -- it's a slave narrative, after all. These events took place almost 200 years ago, for goodness sakes. Surely this account holds no surprises.
Yet, I was surprised, not at Douglass' descriptions of the savage treatment slaves received, but at his scathing and perceptive indictment of the role religion played in the justification of that treatment. Douglass describes one of his owners, a particularly brutal master, who'd experienced a religious conversion at a Methodist camp meeting, in this way:
"Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night" (p. 57). Douglass explains how this master used religion to justify his cruelty, describing how he would "tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture -- 'He that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes'" (p. 58). Sadly, this master was not an anomaly, and the hyper-religious culture of the South at that time did nothing to ease the suffering of slaves or advance the cause of the abolitionists. A short time later, when Douglass was given to a new master, he says this: "Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage" (p. 74).
Ouch. The religious among us should feel ashamed, or at least a little embarrassed by these words. But, as I said, this took place centuries ago, and of course things are different now. No one can argue that. Still, I believe that if we're honest, we can draw some parallels, subtle though they may be, between the blind, self-righteous application of Christianity used by slave owners to justify their actions and the things we whites may tell ourselves to justify, or maybe to ignore, the racial inequity that still exists all these decades later. Since I'm a teacher, I'll focus my argument on the schools. The obvious fact is that suburban, mostly white schools provide a far better education for their students than urban schools that are mostly populated by students of color. There are lots of reasons for this -- the legacy of discriminatory housing policy, poverty, school funding practices, etc. Now, I've attended a lot of conservative white churches over the years. I've heard preachers rail against abortion and homosexuality. But I've never once, in all my years of attending these white conservative churches, heard a sermon against racism or against poverty, for that matter. I've never heard a preacher address the inequity of the public school system and suggest we do something about it. In fact, the only time I've heard race mentioned at all was on a few rare occasions when a preacher extolled the benefits of being colorblind.
Don't get me wrong, Douglass was not against religion, and neither am I. I do believe that we religious folk can learn from his account, though. Of course we are not committing the sins of the slave owners. But what of the sins of omission? What of ignoring inequity? What of the very unbiblical attitude, "God helps those who help themselves"? During his time on earth, Jesus condemned only one group of people -- the pharisees, a group of religious leaders who used scripture to justify promoting themselves at the expense of others, and who followed the letter of the law while forgetting the Spirit of the Law-giver. May we not find ourselves in their company.