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The legacy of proslavery theology, still with us today

The legacy of proslavery theology, still with us today

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Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, professor, preacher, and author, writes about the legacy of proslavery theology, asserting that the lack of study and discussion of proslavery theology is a failure of contemporary Christianity, and that it still exists today.

From the essay, titled When Our Truths Are Ignored: Proslavery Theology’s Legacy:

We often fail to deconstruct how proslavery theology still influences American Christianity. But simply put: Theological arguments upheld the institution of slavery long after every other argument failed. American Christian theology was born in a cauldron of proslavery ideology, and one of the spectacular failures of the Christian church today is its inability to name, interrogate, confront, repent, and dismantle the cauldron which has shaped much of its theology. We are daily living with the remnants of a theological white supremacy, coupled with social and political power, which continues to uphold racist ideologies.

Pierce writes about the many ways that black voices needed to be presented in a ‘white envelope’, with traditional white authorities and institutions vouching for the speaker or writer. She notes that this is still the case today, where many Americans will only care about suffering when white institutions validate and verify it. Even though the majority of white people claim to oppose racism, white supremacy ignores the testimony and personal accounts of black experience, except when verified by white institutions or individuals. She ties this back to the theological argument that people from the African continent were lesser and needed to be kept enslaved to prevent them from abandoning Christianity, and demonstrates how this idea has survived.

You can read her entire essay, with extensive cites and references to statistics, on the Religion & Politics site.


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[Renee, for future comments please note our policy requiring commenters give their first and last name. – ed.]

JC Fisher

I think the “envelope” concept is VERY instructive and enlightening.

Often, oppressed persons speaking for their own liberation are seen as having some kind of conflict-of-interest: “Well of course, YOU would think so!” [The way any kind of discussion of Biblical/historical scholarship regarding homosexuality is shut down w/ the question, “Is the scholar GAY???”]

It is OPPRESSORS who have the burden of proof: *this* is the message of Scripture again and again and again and again [Read any of YHWH’s denunciations in the prophetic books lately?] Why are the conflicts-of-interest, the agendas of the powerful to “Keep Things As They Are?” never under the same microscope? Why is the history of HOW the powerful came to be so never taught? [“Every man born to wealth has a good thief amongst his ancestors, somewhere”, quoth the wisdom of “Xena: Warrior Princess”!]

I’d say that “those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” (Santayana), but we’re repeating it already. Teach “Proslavery Theology” (starting in Sunday School!) so that its legacy can be seen, be challenged, be UPROOTED. [And those lessons are taught by those black persons living under that legacy’s yoke: no “envelope” required.]

Philip B. Spivey

Ouch! Dr. Pierce’s cascading evidence pierce the eyes, heart and soul. Imagine what it might be like to live this all day, every day, for the rest of your life.

The term, ‘white envelope’, is new to me, but it has utility in describing what must happen before African American voices and accomplishments can be taken seriously. History is replete with examples beyond the church, but the church ladled generously
from the well of white supremacy leaving many Black folks with no place to go spiritually, both here and in the “potted plants” the church left behind in Africa.

But the genius of America’s enslaved people is that they co-opted the Bible as soon as they could; as soon as the ‘white envelope’ of illiteracy was rent.

I also like the term ‘envelope’ because it has a sister who defines a greater meaning for us in this instance: to ‘envelop’, (, to “make obscure; conceal.”

The ‘white envelop’ is equivalent to ‘the
erasure of one’s humanity; African American humanity. And so, Atticus Finch, the white attorney, can defend Tom Robinson, the Black defendant, and get away with it. He did what no Black attorney could have done.

A final thought about the ‘white envelope’: If we agree that it’s purpose is to contain Black self-determination, it’s a sure bet that it also serves to contain Black rage; righteous rage that would free them. This is what slaveholders and the church feared most — A Black retribution that would disturb the order of things– and they did: There are 250 documented slave insurrections in the United States between the years 1526 and 1860. Where are these accounts in our history books and in our consciousness? These accounts, like many others, have been enveloped in the mists of time.

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