In fact, the Roman slave was a body under the total domination of another—the master and owner. “Rome’s fundamentally hierarchical society envisaged enslavement as the absolute in a continuum of domination and subordination” (Harrill, 2006). Patterson (1982) writes the tune in an individual key. “The slave was the ultimate human tool, as imprintable and as disposable as the master wished.”
I want to emphasize two ideas here. First, inhuman practice precedes dehumanizing philosophy. We treat other humans as objects, as commodities, as disposable. To justify that practice we have to come up with a story that allows us to live with ourselves. Enslaved persons are cattle on two feet. Jews are disease-infested rats and money-grubbing swindlers (as well as being “Christ-killers”!). Tutsis are labeled as cockroaches and therefore must be exterminated. Black people are rapists and destroyers of Western culture, so Dylann Roof accepts the responsibility for executing them.
I emphasize this idea because of the role Christian theology played in the development of the Transatlantic slave system. Both Willie James Jennings and Ibram X. Kendi detail the inventions of “whiteness” and “blackness” as theological categories. They trace these inventions to the work of Gomes Eanes de Zurara, royal chronicler to Prince Henry of Portugal. Zurara crafted an historical and theological defense of the king’s policy of capturing, enslaving, and trading in African bodies.
He published his books on the topic beginning in 1453. We can date the philosophy of anti-black white supremacy to this time. But more to the point, the practice of enslaving African bodies was a self-interested economic policy in search of a philosophy and/or theology. I want to quote Kendi here. Zurara’s work “begins the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas. Zurara’s inaugural racist ideas,” Kendi concludes, “were a product of, not a producer of, Prince Henry’s racist policies concerning African slave-trading.” (Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, KL 432).
Zurara argues that this policy is part of God’s providence. These enslaved persons would now stand a chance of coming to faith in Jesus Christ and to enjoy the benefits of enlightened European civilization. This is not very much different from Greco-Roman philosophical arguments in favor of enslaving people. It’s good for you, and you should be grateful. If you weren’t enslaved, you might be dead. If you weren’t dead, you wouldn’t be a Roman (or a Christian). The least you can do is to live a lifetime of involuntary servitude as a way of saying thank you for your existential promotion.
It takes little imagination to see these arguments repeated and refined in the American story of enslavement and beyond to the present moment. “The root problem—from Prince Henry to President Trump—has always been the self-interest of racist power.” Kendi notes in How to Be an Antiracist. “Powerful economic, political, and cultural self-interest—the primitive accumulation of capital in the case of royal Portugal and subsequent slave traders—has been behind racist policies.” (Kendi, Ibram X.. How to Be an Antiracist p. 42).
Second, the more we rely on born enslavement, the more pressure there is to describe the enslaved person and inferior and therefore deserving of the human treatment. If the enslaved person has not chosen to be enslaved and has not been enslaved as the penalty for losing in battle, then there must be something inherently wrong with that person. Otherwise, it makes no sense to treat that person as less than human. Again, the practice goes in search of a story.
When a practice seeks an explanatory story, the explanations will come out backwards. Slaveholders deprived enslaved persons of educational opportunities and then labeled them as congenitally stupid. We have for four hundred years regarded black families as illegitimate impediments to the selling of husbands and wives, parents, and children. So, we label the families as dysfunctional, the parents as unfit, and the children as incorrigible. We subject black communities to hyper-policing and then cluck self-righteously about the number of arrests in those communities. We add insult to injury by sending those arrested to prison in unconscionable numbers and tell stories of young black men as “super predators.” Systemic oppression and racism rely on practices in need of stories.
We white Christians have constructed and relied on those stories. Will we critique and abandon these stories of white supremacy, even if we must surrender our wealth, power, and privilege? I have hopes, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. I think it helps if we can identify the stories that undergird these systems.
The first story says that enslaved persons are inherently inferior in some way. Aristotle told this story in his ancient Greek philosophy. Zurara told this story using God’s providence as the prop. The Transatlantic system took Zurara’s story and expanded it. First, white people believed that black people were inferior by nature. Then they expanded that story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the eugenics movement. The black race was described as “genetically” inferior.
Of course, that argument is a non-starter. There is no genetic basis for “races.” Skin color does not indicate any real genetic difference between people. “Race” is a social construction and is not a genetic reality. Once that story was defeated, we got “White Supremacy 2.0.” Even if black people were not genetically inferior, they were socially inferior.
For Aristotle, that inferiority came from the fact that many enslaved persons traced their lineage back to non-Greek barbarians. For Christian colonialists, the issue was the lack of European civilization and culture. It was, in Rudyard Kipling’s language, the “white man’s burden” to bring these benighted people into decent human company. In America after the Civil War, the story was rooted in the debilitating effects of enslavement on black people, families, and culture.
This last iteration of the story is perhaps the most perverse. Enslavement was designed to make and keep enslaved persons subservient to the masters. When that system was defeated (at least in military terms), former slaveholders asserted that the centuries of enslavement had made black people unfit for independent life. We know that the years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) give the lie to that story. All that was needed for black economic and social flourishing was for white people to get out of the way. That is the reason white political culture lashed out and created the Jim Crow system of segregated oppression.
Lest we think this last story has withered on the vine, I refer you to a June 18, 2020 article in the Huffington Post entitled “Mississippi Official: Black People ‘Dependent’ Since Enslavement.” Harry Sanders, a county supervisor in Lowndes County in Mississippi, opposed the removal of a Confederate monument from the county courthouse grounds. The move was defeated as three white supervisors voted against the removal and two black supervisors voted for it.
Sanders shared the following during the discussion of the motion. He noted that other “immigrants” had no problems assimilating to American culture—Irish, Italian, Polish and Japanese immigrants. We might wonder if he ever heard of the Japanese internment camps, but that’s another story. I quote from the article:
“The only ones that are having the problems: Guess who? The African Americans,” Sanders said. “You know why? In my opinion, they were slaves. And because of that, they didn’t have to go out and earn any money, they didn’t have to do anything. Whoever owned them took care of them, fed them, clothed them, worked them. They became dependent, and that dependency is still there. The Democrats right here who depend on the black vote to get elected, they make them dependent on them.”
If you can’t make the argument based genealogy, then fall back on “sociology.” Sanders is wrong on every count, but that does not make him less prone to tell the story.
Now, knowing what we know about slavery in Paul’s time, what sense and use, if any, can we make of that metaphor in our own reflection and preaching?
References and Resources
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition
Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Josey-Bass, 2009. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. On the Brink of Everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown, and Company. Kindle Edition.
Fraser, Giles, “The Story of the Virgin Birth Runs Against the Grain of Christianity.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/24/story-virgin-birth-christianity-mary-sex-femininity#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20century%2C%20the,him%20as%20Jesus%20ben%20Pandera.
Malina and Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.