Christianity, History

Abolition as Grace

You and I believe that slavery is wrong, but neither of us came to this conclusion on our own.

So starts perhaps my favorite blog post of the year, published last weekend by historian Jay Case (professor at Malone University; author of An Unpredictable Gospel) and entitled, “An Ethical Conviction That You Hold, For Which You Should Be Thankful.” While we accept the wrongness of slavery, Jay points out that we didn’t grow up in an economy organized around it, didn’t have to escape it ourselves, have been told all our lives that it was wrong, and so probably didn’t expend all that much energy or take all that much of a risk coming to that conclusion that people should be free. (“We” being anyone who might be likely to read an English-language history blog in the year 2012.) “It cost us nothing,” he writes, adding, “You and I have not contributed anything to the principle that slavery is wrong.”

Instead, he encourages us to see our belief in the wrongness of slavery as a form of God’s grace:

The conviction that slavery is wrong is a gift.  We did not pay for it, work for it, achieve it through intellectual effort, or earn it through our own righteousness.  And yet those of us who live in 2012 hold on to this conviction firmly, without quite realizing how it ended up here in our hands.

This is how grace works. This truth was given to us by God.

I think I would have loved this post had it come at almost anytime, but (an added layer of grace) it happened to arrive on my reader two days before I gave the last lecture in our church history/Western Civ course at Bethel: on European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade in the period 1500-1800.

(If you have only a limited amount of time to devote to reading on this theme, go ahead and click over to Jay’s post. I’ll bounce some of my own teaching experiences from earlier this week off of his main points, but it’ll be more valuable to read his post in its entirety than to get excerpts from me.)

Late 18th century British abolitionist diagram of a slave ship – Wikimedia

We always struggle to know how to wrap up this course, and while I like how we’ve landed on imperialism and slavery as our closing topics, Jay’s post — which I quoted at length at the end of class — tied together some loose ends.

First, seeing abolition as grace punctures any illusions of our own righteousness:

Without thinking deeply, we assume that if we were born in 1703, we would understand that slavery was an evil and unjust system.  And we would be wrong about ourselves.

As I lecture, I pray that I can do enough to let our largely white, middle-class students have some imaginative understanding of what it might have been like to have been an Amerindian worked to death in a Spanish silver mine, or a West African crammed into the hold of a slave ship. But I also want them to have some understanding of the conquistador and of the slave trader, and that can’t happen if their response to learning about such evils is to erect that mental-moral barrier called, “I wouldn’t have acted that way!”

I tell my students often that there are two basic lessons of history: first, that the people of the past are very different from them, and second, that the people of the past are very similar to them. Different in the sense that the past, in many respects, is a foreign country, radically other in ways that we don’t even recognize, let alone understand. Similar in that its denizens are still human beings like us, and there are some universal yearnings, temptations, joys, and sorrows that come with membership in this species.

On both counts, students should then resist the “I wouldn’t have _______” statement: first, because they don’t understand all the experiences, ideas, and assumptions that shaped those who participated in such systematic injustice; and second, because, if they’re perfectly honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that they — as much as the Spanish of the 16th century or the British of the 18th or any people at any time since the Fall — are tempted by greed, power, and cruelty, or at least prone to ignore the stirrings of their conscience when acting on it would bring risk or inconvenience.

Iron shackles used in the slave trade, Image F003, as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

The other, related problem that I worry about during this lecture is that our students will hear these stories, feel some sadness, but then insulate themselves with thoughts like “But that was the Spanish, and I’m American,” or “They were Catholics, and I’m Protestant,” or “That was five hundred years ago, and this is a new day.” That’s a bit better in the sense that it starts with a recognition of difference (or at least, distinction, perhaps without a difference — peoples of all nations and sects trafficked in slaves, and continue to do so today), but it’s a problem for a history class taught at a Christian college. Like it or not, the story of slavery is part of the story of Christianity — for the most part, the slavers (and a good number of the slaves) share the name of Christ with us. Which should do still more to strip away our own self-righteousness.

But if Jay is right, embracing this story as part of the Christian story also leads us back to God, whose grace

happened somehow through the processes of history.  God worked through many different people who, seeing through a mirror dimly, struggled to come to terms with a truth that was not obvious to them.  Some of them then battled formidable economic, political and social powers, in order to eliminate an unjust system.  The results, quite frankly, are stunning.

What had been a well-established economic system was abolished, “in a blink of an eye (by historical reckoning).” The relative speed of it is stunning. But it did not happen, Harry Potter-like, with the wave of a wand, a supernatural intervention that wipes away wrong, restores right, and perhaps even takes away the memory of what had happened. No, the grace of abolition had to be worked out within historical time, in the face of strong opposition, and channeled through the mazes of politics (necessitating compromises like those apparently captured so well in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) by profoundly flawed heroes who did not always act or believe entirely as we would prefer. (If only Bartolomé de las Casas could have advocated for the oppressed peoples of the West Indies without also encouraging the importation of African slaves… If only William Wilberforce had truly seen Africans as his equals, or recognized that women and the poor were treated inequitably by a society whose structures he basically affirmed…)

But this is how, and through whom, God has chosen to work. The same people to whom God has committed his “message of reconciliation” and called as “Christ’s ambassadors” are likened, earlier in the same Pauline epistle, to “jars of clay.” Las Casas and Wilberforce could stand back from the darknesses of their cultures just enough to see to the other side of history, but they did not see perfectly. And absent grace, they would have been no more likely to have critiqued the system than any of the rest of us.

But for the time and place of our birth, we are people who are as likely to have defended or practiced the enslavement of others with the same certainty that we now condemn it, yet we can nonetheless bear witness to a Savior sent “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” For even if we see the truth of justice less clearly or fully than we ought, “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).

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