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As Stevenson often points out, our country is “littered with the iconography of the Confederacy,” which is both a partial retelling of history and also creates no space for repentance. “If we don’t confess our sins, we can’t be forgiven, and we just don’t do that very well in America.”

Facing the Sins of our Past

EJI has gathered the sort of celebrity endorsements required of a national initiative, including a partnership with Google to publish its research. But Stevenson, whose speaking engagements have included New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit, is especially eager to introduce EJI to a broader Christian audience.

To say that Christianity has a complicated history with racial injustice in the United States—including slavery, lynchings, and anti–civil rights politics—is an understatement. While we rightly celebrate Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce in England, slavery in the South was upheld not only by individual Christian slaveholders and plantation owners but also by churches and denominations and theologians.

‘I am not interested in punishing America with this history,’ Stevenson told me. ‘I want to liberate us.’

Christians were often at the forefront of anti-slavery movements in 19th-century America, but the majority of Christians were not. Churches in the South vigorously defended the practice of slavery. In 1864, for example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America declared that “the long continued agitations of our adversaries have wrought within us a deeper conviction of the divine appointment of domestic servitude… . We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave.”

Only in recent decades have denominations begun to make more public efforts to confront their racially fraught pasts. The Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845 in large part over disagreements with northern Baptists over slavery, issued a sweeping declaration in 1995, apologizing for its complicity in systemic racism. For its part, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) confessed in 2002 for the role its forefathers played in upholding slavery. And in 2016 the PCA passed another overture, repenting of racism within the church during the civil rights era.

Yet it is hard to know how far such high-level confessional gestures have trickled down to individual churches and worshipers. As Americans, we are naturally gifted at elevating success but far more conflicted about selecting which tragedies to memorialize. It took only ten years to erect a memorial to the victims of September 11, Stevenson is fond of saying, and yet to this day there is no national monument to slavery.

EJI's museum in Montgomery displays soil samples from Alabama lynching sites.
Image: Courtesy EJI

EJI's museum in Montgomery displays soil samples from Alabama lynching sites.

Religion intermingled with violence is nothing new, and you can find Bible-believing Christians on both sides of racial conflicts in many countries with a large Christian presence. Stevenson often points to this in interviews, noting how in Berlin, “you can barely go a hundred feet without seeing a monument that’s been placed at the home of a Jewish family that was abducted,” or how actual human skulls are on display in Rwanda’s genocide museum. But in America, he says, “We don’t talk about lynching. Worse, we’ve created the counter-narrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious.”

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Christianity Today
Cover Story: Facing Our Legacy of Lynching