At the 1996 Promise Keepers pastors conference in Atlanta, a Native American brother stood up and chronicled the many gross sins committed by white Americans against Native Americans over the centuries. He reminded the audience of the violation of hundreds of treaties, the slaughter of millions of buffalo, and the near genocide of numerous tribes.His conclusion, however, disturbed me. In spite of the horror, he told the gathered pastors, most of whom were white, if the white man had not come to the Americas, we wouldn't know Jesus. The crowd of 40,000 shouted "Amen!" in stirring unison.I returned home in a quandary. I appreciated the fellowship I experienced with my Christian brothers, but I could not shake the deep reservations I had concerning that Native American pastor's remarks. I realized that this same perspective sometimes is applied to the African-American experience:

You suffered horribly under chattel slavery, you were brutalized and dehumanized, but if the slave ships had not arrived and brought you to the New World, you wouldn't have found Jesus.

African-American pastor Earl Carter articulated that view a year later in his book No Apology Necessary. Carter argues that white people need not apologize to people of African descent because: (1) God instituted slavery due to Africans' pagan idolatry and (2) importation to the New World eventually resulted in the Christianization of African slaves. Carter's book leaves a lot to be desired exegetically and morally. To suggest that Euro-Americans are not morally culpable for their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade is ludicrous. What's more, to suggest that slavery was necessary for African people to be introduced to Jesus trivializes the horrors of the Middle Passage, the utter dehumanization of plantation life, and the forced breakup of black families.African cultures were no more or less idolatrous than those of pre-Christian pagan European peoples. Was worship of the Yoruba deity Orisa-nla more idolatrous than worship of the Norse god Thor? It is always problematic for us to rank one culture's sin above another's. Apart from God's grace, we all stand under divine wrath. Still, what are we to make of Scripture's ambiguity on the subject of slavery? Neither the Old nor New Testament directly condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. In fact, both Paul and Peter admonished slaves to obey their masters.First, we need to understand the historical and cultural context of Scripture. Slavery was pervasive throughout the ancient Near East of the Old Testament and the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament era. The practice of slavery was so integral to Roman society that some historians estimate slaves made up almost half of the population. Of course, to acknowledge the pervasiveness of something is not to condone its practice. Polytheism and sexual immorality were pervasive throughout biblical times, yet Scripture explicitly condemns those practices. Why not slavery?Some Christian thinkers argue that passages such as Galatians 3:28 have hermeneutical priority over other passages which appear to justify slavery. Without presuming to rank Scripture over and against itself, it's safe to say any institution that exploits and abuses people made in God's image is not in his perfect will.In fact, throughout Scripture one finds motifs of justice and liberation for the oppressed. In the Old Testament, the saga of Israel's Exodus and, later, the prophetic discourses of the eighth-century prophets, speak of the importance of both spiritual and physical liberation and foreshadow the emancipating power of the gospel (e.g., Amos 5:21-24).Indeed, Jesus described his messianic mission in terms of proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and release for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). This declaration—a fulfillment of Isaiah 61—underscores his role as a holistic liberator. And though Paul doesn't speak out directly against slavery, his egalitarian assessment of community in Christ, in effect, undermines the institution and lays a groundwork for a Christian perspective on all issues of justice and equality.Which brings me back to the statement made by my Native American brother. The ugly side of our nation's history cannot be wiped away by collectively disowning it or engaging in dubious quid pro quos. Such endeavors will neither eliminate injustice in church and society nor impress the nonbelieving world.Yes, we must move beyond the sins of the past. But we also must look for a more thoughtful and biblical understanding of the history of America's oppressed peoples. God redeems even our sinful history, but he does not excuse it. And neither should we.

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Ronald C. Potter is a writer and theologian in Jackson, Mississippi.

Related Elsewhere

In January, Ronald C. Potter was one of a number of leading African-American scholars who wrote an open letter to African-American leaders regarding AIDS and the sexual holocaust in Africa .Earlier this year, Christianity Today reprinted a 1990 essay by Philip Yancey entitled "Confessions of a Racist ." In 1998, a CT opinion piece from Gordon Marino questioned whether whites should apologize for slavery.Christian History, our sister publication, has dealt with the issue of slavery in a number of recent issues. Issue 53 focuses on the efforts of William Wilberforce and other Christian politicians to end the African slave trade. Issue 56 looks at the great challenge that faced Christian missionaries like David Livingstone when they tried to eradicate African slavery. Issue 62 discusses African-American Christianity in the United States before the Civil War. It includes a history of black abolitionism , fugitive slave narratives , and links to many related resources.Books & Culture , another sister publication, shows how Christians in the Southern United States tried to reconcile slavery with Scripture, as well as how the white abolitionist movement evolved over time. In another issue, they highlight a series of books that examine the African-American experience and examine the theological dimension of the American civil rights movement. They also review Amistadand reflect on the racial views of American political conservatives.Religious Tolerance offers a history of Christian views toward slavery. An article from Yale's Gilda Lehrman Center shows how Christians gradually came to see the incompatibility between slavery and Christian teachings. An extensive discussion and chronology of slavery and racism in the United States is available online at the Web site for the PBS series Africans in America . The University of Adelaide in Australia has an extensive bibliography of the abolition of slavery in the West. A very extensive history of the slave trade is available at Spartacus Educational.

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Earlier Good Question columns include:
  • A Little Wine for the Soul?
  • Should We All Speak in Tongues?
  • Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
  • Take, Eat—But How Often?
  • Is Christmas Pagan?
  • Are Christians Required to Tithe?
  • Is Revelation Prophecy or History?
  • You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
  • If Grace Is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?
  • If I'm an Evangelical, What Am I?
  • A Cracked Code
  • Committing the Unforgivable Sin
  • What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?
  • Did God Die on the Cross?
  • You Must Be Born Again—But at What Age?
  • Was the Revolutionary War Justified?
  • Can the Dead Be Converted?
  • Cloaked in Mystery
  • Is Hell Forever?
  • Denominations: Divided We Stand
  • Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?
  • Do Demons Have Zip Codes?
  • Doubting Thomas's Gospel

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