Slavery, Christianity, and Religious Illiteracy

I have a piece up over at Fare Forward on slavery, Christianity, Jim Crow, and the President’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. In it, I discuss the distinction between a Christian (or a Muslim) using a religious justification for something and that justification actually being Christian or not.

Three additional thoughts that wouldn’t have fit with the flow of the FF piece:

  1. In case it wasn’t totally clear, I do believe that Jim Crow and slavery in the American south were unequivocally evil. I’m not in the business of whitewashing history or making Christians simply look good. But I also think it’s important to distinguish between what a religion actually teaches and what it’s adherents end up practicing. So I can condemn slavery as malicious, cruel, and evil, without thinking that Christianity is malicious, cruel, and evil. The problem is not with Christ’s teachings, the problem was with his supposed followers who seem to have missed the point.
  2. What this makes me wonder is where the church today has missed the point, where we might be unaware of the ways we oppress the poor and powerless or of the ways in which our entire economic structure is built on oppression. What would the Christians from 150 years from now look back and condemn us about? My first thoughts: probably the ways we let credit-card and other companies lure the poor into inescapable debt, probably the American criminal justice system which incarcerates people more than any other country in the world does and in which rape is simply a punchline to jokes rather than a problem to be solved, probably the consumeristic mentality which says that we can’t be satisfied until we have the latest gadget, the closet full of clothes, the nicest cars – even if that comes at the cost of quality of life for others around the world. I am powerless to erase the evils done under slavery, but I do have the power to think about and change the problems that do exist in our world today. And I think Christianity has the power to address some of those issues more than any other body or philosophy or idea.
  3. It’s an open-question whether groups like ISIS are relying on Islam itself or whether they are simply using religious reasons coached in the language of Islam. Answering that question would take more research than I can truly commit right now. But I will say this: it’s worth noting that once slavery was finally eradicated and condemned, the orthodox have almost universally stood opposed to it. The breakdown never became between literalists who support slavery and the liberals who condemn it. (Not like the breakdown in Judaism over bacon, for example.) That is, Christianity deployed its theological resources to reform orthodox opinion and practice almost universally. The question I have for Islam is this: does it have the internal resources to truly condemn and to reform the deplorable behavior of ISIS and the like? Or will its break down be between fundamentalists who interpret literally vs. reformers who interpret liberally?
MLK priests

Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with priests in the fight for equal civil rights. Religion played a key role in motivating these reformers.

The Atlantic has a fabulous article that addresses ISIS and its religious roots up right now. If you read it, you’ll probably have a good guess as to where my sympathies lie for the question above, based on what knowledge I do have. But I’m also open to changing my mind, if I heard a compelling case.

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