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The Refiners' Fire
African Slavery and Christian Martyrdom
For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap ... and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.
—Malachi 3:2b-3 (KJV)
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
18th c. African American Poet
The ideation of the cross as the central motif in past and current African American religious expressions is traceable to enslavement and the process of Christianization. In and since slavery, black Christians realized that their experiences of discrimination, abuse, torture and death were analogous to the sufferings of Jesus, other biblical characters and the incipient church, which had similarlyundergone state-sanctioned persecution and martyrdom. The experiences of the first Christian communities significantly informed the early church's understanding of Jesus' death as an act of unconditional, sacrificial love for his people. Although he was crucified for sedition, to his first interpreters Jesus' death involved his own agency and contributed to their development of a hermeneutics of sacrifice, which is ensconced in the Bible and Christian tradition and which has a historical corollary in an ethic of love—seen as the very heart of Christian morality—in the African American community. The early Christians provided African Americans historical precedents for interpreting theologically the meaning of their particular experiences of suffering, fully engaging intellect and emotion in the service of the community of faith in the activity of apologetics. Through apologetics, both groups of Christians developed comprehensive reckonings of the meaning of their suffering, thereby demonstrating their human, moral and artistic agency in contexts that denied them social, economic and political freedom and sought even to proscribe their religious freedom.
THROUGH THE FIRE: SLAVERY AND CHRISTIANIZATION
Through the lens of slavery, African Americans—bond and free—fixed their gaze on the cross of Jesus, deriving from it a way to understand and cope with their own painful experiences of proscribed existence. Jesus' presumed innocence, his betrayal by his friends, and his arrest, torture and execution in occupied Palestine mirrored the brutal conditions the slaves experienced in antebellum America. Just as Judas "handed over" Jesus to his detractors in exchange for thirty pieces of silver (Mt 26:15), likewise sub-Saharan Africans and Arabs from the north bartered away the lives of their black-skinned sisters and brothers to Portuguese, English, French, Dutch and Spanish merchants in exchange for a variety of inducements—among them, similarly shiny and deadly "trinkets" (weapons)—that held a bogus promise of industrialization and the supposedly civilizing influence of monotheistic faith. Not all the slaves were subjects of barter; as the severity of slavery under European domination became known, outraged tribal leaders began to resist actively the merchants and missionaries who foraged the continent for free labor and lost souls for Christendom's sake. Among the African abolitionists Queen Ann Nzinga (c.1580-1663) of the area now known as Angola was the dreaded nemesis of the Portuguese, who, among the Europeans, exhibited the most missionary zeal toward the Africans, performing wholesale baptisms of slaves as they made their perilous journey to other lands.
The European settlers of the New World sought survival and a quality of life that preserved or created social, political and economic privilege for themselves. Some were parties seeking to escape religious intolerance and/or poverty in their former homelands; others were commissioned to expropriate the land and mineral wealth of New World natives. Harnessing the considerable resources of North America required a labor pool of sufficient size and experience in agricultural methods superior to that of the indigenous populace, which the (mostly English) settlers decimated and effectively vilified. Construing skin color as a stratifying device, the colonists systematically extracted the "bound, controlled labor" of black-skinned peoples through the imposition of chattel slavery. The white-skinned traders and raiders of the Gold Coast assumed full, lifelong control of the individual and collective destinies of the captives they brought to America: breeding, buying and selling them and their progeny according to caprice and capital needs; committing acts of personal violence against the slaves—raping, beating and lynching them—in order to bolster their seized authority. Gradually eliminating indentured servitude, a temporary albeit brutal contractual arrangement under which white-skinned people, male or female, could be obligated, the settlers created a racial caste system that defined slavery and that still shapes the American socioeconomic and political context. There, the imported Africans were made to experience the cross of Jesus. Like the biblical African conscript Simon of Cyrene (Mt 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk 23:26), they not only bore the cross, but they also quite literally wore the designated emblem of suffering and shame on their backs and arms and legs and faces, for Christ's sake.
Undoubtedly, religion and law were the most significant factors in the reification and expansion of slavery in North America, and they buttress the racial caste system to this day. Styling themselves as the ancient Israelites and the sprawling territory as "Canaan" (Ex 3:8) and the "new Jerusalem" (Rv 21:2) of scriptural promise, many of those who had left their homelands for religious freedom and economic gain regarded themselves "elected" to enjoy the bounty of America and to exercise dominion over the native inhabitants and the imported slaves. Over time, and with the southward and westward expansion of the nation, the settlers legally defined both groups as ontologically inferior, keeping the social and civic prerogatives of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for whites only—white men, in particular.
Different social and theological dynamics predominated in the North and South. New England Puritans possessed a strong sense of social cohesion formed in the crucible of persecution in their former homeland. Congregational polity and structures in the North evinced a covenantal theology premised upon the idea of their communal election. Evangelicalism, pervasive everywhere, but institutionalized in the denominational structures of the South, emphasized religious conversion and stressed a more privatistic religious consciousness, although it brought poorer whites of diverse national origins together in their search for a common social identity. Church historian Donald Mathews attests to the idea that Evangelicalism started out as a social class movement:
As social process, Evangelicalism enveloped the South in the following fashion: it first broke into the South as an extension of revivals throughout the British world, a volatile social movement providing a value system to raise converts in their own esteem, give them confidence in themselves and their comrades and create the moral courage to reject as authoritative for themselves the lifestyle and values of traditional elites.
Covenant theology socially leveled whites, and evangelical piety morally leveled every person (including those slaves admitted to communion), regarding each as a sinner "saved by grace" (Eph 2:5). But in the formative years of American agrarian capitalism, driven by slave labor and characterized by economic and social stratification, Christianity so defined made economic prosperity part of one's expectation of blessedness, obfuscating class differences among whites and thereby mitigating class struggle among them.
By the eighteenth century the agrarian economy was the major source of white prosperity in the southern colonies. Although U.S. law outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, by the mid-nineteenth century the national traffic in black humanity was itself a principal source of income for whites, who equated social status with the number of slaves held in possession, and for whom a rise in social status was occasioned by the purchase of at least one slave. James Oakes reports:
Slaveholding was the symbol of success in the market culture of the Old South. It was an ambition, an achievement, a reward for diligence, hard work, and tenacity. As one Louisiana master wrote, "A man's merit in this country is estimated according to the number of Negroes he works in the field." And as widespread as slaveholding was, it was no mean goal.
Cliometicians Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman argue that, although slavery and the Civil War constituted the nation's "time on the cross," evoking a sense of national shame, economic analysis shows that on a quantitative basis slave economy was a rational, adaptable and efficient system of production and the southern slavocracy a model of labor relations (if not of social relations) because of high regional growth rates and the increased market value for slaves during the late antebellum period. They assert that the rise of the southern secessionist movement coincided with a wave of optimism or "sanguinity" on the part of slaveholders concerning their economic prospects prior to the war. The sanguinity of the planters and the efficiency of the slave-labor system redounded to the material well-being of the slaves, relative to that of free industrial workers. According to Fogel and Engerman, this is evinced in "typical" clothing and food allotments, housing and medical care (as reported by slaveholding planters) in comparison with that for free laborers in and beyond slavery. These were putatively of nearly the same or superior quality to that of free laborers, as the planters would have wanted to provide for and protect their costly investment.
Fogel and Engerman's assertions belie reports of the brutality of American chattel slavery. Although the testimony of former slaves is ambiguous in some instances, most often it severely indicts the system of slavery. Some of the ambiguity stems from the fact that brutality—namely, whipping, branding, mutilation, other forms of corporal punishment and rape—was an integral feature in the day-to-day lives of the slaves. Former slave Delia Garlic testified: "Folks a mile away could her dem awful whippings. Dey wuz a terrible part of livin'." Another source of some slaves' hesitancy to define their experiences as brutal was the paternalistic ethos in which the slavocracy was shrouded, and the ways it sacralized the slaveholders. Alex Woods attests to the thinly veiled idolatry of the slaveholders in the exercise of their authority:
Dey wouldn't allow 'em to call on de Lord when dey were whippin' 'em, but dey let 'em say, "Oh, pray! Oh, pray, Marster!" Dey would say, "Are you goin' to work? Are you goin' visitin' widout a pass? Are you goin' to run away?" Dese is de things dey would ax him, when dey wus whippin' him.
Black people under the laws of slavery had no rights that any white person was obligated to respect. Privileged whites historically have had and presently have no obligation to redress this state of relations. Through the social power it grants to white people and to those non-whites who identify themselves with whites, the racial caste system facilitates the concealment of the true nature of economic power, which is the domain of very few in a capitalistic economy. As a result, to this day even the poorest whites can cut non-whites to the ontological core with very little fear of censure, through random and systemic discrimination, directed violence and unsavory epithets.
Moreover, according to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, a historian of class struggle, "The fact that mid-nineteenth century American slaves were relatively many times as costly to buy as fifth/fourth century Athenian ones was due primarily to a large and expanding foreign market for cotton." From 1820 to 1860 the forced, unpaid labor of black Africans in cotton fields signally accounted for the prosperity of southern, white Americans. As per my childhood insight, the white, lightweight stuff in croker sacks was a supreme symbol of black oppression. Gavin Wright likewise argues that there was only
one fundamental dynamic force in the southern economy: expansion of cotton demand. From the time of the cotton gin until World War II, the only periods of prosperity and progress for the South were periods of acceleration in world demand for this basic export crop. The greatest of these episodes happens to coincide with the late antebellum slave period ... High regional growth rates, the apparent efficiency of slave labor and the sanguinity of slaveowners all rested on an inherently impermanent foundation—the extraordinary growth of world demand for cotton between 1820 and 1860. As the demand for cotton stagnated between 1860 and 1895, slave prices would have declined, and the growth rate of regional incomes would have been drastically reduced.
Slavery benefited not only fledgling, southern America. Profits from the trade also financed the industrial revolutions of England, France and the United States. All these nations depended heavily upon the natural resources of Africa and the innovations of Africans to build up maritime trade and create technological advances in their social and cultural milieux. After the northern states prohibited the traffic in their territories, they still benefited from southern slaveholding (as did Europe) in that profits made from slavery went first to commercial ports and industrial cities such as New York, Boston and Portland (and Liverpool, etc.). African Caribbean historian Walter Rodney states:
Slavery [was] useful for early accumulation of capital, but it [was] too rigid for industrial development. Slaves had to be given crude, non-breakable tools which held back the capitalist development of agriculture and industry. This explains the fact that the northern portions of the U.S.A. gained far more industrial benefits from slavery than the South, which actually had slave institutions on its soil; and ultimately the stage was reached during the American Civil War when the Northern capitalists fought to end slavery within the boundaries of the U.S.A. so that the country as a whole could advance to a higher level of capitalism.
Despite becoming later the locus of abolitionist activity, the North was no paragon of either moral or civic virtue. In most of the northern colonies that had previously permitted slaveholding, the "peculiar institution" lasted upward of a hundred years. Although slavery in the colonies actually began in 1629, statutory recognition of the institution began in Massachusetts and lasted from 1641 to 1780; in Connecticut, from 1650 to 1784; in New York, from 1664 to 1799; in New Jersey, from 1664 to 1804; in Rhode Island, from 1700 to 1784; in Pennsylvania, from 1700 to 1780. With the exception of Massachusetts, all of these northern colonies passed gradual emancipation laws. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), white northerners "handed over" both free persons and former slaves to almost any white person making a claim on them. Its rabid enforcement indicated the extent and rigor with which the law provided for mutual respect among whites and for cooperation in the protection of white property. By contrast, toward the end of the Civil War, significantly, after federal emancipation, northern ambivalence toward slavery in general and African Americans in particular turned to outright hostility in the New York Draft Riots (1863), during which largely Irish mobs murdered scores of black folks and hanged their bodies on lamp posts.
As proprietors of the church and as lawmakers in the process of nation-building, white northerners and southerners alike assaulted the humanity of African Americans with the duplicitous use of the Bible. The distinctly religious character of both groups of settlers generated intense debate concerning their chattels' spiritual status. Slave catechists employed the Bible in a literalist manner that sacralized black suffering and justified white privilege. Some whites reasoned that they were the "providential guardians" as well as the temporal owners of the slaves, sanctioning black bondage with the so-called Hamitic curse (Gn 9:20ff.) and white dominance with the injunction, "Slaves, obey your masters" (Eph 6:5). Others posited the subhumanity of the Africans, constitutionally defining them as "hewers of wood" (Dt 29:11) and "drawers of water" (Jos 9:21), rendering moot any consideration of their spiritual status. In questioning the humanity of black people, the churchmen-cum-statesmen in America long and legally perpetuated the cross of slavery through the establishment of whites-only institutions and the enactment of laws prohibiting social intercourse between the races in a bid to keep the slaves and their descendants ignorant and materially impoverished, forever enslaved.
Despite the universal justice claims in America's sacred documents, which are themselves belied at every turn in the nation's juridical history by the experiences of African Americans, the legal, social, economic and ecclesial constructs derived from the covenantal theology of the settlers and the pietistic fervor of the evangelicals are essential elements in African American religious thought. Both election theology and Evangelicalism gave shape to American civil religion and impetus to the Protestant work ethic, another key element in the sacralization of America's violent history relative to the native inhabitants, poor whites and the slaves. They provided the foundling nation with a fundamentally Christian character, a template, to which black people are also heir and onto which they interpolated the story of their cross, that is, of the spiritual, psychological and physical burdens associated with their unjustly wrested labor. Like white Americans, African Americans freely used the motif of the Exodus to articulate their experiences of siege, sojourn and settlement, giving voice to comprehensive theological reckonings of their collective suffering. Former slave Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth after her release from bondage (1827) because, as she stated, she wanted to keep "nothin' o' Egypt on me." Harriet Tubman, "the Moses of Her People," brought over three hundred bondsmen and bondswomen out of the slaveholding South and into the free North on the Underground Railroad.
In and beyond slavery African Americans found themselves in the Bible among those for whom, with whom and as one of whom Jesus lived and died: the poor, the alienated, the tortured, the condemned. Humbled, they did not assume that their collective story was more important than his story; merely the inference that the crucifixion of Jesus was a mirror of their own suffering did—and, often, still does—cause many people within the black Christian community to "tremble, tremble," their trepidation perhaps also a mirror of their sometime hesitation to engage the opposing powers more proactively. But, despite their compassionate embrace of one who so identified with them, both cross and croker sack were thrust upon these latter-day "black Simons" through a hermeneutics of sacrifice ensconced in the Bible and Christian tradition. Having etiological roots in the Exodus experience of Passover (Ex 12:12-14) and Israelite/Jewish sacrificial tradition, it exhorts the followers of Jesus, the "Lamb of God ... slain from the foundation of the world" (Rv 13:8) to imitate substantively his life of service, down to his final sacrificial act. A biblical outline and history of the Christian hermeneutics of sacrifice are instructive in order to illustrate its ideological utility in supporting the institution of slavery and the structures of domination that yet delimit black people and perpetuate their suffering.
THE HERMENEUTICS OF SACRIFICE IN BIBLICAL
AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
In Israelite religion animal sacrifice was the instrument of reconciliation with Yahweh, which the Priestly writers regarded as Yahweh's own gracious provision to the people. The agent accomplishing this "at-one-ment" was believed to be the very blood of the sacrificial victim, by reason of the life, or vitality, that blood proffers (Lv 17:11). The nature of a sacrificial transaction is alternately described as an expiation or a propitiation. In the Hebrew Bible the word signifying atonement is kaphar, in the Greek New Testament the word is hilasterion. The clear meaning of the Hebrew term is "to smear" or "to wipe" with blood, and thus oblige God to "cover" sins and "pass over" those who are covered. The institution of the Passover in Exodus 12:1-28 gives a context for understanding the expiatory nature of sacrifice in the Israelite system. The meaning of the Greek term is "mercy seat" or "place of propitiation." Propitiation implies more forcefully that a penalty for sin is paid in the act of sacrifice, such that God is objectively changed by the sacrifice performed. At issue is whether the sacrificial system was intended to appease or assuage Yahweh. According to Frances Young, in early Israel,
sacrifices were not simply gifts to turn away God's wrath, since only part was given to Jahweh. The purpose of the offerings is described as lekhapper, a term whose origin is disputed, but which has come to mean technically "to make atonement for." In the Old Testament it is construed with the priests or Jahweh as the subject, and the Temple, altar or iniquity as the object. The object is never God, though the action is performed in God's presence. The only possible conclusion is that the rites were not propitiatory, but were expiatory, a means given by God to wipe away sin and cope with the problem of failure to fulfill the Law. God acted through these cultic instruments to keep Israel from sin and calamity, making her ritually clean so that she could offer [him] fitting worship?
Excerpted from POWER IN THE BLOOD? by JoAnne Marie Terrell. Copyright © 1998 by JoAnne Marie Terrell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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