The Black Christ

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Chapter One


    In March 1969 a picture of a kinky-haired, broad-nosed Black Christ was on the cover of Ebony magazine.

    This cover reflected a new era in Black America — the Black consciousness era. This was an era when a determined segment of the Black community had declared war on Whiteness. Freedom-fighting young Black men and women led Black people to a renewed sense of self-awareness, self-determination, and Black pride.

    From the political arena to the religious arena, these freedom fighters demanded new symbols that would be uncompromising representations of a contagious spirit of Black identity. They called for secular and sacred images that would unambiguously assert the Black community's independence from White control and authority. At a time when Black people were "flamingly assertive and proud," the challenge to Christianity was clear: the White Christ and its religion had to go!

    The young freedom fighters let it be known that there was no room in the Black community for a Christ who revealed utter contempt for Black life. They loathed the Christ who supported the ravage of Africa, fostered the bondage of Black people, stood silently by during the rapes of Black women, and shamed Black people "by his pigmentation so obviously not [their] own." Vincent Harding captured the sentiments of these young people when he wrote, "the angry children of Malcolm X shout fiercely: 'To hell with you [White people] and yourChrist!'"

    What was going on? What was this battle between the two Christs all about? Who was the White Christ? Who was the Black Christ? What did they have to do with each other? What did they have to do with Jesus? What did they have to do with the Black struggle for freedom?

    These are some of the questions that need to be answered if we are to understand Black theologians' declaration that "Christ is Black." This chapter will begin to answer these questions by providing the historical background to the emergence of the Black Christ within the contemporary Black theological movement.

    To reiterate, a comprehensive understanding of the Black Christ must at least involve both Christ's color and relationship to the Black struggle for freedom. Although such an understanding of Christ did not emerge until Black theology, different aspects of Christ's Blackness were highlighted from time to time throughout Black history. In this regard, the roots of the Black Christ can be traced to the "sacred time" of slavery. During slavery the Black Christ emerged in contradistinction to the oppressive White Christ. The White Christ was the center of slaveholding Christianity, while the Black Christ was the center of slave Christianity. The terms "slaveholding Christianity" and "slave Christianity" are not used to convey that either all slaveholders or all slaves possessed the same religious beliefs. Instead, they signify that a number of slaveholders found a way to participate in the business of slavery without denouncing their Christian faith. Similarly, a number of slaves found a way to fight for freedom without surrendering their Christianity. As slaveholding Christianity and slave Christianity emerged and confronted each other, so too did the White and Black Christs.


    Slavery in the American colonies was a part of a wider ideological structure, which presupposed that hierarchal relationships between human beings were divinely ordered. This belief system began with the notion that human beings were created unequal (despite later refutation of this in the Declaration of Independence). Certain biological and social realities were considered representative of superior human qualities, while certain others were considered representative of inferior human qualities. According to this perspective, it was the divinely sanctioned duty of those persons presumed superior to "care" for and govern those persons presumed inferior.

    As imperialistically minded Europeans began to encounter the unique customs and culture of African people, they decided that dark skin was an unquestionable mark of inferiority. This erroneous notion was Soon supported by various segments of the "scientific" and political community. A prominent eighteenth-century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus developed a human classification chart that affirmed theories of Black inferiority. On his chart he described Europeans as "White, Sanguine, Brawny.... Gentle acute, inventive.... Governed by customs." But he described Africans as "Black, Phlegmatic, Relaxed ... Crafty, indolent.... Governed by Caprice." Eminent eighteenth-century American physicians like Benjamin Rush speculated that the "color of Negroes" was a disease.

    Political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson declared:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour ... the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

    The case for African inferiority seemed clear. Members of the White ruling class considered themselves superior to African people. They were certain that they were destined to be masters, while the dark-skinned Africans were destined to be slaves. One proslavery advocate explained:

The Order that God hath set in the World, who hath Ordained different degrees and orders of men ... some to be Low and Despicable; some to be Monarchs, Kings, Princes and Governors, Masters and Commanders, others to be Subjects, and to be Commanded ... yea, some to be born Slaves, and so to remain during their lives.

    Yet, in spite of their apparent beliefs in divinely sanctioned human inequality, many Christian slaveholders faced some potential contradictions. How could they espouse Christian justice and freedom while participating in the bondage of other human beings? Were they committing a grievous sin? Some believed they were, as exemplified by the prayer of one slaveholding woman:

Oh my father, from the distressing task of regulating the conduct of my fellow-creatures in bondage, I turn and rest my weary soul on thy parental bosom.... My soul hath felt the awful weight of sin, so as to despair in agony — so as to desire that I had never had being. Oh God! then — then I felt the importance of a mediator, not only to intercede but to suffer under the burden of guilt.

    Others from the slaveholding class did not believe that slavery was a sin. They developed a religious apology for the chattle system — that of slaveholding Christianity. The White Christ was the center of this religion. The White Christ characteristically allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.

Justification of Slavery

    Almost from the very beginning of the American slave trade, many slaveholders justified stealing Africans from their homeland — and enslaving them — with claims that they were introducing the "African heathens" to Jesus Christ. They reasoned that they were rescuing Africans from an ignominious life as pagans. These slaveholders rationalized that the benefit the slaves received from Christianization — that is, the assurance of salvation — far outweighed the brutality of slavery. As one pro-slaver argued:

The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized.

An antebellum philosopher put it this way:

So it will be found that [God] permitted the introduction of the pagan African into this country, that he might be ... redeemed by the genius of the gospel, and returned to bless his kindred and his country. Thus all Africa shall, sooner or later, share the blessings of civilization and religion.

    This emphasis on introducing people, particularly Africans, to Jesus Christ is one of the marks of an interpretation of Christianity with the White Christ at its core.

    The White Christ is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, or the Messiah, because God was made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity. That God became human is the essential fact in what it means for Jesus to be Christ. It is God's act that is important to who Jesus is. What Jesus did on earth has little if anything to do with what it means for him to be Christ. His ministry to the poor and oppressed is virtually inconsequential to this interpretation of Christianity. While this emphasis on God's becoming incarnate in Jesus has several implications for Christians and their salvation, the following are especially important to understanding the significance of the White Christ for slaveholding Christianity.

    First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation. Christians are the passive recipients of God's grace. If persons believe that God has become "human" in Jesus, and thus Jesus is Christ, then they do not have to be anxious about their salvation. To believe God's act in Jesus is to become convinced that through that act salvation has been secured. With salvation guaranteed through belief, White people could be slaveholders and Christian without guilt or fear about the state of their soul.

    Second, in order for humans to benefit from God's saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter. Slavery supposedly provided the opportunity for Africans to attain this salvific knowledge. Apparently, to the minds of many slaveholders, enslavement was the only means Africans had for learning anything about Jesus.

    In general, an interpretation of Christianity that focuses on God's coming from heaven and becoming incarnate in Jesus, while sacrificing Jesus' ministry, unleashes the possibility for the emergence of the White Christ. Undergirded with such an understanding of Christianity, slaveholders were free to develop a notion of Christ that justified the enslavement of Africans. And so they did. It was the White Christ, as the center of slaveholding Christianity, that allowed White slaveholders to engage in Black slavery with religious impunity.

Christianization of the Slaves

    Though slavery was justified as a means for the African "heathen" to be saved, Christianization of the slaves was a slow process. Before the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the number of slaves converted to Christianity was negligible. Slaveholders' resistance to the idea of Christianizing the slaves was a major barrier. Some slaveholders were concerned that Christianity would make their slaves recalcitrant and difficult to control. Others were concerned about the "legally vague but widely believed" notion that if the slaves were baptized, they would have to be emancipated.

    The major barrier to Christianizing the slaves was the slaveholders' fears that the freedom that Jesus offered the oppressed during his own time, and the egalitarian themes present throughout the New Testament, might make the slaves think that they should be free and equal to the White population. Historian Albert Raboteau explains:

The danger beneath the arguments for slave conversion which many masters feared was the egalitarianism implicit in Christianity. The most serious obstacle to the missionary's access to the slaves was the slaveholder's vague awareness that a Christian slave would have some claim to fellowship, a claim that threatened the security of the master-slave hierarchy.

    The White Christ was the answer to this threat. This Christ gained stature in slaveholding Christianity as proslavery evangelists continued to support the idea that Jesus' liberating ministry was irrelevant to the Christian religion. They did this by first highlighting Old Testament scriptures, which apparently supported human bondage. For instance, they frequently quoted from the story of Ham (Genesis 9:25) and the Leviticus code (Leviticus 25:44-46).

    Second, because the New Testament Gospels did not speak directly for or against slavery, proslavery evangelists argued that what was in the Old Testament was "authoritative in the Christian era unless it was abrogated in the New Testament." Ignoring Jesus' liberating ministry to the oppressed as well as his commitment to "set the captives free," apologists for slavery argued that if Jesus had considered slavery a sin, he would have spoken directly against it. One proslavery minister made his case for slavery this way:

Our Lord repeatedly spoke of slaves, especially in several of his parables, without the slightest intimation that he condemned slavery, and in such a way as plainly showed that he considered it lawful....
We are told, Matt. 8:23-35, that a Centurion came to Jesus beseeching him to heal his sick servant.... If the holding of slaves had been sinful, Jesus would, we doubt not, have so informed [the Centurion].

    The White Christ is, thus, predicated upon an understanding of Jesus that disregards what he did do — that is, minister to the poor and oppressed — yet accents what he did not — that is, speak directly against slavery.

    Finally, while proslavery evangelists had to rely upon the lack of antislavery statements when utilizing the New Testament Gospels to justify their position, they had what they considered direct support for slavery from the New Testament epistles. Historian H. Shelton Smith observed:

Defenders of human bondage felt much more at home in the letters of Paul than they did in the teachings of Jesus, because those documents contained specific instructions on the duties of masters and slaves. In fact, virtually every proslavery tract of any consequence explored the Pauline epistles far more exhaustively than any other portion of the New Testament.

    One ex-slave witnessed to the frequency with which she would hear Ephesians preached: "[The white preacher] preached, 'you must obey your masters and be good servants.' That is the greater part of the sermon, when they preach to colored folks."

    The direct attention given to slavery in the epistles notwithstanding, slaveholding evangelists' focus on the epistles — as opposed to the Gospels — is consistent with the religion of the White Christ. The Gospels are unimportant, since they concentrate on Jesus' liberating activity in human history. The epistles are important, because they stress knowledge of and belief in Jesus Christ as essential for human salvation.

    The practical outcome of this New Testament selectivity in understanding Jesus is that it provided proslavery evangelists a way to quell the fears of slaveholders. Evangelists were able to spiritualize the themes of Christian freedom and equality. They essentially reasoned that what Jesus did in human history was disconnected from the salvation that he offered. Subsequently, the salvation that he offered was unrelated to what took place in human history. Jesus' salvation had nothing to do with historical freedom. The slaves could be Christian without being freed. According to this version of Christianity, the only freedom Jesus offered was in "heaven" not on earth.

    The Bishop of London put it this way:

Christianity, and the embracing of the Gospel does not make the least Alteration in Civil property, or in any of the Duties which belong to Civil Relations; but in all these Respects, it continues Persons just in the same State as it found them. The Freedom which Christianity gives, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Dominion of Men's Lust and Passions and inordinate Desires; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was before, whether bond or free, their being baptized and becoming Christians, makes no matter of Change in it.

    To assure that the slaves understood baptism was not synonymous with earthly freedom, many White evangelists had slaves consent to declarations like the following:

You declare in the presence of God and before this Congregation that you do not ask for the Holy Baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your Master while you live, but meerly [sic] for the good of your Soul and to partake of the Graces and Blessings promised to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

    Again, with an interpretation of Christianity and a reading of the Bible that trivializes Jesus' earthly ministry, the White Christ can flourish. It did so in slaveholding Christianity. This Christ allowed for White enslavers to be Christians, and for Black Christians to be slaves.

Christianity and Cruelty

    In addition to permitting a justification for slavery, and a means for evangelizing slaves without disrupting the slaveocracy, the White Christ is implicated in the slaveholders' unwillingness to acknowledge the contradiction between Christianity and the cruelty of slavery. Although some antebellum evangelists argued that the Christian slaveholder was more "benevolent" toward slaves than the non-Christian slaveholder, from many slaves' points of view this claim was more rhetoric than reality. To be sure, there were some "converted" slaveholders who occasionally reduced their slaves' workloads so that the slaves could attend religious instruction. The slaveholders' conversions, however, rarely meant more humane treatment of their human chattel. In fact, slave testimony suggests that the Christian slaveholder was just as cruel, if not more so, than the non-Christian slaveholder. Ex-slave Susan Bogg remembered:

I didn't see any difference between the slaveholders who had religion and those who had not.... Why the man that baptized me had a colored woman tied up in his yard to whip when he got home, that very Sunday and her mother belonged to that same church. We had to sit and hear him preach.... And he had her tied up and whipped. That was our preacher!

    Another ex-slave said, "The professed Christians at [sic] the South didn't treat their slaves any better than other people, nor so well. I'd rather live with a cardplayer and a drunkard than with a Christian." Frederick Douglass's feelings best convey the sentiments of many slaves:

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to the enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, more cruel and cowardly, of all others.

    What is it about slaveholding Christianity that allows for brutal slaveholders? Why does the Christian slaveholder often seem more cruel than the non-Christian slaveholder? What prevents Christian slaveholders from acknowledging the contradiction between their hideous treatment of their slaves and their belief in Jesus Christ?

    The answer to the above questions is the White Christ. To reiterate, the White Christ is based on an understanding of Jesus in which his liberating ministry is of little significance. Salvation is guaranteed because God is incarnate in him. The general consequences of this understanding are twofold.

    First, after a person is converted to belief in Jesus as Christ, his or her salvation is automatic; he or she no longer has to be anxious about it. This assurance, found in conversion, apparently freed many slaveholders to do whatever they deemed necessary to keep their slaves under control. Fear for their own salvation no longer regulated their behavior toward their slaves — if it did before.

    Second; because Jesus' ministry is ignored, his liberating actions do not become a standard for Christian actions. The emphasis is placed on God's act in Jesus — not on human actions in response to Jesus' liberating activity. The Christian feels no obligation to treat others, especially the oppressed, the way Jesus treated them. Again, enslavers are free to be as cruel as they want toward a slave, while at the same time being assured salvation. The religion of the White Christ places few demands on persons concerning how they should live their life in relation to others.

    Slaveholding Christianity clearly reveals a major shortcoming of an interpretation of Christianity that emphasizes the incarnation at the expense of Jesus' earthly ministry. It can lead to an understanding of Christ that supports an unjust status quo. In America it produced the White Christ — the Christ whom "the angry children of Malcolm X" railed against. This Christ allowed for the maintenance of an oppressive social-economic system and freed the White ruling class to act in ways that benefited them — without fear for their salvation. Specifically, the White Christ provided for the religious justification of the chattle system, eliminated reservations about holding Christians as slaves, and obscured the tensions between Christianity and the cruelty of slavery. Frederick Douglass aptly described the religion of the White Christ when he said:

[T]he religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes — a justifier of the most appalling barbarity — a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds — and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

    If slaveholding Christianity and the White Christ are the only way in which Christianity and Jesus' significance can be understood, then the refrain, "to hell with White people and their Christ," is not enough. Freedom-seeking Black people would have to shout "To hell with Christianity and its Jesus." Fortunately Black slaves provided another understanding of Christianity and its Jesus.


    Slaveholders tried to convince slaves to accept the slaveholding version of Christianity. While some slaves "found meaning in the message spread by [slaveholding] missionaries, accepted it on faith and tried their best to incorporate it in their lives," many others rejected it. Those who rejected it may have attended worship services held by slaveholding preachers, and listened patiently to the preacher's message; but they did not consider these services "real church," nor did they think the preacher's message was Christian. Ex-slave Charlie Van Dyke explained: "Church was what they called it but all that preacher talked about was for us slaves to obey our masters and not to lie and steal. Nothing about Jesus was ever said."


Excerpted from THE BLACK CHRIST by Kelly Brown Douglas. Copyright © 1994 by Kelly Brown Douglas. 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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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Who Is the Black Christ? 6
Is the Black Christ Enough? 7
Ch. 1 The Roots of the Black Christ 9
Slaveholding Christianity and the White Christ 10
Slave Christianity and the Black Christ 20
Black Nationalists and the Color of Christ 30
Early Black Literature and the Black Christ 32
Ch. 2 The Black Struggle and the Black Christ 35
Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Christ 37
Malcolm X and the Color of Christ 45
Ch. 3 The Theological Development of the Black Christ 53
The Relationship between Blackness and Christ 55
The Significance of Liberation and Reconciliation 64
Violence or Nonviolence? 72
Ch. 4 A Critical Assessment of the Black Christ 78
An Assessment of Each Claim 79
Is the Black Clirist Adequate? 84
The Emergence of Womanist Theology 92
Ch. 5 A Womanist Approach to the Black Christ 97
Laying a Womanist Foundation 97
Something More about the Blackness of Christ 106
The Womanist Black Christ Challenges Womanists and the Church 113
The Black Christ from a Womanist Eye 116
Notes 118
Index 132
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