Posted by: cLamb | February 27, 2009

The Power of Spirituality

Elizabeth Johnson begins this chapter by affirming the “spiritual power” possessed by slaves; a power derived from the inability of the oppression they faced to weaken their religious beliefs. In fact she said that their oppression almost strengthened their faith because they were able to find “God’s liberating deeds in history at the core.” (114) They looked to God to once again liberate His people and break their chains. Hope was found in the message that God loves all His children. In the face of whites reigning supreme over their black slaves, the slaves could find some hope knowing God did not exhibit the same discrimination. The Christian message expressed that “Christ’s cross and resurrection made it possible for them to see that their dignity, their worth as human beings was not to be equated simply with their present situation.” (120) Religion persisted in spite of violence and oppression. Johnson explains that the Christian faith adopted by the slaves was different from the “hypocritical faith” of the white slave masters. To explain this point, Johnson heeds the words of Albert Raboteau claiming, “What the salves affirmed and the slaveholders rejected was the belief that slavery and Christianity were incompatible – that a slaveholding Christianity was a contradiction in terms, in other words, a heresy.” (115) However, the problem I have with this assertion is that during this time period, Christian doctrine was not in opposition of slavery. Therefore, it could not be considered a heretical practice. Even though church dogma rejects slavery today, I think that condemning it as heresy, even today, could possibly be considered extreme and a little inaccurate because of the presence and acceptance of slavery Biblically. Though it is rejected that Biblical slavery can be used to justify modern slavery, the question remains is slavery a heresy?

Johnson then focuses much attention on ideas of God as liberator, and liberation theology. Liberation theology is the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. Though such a definition did not exist for the slaves, Johnson is showing that the slaves are a prime example of a people who needed to be liberated from oppression. The message of God as liberator is found frequently in the Bible. The main places Johnson focuses on this message are in the exodus and Jesus’ resurrection. God will liberate His people because He has done it in the past.

The majority of the chapter focuses on some aspect of the point that “having suffered himself, Jesus knows what they [slaves] are suffering better than anyone.” (117) This was a point of hope for the slaves, but also is a point of hope for anyone with a present situation of suffering. What is interesting about the way in which Johnson expresses this point is that she does it to offer hope in the face of racism for black people, but her emphasis is only on black people. This is a positive Christian message, but in places she almost too strongly implies that it is only blacks who have suffered, and only them who faced injustice. True, whites did not suffer the injustices of slavery, they perpetuated them, but there are other contexts of suffering being cast aside too liberally here. The point she is trying to prove, is that Christianity throughout slavery was practiced by blacks in the face and midst of intense oppression. I agree that there were many injustices committed and that the connections between the sufferings by slaves and the redemption of Jesus through his suffering are important. However Johnson idealizes the slave oppression at the expense of others and their sufferings. She states that is it a problem that “white people, too, from slave owners to the privileged of society today, believe in the same God of Jesus Christ.” (123) As she pointed out in the beginning of her chapter, Christianity is for all, and she seems to imply here that blacks are more deserving of Jesus’ promises than whites because racism is unjust and it is whites that perpetrate this injustice. Though I do not mean to say that slavery is justified, but the white Christian participation in slavery was legally, socially, and even religiously acceptable at the time. We now look back on it and realize the exploitation, the discrimination, and the injustice of it, but even so this does not negate the salvation received by all through Jesus’ sacrifice. We do need to recognize the oppression received by blacks and also need to continue to condemn slavery. This is an important point which Johnson has not missed. But discriminating against non-blacks in order to reaffirm the even continued injustices against blacks is not an effective way to make the point. Johnson previously emphasized the message that God loves and saved all his children, but here turns to say that these oppressors are outside of this realm.

Johnson makes a claim in this chapter that “God is black!” (124) She explains this by saying, “to say that God is black means that God takes the oppressed condition and makes it God’s own condition, something that is clear from the story of the exodus and the life story of Jesus.” (124) She also explains, that “this symbol evokes the truth that Christ takes on his own black peoples’ experience of racism, their protest against it, and their struggle for life and wholeness.” (125) What she is missing here is that, again, God redeemed all. He takes on the struggle of all. Black pain is no more or no less important than white pain, just different. I agree with her articulation that God takes the oppressed condition so that in the context of the oppression of slavery, God takes on the condition of black people and becomes a black God. But this should not discount the times when God is a God for non-blacks, or women, or children, or the poor, or the rich. I think the point here should not be focusing in on God as black and not white, but just focusing on Johnson’s point that God takes on the condition of those who need Him. In doing this, the empowerment of slaves through their reliance on a just and liberating God is not diminished. This way it can be simultaneously affirmed that God is present in the suffering of non-black Christians. Johnson criticizes the image of God as a white man in modern society. I agree that in a multi-cultural society such an image can be discriminatory, but I do not think that this was by any means the intention. Humans relate through their senses; which includes visually relating. So portraying images of God allows humanity to imagine God as present with us, as one of us. Christianity affirms that God is not constrained by our language or our projected images. We cannot accurately portray God, yet I think we try to personify Him in attempt to make Him a more personal God. We can better grasp ideas about our mysterious God if we can sense Him in some way. The visual image of God serves to not define God, but to help Christians to more firmly grasp an idea that is beyond our ability to grasp. The image of a white God was created in a predominately white society. Therefore, it makes sense that God would be projected as white. A white God is what a group of white people best relates to. This original intention of personifying God in order to make Him more personal so that humans can feel a stronger relationship is not the problem. The problem is that society has become so comfortable with this image and so constrained by it that they fail to look outside of it. This then serves to alienate those who relate better with a black God or womanly picture of God, or a non-white God. People should be willing to revise such an image, which is not even a sufficient projection to begin with. In Johnson declaring God as black and not white, she herself is limiting this personal relationship sought by all. And, thus she is contributing to the problem she is criticizing. God relates to all His people, therefore, all His people should be free to imagine Him as best speaks to them. However, this should not be done at the expense of anyone else in a way that diminishes their projection of their personal God. Overall I agree with the points Johnson is trying to make, I just disagree with the way she diminishes and negates others to build up the oppressed.

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