I recently had a conversation with a young African American man and he shared his concerns regarding the Bible’s stance on slavery, especially its legislative aspects in the Old Testament and the apparent absence of condemnation in the New Testament. This discussion expanded to the historical misappropriation of scripture, where select passages were used to support racially discriminatory systems, prompting his heartfelt question: “Why should I believe in a God like that?”

His thoughtful and penetrating question reminded me of reflections by former slave Nancy Ambrose. She told her grandson, Howard Thurman, how painful it was to hear Paul’s words used by her master’s minister.

“During the days of slavery … the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves,” she described. “At least four or five times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters.’ I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”

The depth of that tragedy cannot be denied.

Everyone from slaveowners to segregationists used such Bible verses to undergird their calls for racial discrimination. And so, it is no wonder that many — like the young man I was conversing with — believe that the Bible actually teaches these vile beliefs.

And yet when understood correctly, the Bible condemns atrocities like the race-based chattel slavery experienced in this and other lands. It is therefore no surprise that the first clear example of a person who decried not only the mistreatment of slaves but also the institution of slavery itself was a Christian: Gregory of Nyssa, the influential fourth-century bishop. Indeed, Holy Write was the well from which his anti-slavery stance spang.

The proslavery crowd knew this about the Bible. They knew that the Bible, properly interpreted and lived out, preached liberty and human dignity and undermined their heinous institution. This is why they first denied slaves access to the Bible. When that proved impossible, they gave them highly redacted “slave bibles,” which removed entire sections of the biblical calls for freedom and equality. The proslavery faction knew that if the full knowledge of God’s word were revealed, it could only spell trouble for their brutal endeavor. Perhaps there’s a hint of divine intervention in the fact that the Bible’s arm went further than the slaver’s chains.

I can’t help but think of the film “Amistad,” based on true events, in which illegally-seized Africans revolt on the slave ship La Amistad during their involuntary voyage to the Americas. Arriving in the America North, a complex court case unfolds to determine if the Africans are property or justified in their mutiny. In a powerful scene in a crowded cell, a slave named Cinqué, possessing a Bible but unable to read it, nonetheless communicates the story of Jesus through the images in the Bible to a fellow prisoner.

Cinqué identifies with Jesus, recognizing His transformative impact and protection of the oppressed. In prison, Cinqué connects further with the images of Jesus innocently being tried and suffering. Cinqué profoundly identifies with Jesus while in prison for doing nothing more than standing up for his own dignity. As he examines images of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he sees the possibility of hope and freedom, in of all places, a prison full of slaves.

Later in the film, the judge sides with the Africans and declares that they are not mere property. Cinqué and the others rejoice. In a moving scene, he holds up his Bible with both hands, recognizing that the hope promised in the gospel can be filled both in this life and the life to come. Not even a language barrier was enough to stem the tide of gospel hope.

The Word of God flowed as an undercurrent during the entirety of the slave trade — one that washed over the consciences of those who would call themselves Christians. As Carl Ellis Jr. has said, it is a historical mistake to conclude that Christianity was imposed on unwilling Africans through the institution of race-based slavery as a means of pacifying slaves. In fact, slave masters resisted Christianizing slaves because introducing this religion, the fundamental tenets of which teach that every human is endowed with God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) and that freedom is humanity’s ultimate destiny (John 8:36Galatians 5:13), was a little too risky.

Slaves of African descent saw through the subterfuge, machinations, and bad interpretations of the slaveowners. Frederick Douglass embodied this vibrant spirit. Mr. Douglass, a former slave who managed to rise from a wretched plight to become an advocate for the disenfranchised, encouraged those in lofty positions to climb out of their states of wretched comfort so that all of us, with the help of God, could strive toward a pinnacle of moral harmony.

Mr. Douglass saw past the slavers’ distortions of Scripture with a clear enough lens to see Jesus for who he really is. He wrote in his famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land… . Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.

Mr. Douglass saw in the authentic teaching and life of Christ how counterfeit the Christianity of racists was.

Weeks after the young African American man and I wrestled over some tough issues, I had the joy of receiving a letter from him, telling me that he was on a journey of rediscovering faith. Perhaps he began to see what both the literary genius Mr. Douglass and the once illiterate Cinqué saw — “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ.” We owe a debt of gratitude to those enslaved Africans who, like Mr. Douglass, preserved the true message of Christianity in a world that had gone woefully wrong. Amidst our contemporary challenges, we would do well to listen to their voices and perhaps see what they saw.

Original Article – Black History Month: How black historical figures saw through slavery’s attempt to misuse the Bible – Washington Times