The Moral Universe – Slavery and Faith


Eternal Spirit,




Source of all that is and is to be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Heavenly God, in whom is Heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the Universe!

Your way of justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love.

From The New Zealand (Anglican) Prayer Book

The New Zealand Prayer Book was rewritten in the early 1990s in order to be inclusive and use language that would be relevant to the native Maori population. In the service material in the prayer book, English is on one page and the Maori language on the other. This version of The Lord’s Prayer speaks to me in a way that few other formal prayers do. I say it every day and, as I was mulling over my next posting, the sentence “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!” shouted in my ear.

I knew I wanted to address the deep Christian faith of so many parts of the African-American community and how wondrous it is to me that people whose forebears suffered so much in this country, and who themselves must certainly know the pain of discrimination or worse, could be such faithful people. How could an enslaved people have set down the beginnings of some of the most beautiful church music ever written, as well as several types of popular music that have proven to be enduring? Since Emancipation, the black church has been known for its vibrancy and its very real authenticity in its relation to God.

And I thought, perhaps it is the idea of a commonwealth (ie a place where the common good is practiced) that has sustained their hope. We know it sustained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was his dream, peace and freedom, and he gave his life trying to bring it to earth.

And I wondered, how did slaves become Christians? Who, on a plantation where life was as grim as it could be, would dare to tell people of the unconditional, eternal love of Jesus Christ? And how could slaves have believed it?

I pulled out The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois to see whether he wrote on this subject. And he did, in the chapter “Of Faith and the Fathers.”

AfricaWriting in the first years of the 20th century, DuBois reminds us that “the social history of the Negro did not start in America.” Africans who were brought here in chains had been part of complex societies that were ruled by the chief and the priest.

“His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice.” Though the new rule of life in plantations saw ties of kinship disappear, a depth of learning from the old stories stayed within slaves and, DuBois says, someone would rise up as a priest or medicine-man within the slave community. Perhaps because families were torn apart, with a mother sent in one direction, father in another, and perhaps children in a third, it became even more important to depend upon the faith of the fathers to get one through the day.

“Thus, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church,” wrote DuBois.

It wasn’t a Christian church at first, but the rites and rituals were familiar and certainly paved the way for those who yearned for the transcendent to be absorbed into Christianity. If plantation owners gave any kind of Christian education to their slaves, it was as a way of keeping them passive and easier to control. As DuBois says, “The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements in his character which made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering.”

With the rising abolition movement and then Emancipation, DuBois says, it must have seemed to the freedman as if the day of the Lord had come. However, when Jim Crow came instead, many, many freedmen continued to look to the Lord for deliverance and created a liberation theology. The faith of the fathers did not die, but brought an oppressed people into the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Falling Upward

Franciscan Richard Rohr, who has written many books about the deepest forms of spiritual practice, says in Falling Upward that, in effect, the truest, most mature faith comes out of having known suffering. Moving through pain brings us to a level of development where we are more readily able to commune with the divine inside and outside of us. A lot of traditional Negro Spirituals reflect this philosophy, and those spirituals influenced the poetry of the great black poets such as Langston Hughes.

There is a scene in the movie Amistad that, aside from the horrific scenes of the kidnapping of the Africans, has stuck with me over many years. Yumba has been given a Bible and sits in the courtroom day after day looking at the pictures. Cinque, the leader of the revolt, scoffs at him. But Yumba explains what he has learned from the pictures. When Cinque sees the picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns, he says, “Well, he must have committed some crime!” Yumba answers him, “Why? What did we do?” Then he looks back at a picture of the Ascension and talks about dying. All the fear has drained from his face and he smiles. By looking at the pictures over and over again, he has learned the very essence of Jesus’ message: Death has no victory over you. Live a righteous life and be not afraid.

This is not to romanticize suffering for suffering’s sake. Much personal suffering comes from not being able to move past a coping mechanism that was useful at one time but is no longer needed. Suffering that comes from outside one, though, that is inflicted by other human beings in an institutional way, is grotesque and obscene. Which makes it all the more miraculous that Emancipation was not followed by a bloodbath of revenge on the part of the freed slaves, but by yearning for education and land in order to sustain themselves. Faith must have played a very large part in encouraging freed men and women to persist in the fight for civil rights that still to this day have not been fully granted.


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