Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.
Just a few short months ago, 46% of Americans believed interracial relations in this country have deteriorated over the last few years. As of this Advent season, that figure has climbed by between seven and eleven percentage points, depending on whose survey you believe. The recent killings by the police of these three blacks (among others) may have had something to do with that uptick. That police are more willing to use – and are quicker to use – deadly force is well documented, and is something that merits a long, hard, dispassionate look. But at any rate, when it comes to racism the majority of us believe things now are the worst they’ve been in decades.
This is certainly not a one-way street. Nearly 150 years after its founding the Ku Klux Klan still exists. There are white supremacists in 21st century America – but there are also black supremacists. There are hate crimes and racially motivated evils perpetrated by all sides.
It is easy, at this point, to feel the despair of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who on December 25, 1863, wrote:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!”
Poor interracial relations in this country are sometimes said to have their roots in slavery. Bad as that episode in American history is – and it was very bad – this is a meager excuse. For one thing, slavery has a long and diverse history. Africans captured and sold their fellow Africans to each other long before they had contact with people from other continents. Then they started selling each other to Arab slave traders, and only later to Europeans. For that matter, people groups all over the world have engaged in the practice of enslaving others at some point in their past. Other countries have wrestled with this and have done so better than we.
For another thing – and quite pertinent to this discussion – whites were slaves in this country well before blacks. As Ulrich Phillips writes in Life and Labor in the Old South,
Negro slavery was efficiently established in colonial America because Black slaves were governed, organized and controlled by the structures and organization that were first used to enslave and control Whites. Black slaves were late comers fitted into a system already developed.
The ruthless oppression of the Irish by the British government was the primary source of the white slave trade. Thanks to the proclamation of James II, grandson to the monarch behind the Authorized Version of the Bible (the beloved “KJV”), they were sent by the thousands first to Australia and the Caribbean, and rather quickly found themselves in the American colonies. Even well after the Revolutionary War white, Bible-literate Christians had few qualms about enslaving other whites, and everything you’ve ever read about the mistreatment of blacks on these shores – rape, brutal work, killing them freely and at will – was true of these poor souls, too. Racism had nothing to do with it; it was purely a matter of avarice. Black slaves could be as much as ten times as expensive as European ones (mostly due to transport costs) so buying whites was much more cost effective. When, over time, white Americans felt greater unease about owning whites, white slaves were bred with black ones so that their issue would “look” like slaves.
This is why I have little patience with my fellow Americans who decry the Three-Fifths Compromise and laws against miscegenation. Those things were not designed to perpetuate the oppression and ownership of one’s fellow man but to end it. Banning human chattel outright was politically and practically impossible, so these were efforts to undermine slavery with the hopes that over time it would be eliminated.
Slavery was undone in a subversive manner. Believe it or not, that was God’s plan. Far too many, ignorant of what Scripture actually says, think the Bible endorses slavery. It emphatically does not; controlling a thing is not the same as sanctioning it. Why didn’t the Lord simply outlaw it, you ask? Why should he have? He outlawed adultery, didn’t he? Did that do any good? Legislation may regulate behavior to a limited degree, but has zero power to change people’s desire to sin.
No, knowing human nature better than we humans do, God worked to destroy slavery from within. Under the Mosaic Law, it was permitted among his covenant people, but in a highly regulated and humane way (humane for the Bronze Age, anyway). The death blow for the practice came under the Christian covenant. Slaves were to obtain their freedom if at all possible (1 Cor 7.22), and until then serve their owners as if serving God himself (Col 3.22); for their part masters were not to mistreat slaves (Eph 6.8) but consider them as if they were their own siblings (Phm 1.15f). Where those ideals are believed and practiced, slavery collapses of its own accord. As the carol “O Holy Night” correctly puts it,
Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Within a few years of the Bible’s closing pages slaves were pastors of churches, teaching theology and administering the Eucharist to their masters. As a divine ordinance slave owners were washing the feet of slaves. They worshiped side by side, prayed for one another, loved and sacrificed for each other, and in so doing destroyed the institution that separated them. According to historian Rodney Stark, slavery was completely eradicated from Christian Europe by the 11th century, except for a small region of southern Italy where there were entrenched links with Arabic northern Africa.
It was the Enlightenment that brought slavery back, not Christianity. And sadly yes, a great number of European and American Christians wholeheartedly took to Enlightenment ideals, becoming very much supportive of the slave trade; many of them pointed to the Bible to support the practice. But they did so only by taking certain passages out of context and completely ignoring the above and other passages which had caused the Church to abandon the practice centuries earlier. It fell to Christian abolitionists to re-fight that battle.
Christ broke down the diving walls that separate man from man. In him there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, educated or uneducated, slave or free (Col 3.11). He has been at work for a very long time to call us out from our worldly loyalties and affinities to be bound to him; he is forming a new tribe based, not on borders, ethnicity, skin color, language, or place of origin, but on him and him alone. The Apostle Peter, taking the words of Moses, says that those who follow Christ have become a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who belong to God (1Pe 2.9): a new, supernatural nationality. This formation was neither smooth nor complete; it is an ongoing process moving forward in spurts, in fits and starts, lurching and stalling as his people sometimes work with him and sometimes work against his will.
The hatred, division, and dominion of man over man will never end by law. It is only undone by love: first receiving the love of God, and then extending it to others. That is what Christmas is all about. Longfellow understood this; like the psalmist, he poured out his lament but ended with a confident faith that what God has promised he will accomplish:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”