Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

March 13, 2018

activism / books / spirituality / theology

I had a chance to read a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, which examines the ways Christianity in America is, and has always been, torn in two. He further examines how especially as a product of white Christianity in the South who participates in the black led freedom movement that has always existed alongside the religion of slaveholders, he is also torn in two.

I wanted to read this for several reasons. First, Jonathan has been an influence on me for many years. In the early days of the Iraq War he was doing resistance and solidarity work there that I followed from afar, then he returned to the States and became a leader in the New Monastic movement. I was never directly a part of New Monasticism, but as part of the broader emerging church movement its proponents deeply influenced my own theology and spirituality, and have continued to do so. Jonathan, specifically, had powerful stories of submitting to and learning from the black church. I’ve read and been influenced by many of his books over the years, sometimes using the daily prayer book to which he contributed, and by meeting him several years ago at Cornerstone Festival. In recent years Jonathan has continued to follow the lead of black freedom activists such as William Barber II, as I’ve tried to do as well.

The other reasons relate directly to my own story. Jonathan was raised in the Southern Baptist church in rural North Carolina. I was also raised there. I left the denomination as a young teenager, and at this point I don’t live in the South, but I don’t discount how deeply the history of white Christianity, and Southern Baptists specifically, in North Carolina have been passed down to me and have shaped me. I don’t pretend that I’m not also a man torn in two, in many of the same ways Jonathan recounts.

He says:

I saw in a way I’d missed before how the diagnosis of a divided faith is the beginning of the good news Jesus offered to nearly every religious person he met during his time here on earth.

In the book, Jonathan does what I think is a great job tracing how this divide came to exist in American Christianity, and specifically in the South. More importantly, he uses this to explain why the overwhelming majority (81%) of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, and why this wasn’t a surprise to people of color, especially black people, and those who were willing to listen to them. He explains how the gospel we’ve inherited had to make such a distinction between bodies and souls, pretending Jesus doesn’t care about black bodies so they could be enslaved, segregated and lynched, mass incarcerated, and so the white ones could be defended with violence and politics ever since, even as our own souls were disconnected from our bodies, from our ability to feel and humanize and change.

None of these things are hidden from people who want to see them, but most of us white Southerners like to pretend we’ve moved on from the theologies that fed those things; we like to ignore that the work to get past that has not been done in our churches, in our hearts.

In one place he says this:

Because even though slavery ended in 1865, most white Christians went on reading the Bible and seeing the world around them exactly as they had before.

And in another, this:

White supremacy doesn’t persist because racists scheme to privilege some while discriminating against others. It continues because, despite the fact that almost everyone believes it is wrong to be racist, the daily habits of our bodily existence continue to repeat the patterns of white supremacy at home, at school, at work, and at church. White supremacy is written into our racial habits. In short, it looks like normal life.

While tracing these histories, he spends time examining them through the message of Jesus, and through the years of black led freedom movements that have always been there to resist white supremacy.

There is nowhere you can go to find the pure, peaceable, and unadulterated Christianity of Christ. The slaveholder religion has infected us all. But that is not to say that all forms of faith are created equal.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a wonderful section that looks at the practices of monasticism that Jonathan and others integrated into the new monastic movement as a way white people can turn away from whiteness toward the freedom Jesus offers. He looks what these practices can look like: listening to black people who lead this movement instead of relying on ourselves to solve the problems, or on the false notion that proximity to people can free us from racism; staying put to grapple with our fragility, to lament, and in general to give ourselves to the work; and constantly taking steps away from white supremacy.

I found the book to be a great way of articulating what has caused the situation in which white Christians find ourselves, how we can be honest about what we’ve inherited in our faith, but also how we can use what our faith offers us, both in systemic and individual ways.