On Faith: MLK, Black History and Religion | Perspective


I sit here in Mexico contemplating Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month from afar. A number of things come to mind. One is the relationship of religion to black history – it’s complex. A contemporary liberal knee-jerk reaction to this question is “it was the Christians who enslaved the Africans and brought them to the New World with the blessings of the Christian church”. Well, wait a minute, not so fast…

It has long been held by many different historians that even in the early days of Christianity, the Christian religion opposed slavery. The New Testament makes it very clear that “slaves and frees” were equally welcome in early Christian communities. Beginning in the 300s and throughout, numerous popes and Catholic theologians, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, consistently condemned slavery. However, after 1492, imposing this position thousands of miles away in the New World was difficult. There were always investors, traders, and plantation owners who wanted to engage in the profits of the slave trade, and they didn’t care what secular or religious law said about it.

In the early days of New World colonization, it was the Native Americans of Central America and Mexico who were enslaved. However, thanks to the lifelong work of the Spanish Catholic priest Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), the Crown of Spain and the Popes of Rome took the stand to outlaw slavery in the New World. What I mean is that it was, from the beginning, voices within the Christian religion that fought against slavery, and they did so for hundreds and hundreds of years – in fact for 2,000 years.

Any “official” acceptance of slavery by any Christian denomination was the exception to the rule throughout history – and that exception was pretty much only in the United States. The American Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches were divided over the issue of slavery. This was in fact the origin of the “Southern Baptist Convention”, which still exists today. The Episcopal Church in America was the only denomination that supported slavery and did not split into two factions.

Movements for the abolition of slavery in the English-speaking world began with the Quakers and Methodists, and culminated in William Wilberforce’s classic “Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Black Slaves in the West Indies” (1823) Of course, in the United States virtually all abolitionist actors were motivated by religious beliefs.

When we come to the civil rights movement in the United States, we again see that nearly all of its original African American (and white) movers and agitators were driven and strongly supported by their religious beliefs. This is especially true of Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Baptist minister educated at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University where he earned his doctorate. Virtually all of the original meetings of the civil rights movement in the American South were held in churches. The civil rights movement in the United States was tied to Christianity from top to bottom.

As someone who has studied the history of Christianity, slavery and civil rights, I can say without a doubt that it was Christianity that ended slavery and it was black Christians who launched the civil rights movement. The history of slavery and civil rights is perhaps the best lesson there is to show the limits of an unshakeable secularism. Economic, academic and political (i.e. secular) support for slavery and discrimination was very strong. Slavery with its racial/tribal discrimination was a human institution thousands of years old and universally practiced across the planet. What finally stopped the slavery machine? It was Christianity and especially black Christianity. There is no doubt about that.

Where did we in the West get the idea that all people should have equality before the law and full access to the political system? They were certainly not Greeks and Romans – half the population or more of the Roman Empire were slaves or conquered peoples who were not on any kind of equality before the law and had almost no right.

No other large-scale civilization on Earth has ever condemned slavery and called for equal rights or human rights – until Christian civilization. It was a gigantic step for humanity. It was a step that had to start from a whole new hierarchy of values ​​and the foundations of law. That’s exactly what Christianity did and it was a world-changing idea.

When I look at world history, I see a horrible pattern of what happens in large-scale civilizations that are polytheistic or atheistic: they have no concept of human rights and they create forms of government who are totalitarian and bloodthirsty – for the blood of their own people and other peoples. Above all, this totalitarianism and bloodlust is encouraged and tolerated by their social and religious teachings, not condemned by them.

Here is my worst fear regarding the Western drift from the fundamental values ​​of Christianity: that we fall back into nationalist/racist totalitarianism, which is the old and original form of civilization. One would have to be blind not to recognize this regressive trend among fervent supporters of Trump and Trumpism. However, they do not consider it for a moment as regressive. They also mistakenly believe that our government should be united with one religion, evangelical Protestantism, and that this arrangement is in harmony with “true Christianity.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Again and again throughout Western history, the Christian religion – and especially the black church – has opposed rulers and governments, subduing them and opposing policies contrary to the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

And here’s the real kicker: when Christianity hasn’t done that, or been unable to do enough, or even perverted its true mission, then very bad things have always happened. Think of slavery and the slave trade, Jim Crow-ism, unbridled economic imperialism, social Darwinism and eugenics, Aryan supremacy, Nazism, fascism, Russian atheist communism, etc All of these institutions and isms were openly anti-Christian and all fought against many critical Christian thinkers, preachers and writers – and nearly all of these isms were eventually smashed, if not totally defeated. Christianity has played, and still plays, a crucial role in these defeats.

Thinking back to Martin Luther King and black history, I wonder if we can correct the course of our nation through purely political and pragmatic means and politics as usual. On the contrary, it seems to me that we must follow the courageous example of Dr. King and so many of the leaders of the black churches of America. As Bayard Rustin, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and posthumous recipient of the American Medal of Freedom, so aptly put it: The role of the Christian religion is to speak truth to power.

John Nassivera is a former professor who remains affiliated with the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.


Comments are closed.