#RacialRec: American Slavery, Neglected Voices, & History of the Church

Before featuring current voices from the church, I thought it important to look at the implications of race and ethnicity across church history. My church history professor, Dr. Donald Fairbairn, is an excellent resource. Dr. Fairbairn received his undergraduate degree from Princeton, M.Div from Denver Seminary, and Ph.D. from Cambridge. He is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell, Charlotte campus. I am thankful he has taken the time to share with us.

1. When researching the topic of racism in America, it is clear that the church has been on both sides of the fence. Some Protestant denominations were actually started because of their stand for slavery? As a theologian and church historian, how do you explain this?

We often speak of “the Christian worldview,” but we also need to recognize that any given Christian’s personal worldview is going to be a mixture of the values of the Gospel and the values of the society in which he/she lives. Few Christians think rigorously about the difference between the Christian worldview and their cultural worldview. Most Christians simply absorb the values they are exposed to, whether those come ultimately from the Gospel or the prevailing society. In fact, when a given society’s culture has been influenced a lot by Christianity (as is the case in America), it is especially easy for people to assume that cultural values are the same as Christian values, and so they fail to think deeply about the cases where the culture has gone astray. Sometimes Christians even use the Bible (incorrectly) to defend what amount to cultural values. The Bible mentions slavery, and it doesn’t ordinarily condemn the institution directly (although the book of Philemon comes close). Instead, the Bible commands slaves and masters to act in a certain way toward each other. So on the surface, this biblical teaching could be interpreted to mean that slavery is acceptable (even necessary) as long as slave owners treat their slaves well. This is how many white American Christians in the 19th century applied the relevant passages, and there are a few Christians who say the same thing even today. But such an interpretation/application neglects two crucial questions. First, was the kind of slavery present in the Bible really analogous to 19th-century American slavery, or was the biblical slavery more like indentured servitude? I would argue that American slavery was a completely different and much worse phenomenon than what is described in the Bible, and therefore that the “relevant” biblical passages don’t apply to that phenomenon. Second, is the Bible’s treatment of slavery an indication of God’s intent, or is it a concession to a sinful situation (as are some parts of the OT Law)? Again, the book of Philemon suggests the second of these, not the first. Applying the Bible to contemporary ethical issues is not always simple, but simple applications are routinely made by people whose thoughts are actually driven more by their cultural worldview than by the Christian worldview.

Natasha insert: A “worldview” is simply the way we, each of us, look at the world. It defines our perspectives, reveals how we think and believe, and why we respond the way that we do.

2. When we say, “Neglected Voices in the Church,” what do we really mean? Who are we referring to? Why is it important to pay attention to the neglected voices of the church? 

Here the first thing that should be said is that listening to neglected voices is not just a matter of political correctness. Instead, we listen to neglected voices because those voices are (to a greater or lesser degree) valid and bring new, correct dimensions to our understanding of the Gospel. I use the image of a multi-faceted diamond to describe the Christian message. We may be able to see a few facets of the diamond very well, but there is much more to see than what we look at. To see the rest, and thus to enhance our understanding of the Christian faith and make it more complete, we need to turn the diamond around and look at many other facets as well. Other groups of Christians may already be adept at looking at those other facets, and they can help us see what those facets are and how to explain them well. The catchphrase here is “It takes the whole world to understand the whole Christ.” I would add that “It takes the whole Church—Christians of all races, cultures, geographical locations, and time periods—to understand the whole Gospel.” Thus, “neglected voices” are simply the voices within the Church that the majority Christian culture in a given area/time period are not listening to very carefully.

Natasha’s insert: I love how Dr. Fairbairn addresses the concept of the “whole church” sharing the “whole gospel.” This is the evangelic message of the Lasaunne Covenant: The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.  This is what ushers us on to pursue racial reconciliation and this quick lecture puts this truth into perspective for the American Church:

3. As a writer, the publishing world will often refer to a writer’s tribe (those who faithfully follow the writer). Theologians and scholars also have their tribes (those they follow and those who follow them). Fortunately, the followers (or students would be a better term) are quite diverse, while the tribal leaders are still predominately white and male. Can you name a few Christian ministry leaders we should be paying attention to and why?  

As a historian, I am better at naming historical examples than current ones, so I’ll let the other bloggers give examples of current leaders who represent neglected voices. But thinking historically, I would point out that Athanasius (in Egypt in the fourth century) was not ethnically Greek but was Coptic. He preached in Greek in the cathedral in Alexandria, but he also preached in Coptic in the villages. He is known as being a great theologian and defender of the faith, but he was equally good as a shepherd, because he was so culturally sensitive to his people.

Along the same lines, one of the great contrasts in ancient church history is the contrast between Eastern North Africa and Western North Africa. In the 600s and 700s, Islam conquered all of North Africa. In the West, Christianity did not survive the Islamic conquest, but in the East (Egypt and Ethiopia), Christianity survived and even flourished under Islam, and those nations have NEVER been without a Christian presence in the midst of the dominant Islamic society. Why? Quite simply, Christianity was indigenized (growing naturally) in Egypt and Ethiopia, and it wasn’t indigenized in Latin North Africa. In the East, the Bible and liturgy were in the people’s heart languages (Fayumic, Bohairic, Sahidic, Amharic, and Geetz—languages we haven’t even heard of!), but in the West they were only in Latin. Christianity never really penetrated to the people’s souls in the West, but it did in the East. So Christianity in the East was much more resilient than in the Western part of North Africa.

Another historical example of a leader whose voice is neglected today but is worth hearing: Macrina (fourth century, in what is today Turkey), the sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, was perhaps the most influential Christian woman of all time. She had an extraordinary balance between loving God with her mind, loving God with her heart, and loving God by loving other people. Yet almost no Protestants have ever heard of her. (And of course, she was not white or male.)

4. Was St. Augustine what we would refer to as Black? Does his race or ethnicity matter? Who was he? What are his significant contributions to the church?  

St. Augustine (354-430) was the greatest Latin-speaking Christian theologian and the most influential thinker of the Western Church (Catholic or Protestant). His wrote on virtually everything related to Christian theology, spirituality, and life, and his writings are still widely read and studied today (more so than any other church father, and probably more so than all the other Latin church fathers combined). He was not black but was instead ethnically Berber , a brown-skinned people group found in northern Africa west of the Nile River. The Berbers still today pride themselves on their ethnic identity and usually distinguish themselves from Arabs, even though many Berbers speak Arabic today and most of them are Muslim. Although Augustine was ethnically Berber, he was culturally Roman. His native language was Latin (although he was embarrassed as a boy by his Berber accent in Latin), and his education was Latin-based.

5. One of the things I have learned from my seminary experience thus far is the “bigness” of God when seeing his mighty hand at work throughout history in the Bible and beyond, and in the diversity of all his creation, but specifically his human creation.  In this fallen world, how can we practically honor God’s sovereignty at work among our human messes (sin) while taking responsibility for the work of reconciliation he has called all Christians to do?   

At the expense of stating the obvious, I think we need to recognize our tendency to see most situations and most people in terms that are too clear-cut. (Normally we say “black-and-white terms,” but I have always winced at that expression, since it implies that blackness is somehow bad. It is worth remembering that the Bible’s “color contrast” between evil and good is RED and white, not black and white.) We assume that people’s motives are purer (or more completely impure) than they are. We assume that arguments have to be either completely good or completely bad. We assume that any argument that supports our position is a good argument, even if it is a specious one. Etc. We need to recognize that “messy” is the operative word to describe people who are both created in God’s image and thoroughly fallen, and that Christians are not automatically restored to sinless purity at conversion. The more we realize the messiness of all human interactions (perhaps especially Christian interactions), the more we marvel at what God choose to do through us.

Natasha: “Wow! I marvel. I marvel indeed.”

© Dr. Donald Fairbairn, Interviewer: Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012

Published by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson

Servant of Jesus. Truth-teller. Leader. Mentor. Author of Books.

6 thoughts on “#RacialRec: American Slavery, Neglected Voices, & History of the Church

    1. Stephanie, I am planning to ask him about resources for Macrina. I haven’t gotten around to it yet though because I am lining up these interviews. Let me know what you find. I definitely want to read up more on her.

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