The Slaveowners and Me: On Nurturing Empathy for Oppressors

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

* Note: In hindsight, I think perhaps a better headline to this post would be: "The Slaveowners and Me: On Recognizing Complicity with Oppressors." As you will see in the post, I am not advocating sympathy or patience for oppressors of the past, but rather an acknowledgment that Christians today are capable of the same evil. I've since learned that the headline alone turned off a lot of folks, so forgive  me for not communicating more clearly from the get-go. 


I was baptized in Alabama, at a Bible-believing church less than 12 miles and 30 years away from where four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair—were killed in a church bombing during the Civil Rights movement.  I knew the starched white columns of old plantation homes just as well as I knew the spires of Cinderella’s storybook castle, and I’d seen with my own eyes how, just before a harvest, Georgia’s cotton fields could look like a fresh-fallen snow.   

My ancestors were not slave owners, but they fought a war to protect their neighbors who were. I learned the n-word from my great-grandmother, a sweet, churchgoing lady who loved Jesus and read her Bible and, in the remote mountains of Appalachia, regarded the black man we saw at the ice cream shop that day as a fearful curiosity. 

When I was a teenager, my family moved to Dayton, Tennessee, a town famous for prosecuting and convicting a science professor for teaching evolution in 1925, and which sits right on the path of the old Trail of Tears. I took a German reporter through the Scopes Trial museum a few weeks ago, where she paused at the tiny glass case in the back dedicated to Cherokee memorabilia and said, “In Germany, they do not let us forget. Reminders of the Holocaust are everywhere, not just our museums.” 

An insatiable reader, I grew up reading Southern writers: Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, William Faulker, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor. In addition, my mother brought home armfuls of historical fiction novels from garage sales and let me stay up long past my bedtime so I could see what happened next on the Oregon Trail, at the Alamo, at Sand Creek. In the midst of all this reading, I learned not only to empathize with the suffering and the oppressed, but also to empathize with the oppressors, who - let's face it - often shared my skin tone, my geography, my language, and my faith. I didn’t learn about America’s history of oppression from the Church. I learned it from Huck Finn. My church, like so many, focused on sins of the present, not sins of the past. 

I was thinking about this recently after our conversation on Monday about corporate confession and lament and after this week’s controversial conference on homosexuality hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Given the SBC’s troubling history of supporting slavery and opposing civil rights for African Americans, I was dismayed to see an attendee brag about the event’s good attendance by posting a picture of a crowded conference room with the caption: “So this is what the wrong side of history looks like.” Later in the event, a speaker declared he would “rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of a holy God.”

While comparing the suffering of slaves and people of color to the marginalization of LGBT people is irresponsible and does a disservice to both, I am often surprised by Christians’ complete lack of interest in exploring exactly why their predecessors might have supported oppression in the past.  It seems like such information might be critical for assessing whether similar oppression is occurring in the present. Yes, the SBC formally apologized for its racist origins in 1995, but I wonder how many Southern Baptists have taken the time to really study the sermons and speeches of their predecessors to learn what rhetorical devices and hermeneutical approaches were employed to make so many Christian people so comfortable with that oppression that they formed an entire denomination around it. 

The fact is, most of the defenses of American slavery were written by clergy who quoted Scripture generously and appealed to a “clear, plain, and common-sense reading” of biblical passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2.  Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery and encouraged masters to treat their slaves with “Christian kindness,”just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law." As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it, “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”  [For more on this, check out my post about Mark Noll’s excellent and illuminating book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.] 

When I raised this point on Twitter (not the best place to raise it, I realize), my remarks were met with incredulity: 

How dare you bring up past sins that are totally unrelated to the present issue!? 

Southern slave-owners were just racist and greedy people who purposefully abused Scripture to their own ends!  

Christians were on the abolitionist side, not the pro-slavery side! 

These responses  reveal a lack of empathy—not so much for those who have been oppressed, but for the oppressors. By characterizing oppressive people from the past as one-dimensionally evil, as hateful racist intentionally using the Bible to their own ends, we're able to distance ourselves from their way of thinking, and say "well we would never do that."  We "other" them so we don't have to consider how we might be the same. 

The truth is, there were Christians on both sides of the American slavery debate. It's an uncomfortable reality, but whether we describe people as submitting to the Bible or as using the Bible depends largely on hindsight. I have no doubt that many of the people who opposed abolition, interracial marriage, protection of indigenous people, black civil rights, women’s suffrage, etc. believed wholeheartedly that God was on their side and they were simply being faithful to God’s Word.  While blatant hate and racism certainly motivated plenty of our country’s past oppressors, blatant hate and racism aren't nearly as effective at sustaining oppressive systems as uncritical acceptance of the way things are. 

In this sense, the question, what were they thinking? need not be a rhetorical one. Rather, it’s a crucial one. As we read and explore and study our history, white Christians in particular would do well to ask of our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents:  What were they thinking? How did they justify their actions? What convinced them that they were doing right?  Whether our ancestors were complicit in oppression or whether they bravely stood up against it, it’s worth nurturing the curiosity and introspection it takes to wonder why

And lest you think this post is about finger-pointing, I have no doubt in my mind that if my own assumptions and prejudices go totally unchecked, if I never stop for a moment to consider the other side and wonder if I might be wrong, I too am capable of using the Bible to my own ends, of convincing myself that God is on my side

We are often told to nurture empathy for those who are unlike us or those who suffer. But Scripture’s powerful emphasis on prophetic lament calls us to also nurture empathy for those we’d like to think are unlike us, those whose sins we assume we would never commit ourselves.  Because the degree to which we take sin seriously isn’t so much in how good were are at spotting it in others, but rather in how good were are at spotting it in ourselves. And sometimes that means combing through our shared history and flinching a little at how quickly those dusty pages can transform into mirrors. 

See also, Christ and the Greco Roman Household Codes, which shows how the very same passages used to support slavery are still used today to support gender hierarchy. 

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