One of the many gifts I received from my mother is a healthy skepticism about religiosity. Although she was a deeply devout, churchgoing, Bible-loving, Sunday School teacher, she was intensely suspicious of anything that felt like performative spirituality. I remember a neighbor who would routinely greet her with “Praise the Lord!” – instead of a simple hello or some more ordinary salutation. My mom would shake her head and say, ”That woman got wa-a-ay too much religion for me”. I suspect she knew that hyper-religiosity could be used to cover a multitude of sins, especially the evil of cannibalistic self-interest. Our indigenous siblings used the word “wetiko” to describe this evil: a rapacious self-interest predicated on the suppression, exclusion, or annihilation of other beings. When I read that a “christian” university in upstate New York had fired two employees for including pronouns in their signature lines, I could only think of wetiko – evil disguised as religious practice. This same institution closed down its multicultural center as well as a program devoted to environmental sustainability. Apparently, they really believe that human beings should have “dominion over the earth”. Of course, it follows that this school (like others with similar wetiko leanings) refuses to recognize LBGTQ+ organizations on campus. Do they really think they can “not recognize” people into non-existence? It seems that what they prize most about their religion is the freedom – indeed, the entitlement to position themselves over and against others. In contrast, I think of my mother’s spirituality as the “old-time religion”, perhaps most famously expressed through the music of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and The Antebellum Sermon, a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. More on that later.
There is really nothing new about religion and God-talk being entangled with white supremacy. Nowhere has religious devotion to white supremacy been more poignantly captured than in Parts of the Holy Bible, Selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands. This radically redacted version of the Bible contained only 14 books and was stripped of any references that ran counter to the economic interests of the British Empire. Stories that might incite resistance to enslavement were erased. For example, there is no mention of the enslaved Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. Armed with this bible, British missionaries managed to tread a hermeneutical tightrope, one which promoted conversion to Christianity while maintaining a strong grip on the riches produced through African enslavement. It is no surprise then that some of the more prominent proclaimers of the somewhat euphemistically called Christian Right, fiercely defend their right to erase others by any means available. Sometimes the most expedient method of erasure is censure or humiliation; sometimes it’s policy murder or literal death. By whatever means necessary, the preservation of unjust power is their underlying motivation. Slave bible religion is a potent weapon in the so-called culture wars of the 21st century, whether expressed through the fire and brimstone rhetoric of Jerry Falwell (et al) or the more palatable proclamations of Charles Stanley (et al). In other words, religion is used as a currency of dominative power: power over other people and dominion over the earth.
Slave bible religion hides behind terms like “family values” and “religious freedom”. This language is a thin veil indeed, and perhaps that is why it works. You can hear it and not hear it at the same time. But let’s not be fooled. Behind the veil, you will always find two bedrock premises. The first is “Be very scared! We are under siege!” There is hardly a more sickening display of this political depravity than the claim made by trans-phobic Nikki Haley (Trump-in-stilettos): “Our girls” are at higher risk of suicide because they are forced to compete against “biological boys”. In other words, not only must we be afraid of drag shows undermining our “family values”, but also trans athletes who may cause “our girls” to choose death. Of course, I am rarely surprised by anything white nationalist Marjorie Taylor Greene does or says. (I am loathed to mention her name, but evil doesn’t just disappear because it remains unmentioned.) However, it was a stunning moment, however, when she declared Jack Teixeira a “hero” who was being persecuted because he was “white, male, and Christian”. This 21-year-old American airman, who has a documented history of violent and racist speech, was arrested for the “unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information and the unauthorized removal and retention of classified material”. And he is a hero? That’s not supposed to make sense – not even to the shameless MTG. It serves a much deeper purpose: fearmongering, a rallying call to action against those “leftists”/ “liberals” who seek to destabilize systemic (e.g., white, economically elite, heterosexist) entitlements.
The second premise of slave bible religion is “Our will be done”. In other words, we are entitled to rule. We are entitled to decide who can have access to power, how much power they can have, and once gained, how they can use their power. We are entitled to control the terms of relationship and the boundaries of language. What is “freedom of speech”? What is “decorum”? If the MAGA-allied legislators in Tennessee and Montana are an indicator, decorum is whatever they say it is. Because their duly elected colleagues – Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Zooey Zephyr did not conform to their terms, the super majority MAGA politicians took swift action to silence them. How ironic! “Freedom of speech” must be defended when it is racist or transphobic; however, when the subject is anti-gun violence, speech is no longer free. It must be banned. An even further irony? The state of Tennessee adopted the Bible as its “state book”. I’m thinking it must be the 21st-century edition of the slave bible.
There is another kind of religion, one that fosters generative power. It is the power of my mother’s “old-time religion”. In contrast to slave bible religion, this kind of power is liberatory, not oppressive. It cultivates dignity, not self-righteousness. It inspires confidence, not cannibalistic entitlement. The lyrics of the hymn, as sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and many less refined congregations, speak to the deep and expansive connectedness that enables resistance to domination.
It was good for Paul and Silas, it’s good enough for me
It was good for the Hebrew children, it’s good enough for me
It was good for our mothers, it’s good enough for me
It makes me love everybody, it’s good enough for me
“Old time religion” is a liberatory faith, and it finds rich artistic expression in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “An Antebellum Sermon”. The opening line of the poem:
We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs
In dis howling wilderness
Fuh to speak some words of comfort
To each othah in distress
Social location matters, then and now. It shapes one’s experience of reality and one’s story of possibility. Furthermore, it shapes how that story of possibility gets told. To this end, the allusion to the wilderness is both literal and metaphorical. In addition to providing a safer space for enslaved people to practice their religion, the wilderness was also a passageway to freedom. However, “a howlin’ wilderness” is also an unsafe place. It is a space of hope and peril where survival depends upon courage and caution. To survive, enslaved persons honed the craft of articulating bold visions of freedom while staying alive. In the wilderness space, they practiced the subversive art of transforming the dogma of oppression into prophecies of freedom. For example, the express purpose of the slave bible was to lull enslaved people into complacency. “Servants, obey your earthly masters…just as you would Christ!” Freedom narratives were excised from the slave bible to suppress any notions of resistance, of life beyond the dictates of the master. How ironic then that these stories, from antebellum times to this day, are emblematic of the human impetus toward liberation and equality. They countermand the dogma that would consign marginalized people to the status of chattel, whose worth and existence are determined by those who see themselves as masters.
Cose ole Pher’oh b’lieved in slav’ry
But de lawd he let him see
Dat de people he put bref in, –
Evah motha’s son was free
An’ dahs othahs thinks lak Pher-oh
But dey calls the Scriptuah liar
Fu de Bible says “a servant
Is-a worthy of his hire.”
Because of his prolific use of “Negro dialect”, Dunbar has often been critiqued as an accommodationist poet, one who reduces his art to happy slave myths. However, his is not the voice of blackface minstrelsy. He uses this idiom to offer a glimpse of buoyant humor and hope, as well as a stinging rebuke of plantation ethics.
Dey kin fo’ge yo’ chains an’ shackles
F’om de mountains to de sea;
But de Lawd will sen’ some Moses
Fu’ to set his chillun free.
Because the wilderness is a space of hope and peril, he employs the language of courage and caution. In other words, the language used to mock the uneducated and enslaved is transformed into an idiom of resistance.
But fu’ feah some one mistakes me,
I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I’m still a-preachin’ ancient,
I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout to-day.
Now, de Lawd done dis fu’ Isrul
An’ his ways don’t nevah change,
An’ de love he showed to Isrul
Wasn’t all on Isrul spent;
Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs
Dat I’s preachin’ discontent.
As the antebellum preacher insists, he is talking about freedom “in a Bibleistic way”. He articulates a holier reality than that offered by the religion of domination and desecrated power.
We are gathered here today in a howling wilderness, the wilderness of white christian nationalism. White christian nationalism is slave bible religion. It is one of those interlocking oppressions that hold unjust power in place, creating social spaces marked by exclusion, domination, and annihilation. It manifests in policies that demean the dignity and threaten the physical survival of all who survive on the margins of political power. How else to explain the madness of that infamous “town hall” where citizen voters reveled and jeered while their candidate unleashed insults against his rape victim and disparaged people who struggle under the weight of systemic oppression? Call it wild speculation, but I would guess that the majority of those citizen voters claim some allegiance to Christianity. That claim is a sacrilege. It is grounded in the perverted belief that social status must be protected by fear-fueled, self-interested control and hatred. Religiosity cannot be used as a justification for evil.
It helps to remember that slave bible religion ultimately did not work, that there is both hope and peril in a howling wilderness. In this space, we can hone our resistance skills. We can practice disruption in the face of abusive power, wherever we encounter it. From this space, we can transform the dogma of domination into prophetic witness to the liberating possibilities of courageous love. And that’s good enough for me.