Edward E. Baptist begins his masterful book about American slavery with this description of a coffle: “Not long after they heard the first clink of iron, the boys and girls in the cornfield would have been able to smell the grownups’ bodies, perhaps even before they saw the double line coming around the bend. Hurrying in locked step, the thirty-odd men came down the dirt road like a giant machine. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck to neck and wrist to wrist, binding them all together.”
These chain gangs of enslaved men were walking from Virginia (where their services as slaves were no longer urgent) over the mountains and through the woods to the new, more lucrative cotton fields of Mississippi and Louisiana. They were headed for the auction blocks in Jackson and New Orleans.
Their route would have taken them by, not only fields full of other enslaved workers, but also hundreds of homes, scores of schools, and not a few churches. And in these homes, schools, and churches would have been women cooking, and men teaching, and boys and girls and moms and dads singing the old gospel songs of southern religion.
That’s what troubles me.
How could they keep singing when, just outside their double entry doors, their music was interrupted by the tromp of feet and the clank of chains? How could any preacher keep his mind on the gospel when, through the clear glass windows on both walls of his sanctuary, he could see barely clothed men linked together by pound upon pound of black iron?
What kind of religion could flourish in these situations, with these interruptions?
What kind of rationale could be offered from reason, text, or experience that would tolerate such blatant contradiction of the Good News contained in the singing and preaching of people and preacher?
Then came the War, and emancipation, and a new world order. But in many ways, it was more of the same: segregation, isolation, poverty, and violence. All of it propagated by these same religious people: the Baptists, and Methodists, and Christians, and later, the Pentecostals.
This is the world into which I was born, and raised, and formed as a Christian.
I confess: I love southern religion, with its gospel singing, and tent revivals, and river baptisms. I love the Bibles, and bulletins, and envelop boxes that were so much a part of our Christian culture. I love the prayer meetings, and church suppers, and youth campfires around which we gathered to testify of our love for Jesus and our willingness to follow him wherever He would lead. I did that, and so have many of you.
I never thought about the contradiction at the core of my religion. And no preacher, teacher, or spiritual guide ever brought it up for discussion. Only much later did I begin asking myself the question: how can these things be?
Martin Luther King, Jr. helped with these things, and later, college, and seminary, and the many people I met who ushered me into a larger community of people who loved God and sought to walk in the ways of God.
Individually, many of these southern Christians—my parents, and teachers, and ministers—were kind and gracious and committed people. They loved God, and followed Jesus, and lived in what I thought was the fullness of the Spirit. But there was something about the religious system in which they were trapped that negated so much of what they valued and professed.
This same devout culture had a word or two for the women, neatly summarized recently by a west coast preacher: Go Home. Or sit down. Or shut up. Women, including my mother, were marginalized in every way in the religious culture of the South.
And now the queer folk are taking the brunt of this religious brutality, although there is hardly a congregation, or choir, or church committee across the South that does not owe a good portion of their success to these good gay people who must keep their sexuality a secret.
Finally, comes Trump, a man who violates in person and in principal every component of the Jesus life that I was taught to embrace; and with unfeigned enthusiasm, the legions of southern Christians swoon at his feet and swear by his name.
There is something wrong, very wrong, deathly wrong with this religion in the South. For fifteen years and more it shaped me as a person, as a neighbor, as a citizen, as a Christian. But for the last 45 years, I have tried to fathom the wickedness at the center of my tradition and to free myself from it.
Like the great apostle I was taught to love at an early age, I cry out, “Who will rescue me from this dominion of death?”
Help me, Jesus. Help all of us.
December 5, 2019, all rights reserved