I first came across the phrase “slaveholder religion” when I read the book by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove titled Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. The premise of the book is that America’s original sin of chattel slavery persists as the central influence in our socio-political life and is an apt description of the contradictions residing in Christian life in the United States.
The legacy of chattel slavery is at the heart of our nation’s policies on immigration, mass incarceration and policing. Also, chattel slavery is what shaped the basis of our economy, exacerbates our country’s “value gap,” and is rooted in a Negrophobia that surfaces anxiety among the dominant culture — an anxiety rooted in perceiving that the fabric of the nation’s laws and identity are being undermined via protests and demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter.
Furthermore, the legacy of chattel slavery can be seen in the present realities of ecological devastation in the regions of Northern California and the Gulf of Mexico, and the immoral political leadership emanating from the highest office in the land during a global pandemic. Because it is the legacy of chattel slavery which has, in the words of William Barber, “blessed all of us with a heretical ontology,” which is slaveholder religion — a religion that thrives on systemic dehumanization and elevates power and economy above morality and humanity.
Slaveholder religion is a treacherous theology that has transformed the church, as Frederick Douglass infamously stated, into a religion that is “corrupt … women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical.”
Likewise, it has torn the church in two between “the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ.” Ironically, as Wilson-Hartgrove proclaims, enslaving the church itself to “death dealing culture without (the church) even realizing it.”
Thus, what the year 2020 has made clear is that the church and Christians alike are at a watershed moment to contend with our history and current complicity in slaveholder religion. Additionally, we must realize that progressive and conservative Christians both bear responsibility to break the cycle of a death-dealing culture that has origins in our institutions and continues to persist in the world.
Opposite from the days of the early church, in its present iteration in the United States, the church has preferred to show the world that our allegiance belongs to Caesar as opposed to Christ. For centuries, the church has been a breeding ground for racism, a training ground for militarism, and a miseducation center for nationalism and materialism.
The church has placed children on auction blocks, internment camps, and in cages. The church has been complicit in bombing and teargassing people from Portland to Palestine. The church has been a cover to fascism and the emerging cult of Donald Trump. The church has been an incubator for systems and beliefs that murdered Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, labeling him a criminal for defending himself against his attacker; all the while, empowering a racist, illegally armed, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse to take a gun across state lines and shoot three protestors in Kenosha — killing two — and claim self-defense.
Yet, what the church must do in this time is proclaim that the power of God is greater than the power of slaveholder religion. God is greater than American racism, global sexism, the principalities and powers of so-called “white evangelicalism,” and the emergent rise of fascism.
“In the Christianity of Christ is a God who busts open the doors and breaks the chains of any system that divides and keeps God’s people from experiencing the fullness of life that God has promised for us all to have.”
Because in the Christianity of Christ is a God who busts open the doors and breaks the chains of any system that divides and keeps God’s people from experiencing the fullness of life that God has promised for us all to have.
For it is on Christ that the Spirit of the Lord rested and has anointed him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, to emancipate those who are oppressed, and to testify of the arrival of the kingdom of God to bring change that the world vehemently needs.
Thus, as Christians, we must choose this day whom we will serve (Joshua 24:15), and we must do what Paul instructed the church in Rome to do and stand counter to the values of empire — no longer being conformed to the patterns of this world, but by the renewing of our minds align ourselves with Christ, who shakes the foundations of any practice engrained in the rituals of injustice and the sacraments of dehumanization, and thus freeing the gospel and ourselves from the chains of slaveholder religion.
Darrell R. Hamilton II is pastor for formation and outreach at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in the Boston metropolitan area. Originally from Edmond, Okla., he is a graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma and Wake Forest School of Divinity.