'Under the Healing Wings of Suffering': Christianity, Slavery and Redemption in America

02/25/2011 09:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his classic meditation on the spirituals, Deep River, Howard Thurman, made a profound observation about the role of Christian slaves in the nation's history. "By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst."

To profane something sacred is to desecrate it, to treat it with irreverence or contempt. The slaveholder's profaned Christianity by racism, which degrades the sacrality of human persons, and by materialism, which values things over people and so effaces the image of God in which they are created. Contrary to the religion of those Americans who believed that Christianity and slavery were compatible, the slaves bore witness, sometimes with their blood, to the truth of the gospel: that the law of love contradicted slavery and the racism upon which it was built.

Today, we fail to understand how radical this gospel was. But black Christians of the late 18th century were among the earliest to make the case that slavery and Christianity were not only contradictory but that Christianity demanded the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. American slaves were the paradigm, the test case, the key witnesses to the truth that Christian community extends to all peoples, all races, and that it extends fully, not partially, depending upon the color of a person's skin. So segregated pews, segregated graveyards, ministers of the gospel participating in the slave trade, the refusal of southern churches to recognize the permanence of slave marriages, their toleration of laws that forbade slaves to learn to read the very Bible that stood at the heart of American Christianity -- all these deformations of Christianity slaves challenged.

They also challenged the nation to live up to the religious principles upon which it was founded: principles of equality grounded in the inalienable rights bestowed by the Creator. Preceding the Revolution, slaves pointed out the failure of Americans to fully understand the principles they claimed constituted their identity as a nation. As early as 1774 slaves in Massachusetts sent a petition to the governor: "We have in common with all other men a naturel right to our freedoms without Being deprived of them by our fellow men as we are a freeborn Pepel and have never forfeited this Blessing by aney compact or agreement whatever. But we were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from our dearest frinds and sum of us stolen from the bosoms of our tender Parents ... and Brought hither to be made slaves for Life in a Christian land."

Note the reference to "the cruel hand of power." Slaves appreciated, through direct experience, the corruption of principles, of common decency, of basic humanity, that comes from wielding unchecked power, over other human beings. They realized the brutalizing effect of power upon those who hold it and upon those who suffer from its use. They stood as witnesses to the deep antipathy between Christianity and oppression. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled." If the beatitudes delineate the character of the Christian community, the slaves represented so many bibles reminding a guilty nation of its failure to live up to this model. Indeed, slave Christians stood in prophetic condemnation of the nation's original sin, in the midst of the massive denial and the obstinate pride that prompted white people to think of America as the Promised Land and the Redeemer Nation despite the existence of slavery. No, the slaves said, America isn't the New Israel; she's the Old Egypt. By witnessing to the failure of American Christianity, the slaves called Americans to conversion, to the possibility of redemption, and offered a model of a different interpretation of Christian life.

In particular, slaves revealed that Americans had a deeply flawed understanding of what it meant to be chosen by God. To be chosen does not bring preeminence, elevation and glory in this world, as most 19th-century Americans expected. Indeed, as slave Christians well knew, to be chosen by God brings humiliation, suffering and rejection. Choseness, as revealed in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen means joining company with those who suffer, the outcast, the poor and the wretched of the earth. Choseness requires entering the mystery of suffering. This was (and remains) a profoundly Christian condemnation of the nation's dominant idea of American choseness. African-American Christians believed they were chosen because their history fit the pattern of redemption revealed in the Bible. In weakness lies strength, in loss, gain, in death, life.

When Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman visited Gandhi in the 1930s, he asked them to sing for him the old spiritual "Where you there when they crucified my Lord," which he felt got at "the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering." What Gandhi, and many others around the world, recognized in the spirituals that came out of slave suffering was the authenticity (what James Baldwin called "the matchless authority") that comes, that can only come from suffering. Suffering stripped slaves of illusions. It revealed the bare fact of the human person's total dependence upon God. "Trustin' in the Lord," not in oneself or in other men became their watchword. Life, indeed every breath, is grounded in God. Poverty and poverty of spirit revealed the God-shaped emptiness at the core of the person.

James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, in a passage redolent with allusions to scripture, the spirituals and gospel music, eloquently captures the paradoxical history of suffering and triumph of slaves and their descendants. The novel focuses on one day in the life of John Grimes, a black adolescent in Harlem, who seeks to escape the squalid tenements, the racial oppression and desperate poverty of his people. On his 14th birthday John is cast down upon the dusty floor of a storefront sanctified church, "astonished under the power of God." There he experiences the rebirth of a conversion experience. In his trance he confronts an army of people and is engulfed by a company of the suffering. Struggling to flee, he realizes there is no escape. And suddenly their suffering becomes a sound, a sound John not only recognizes but internalizes:

And now in his moaning ... he heard it in himself -- it rose from his ... cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave ... rage that had no language, weeping with no voice -- which yet spoke now to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash ... and most bloody, unspeakable sudden death. Yes the body in the fire, the body on the tree.

He struggles to flee, but there is no escape. He must go through this suffering of his peoples past to viscerally experience the paradox that it is precisely these wretched who are the chosen ones of God.

No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward, and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where the blood ran down ... No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lion's jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness and Abraham was their father. Moses had elected to suffer with them ... Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness of time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses ... And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.