On Slaves, Selma, and Sermons

Yesterday, I watched The Birth of a Nation (2016). Apart from being a beautiful, tragic, and inspirational must-see, it has gotten me thinking about Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the religious traditions that have both upheld and denounced slavery in this country.

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A scene from The Birth of a Nation (2016). (rogerebert.com)

I learned about Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 briefly in a high school history class; all I could’ve told you about it before yesterday was that a bunch of slaves in Virginia murdered a lot of White people before all being killed themselves. One of the many things I failed to remember was that Nat Turner was an extremely devout Christian and was said to have experienced religious visions. The movie highlighted his role as a black preacher who encouraged slaves with messages from the Bible, but who was also used by White plantation owners to spread a message of acceptance and obedience to slaves to prevent insubordination. However, after traveling to other plantations and witnessing the abject conditions of many slaves (especially in comparison to his own situation), he had a revelation and began to preach instead about deliverance, divine justice, and the imminent wrath of God, to be unleashed on those who would enslave their fellow humans.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a black preacher whose life was intimately connected to the movement for Black lives (in particular, their civil rights). Part of his work is masterfully commemorated in the film Selma (2014), which I also recommend.

I think that the general tendency for Americans these days is to remember MLK as an inspirational figure who advocated for peaceful protest to secure equal rights for African Americans and desegregation in schools, pleasant things like that. They think of him as our American Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Actually, though, MLK gave several speeches and sermons that make manifest some more radical notions of what is really at stake and what it might actually take to achieve full equality: much more than the nearly cliched refrain of non-violence.

A quote from his 1967 speech entitled “The Three Evils of Society” illustrates this (emphasis mine): “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.” And in “Where Do We go From Here”, he says, “White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo. [… ] There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.”

Dr. King also made the case for reparations using arguments that I recognized in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings, such as Between the World and Me (2015). He foresaw that inequality could not be rid of with the passing of a few laws or even a few generations. Race relations have only grown more tangled and strained in the past few decades, and the similarities between what Coates and King call for shows how the problem has persisted.

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The famous Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. (nbc.com)

Back to the films, though. One aspect of the performances of Nate Parker (who played Turner in the film1) and David Oyewolo (who played King) that I really enjoyed was how much power they put into their orations when their characters gave sermons or speeches. Whether the speech was in front of a group of a dozen slaves in a barn or a crowd of thousands in Montgomery, there was in their voices a palpable conviction of the sort I honestly associate with spiritual influence. It was so clear, from these performances, that Turner and King were men of God who fervently believed that the messages they spoke were of divine provenance. (“Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”)

I have heard many good speeches in my short life, and it’s not always the ones that are the most dramatic that have affected me the most. But it’s certainly true from my perspective that the most immediately captivating are indeed those that use all the flairs of a practiced American oration: modulations of pitch and volume, a resonant voice and the expert employment of cadence and rhythm in just the right places. Listen to MLK’s most famous speeches to get what I’m talking about. Both Birth of a Nation and Selma have stellar scenes stolen by their main characters as they monologue. President Barack Obama does this from time to time, too. But I have also heard this type of “speech speech” from the pulpit in church. Some pastors are methodical and lecture like college professors; others get into the performance and walk around the stage and wave their hands and preach like their tongues are on fire!

And it makes me wonder about the influence such speech has when it falls on the ears of congregants who accept it as the word of God. There’s a lot of power in the pulpit. And what comes from it is very important. (This is true regardless of how you feel about religion in general, though the remainder of this post is primarily addressed to believers.)

In Nat Turner’s time, preachers in all twenty-four states would use the Bible to justify slavery (“obey your masters,” says 1 Peter 2:18) and believed Black folks to be inferior on account of the racial politics of the Old Testament. In Dr. King’s time, he would quote the Bible to advocate for racial reconciliation while his opponents would quote the Bible to argue the opposite. And today, it’s still happening. Christians today are still divided over racial issues. We definitely no longer think the Bible justifies slavery or that White is inherently better than Black, but what has emerged in its place is a debate over how Christians should address ongoing racial inequality, protests, police violence against people of color, and continued segregation. Often the more direct ways of addressing a problem that Black people attempt (like shutting down highways, kneeling at the national anthem, making satirical art, or re-tailoring awards show acceptance speeches) are shunned by non-Black Christians who believe, perhaps, that the battle is better left to God. Or that the kingdom of God has no racial barriers, so we shouldn’t see color, either. (Look, Americans today simply cannot be “color-blind” because we are still blind to how color still affects every one of us.) Or that it was our good Christian values that brought prosperity to the country and any movement that challenges this narrative is an ungodly affront.

These are dangerous beliefs because they parallel the beliefs that uphold White supremacy — not the overt kind that burns Black churches, but the insidious kind that knows how every system and federal institution was created by White people and keeps them at an advantage, and wants to keep this status quo. The idea that God is so good that He must have blessed the current state of affairs, so why challenge it or rock the boat? … is an idea that necessarily promotes the continuing welfare of the White majority and inhibits the progress of everyone else.

And the crux of the matter is that if these ideas are disseminated in a church and permeate American Christian thought, then American Christian culture will end up worshiping the God of the White Christians, rather than the God of, well, just God.

What is your pastor saying on Sundays? Don’t think about the style of their speech, but the content. Have they ever shared about how much God cares about the poor and the marginalized, which in our present-day context means Black and Hispanic people, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims? Or does your pastor use the Bible to justify keeping them away? Or does your pastor just never talk about this?

Is your church aware of injustice? Does your congregation discuss its own race and class makeup and seek to reach out of its ‘natural’ boundaries? Do your elders listen to the needs of the people in the pews as well as the people who sleep on the curb outside? And what are we ourselves telling each other about race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and all the things that make us human in addition to our faith?

However much Christians may be losing their cultural capital in a postmodern America, there are still millions of us and we still listen politely to sermons made week after week after week — a thousand Sundays in a lifetime — and I think it is worth asking where all this listening is leading us. To revolution? Or to resignation? My hope and prayer is that the American church, especially the White churches and Asian American churches that I have known, will reject the sermons that are prepared to keep us asleep and ignorant of the unjust and the unholy. Instead, can we listen to the word of God as it was intended? It is a double-edged sword that can cut through smoke and mirrors with a message for everyone: the kingdom of God isn’t going to come unless you do your part to bring justice to where you are. And since racial injustice is America’s great sin, the call to repentance should ask of everyone at the altar: what are you going to do to drive out the darkness and hate?

One last MLK quote2: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Word of the Day: plaudit, usually used in the plural, comes from the Latin plaudite (essentially, “Clap for me!”) and refers to the literal act of applause from an audience or general acclaim and praise. I enjoy hearing the plaudits received by Dr. King in the recordings of his speeches, the real-time roar of approval that accompanies the mental round of earnest applause I’m giving in my mind.

– – –

1 I want to acknowledge the controversy around Parker and his past scandals without commenting on it because I am not really informed about it, but I will say that great actors and directors do not necessarily have great morals and the question of whether or not to support their art in light of bad behavior is a very tricky one.

2 Just kidding, here’s one more quote. I can’t not share this: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” – Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

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About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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