|An old black-and-white photo of two black women reading. Image source.|
However, virtually all black Christians interpreted the bible in such a way that it said slavery was wrong and sinful. And, Clark says, the important thing is that they were right. So why don't we learn about biblical hermeneutics from them, rather than the white theologians who lived during that time and believed God approved of slavery? Here's what he says:
But again, weirdly, we remain far more inclined to heed and to imitate the hermeneutics of those who were wrong than of those who were right. Cite Jonathan Edwards on the proper meaning and interpretation of scripture and everyone nods sagely because, yes, of course, Edwards was good and right and proper and orthodox — except for the minor point of being howlingly wrong about the central moral question of his day in a way that led him to promote, defend and participate in monstrous evil. But if you instead cite, say, Frederick Douglass about the proper meaning and interpretation of scripture, everyone will hem and haw about how Douglass wasn’t primarily a formal theologian and how he had a lot of uncomfortably heterodox ideas and so probably shouldn’t be treated as a reliable source — despite being impressively and utterly right about the central moral question of his day.Why do white American evangelicals stick with that same failed hermeneutic? Well, because of hell.
Clark refers to slavery as "the central moral question of [their] day", which, IT WAS, but not in evangelical-land. Nope, far more important is the fact that all of us are in danger of going to hell. In the grand scheme of things, slavery doesn't matter. A lifetime of slavery is nothing compared to the suffering of hell. Centuries of systemic racism are nothing compared to hell. (Ahem. To be clear, I totally do not believe this anymore. Thank god.)
(Note: you could debate how much of this dismissing black theology is about the logic of hell and how much is about racism. For this post, I'm sticking to the logic of what evangelicalism teaches: hell is infinitely worse than slavery, Jonathan Edwards was wrong about slavery but that doesn't matter because he was right about hell.)
If people are going to be punished forever for not believing a particular set of facts about Jesus, then nothing else matters. We have to do everything in our power to coerce them into believing. In the bizarre universe where this hell exists, that kind of coercion is loving and moral- the most loving and moral thing you can do.
So white Christians believe that yes of course those pastors from long ago were wrong about slavery. But we still believe what they said about salvation and hell. That slavery stuff was just details- it has no eternal significance. And the black theologians who teach that Christians should fight for justice and equality now- well, they're missing the point. They're not warning people about eternal hell, which means they're WATERING DOWN THE GOSPEL. (lololol a "gospel" that says we're not supposed to care about "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" sounds pretty "watered down" to me.)
It will never work to say we should throw out that hermeneutic because it was extremely, completely wrong about slavery, when the hermeneutic itself teaches us that slavery isn't an important issue at all- it's just a little negligible detail, compared to the risk of suffering forever in hell. (I guess that was the entire point of that hermeneutic. Hmm.)
Just another example of how hell completely ruins Christianity.
Also: In his post, Clark promotes the book The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved, which looks really interesting and I totally want to read it. Readers, if you're interested in learning more about how black Christians read the bible back then, maybe you should read this book. ^_^