“The soul of this nation is sick because of the bad faith of white supremacy. That bad faith both made us what we are, and continues to break us apart. But there is a cure.“
As 2019 approaches its end, and as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts unveils Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue (a monument to black power and pride created as a direct response to Richmond’s Confederate monuments), it feels appropriate for us here in Virginia to take one last moment to recall that this year marked an important if ignoble anniversary: 400 years ago, in 1619, Africans were first sold into bondage in the mainland English North American colonies. And it happened right here in Virginia.
Over the course of two centuries, racial slavery became ubiquitous in those colonies that would become the United States, especially here in Virginia and in Richmond. By the onset of the Civil War, about 40 percent of Richmond’s total population was enslaved. In addition to being the capital of both Virginia and the rebel states, Richmond also had the dubious distinction of housing the nation’s second-largest slave market in Shockoe Bottom. Before 1860, our city’s single biggest industry was buying, selling, and trading enslaved human beings.
It is commonplace in many circles nowadays to call racial slavery America’s “original sin.” But it is impossible to understand — and ultimately atone for — the sin of racial slavery without first coming to terms with the mindset and conditions that created it in the first place. In recent years, scholars like Richmond’s own Rev. Ben Campbell have helped us understand that slavery “was a fundamental strategy” of the European conquest of North America, enabling the colonizers to displace and in many cases slaughter this continent’s indigenous populations and exploit its resources. It’s crucial to recognize that underpinning slavery and colonization was a religious doctrine.
It’s hard to untangle whether this theology animated the conquest and plunder of the New World or whether it was simply and cynically used as a justification. But either way, faith was a fundamental element of the European theft of this continent. Animating European exploration and colonization of the New World was something that has been called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Doctrine of Discovery held that European Christians were entitled to take as their own any property held by, and conquer any lands controlled by, non-Christians, and that Christians could subjugate, annihilate, or enslave any non-Christian inhabitants of captured territories.
It is important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy could point to the Bible itself as justification. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites enter the promised land, they are to utterly wipe out the Canaanites who were living there. They are to spare no one — man, woman, or child — and they may seize the Canaanites’ property for themselves.
Within this framework, Christians, who had long regarded themselves as the new Israelites, could view the New World as a new Promised Land. And all non-Christians — like Native Americans — became contemporary Canaanites. In this religious spirit, European Christians asserted that their conquest of the New World was ordained by God Himself in the Bible.
It is impossible to understate how influential the Doctrine of Discovery was. Eventually, legislators even enshrined it into American law. And it was the implementation of this Doctrine that gave rise to racial slavery in the New World.
As colonists in Virginia established a tobacco economy on the land they took from the natives, they continually sought to maximize profits by looking for cheaper and more expendable labor. At first, Virginia’s wealthy landowners solved this problem by importing indentured servants from England. But as the tobacco industry boomed, they increasingly turned to African slave labor.
Whereas a bondservant worked for a prescribed period of time, an enslaved person was presumed to be under the dominion of his master for life. A master could beat a slave as he saw fit. If a slave were to die as a result of his master’s wrath, the master could not be considered guilty of any crime. Additionally, slavery was regarded as a hereditary status — any child born to a slave was automatically to be considered a slave.
The legal distinction between an enslaved person of African descent and a bondservant of English descent came from the same mindset that produced the Doctrine of Discovery; that Christians were superior to non-Christians, and that Christians were commanded to dominate and enslave — or else, kill — inferior nonbelievers. Thus, the earliest slave codes in Virginia distinguished enslaved Africans from the rest of the population, not along racial lines but rather along religious ones: “Christian” was one class of people, non-Christian another, with “Christian” understood to be synonymous with “a person of English descent.”
It is again important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy pointed to the Bible as justification. The Hebrew Bible regards Israelite and non-Israelite slaves differently, and non-Israelite slaves could be treated much more harshly. Again, with the simple move of regarding English Christians as the new Israelites and non-Christians — like Africans — as Canaanites, people of English descent justified the slave system they developed and implemented as divinely ordained.
What complicated matters was that some enslaved Africans were themselves Christian. By the 19th century, many Africans practiced Christianity. Others were baptized prior to boarding the slave ships. Still others converted in the New World, some by choice and some by force. So, to maintain a distinction between masters and slaves, legislators quickly transformed slavery from a religious caste system into a racial one.
The fact of this transformation from Christian supremacy to white supremacy — which involved the very invention of “race” as a concept and the racist attitudes and systems that necessarily follow from it — can help us understand why those who perpetuated and defended racial slavery did so with religious zeal.
And it can also help us understand why, almost immediately after Richmond fell to Union forces, Richmond’s elite mobilized against extending legal equality to the newly freed slaves. It can help us understand why, as soon as Reconstruction ended, Virginia’s white leaders instituted a system of legal racial separation and inequality. It can help us see why white southern leaders in the 1950’s advocated “massive resistance” to school integration and desegregation. It can help us see why Richmond is today, sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, more segregated by race than it has ever been in its history, and how the segregated map of the city correlates perfectly to inequities in everything from income to wealth to educational outcomes to access to healthcare to air and water quality to life expectancy.
In other words, there is a through-line from colonialism to racial slavery to Jim Crow and segregation to massive resistance and white flight to the drug war, mass incarceration, and the eviction crisis. That through-line is white supremacy, which is rooted in the Christian supremacist Doctrine of Discovery, which in turn is rooted in a distorted, demented, and dangerous interpretation of Scripture.
The fact that this through-line spans our country’s entire history and continues still today means that, while white supremacy’s roots are religious, it has over time become etched into the entire infrastructure of our country. Thus, whether one is Christian or not, religious or not, avowedly racist or not, we all in one way or another are impacted by or implicated in economic and social systems shaped by the oppressive theology of the colonizers. We will therefore never be able to heal our city, our commonwealth, or our country, without treating the underlying infection. The sickness at the heart of our society is bad faith. And the only thing that can overcome bad faith is good faith.
What might that look like?
In my experience as a faith leader, I have come to understand that the content of one’s faith typically depends on their spiritual and intellectual orientation and their interpretation and application of sacred text and received tradition. Many people assume that it would be the other way around. But that is a mistake. Take, for example, the famous biblical story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis chapter 22), in which the Hebrew patriarch Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Though Abraham is typically understood to be following God’s orders, upon close inspection of the original Hebrew, God’s command in the story is not so clear. Abraham could have understood God’s instruction in one of two ways: either God ordered Abraham to bind, slaughter, and burn his son, or God ordered Abraham to take him up to the highest of heights in honor or in homage. Which interpretation to follow depended entirely on Abraham’s spiritual orientation. Does Abraham believe in a God who would order an atrocity, or is Abraham’s God a deity who calls for the bound to be released, for the lowly to be lifted up, and for the broken to be restored?
It is similarly within the power of contemporary believers to choose whether ours is a God of domination or a God of love, whether ours is a God who instructs us to divide and conquer or to unite and uplift. And if we believe in a God who lifts the fallen, heals the broken, and frees the enslaved, then it is not only possible but obligatory to interpret sacred text and religious imperatives in a way that aligns with such a God, and similarly to reject understandings that could never emanate from such a God.
Those of us who don’t believe, or who don’t identify with a particular religious tradition, face a similar, if less supernatural, choice: are our most cherished values power and control, or kindness and equity? Are we guided by a desire for acquisition and dominion, or by an impulse for justice and liberation? And if we cherish the latter virtues over the former, then we must demand of ourselves and others alignment with those values, and that also includes our laws and social systems.
Reorienting ourselves in these ways is how we repair what those first colonizers broke. Only by exalting love, justice, and peace as prime directives can we undo and utterly root out attitudes, customs, laws, and systems that mock the infinite dignity and equal value of every human being. Only good faith can repair what bad faith has torn asunder. Bad faith broke us. Only good faith will fix us.
Imagine, for a moment, what our city and our commonwealth could look like if our most deeply held belief, if our highest ideal, were affirming that every human being is equally and infinitely valuable, and that we are therefore all of us obligated to lift each other up.
I imagine we would say that, 65 years after Brown v. Board, and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, it was past time to dismantle the systems that perpetuate segregation and inequality. I imagine we would stop insisting that statues of Confederate “heroes” deserve prime real estate on Monument Ave. while tens of thousands of human beings in our city, — many of them descendants of the people Lee, Jackson, Davis, and Stewart fought to keep enslaved — don’t have access to adequate and affordable housing. And I imagine that we would demand one’s zip code no longer determine their life expectancy, and that the color of one’s skin no longer determine their prospects for escaping poverty.
As we complete the 400th anniversary of slavery in what would become the United States, white supremacy is ascendant, inequality is more rampant than ever, and our “Capital City of Slavery” remains segregated.
The soul of this nation is sick because of the bad faith of white supremacy. That bad faith both made us what we are, and continues to break us apart. But there is a cure. We can heal ourselves. For though bad faith broke us, good faith can fix us. As we approach a new year, in this city and a new decade — let’s let the healing begin.
Top Image: Painting by Richard C. Moore