Bondage, Faith, and Liberation: White-Middle-Class Reflections on the African American Struggle

As I look at my own religious tradition and begin to contemplate the book titled, Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans, by Albert J. Raboteau; it would be easy for me to say that this book does not relate to my experiences at all.  I am a middle class white person of Mennonite Brethren decent.  Never did I experience systemic racism, slavery, or discrimination.  My racial identity has never been a limitation on opportunities for success and living the so-called American Dream.  I have no compass for knowing what it must feel like to be marginalized like so many African Americans have experienced throughout their history in North America.  Reading this book has been an attempt to understand the story of African American faith traditions, in hopes to be part of a movement of people that write the next chapter of history with the interests of all people in mind.  With this as my aim, it is imperative that I begin by understanding how their history has shaped their modern identity.  This will help me to identify contemporary issues that still need to be addressed in order to finally change the outlook on race and opportunity in the United States.

Bondage, Faith, and Liberation

After being forced to come to America and work as slaves, African Americans eventually learned the language of the land, English.  With this, they were able to communicate with their white masters and eventually adopted some forms of the religious views of the European colonists.  During the first 120 years of colonization, very few slaves were converted to the Christian faith.[1] After the emotional revivalism began to spread in the form of the Great Awakenings, African Americans found common ground in the energetic spirit of these movements.[2] Eventually, many slaves were converted to Christianity and themes of freedom (hidden in spiritual language) became a main focus.

This seems quite logical to me in regards to what they focused on theologically.  If I were a slave, I imagine the story of Exodus, Exile, and return to the Promised Land would have a high appeal to my situation.  As I state that, I have to wonder if I were to become a slave, would my response be to keep my faith in God?  Slaves who had experienced conversion found their worth and importance from their faith.[3] I wonder if the roles were reversed, if the convenience driven middle class white person would retain faith in God; especially if the very people who had introduced the religion were also the ones who were enslaving me?

In the historical situation for the African Americans, the United States has acted more like an Egypt than it has been a Promised Land.  This was true even after slavery was abolished.  Instead of actual slavery, African Americans were forced to live in poverty; this, because of a lack of education and the lack of the United States government for providing pathways out of scarcity.  Also, it seems that even though the slaves were ‘free,’ they were not seen as equal citizens; not even in most white churches!  In this way, America continued to be an Egypt of bondage.

It seems to me that white America is the cause of the systemic poverty that still exists in the African American community.  The lines of color have begun to blur in many ways, but still there must be a feeling of inequality for some black people.  The images that I saw on the news immediately following hurricane Katrina raced into my mind as I read this book.  African Americans were without homes, food, medical treatment, and hygiene; and it is much clearer why race became an issue during this turmoil.  Most of the people who needed help in the New Orleans area did not receive it in a quick modern timeframe.  It took several weeks for some of the people to receive the care that they both needed and deserved in the midst of a cultural crisis.  I am trying to imagine what it would be like to have slavery, systemic poverty, and segregation in my history and to be living in the modern day.  They would probably have thought that if a disaster ever were to strike on any American, that a plan of action would be quickly implemented.  Instead it took several days for government aid to come through.  If I were in that situation with that history, I would definitely see racism as a cause of much of my grief.  Perhaps it is not fair to point the finger at specific racists per se, but at least to see a system that left thousands of black people in the margins once again.  This was another moment in our history where the United States looked more like an Egypt.

So, how has reading a book like this enlightened my understanding of my own religious tradition?  Well, I think it has given me an understanding of how real the suffering of the black people has been and still is in many cases.  It has caused me to attempt to place myself within their story and to ask difficult questions.  But what is the next step in the healing process?  Is there any hope for America to leave the bondage of Egypt behind?  I think that it must begin by confession of the racial barriers that still exist.  Rather than trying to rationalize them away (the approach of most whites in our country and churches), perhaps we must acknowledge that there is some credibility to those who play the so-called ‘race card’ in our culture.  The call of our nation and church must be to heal systemic poverty in the black community through repentant acts of charity.  Then perhaps we can walk forward, released from the bondage of Egypt as one united and equal multicolored people moving towards Promised Land of “new heavens and new earth.”


[1]Raboteau, Albert J., Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16.

[2]Ibid., 18.

[3]Ibid., 46.

  • Richard Hellman

    I hear alot about poverty and the poor. Can anyone define what qualifys a person to be labeled as poor or as living below the poverty line. We have to define it before we can “heal systematic poverty”. What is systematic poverty? If poverty is defined as the bottom 20% of the social economic ladder then poverty will never go away because there will always be the bottom 20%. Poor is a relative term. I would like to respond more to this article after hearing what other folks opinions are about how you define poverty.

    • David Leonardo

      Hmm… Didn’t notice the separate reply links. My bad. The reply for Annette was intended for Richard, here. Sorry about that…

  • http://freedomtrainer.blogspot.com Annette

    Hi Richard,
    Firstly, sort of as a disclaimer (as I don’t post on blogs much) The following I say with simply a questioning heart. I am not trying to throw darts nor do I want you to feel guilty after reading this. I am curious that’s all….

    Where abouts do you live? Burbs, country, town, city?
    it’s sad that you “hear a lot about poverty and the poor” and don’t see it. I used to live in the burbs (suburbs that is) and I didn’t see poverty. Where I live now there is this unusual mix of both. This may sound strange but it is refreshing. It keeps me on my toes, open and honest. Open to care, to give away a lunch here and there or to offer conversation or simply a smile and acknowledgement that I see them and they are human just as I am. And honest in that poverty exists. It sleeps on a park bench, it stinks so badly of rum that I can hardly take it, it lives with 6kids in a 1 bdrm apt, it steels shoes for it’s kids come time to go back to school.

    How would you define poverty?

    I think the heart of the article is not necessarily a call to end all poverty but yet to be aware that poverty still exists partly due to our history of racism and discrimination. It’s a wake up call specifically to white Christian (North) American’s saying, “Hey guys, our black African American (and Canadian..I might add) brothers and sisters are still suffering, we need to do something differently”. I also see it as an act of repentance.

    If I had to define poverty off the top of my head I would say, :someone’s basic needs not being met.

    However, I think the best way to truly define poverty is to get around it. You’ll know, I’m sure. All the best Richard.

    • David Leonardo

      Richard, here is a brief explanation of poverty:

      There is a difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Most Americans only understand relative poverty, the poverty of the homeless on the streets. Relative poverty (aka: poverty threshold) is having one’s income be below the accepted income level for adequate standard living. For instance, in America the relative poverty is making … See Moreless than $11,161 a year. Absolute poverty, however, is when someone has no form of income whatsoever. When someone is living in absolute poverty, they are spending their time merely trying to survive; everything they have is below the norm (e.g., food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, information, and access to services). So, for a man in America who wants to wash his clothes, he just spanges for change whereas a man in a place of absolute poverty has no choice but to look for a river to wash his clothes. It is nearly impossible for someone to be considered in absolute poverty in America.

  • MarinePatriot

    While I would agree that statistically there are more “impoverished” people who are “African-American” than “White” (should we be called “European-American”? I prefer to use the same standards of classification and those are not equal classifications, but I digress, as usual…), why do we continue to look at race as the deciding factor to aid, or in this case, to determine there is a particular “issue” more prevalent than in another race?

    Let’s look at it this way: with a single dollar left in my pocket, a “white” and “African-American” that are homeless stands before me. If I use this logic, I should give the “African-American” my last dollar because his ancestors had the last opportunity to be enslaved or possibly receive some form of prejudice towards him? Of course, the “white” man’s ancestors could have been enslaved by the Romans but since the “African-American’s” were last and the “white” man’s ancestors might have been in on it, tough luck for him. This is, also, assuming that I know that the “white” homeless man was impoverished based upon his lack of ability to get a job and not based on “reverse-discrimination”. (I have personally been told to not apply for a job that I was qualified for based solely on my race and gender. I applied and was never called back. I have applied for no jobs, except for that one, that did not at the least send a letter explaining the reason I did not get an interview. I would have made a considerable amount of money more than I made for the following 10-15 years had I received the job and who knows what I would have been making now. But at least I am no longer living below the poverty line and my children are not starving…)

    If we continue to beat on the drums of “My race”, “That race”, “This race”, etc., all we will continue to hear are the drums and we miss out on what really needs aid: people. The church I attend has adopted a part of town that has people who are living in the “Absolute” and “Relative” poverty levels. My family helps when and where we can, even outside the church-sanctioned events. I don’t care what their skin tone is, where their ancestors came from, or why they are here, except for the fact that God has placed me in that time and space to serve them (and in turn, serve Him.) My children have grown up in an environment of service and love to others because they are people who were made in the image of God, not because their race needs more love than another’s…

    • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

      Marine Patriot, I actually understand why you are frustrated here and think you are half ways justified. I do not have time to go to deep into your response except to say that the ‘call’ of my post is that we ought to put ourselves into the shoes of the “other” a bit more often rather than write them off as individuals that had the same opportunities as “us.” Many simply did not.

      • MarinePatriot

        Hey Kurt,

        First off, understand that in no way do I have the justification to be frustrated with a plan that God has put into place. Jesus is the only way to justification. The Father is the final judge. I don’t expect justice on this fallen world, nor do I seek it…

        Quite frankly, the frustration (actually, I would call it concern) has little or nothing to do with the employment situation. If God wanted me to be in that job, I would be there. So, I hope you don’t see that as my issue. I can’t imagine my life any different than it has been to date. My own (or my own family’s) personal “poverty” taught me more lessons in compassion than my ability to serve today with more resources. Poverty is not evil or bad. The level of one’s own financial resources do not make them better or worse as people, nor does it necessarily change the status of their happiness.

        Dwelling on the failures of the past, keeps us in the past. To move forward, we need to recognize people as people and not groups of people. We cannot expect a system or government officials to make the real change that is needed in the world. When slavery was legal, individuals chose to keep slaves or not. Continuing to place emphasis on systems that allowed for slavery or other forms of racism doesn’t help. The current generation does not have a concept of the “white” and “colored” drinking fountains of the past. This generation has seen Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. Have these systems helped to foster a better world for all sides or have they added to the racial division that separates and categorizes people into little boxes? If my brother sees me as white and I see my brother as black, where are we all headed? We are just people. We cannot move forward until we drop the classifications of people. Well…except maybe believers…and “others”. :)

    • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com jasdye
      • MarinePatriot

        LOL! This is the first time someone has called me a racist. I’m not really sure you are entering the conversation and, quite frankly, are just proving my point of banging the drums and only hearing drums…

        If you would like to enter the conversation, I would personally love to hear your opinion rather than a link to angry people telling me people are angry. I will, however, honor you with a simple response to that link.

        If we continue to point to people as groups of people and not as individuals, we devalue them as people. I have friends from all walks of life and as many races as I can possibly think of. I have served and been served by people of different races. I was even named an “honorary black man” by a friend of mine. It was a bit tongue in cheek, but he could see my heart. Please don’t judge me when you don’t even know me.

        I don’t think I said that racism is dead or even mortally wounded. Far from it. Racism continues to propagate through the judgment of ANY group of people. Reverse discrimination is a misnomer. It is all discrimination. If we could get past the classifications and get down to the fact that we are all individuals, maybe we could make more progress towards being a less racist society and, maybe, a less racist world. Racism will always be a part of our world. It is inevitable as some people will never desire to change from their foolish ways.

        When I see an “African-American” man, I don’t see a statistical problem. What I see is an individual, who has his own emotions, struggles and environment that he lives in. I can’t understand him any more than he can understand me. If I can help him in his journey in this life, I will. I don’t base it on the fact that he is “African-American” but I base it on the fact that he is a human being, the same as me. Please love your brother, don’t put him in a box.

        • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com jasdye

          I’m sorry if that link in that place came across as accusatory. I don’t mean to call anyone racist. I’m not in a place right now to leave long comments, so I’ve largely just been linking to sites/blogs/posts that I think are helpful in order to kind of level the playing field, or so that you may see where I’m coming from, even if I’m not engaging in a full discussion.

          Having said that, the truth of the matter is that people are already judged in boxes. We can’t ignore that. A black man is likely to have been treated in a matter as a criminal, as a shifty person, more likely to be criminalized, to be the victim of police brutality, to be unemployed, undereducated than White people like you or I. To ignore that and say that we should just be color-blind is to ignore the truth that stares them in the face everyday.

          In other words, racism still exists. So does sexism. And, as you hinted earlier, classism. To ignore the reality of that does no one any good except for those who benefit from those on-going realities.

        • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com jasdye

          As to the various definitions of racism, I’ll just copy&paste from my own blog (from a grouping of definitions given by another friend):

          It is especially essential in this day and age to define what is meant by this word. This is especially true due to the fact that when most people (especially most White Americans) hear the word ‘racist,’ they only think of one,outdated mode of racism and understandably get upset (especially if they believe in the false claim of ‘color blindness’). These handy-dandy definitions given to me by a Mr. Bob Hunter – of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a man who has seen the original segregated lunch counters first-hand – are a must-read and help to make a common language:

          Old fashion racism — Pre 1950 racism that was measurable by simply asking people if they disliked another group — say a white person about black people. This racism was straightforward and unashamed in identifying itself. This racism became virtually unidentifiable after 1940-50, many think because of the holocaust and the Civil Rights movement. Racism was shamed underground

          Modern Racism — this was a scale psychologist used to get at anti black sentiment that no longer would or could be expressed through direct anti black statements. It was developed in the 70′s. This is the scale used in the Tea Party study. it is not without controversy, though it has correlated with real world findings. For example it does seem to consistently score Republicans as higher, but then there have been only 3 black congressmen since 1935 — is that related? BUT there is also a kind of racism that score liberals higher — see below. Those falling into the modern racism category are very unaware of their racism and are angered by racial discussions that they are sure are related to other things. The racism is well hidden.

          Aversive racism — this is a kind of racism measurable only if the person is not made aware of race in a situation. Aversive “racist” are very afraid of being racists. Unlike the modern racism, they admit racism and fear being racist. But they overreact to it. When made aware of a racial dynamic they will over compensate. But in situation where they are oblivious they will score poorly on racial scales. Liberals are more likely to fall into this category of behavior. This behavior has come to be know popularly as PC ism.

          Internalized racism — most studies show that minority people do NOT hold to anti white sentiments so much as they feel negative feelings about themselves. Internalized racism may be one of the factors making racial dialog hard. for example most whites and many blacks may think that black reactions are based on a backlash toward whites. But often the deeper issues is that in a culture that has a lot of anti black sentiment — it is hard for black people to not get infected by that sentiment as well. In hard discussions it is usually assumed that black people need to learn to accept whites, but in reality it is usually about self acceptance. Strategies to impress black people to learn to love whites are often counter productive. A better strategy is for black people to recover personal dignity lost in a racist culture.

          Structural racism — This is not a individual racism, but racism that is carried through structures. Our institutions, practices, cultural sensibilities can all have been established in an era of racism, but their continued practice also continues the discriminatory practices long after the worst of the racist may be dead or moved on. This category of racism is most often overlooked by people in the majority culture who have a greater privilege to be seen as individuals. It is often what minority people are referring to when they name racism. it may be referred to as the “man”, or the “system”. One problem with popular Christianity is that it has not spent much time exploring the concept of structural sin, therefore it has no Biblical categories to understand and deal with structural issues of race — or anything else. this has made Christians more susceptible to indifference in the face of structures of racism.

          • MarinePatriot

            Exactly my point. Give people a title and stick them in a box. I feel I have been profiled.

            Jesus, help us to see that we are all people and not statistics…

          • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com jasdye

            You’re missing the point, MarinePatriot. The point is that minorities ARE put into these boxes. They’re pre-judged unfairly in strikingly frightening ways in matters of education, criminalization, prosecution, health care, economics, business, corporatization (did i just make up a word? possibly). We cannot ignore the reality of their situation as Black and Brown people living in White-controlled United States because it’s inconvenient and goes against what we were taught is wrong: to put people in boxes.

            Because whether or not you and I are aware of it, we do categorize and label and pre-judge. When we choose to ignore the painful truth of our biases, we’re not improving the situation, we’re actually making it worse.

          • MarinePatriot

            I really don’t think I am missing any point here. I choose to walk past the stereo-typing, biased, political, classifying, nauseating refuse that ALL sides propagate for their own benefit. If we continue to stand on soap boxes and point at the other side and scream, “They are wrong!”, what good has come of making a point that there is racism? Have I made a statement that there is no racism at all, marginal or other-wise? That I am completely blind and do not prejudge anyone under any circumstances? Why am I being blamed for having done so?

            Walk past the prejudice and serve those who need it.

  • Richard Hellman

    Annette, I live in a town of 30000 in South Carolina. What I meant by hearing of poverty was hearing on favebook and different blogs. May I should have said “reading” instead. I have seen plenty of poverty. What do I need to repentof concerning poverty? I hve not contributed to oppression or slavery. I look at people as indiviuals not as a group. Giving away lunch here or there or having a conversation with someone are acts of kindness and they make us feel good and more people need to be more sensitive to those things but they do not solve the problem. Why is that person sleeping on the bench? Why is he in his or her situation? What is it going to take to lift them out? If we are honest with ourselves it will take a commitment from myself or another person to lift that person up. It could take months or years to lift that person out of there situation. But more important than that is does that person want to change. If he does not there is nothingwe can do other than buy his lunch or have a converstion. No program from Washington is going lift this person. @ Kurt as far as opportunities for folks I would say that in the last 50 years every person born here in the US has had the same basic opportunities put before them to be successfull and productive citizens. However opportunities get missed due to poor parenting and poor choices we make. Someon once told me that there is no such thing as luck/ Luck is when “Preperation meets opportunity”. I have found this to be true in my life. I have missed opportunities because of my lack of preperation. Putting myself in there shoes may make me feel good but again it does not help there situation at all. I do not need to walk in their shoes to understand there situation. I would rather help them get “new shoes to walk in” help them prepare when opportunity comes knocking. I work in the business world yes it can be a dog eat dog world, it does not take much to stand out above the other person when competing for a hourly rate job. All you need to do is Don’t do drugs, comb your hair, wear a belt, speak proper english, show up to work on time do not call in sick when you aren’t and work while you are on the clock. If you are white, Black, hispanic, asian it doesn’t matter. The biggest complaint businer owners have is they cannot find good people. On the lower end of the Job market there is very little racism. If someone can do the things I mentioned and have a little initiative nd be persistant in looking thay can find a Job. @ David, I agree with your definition of absolute poverty.

    • MarinePatriot

      Very nice response, Richard! I agree that there are individuals who do and do not have the desire to change. We need to be available to give to those in need and help those who want aid, in whatever form we can. Funny, I never read anything in the bible that mentions solving poverty or providing better opportunities for others…

      It is difficult, but I believe our church has started to bridge the gap to a particular section of my town, forming relationships with people in the area, and gaining trust. As that trust builds, we are much more able to get past serving them, and now getting into serving side by side in their neighborhoods. I can tell you that this old Jar Head, who does not usually get emotional, can get a bit teary-eyed just thinking about the change that has already occurred in all of our lives. My kids are growing up beside these kids, serving together while we serve for and with their parents. We have now formed relationships that could allow us to provide better opportunities for the people who would want to change their situation.

      I beseech you all to heed the words of James:

      22Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22-25)

      There are so many theories, philosophies, and “experts” out there trying to think-tank their way to a better society. The answers are simple but, for some reason, they can’t figure it out. They spend too much time trying to think (or “hear” others’ ideas) of how to solve poverty instead of just helping people. It is a lot like losing weight. Did you know that there is a simple formula for losing weight? Become more active and eat less. There are a few more variables that can help with this process but we don’t need to over-think everything. I enjoy theorizing, attempting to determine motivations, and how to solve major problems with our society. The problem with doing this is it leads to greater understanding that there is a problem and rarely provides real solutions. There is very little that gets solved in all this. We should think of how we can effect our local environment, while establishing and maintaining relationships, to make a real difference in someone else’s life. (Foreign or inner-city missions are great, but God has put us where we are right now. We should all have a local ministry.)

      I love that the anonymity of the internet which allows for me to boast of this to effect change in your lives, while keeping me from patting myself on the back in public. My prayer is that you all will take something positive from this post and make some real change in peoples’ lives, no matter how small of a gesture it may seem. People in need are all around you. Follow the passion to serve and you will be blessed beyond measure.

  • http://thoughtloose.blogspot.com Maria Kirby

    Kurt,
    I generally like your observations in this post. I would also like to remind you that after Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they still had a slavery mentality. Their forty years in the desert was a consequence of that mentality. I suspect that much of white oppression can be traced back to our own enslavement and dissociation with our past. So in many respects both black and white people in America are cut from the same cloth, they are just two sides of the same coin. And a similar solution frees us both. St Francis was able to experience freedom because he embraced poverty. He lived in a time of excess, much like we have in America today, but he was willing to give it up to follow Christ. When our commitment to Christ is no holds barred, when we are thankful for every, everything, then the Holy Spirit can work wonders in our hearts and hearts of those around us. Then death has no sting and poverty is perceived to be a beautiful lady.

  • James

    Being of various German Mennonite background myself as well, I would say that we do come from a background of oppression and hostility (though I would not go so far to say the same degree as that of the African-American). Many of my ancestors escaped Russia and various parts of Eastern Europe with nothing more then the clothes on their back. Atrocities have been committed by “whites” on “whites” just as much as they have been committed against various other races (an no, white is not a race).

    I say this not to downplay the part that various Caucasians played in the enslavement and oppression of the Africans brought to America, but to show that human relations are strained to such a point that only with the help of God can we hope to overcome these barriers. It goes far beyond race alone…

  • Erin

    I am quite astonished at some of the comments here, although I know I shouldn’t be. The refusal to recognize racism as a part of a tangled mess of issues many people face only adds to our current situation rather than presses for deep healing and reconciliation. The refusal to “be in another’s shoes” was disheartening to say the least, as well as the persistence to relate to people only as one-on-one rather than both individually and as groups.

    Perhaps a classic work might be in order here? Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” might shed some more light on ways white wouldn’t even consider seeing the world through another’s eyes. I’m as WASP — both sides of the family — English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. Can’t get more “white” than that, and I know the colonial oppression we served upon one another, upon African-Canadians/Americans, and First Nations people. We can’t hide it. Nor can we deny the effects history has on us now. Centuries of slavery, genocide, defamation, racism, poverty and more will not “go away” in a matter of years.

    http://nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

    Where I live, some of my First Nations friends are still living, breathing survivors of the residential school system. Are their voices to be denied when the church and the gov’t decreed that Native parents were unfit, took their children without permission and placed them in abusive systems — schools and white foster homes — forced to abandon their culture? I don’t know so. I hope not. Ever.

    I don’t believe racism stands alone, but nor can it be ignored or shoved aside in the name of righteousness. That’s what happened throughout history and the end results were horrific. To deny someone’s story when they try and explain being followed around a store by a clerk or a manager, and then refused service (in the present) because they are native or black, or refused specific items (like aeresol cans… because we know all black people and natives are drunks and addicts), is dehumanizing.

    Humbling and unbelievable as it might be, we need to swallow our pride, understand that whites have dominated the “story” as it were for too long, step aside, and allow other voices in, and begin to hear narratives of the long ago, the recent, the now, and the future.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Kurt.


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