We must honour the truth and heal
From missionaries in Africa to slave owners in America and throughout the British Empire — how do we reconcile a history of slavery, oppression and segregation with the message of love, hope and salvation that Christianity promotes?
This is a question that troubles both believers and non-believers in this #blacklivesmatter era of human history.
In a time where the experiences of black people and institutionalised racism are being highlighted, are we forgetting one particular global institution?
The history of the transatlantic slave trade, segregation and systemic racism across the world puts Christianity at the centre of a very awkward conversation.
Apart from the debate about white versus black Jesus, there is much criticism over the origins of Christianity and the authenticity of a religion that has historically facilitated and perpetuated inequality and oppression.
Is racism the elephant in the room, even in church on Sunday mornings?
It is the reason why the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1816 and why black and white children could not attend the same Sunday school.
It is also why the Anglican Church of Bermuda did not have its first black bishop until 1996.
The 1834 register of Bermuda’s slaves and slave owners at the time of emancipation is full of the names of people and families who attended church every week.
Some had their own designated pews; buildings may have been named after them and stained-glass windows dedicated in their honour.
One has to wonder how a faith that models itself after the teachings of Christ could condone and, worse, celebrate such behaviour?
How could it allow discrimination, segregation and prejudice within its hallowed halls?
The Bible itself was used to justify the practice, with slave owners and their sympathisers referencing the presence of slavery in biblical times as evidence that it was a part of God’s plan for society.
Some would argue that the success of western Christianity was built on the ideology of white supremacy and that this ideology taints the foundation upon which the church was built.
But that was a long time ago, right?
Slaves were emancipated in Bermuda in 1834. A long time ago. Segregation ended in 1959. Not so long ago.
It is now 2020 and churchgoers of all races regularly worship together.
We sit next to our brothers and sisters of different races without a thought.
We sing hymns written by slaves and slave masters alike, without ever really thinking of the significance.
In Bermuda, the racial demographic of clergy has shifted enormously.
People of colour are represented in all areas of church ministry.
We have a fully integrated community of Christian believers. Or do we?
On display at St Peter’s Church in St George is a page from the baptism register of 1834.
It chronicles the details of all the babies baptised in that church, identifying them as male or female, slave or free.
Midway through the page there is a line drawn across it.
It represents emancipation from slavery and provides a sobering visual.
Similarly, in the western extension of the graveyard at St Peter’s you will find the burial ground of enslaved and free blacks dating right up until 1854.
These are two very real and visual reminders of the foundation upon which our local Christian history is built.
But aside from this, there are living people, dedicated Christian people, who can still recall having to attend a separate church from their white, or black, neighbours and friends.
The question asked at the beginning of this ramble still persists: how do we reconcile a history of slavery, oppression, segregation and discrimination with the message of love, hope and salvation that Christianity promotes?
But perhaps more importantly, how do we acknowledge this history without tainting the authenticity of the faith itself?
How do we honour the truth in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation?
How do we marry the past with the present and ultimately the future of the church? A church with a vision of inclusion and love. Admittedly, I do not have the answer. But I’m interested and ready to have this conversation.
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