When I was younger I thought that God was a reality that was a complete and undoubted fact. As I got older I could not fathom the divinity and humanity of Jesus. It was clear to my faith community that the Bible would fill in the gaps of misunderstandings and curiosities; after all, how could anyone not understand what was written in it? It was very simple. Grab the KJV version (falsely presumed to be closest to the original translation), read what was there, and the preacher would help you process it. I learned that scripture can’t be wrong. It was presented that scripture applies to everything and the words in it are good for everyone who reads it. Growing up in the South as a young black Baptist woman meant you know Scripture, you quote Scripture, and that you’re fully aligned with Scripture.
Today things have become quite different for me. I have experienced similar experiences to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his recent book Reconstructing the Gospel. Brandon and I read Jonathan’s book together this summer. Reconstructing the Gospel has helped me to further expose a brick and mortar wall completely blocking my faith. I keep hitting this wall, pushing all the frustration of my faith onto its surface with every epiphany. While reading Reconstructing the Gospel, a book which offers insight to find freedom from slaveholder religion, I found myself wandering through my upbringing and wondering about the Gospel I inherited. The slaveholder religion Jonathan discusses is one of exclusion, policing, criminalization, and the murder of persons of color. I realized I have also inherited slaveholder religion. The version of the slaveholder complex I experienced harmed those marginalized within minority communities - women, young girls, LGBTQ folks, the poor, immigrants. However, this same complex protected and upheld white men, white women, cisgendered persons, the wealthy, and those who were born in this country.
I grew up in a very conservative black Baptist church that encouraged its congregation
to seek after the commodified version of the Gospel: “The American Dream.” I recall times in churches when we were subtly told that we were to blame for white people not accepting us. We were taught that black people who were impoverished chose that life for themselves. We had to decide if we wanted to stand with or stand against them because our circumstances differed. I remember being encouraged to seek prosperity in the form of the middle-class lifestyle which represented a finer and whiter life. Items including fancy cars, large houses, designer clothing, cultured speech, and instructions on how to have grace and class. Narratives were shared encouraging stronger work ethics and upward mobility through intellectual prestige, pursuits, and selfish endeavors.
In the book, Jonathan introduced the malady of the shriveled heart syndrome:
“you can’t shut up compassion in the human heart one minute and then go back to normal the next. Trauma science has taught us that even short-term experiences of war or violence can lead to long-term posttraumatic stress, affecting someone’s ability to function in intimate relationships. Generations of committing an act of war against a group of people would have equally long consequences. But we hardly know how to name them. Just as laws and customs are passed down, one generation to the next, shriveled heart syndrome has become a part of white people’s shared inheritance” (161).
Like Jonathan, I too witnessed privilege and inheritance that surrendered many hearts to shriveled heart disease. The Gospel I inherited kept me in my place, told me false stories such that men controlled and should control everything. The Gospel I inherited shamed my body as hypersexual, and blamed me for attracting the lustful eyes of men. The Gospel I inherited told me being gay was a choice and downright sinful at the core. The Gospel I inherited told me God showed up miraculously in finances, producing great material things. Sadly, that’s not all. The Bible I read told me there was only male and female in the beginning and forever. The Bible I read taught me that justice must be swift and harsh in our society. The sermons I heard abused me and so many others. The sermons I heard made me cringe at the thought of a God who only spoke to and for the few, and not the many. My heart hurts. It hurts because God seems absent, yet present at the same time - what a contradiction. The God I served has loved on me, been gracious to me, punished me, abandoned me, misled me, and fooled me all in the same breath. Yet, here I stand wondering which God is real, which God is true - the God who stands for slaveholding, or the God who is a fierce abolitionist.
Today, I stand facing a brick and mortar wall. I wonder if I'm drawing closer to Jesus, and the faith of unconditional love and undying acceptance. I also wonder if I'm drifting miles away from the faith I came to know, and from the Jesus who saved me. I lament how I and so many black people have bought into white supremacy - learning it from the oppressor class. How can there be so much division when the strength and faith of our ancestors hidden in hush harbors carried us even today? Oh how I crave rebirth of our sweet history in us. My people banded together singing songs of Zion. My people bonded together, holding one another accountable in community. My people rehearsed and cultivated the village model, and today I wonder if it will reappear? I am able to name the origin of the toxicity of slaveholding religion in my faith journey; yet I am reminded even in division there is some unity. There is a resounding voice calling us back to our origins. Don’t you hear it? Here I am and here we are. We must question contradictions. March towards liberation. Tarry even in confusion. And work to continue to change the nation, and, most importantly, the faith of the One who came to set the captives free.
Thumbnail Artwork: Edwin Lester