In 1688 the first anti-slavery statement was drafted on US soil by Dutch and German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Then, 150 years ago Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation that brought to an end legal slavery in the United States. Yet, blacks continued to suffer under many forms of oppression from lynching mobs to Jim Crow laws. While history books typically say that Jim Crow ended in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act which outlawed discriminatory voting laws, in many ways Jim Crow still exists but in different forms.
In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander outlines how “by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.”
As we begin the new year, 150 years after the scourge of slavery was officially brought to an end (although by some estimates there are currently 20.9 million worldwide victims of slavery), I think it would be beneficial to reflect on how our perceptions, actions, political positions, and so on serve to create an environment in which all members of our society can flourish or whether we are creating structures that actively suppress and repress significant portions of our society.
It is all the more important that people of religious conviction reflect on these topics. To be sure, religious individuals and communities often were early and strong proponents for ending slavery, righting injustices, and supporting the oppressed. Yet, often times religion was used in efforts to keep blacks enslaved and to spread mortal fear within black communities long after the Emancipation Proclamation. As James Cone has shown in the Cross and the Lynching Tree, whites used the symbol most closely associated with Christianity, and even Jesus himself, the cross, to strike terror in the hearts of black communities as they left crosses burning in yards and limp dark bodies swinging in the trees.
Thankfully, it is now rare indeed to encounter burning crosses but as Michelle Alexander has shown there are structures and policies which work to repress blacks and other minorities. This fact should be abhorrent to anyone who has an interest in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical prophets often saved their most scathing comments for people who participated in and supported structures like this. When the prophets encountered these situations they often called for the wholesale destruction of the present power structures and called upon God and his people to create a new and just order in their place.
One such prophet was Amos. And maybe Amos is a good place for us to begin our reflection this new year. To that end, John Barton has written a nice, brief book on the theology of Amos that would be a helpful complement to our study:
For the biblical prophets, policies that create enslavement are forces of evil in the world. And those who work to perpetuate these policies are complicit in this evil. People who are a part of a religious community that holds the Bible dear do not have the option of keeping quiet in the face of these realities. For instance, the Babylonian Talmud says that if someone remains silent even though they had an ability to speak then they will be punished:
Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is punished [liable, held responsible] for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world (Shabbat 54b).
And, Jesus reiterates the Golden Rule to “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
I think 2013 presents a strong challenge to the American Christian community in particular. For far to long many of us have used our positions within society to ensure our continued economic and social dominance. We have enjoyed a comfortable life on the backs of others. But, do we care about following the prophetic model that we see in the Hebrew Scriptures of challenging societal structures that oppress and enslave? Do we care about following Jesus’s teachings to love others and work towards systems that will benefit them just as they benefit us? And, how will we vote in 2013 and in the future? Will we continue to support politicians and policies that create a new Jim Crow or will we rediscover a biblical vision of peace and justice for all?