CS Lewis on White Supremacy; F Douglass on White Brutality

Frederick Douglass

Lessons in Digging
When my wife and I first moved to South Africa we employed a gardener. This was a new thing for us. In the UK and the USA I was the one who struggled with the lawnmower. In South Africa you employed people to do that. We became aware that there was a kind of emotionally remote relationship to gardeners, cleaners and so on. It felt different than just employer/employee. The difference was more pronounced. And it was racial. I have never heard of a white cleaner, or gardener in this part of the world.
One day, between the digging and the weeding, I asked our gardener what his interests were, or if he had studied. He said he used to have a keen interest in history. My face lit up! This was a great connection!
‘Oh! I also enjoy history! I’m fascinated by different periods of the past.’
‘No, but I hate history,’ he replied, looking toward me, ‘I don’t enjoy history at all.’
‘But why? How can you hate ‘history’?’ said Mr Stupid.
‘It made me angry. Very, very angry. So I stopped. I had to stop reading it.’

CS Lewis on White Supremacy

Christian scholar CS Lewis

CS Lewis, in the excellent collection Christian Reflections, writes tellingly when he seeks to apply some of the ‘cursings’ we find in the Psalms. WARNING! This never-quoted section in Lewis’s writings may shock you:

‘I am inclined to think that we had better look unflinchingly at the work we have done; like puppies, we must have ‘our noses rubbed in it’. A man, now penitent, who has once seduced and abandoned a girl and then lost sight of her, had better not avert his eyes from the crude realities of the life she may now be living. For the same reason we ought to read the psalms that curse the oppressor; read them with fear. Who knows what imprecations of the same sort have been uttered against ourselves? What prayers have Red men, and Black, and Brown and Yellow, sent up against us to their gods or sometimes to God Himself? All over the earth the White Man’s offence ‘smells to heaven’: massacres, broken treaties, theft, kidnappings, enslavement, deportation, floggings, beatings-up, rape, insult, mockery, and odious hypocrisy make up that smell.’ [1]

I understand that it is quite natural for me, as a white man, not to want ‘my nose rubbed in it’, yet I don’t see how I can assist, support, or generate change in my context without at least attempting to understand, and to feel, something of the struggle and pain of others.
Frederick Douglass, both in his autobiography and in speeches, hits out not only at white slave owners but at a complicit church. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t write off true Christianity; he doubts whether the church, in his experience, was practising real Christianity. He writes:

‘I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.
It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch … His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.’ [2]

These things are surely not easy for anyone to process. Acknowledging the terrible crimes of history ought not push us away from the Christian faith, properly understood and applied. That’s not Douglass’s point. He appeals for genuine Christianity to rebuke the counterfeit.
And as we consider these things, we should ask questions of our own processes and practices today. Acknowledging our history or our bias should help Christian believers reapply the historic gospel, with all its liberating power through faith in Jesus Christ, to our own lives and churches. The gospel should convict us, humble us, and then renew our minds, liberating us from both shame and anger. Coming to the cross of Christ, acknowledging and repenting of our sin, will enable us to receive empowering grace, the grace to be changed personally, and the grace to persevere until we accomplish genuine change around us:
‘Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here

[1] CS Lewis, Christian Reflections, The Psalms, (1981 Glasgow: Fount/Collins) p.153
[2] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.46  (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)

©2019 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

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