The church is constantly discovering the Gospel. In each era the People of God seem to wake up to see a Gospel imperative as though it is new, with eyes that seem to pop open. How, it will be asked, was this missed before – something so obvious, something so demanding! And yet, there it is, God’s will for society to lift oppression, to demand better treatment of some class of persons, or to do something in care of God’s creation that simply wasn’t recognized before but becomes apparent.

Slavery stands as one of the most obvious examples of this dynamic. Civilization was built on the backs of slaves, and this was true all over the world. At any given time in history the people who enjoyed citizenship in one of the civilized cultures would not have been able to imagine any other way to be the people they were – Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, you name it – than through the use of slaves. Only gradually did another notion take hold of the imagination of societies, the recognition that freedom, the freedom enjoyed by the slave-users was a precious human right to be held and exercised by everyone. Finally, and only after the idea of equality and freedom had taken hold and began to make its way forward, the church seemed to come to its senses and was forceful in convincing its societies to reject the entire institution of slavery.

Every once in a while, we need to be reminded of how recently we awakened to the evils of slavery and warn ourselves against being complacent with the mores and assumptions of any present age. It is a lesson to be learned in struggles today and yet to come.

Orissa Arend, a psychoanalyst in New Orleans and a member of the Diocesan Committee for Racial Reconciliation, examines the reasons the Episcopal Church of Louisiana is going to face its history of racism, acknowledge its continuing racism, and pledge to stand for racial healing, justice and reconciliation.

Orissa Arend

Orissa Arend

By Orissa Arend

When the sin of racism comes up in church or other settings, many of us protest that we love all persons and therefore could not be racist and do not participate in the sin of racism. Nevertheless, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Diocesan Bishop of Louisiana is asking us to look at our own congregation with these questions in mind: What is the racial makeup of the leaders and members? How do we respond to and welcome members of a minority group? Is our congregation ready to incorporate them into its life and leadership? Are we engaged in community initiatives that promote racial interaction?

Those of us planning a celebration of commitment are determined to place our effort in honest context of history. We do this not to invoke guilt, but to provide knowledge and understanding to light the way. Michael Goldston, an MA candidate in history at Tulane, took on the assignment, and I offer you certain salient features of his research:

After Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana in 1803, Americans began to arrive in Louisiana in large numbers, and a Protestant/English enclave began to form in what had been a Roman Catholic/French territory. Simultaneously, cotton and sugar production were expanding, and there was a need for lots more slaves. Having grown out of the national church of the enemy during the American Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church remained narrowly attractive, mainly to the wealthy elite. New Orleans was the hub of the slave trade, and Louisiana had a reputation for brutal conditions for slaves. Slave labor was especially critical to the system that supported these first Louisiana Episcopalians. For example, the planters, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and storekeepers who served as the founding leaders of the first Protestant Church, Christ Church, all had a role in the slave trade. Louisiana Slave Records from 1719-1820 showing that 93 Christ Church vestrymen participated in the slave trade. They bought and sold a total of 2678 slaves.

Enter The Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, of a respected slaveholding North Carolina family. In 1836, Polk was elected missionary bishop of the Southwest, and soon was assigned as Louisiana’s bishop. Whereas previous pastors had their hands full trying to gather their white flocks, the men Polk shepherded brought the Gospel to their slaves to fulfill what they saw as their paternalistic obligations for the civilizing and Christianizing of an inferior race. They stressed loyalty and obedience.

Here’s how the theological thinking went: A tortured “logic” held that blacks were spiritual equals of whites. But their worldly circumstances required them to fill the role of slaves. Evil as slavery was, it could only be reasonably expected as part of a sinful world. Anything that disturbed the social order was unreasonable, and therefore against the will of God. The Christian master, then, was obliged to bring enslaved people into the church without upsetting the social order. As the Civil War approached, the rationale morphed from “necessary evil” to a “white-washed gospel of subservience.” Bishop Polk stated that ministering to slaves would teach them “to do their duty in that state of like, in which, it has pleased God to call them.” Many whites were appalled by the notion that there might be blacks in Heaven. Here on earth, there could be no question that the master controlled the religious life of the slave.

Bishop Polk’s theology that sustained his passion for a mission to the slaves turned him ultimately to war. In 1861 he accepted a commission as a Major General in the Confederate Army. In 1864 he was killed in battle. (There is a real question as to whether or not the church would have divided after the Civil War if Polk had lived; his absence made it easier for the victors to seat their southern colleagues in the House of Bishops.) After the war, freed slaves were quick to leave the church of their masters. The National Protestant-Episcopal Church lost almost all of its African-Americans in the South.

One church person stated the charge the church faces in its desire to go forward: “The charity we could do in our lifetimes would never be adequate to rectify hundreds of years of imbalances. Therefore, our starting point cannot be one of charity, but rather one that seeks to restore relationships. We need to extend ourselves beyond the ‘club’ of privileged people that our church has always been, even when those relationships take us to uncomfortable places.”

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