Would I Have Been a Slave Owner? Thoughts on Racial Reconciliation

While growing up, it was not at all uncommon for history lessons in school to cover the topic of slavery in America, especially every February during Black History Month. Horrified by some of the gruesome stories I heard, I would shake my head in disbelief and wonder how anyone could have been a slave owner, a popular practice in America during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is estimated that slaves comprised about one-third of the population of the southern United States and that around 4 million slaves won their freedom at the close of America’s Civil War.[1] These, along with other sobering facts about slavery, make it easy for us to make judgments about those in the past as if we would be incapable of falling into the same errors as the men and women who have gone before us; but, realistically, that is probably the furthest thing from the truth.

I imagine there are many of us nowadays who assume that as Southerners we would have been abolitionists rather than slaveholders. But why are we so quick to think that there is something in us that would have made us behave differently from those who lived 200 years ago? For most of my life, this negligent type of thinking blinded me to the reality that the evils done to African-Americans didn’t come only from the hands of my ancestors, but from me too.

Would I have owned slaves if I had lived in the 18th century? Several years ago, my response to that question would have been a look of disgust and a resounding “No way!” But when I consider that question today, I’m not so certain I could still answer it with such confidence. While I obviously wasn’t alive during colonial America, I’m convinced, after studying and contemplating slavery in the U.S., that if I had lived during those days I would have been a slave owner. Here’s why:

  1. I live in the South.[2]
  2. I’m a white male.
  3. The human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9).
  4. When we are in the company of others, we are capable of doing all sorts of evil that we wouldn’t even dream of doing on our own. (Romans 3:12: “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless.”)

A good friend of mine recently reminded me that while no living white person is responsible for slavery, all living whites reap its benefits, just like all living blacks wear its scars.[3] Several years ago, if I had heard a statement such as that one, I would have just shrugged it off as ignorant or divisive. In fact, writing a blog like this would have been out of the question, because I truly believed that the Obama Administration was stirring up racial tensions and divisions that didn’t exist prior to his presidency. Sadly, I was convinced that the black community had a perception problem, rather than a true racial divide.

No doubt I would still be on that course today, but by God’s grace He has opened my eyes to the realities of racism through good friends and good books, and my view on the issue is being flipped upside down. Instead of seeing racial issues as a perceived reality, I am beginning to realize that a significant racial divide truly exists in this country, particularly between white and black people. Furthermore, I am starting to see the substantial gap between whites and blacks regarding wealth, education, the neighborhoods in which we live, the healthcare we receive, and the churches we attend. While many white people are fine with black neighbors we pray that we don’t end up with black son-in-laws. We grow skittish when a young black man wearing a hoodie walks by, and we are fearful when we take a wrong turn and find ourselves in the inner city.

How easy it is for me to say that a racial problem doesn’t exist in our nation while I enjoy my comfortable suburban neighborhood and interact primarily with those of my own race and socioeconomic status, but, whether we acknowledge the problem or not, the problem is there. Negligence and ignorance don’t make the conflict go away. A great chasm exists between whites and blacks, which is being exposed at a rapid rate throughout America today. This division is not a new problem; there has never been real unity. The protests and shootings we are witnessing in our day are really just the exposure of a crisis that has existed for centuries. (If you aren’t convinced that there is an immense racial divide in the United States, I have recommended several books at the end of this post that may help bring this crisis to light.)

So what should we do now?

A good place to start is for each of us to first examine ourselves. We must stop looking at “them” as the problem. There is no “us” versus “them.” Looking within ourselves will hopefully bring us to the realization that we (each of us) are the problem. And while acknowledging our wrongdoings and our gross negligence is always a good place to begin, this should not be our stopping point.

A Christian brother of mine recently preached a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which is set in 1st century Palestine, where a major racial divide existed between Jews and Samaritans. In fact, most Jews looked upon Samaritans with condescension and disdain. Astonishingly, in this parable, a Samaritan man showed compassion to a Jewish man who had been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. The Samaritan didn’t keep him at an arms length or cross on the other side of the road and yell out that this man just needed Jesus. No. He bound up his wounds, took him to an inn, and cared for him. He actually went to his neighbor. He went to his neighbor of a different race and helped him in his time of need.

While I personally am persuaded that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true means of reconciliation, Christians are also called to love as Christ loved, which means our faith, if it is true saving faith, must be accompanied by works. After all, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

There are many who stand at a distance or cross on the other side of the road, separating themselves from situations that seem “unsafe,” while at the same time shouting, “Jesus is the only answer!” Friends, if we truly believe that Jesus is the only answer, then we must live as if He is the only answer. If we say we are following Christ, let us live like Christ, who didn’t shy away from what is unsafe. Instead, He went to those who were different than Him. He humbled Himself and became like us in order that we might have life in Him. True unity does not develop just by merely saying that unity comes from Christ; rather, unity comes from an authentic faith in Jesus that is accompanied by a genuine, demanding, and sometimes painful work to restore the corporate racial divide that exists in our day.

Let us not be satisfied to just say that Jesus is the answer; let us go a step further and do something. Let us use our words to share the Gospel, but let us use our deeds to live out the Gospel. After all, if I knew my child was sick or in danger I wouldn’t simply declare, “You need to have more faith and trust in Jesus!” and then ignore him; instead, I would go to him and help him through his illnesses and the encroaching dangers that lie ahead. In this same way, it is my prayer that we pursue Christ-exalting, God-honoring racial unity like our country has never seen before; a unity that comes only through faith in Christ, but that is accompanied by life-transforming love for all humankind.

~Corey

Recommended Reading:

·       Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

·       Bloodlines by John Piper

·       The 2016 Winter Edition of Light Magazine from the ERLC


[2] While the North strongly supported abolition, they were still largely in favor of segregation.

[3] When slavery was abolished the former slaves remained. There were four million freed slaves who were now homeless, impoverished, had little to no formal education, did not own simple necessities such as cooking utensils, and they lived among hostile people. In Divided by Faith, the author points out that in some areas of the country, 25% of African Americans died due to disease, starvation, and killings.

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