When Slavery Won’t Die: The Oppressive Biblical Mentality America Can't Shake
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” So said white supremacist Dylann Roof to black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as he systematically executed nine, leaving one woman and a five-year-old child to bear witness to the slaughter.
The horror of the mass murder defies rational analysis. And yet, if we have any hope of a better future, we must analyze it—not just the circumstances or persons or events that led to this particular slaughter on this particular day, but the root attitudes and assumptions—the ancient strands of brutality and inequality that are woven into the fabric of our society.
In her article, “The Lethal Gentleman: The ‘Benevolent Sexism’ Behind Dylann Roof’s Racism,” sociologist Lisa Wade outlines how racism and sexism intersect in Roof’s comments. The phrase “benevolent sexism” sounds jarring, but it is the term social scientists use when people attribute “positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men:” Women are beautiful and fragile; women are good with children; women are emotionally weak; God made woman as the perfect ‘helpmeet’ for man. Roof’s implication that white women need protecting from rape falls into this category.
One striking aspect of sexism and racism in Roof’s statement is the sense of ownership it conveys: “Our women” in “our country” need to be protected from black men who either don’t know their place or won’t stay in it. White men can and should kill black men because they are having sex in our home territory with women who belong to us. We own America and we own the women who live here, and black men don’t because if all was right in the world we would own them too.
The idea that women and minorities (along with children and members of other species) at some level belong to men of the dominant tribe can be traced all the way back to the culture and laws of the Iron Age and the concept of chattel. The term chattel is related to the term cattle, and human chattel, like cows, exist to serve their owners and must stay where they belong. In this view, dominant men have a right or even responsibility to enforce social hierarchy. If women or slaves or children or ethnic and religious minorities or livestock step out of line, they must be punished to keep society in its proper order.
I have written in the past about how Iron Age chattel culture underlies Religious Right priorities that might otherwise seem at odds: Why do the same people who oppose abortion also oppose protections and rights for children once they are born? What do opposition to marriage equality and opposition to contraception have in common? Why is the line between marriage and slavery so blurry in the Bible? How was American slavery influenced by the Iron Age worldview? Why does biblical literalism so often incline people to embrace sexual and racial inequality?
From within Christianity, Episcopal theologian and author Kelly Brown Douglas has written extensively about some of these same questions, with a particular focus on sexuality and the Black body. After the Trayvon Martin killing, she channeled her grief into a book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. In the interview that follows, Brown Douglas talks about the ancient concept of chattel, how it leads to the assumption that black bodies are “guilty, hypersexual, and dangerous,” and how it underlies the slaughter, from Florida to New York to Charleston, that has left America reeling.
Tarico: You are the mother of a black son, so the horrendous epidemic of shootings we all have witnessed in recent years strikes very close to your heart.
Brown Douglas: I just couldn’t shake the Trayvon Martin killing. At the time my son was 21 and I knew—as a 6’ tall young man with locks that people would perceive him as a threat. My husband and I have tried to help our son understand how others perceive him as a black male. As his mother, I find myself continually reminding him that, while I will defend him to his death I don’t want to defend him in his death. I have said, If you are ever stopped by the police, even if they tell you to get on your knees, do it. A moment of humiliation could save your life. When he’s out there’s not a moment that I don’t fear for him, not because of anything he would do—he is a very responsible person—but because of how people might perceive him. So I am passionate about what is going on now, what is going on with our children. Somehow we have to change this world to make it safe for our children.
Tarico: In Stand Your Ground, you explore cultural values and beliefs that contribute to America’s plague of racial violence including the sense of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—the idea that Anglo-Saxon European culture is fundamentally good, a light unto the world, something to be exported. When any of us has that kind of self-perception, it’s hard to see ourselves as the bad guy, hard to see when we’re doing harm.
Brown Douglas: To stop the harm, one of the first things that we have to understand is the complexity of violence. We have to understand that this Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is inherently violent because it is unjust particularly as it suggests that certain people deserve the benefits of being treated with decency and dignity while others do not. Systems of injustice—racism, sexism, heterosexism—the ways that these systems manifest themselves systemically and structurally is violent. Anything that does harm to another is violent.
We seldom name the violence that is imbedded in the structures and systems of our society. We don’t ask, where is the violence behind the violence? Yes, there are too many guns, and we should change that. But I’m speaking about the violence of injustice. Inasmuch as we don’t begin to dismantle unjust discriminatory systems then we will consistently have violent eruptions that people respond to with more violence. Systemic and structural violence perpetuates a cycle of violence on all levels of society.
Tarico: Our handed-down cultural and religious traditions contain the concept of chattel, the idea that some people (and other species) exist for the benefit of others. Slavery is an extreme example of this. But even beyond overt slavery, you and I both write about how the residual of this concept continues to ripple down in our society.
Brown Douglas: When we talk about American slavery we have to talk about chattel slavery. Chattel doesn’t mean simply that one person serves another, it means that one belongs to another. Black people were property. They were never meant to own their own labor or their own bodies. While I truly appreciate the way that female and black bodies intersect, the black body came to this country as property. When we talk about chattel in U.S. history, the only people who were considered nonhuman were those of African descent.
Tarico: Yes! Mercifully, by the time this country was founded, outright ownership of women was no longer the overt norm. In the Old Testament, women were literally governed by property law rather than personhood rights. A man, a father, essentially sold his daughter to another man to be a wife or slave. She was a valuable reproductive technology that produced economically valuable offspring that also belonged to the patriarch, who could beat or sell them or send them into war or even sacrifice them.
The notion of women as fully autonomous persons rather than property has taken centuries to emerge. During the American colonial era, single women could own real estate and other assets, but thanks to a legal concept called coverture, married women couldn’t. “All men are created equal” really meant men, well, men who were white. A woman couldn’t get a credit cardon her own in the U.S. until 1974! When I was young, a woman couldn’t obtain birth control without her husband’s permission because her reproductive capacity belonged to him. Women in the South, including black women, have been of the last to get rights to control their own property and bodies. But that is a long way from literally being bought and sold in chains, as in the slave trade!
So this idea of people owning people is changing. But, damn, the process is slow. From your point of view, where do you see the residual of chattel culture in America today?
Brown Douglas: What we see is that some people have certain privileges because of who they are while other people are penalized because of who they are. Clearly the white male heterosexual body is the most privileged body and in as much as you lose one of those attributes you lose certain privileges. In your person you have less freedom, less right to the wages of freedom in your body. That is what we are struggling through in this country.
Tarico: The rape culture that we are struggling with on college campuses is rooted in the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. Economic exploitation is rooted in the idea that might makes right, that powerful people have a right to exploit and consume the time, energy, productive capacity and reproductive capacity of the less powerful. The same could be said about environmental exploitation, that those who are most powerful have the right to exploit, consume, and take what they can; that other beings and their desires are secondary, if they matter at all.
As a theologian, you say that one way chattel culture gets justified is via “natural law” theology. What is that?
Brown Douglas: Natural law theology is a way of sanctifying this hierarchy of exploitation. It suggests that this wasn’t just a human creation, but divine law. This was the way God designed things to be. For example, the whole idea was that God created black people as slaves not as full human beings. Slavery was legitimated specifically through Christianity.
Tarico: What are some echoes of natural law theology in the way that conservatives think today? How does it get translated into the modern language of the Religious Right?
Brown Douglas: We know that the discourse around women has been that God created women to serve men and to reproduce. Women have had to fight that battle for years, and continue to fight the battle that they were indeed not created to be subservient to men or to be reproductive machines. That is about natural law. The other way you see it is that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman—that’s God’s law according to various religious communities. Those are ways that we see “natural law” functioning in our culture today.
In racial relations, if one scanned some of the white supremacy rhetoric you see that too. Historically it is part of the rhetoric of the Klan. Today most people don’t argue that in polite conversation, but we see it all the time when we place this religious canopy over discrimination. We sanctify discriminatory patterns. If God wanted men and women to be equal, God would have created women to be different –not to be the bearers of children. Or, God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Those are remnants of natural law. It functions in those places where people attempt to elevate social constructs and human laws so that they seem as if they are divine laws.
Tarico: I write mostly about women—about reproductive freedom and empowerment, and in our fight to create a new norm of chosen childbearing, this notion of women as chattel is hugely problematic. Specific verses from the Bible get cited to justify the GOP’s assault on women. “Women will be saved through childbearing,” for example. In the sphere of racial relations and justice, this notion of human chattel also gets tied in with sexuality—how black sexuality is seen, why blacks are seen as dangerous.
Brown Douglas: One thing that you’ll notice is that marginalized oppressed people often are sexualized by the dominant narrative. You see that with LGBT people—the rhetoric is that they are indiscriminately promiscuous—as with black people and women. A couple of traditional cultural narratives come together here. In the conservative religious mindset, the only good sex is procreative sex. If you suggest that people are engaging in sexual activity for non-procreative reasons that’s sinful and lustful—that’s the Apostle Paul.
On top of that is this oppression narrative in which identity and sexuality get bound together. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault asked, Why is it that sexuality has become so significant in Western society that it becomes the source not just of reproduction but of truth? Why has it become the way the way people think of themselves and others? Foucalt suggests that it is because sexuality is where the body and identity come together. If you can control the sexuality of a group of people, then you can control that
Women are said to be driven by their passions and women’s sexuality has to be controlled, and is only acceptable if it’s procreative, which means men are controlling it. Sexualizing black people allowed black women to be used as breeders. It became a rationale for a black man to be lynched—because he was preying on white women. This is one way we have an overlap in how all women and black men are perceived as well as other marginalized groups. I wrote a book, Sexuality and the Black Church, in which I discuss this in more depth.
Tarico: How does this all play into a presumption of guilt? At the opening to your chapter on the Black body, you echo L. Z. Granderson’s question, Why are black murder victims put on trial? Why are black murder victims put on trial?
Brown Douglas: Black people don’t have the presumption of innocence. The concept of black people as chattel, that black people are not meant to occupy a free space and are dangerous when doing so, has been transformed into a notion of black people as criminal. If a black person has been accused of something then people assume that he or she is probably guilty, and our media representations of black people continue to reinforce this in the collective unconscious. There have been various studies [for example, here, here] which reveal that people have visceral automatic reactions to black bodies in which they see them as threatening. In one study police officers who were shown pictures of white and black men with and without guns were more likely to perceive that a black male had a gun even when he didn’t and to miss a gun in the hands of a white male even when he had one. The stereotypes of the criminal black male and the angry black woman lead to the presumption of guilt.
Tarico: I write largely for an audience of non-theists and people who describe themselves as former Christians. Many of them look at the black community’s response to an incident like the mass murder in Charleston and say, I don’t get it. How can so many Black people be Christian when Christianity has been such a tool of racial oppression against blacks? How can oppressed racial minorities embrace a sacred text that talks about chosen people and privileged blood lines? What do you say to that?
Brown Douglas: That is the very question that compelled another book of mine called, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? In the Black Christian tradition, the first time that Black people encountered God was not through their slaveholders. They knew God in freedom, as they encountered God through their African traditional religions. As black Christianity emerged during slavery, it emerged from an entirely different place than white Christianity. Black people understood that they were meant to be free, so God stood for freedom. Throughout history you see a black critique of White Christianity. The sum of the critique is this: If Christianity is used to oppress another that’s not Christianity. What I ask is, How can one embrace a culture of oppression and claim to be Christian?
Tarico: What do you say to your own son about all of this?
Brown Douglas: I always told my son every morning as he was growing up, There is no one greater than you but God and you are sacred. I’ve always tried to teach him that he is not greater than anyone, that we are equal. God created us all, and the very breath we breathe comes from God—that is what makes us all sacred. Even when someone treats you as less than human, you must still affirm their humanity. I am working overtime these last two years to help him understand that, yes, this nation is racist and people do racist things but not all people are like that. And so, I try to teach him to respect people as he would respect himself, to affirm his humanity and to finds ways to affirm that of others. Most of all, I try to teach him not to get trapped in the cycle of hate because in the end, hate is self-destructive.