The “Because I said so” God: a product of colonial evangelism

At Methodist annual conferences, there are a whole lot of reports that have to be shared and approved, which makes for a lot of boredom. To cope with this boredom, I have been reading Willie Jennings’ Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.

Jennings’ book looks at how the western Christian imagination has been shaped by the colonial encounter when Europeans first came across Africans & Latin Americans in particular. In these colonial encounters, slavery & economic exploitation were rationalized as part of the process by which the gospel was supposed to be shared with people who were less civilized. This has left our understanding of evangelism tainted by an agenda of empire-building such that it’s difficult to separate what Jesus has legitimately called us to do from the racial superiority complex that remains imbedded within our evangelism even today when it’s no longer socially acceptable to be openly racist. It’s important to understand that the rationalization of colonialism as evangelism was not some kind of secret conspiracy; the people who made these connections were very openly and genuinely trying to be faithful to God.

Nonetheless, we have inherited a way of thinking that took its shape under deeply problematic circumstances. Even though the more brutal side of racism is no longer openly manifested in our society, the residue remains. It’s like when bacteria rots a food — we can kill the bacteria by microwaving the food but the toxic enzymes remain even after the bacteria dies. Often we want to take an ahistorical perspective in which we concede our ancestors did things we cannot possibly defend but that was the past and now the world is completely different so we shouldn’t talk about the past anymore.

The far less comfortable reality is that what we today call racism took shape through people trying to be faithful Christians and tragically misinterpreting God’s Word in ways that we would probably do ourselves if we weren’t bound by modern social taboos. It’s worthwhile to look at the mistakes our ancestors made, not to wallow in some kind of pretend guilt as some “progressive” white people like to do in their own deceitful power play within the liberal form of fundamentalism called political correctness. Rather we should always be diligent to learn from the past. Augustine wrote that heresy happens by divine providence in order to help us discern the bounds of orthodoxy. We need to know what allowed faithful Christians to make wrong turns theologically so we can avoid them ourselves.

It’s a bit difficult to read how our ancestors thought they were being faithful to Christ by enslaving other races but it doesn’t do any good to pretend like it didn’t happen. Jennings’ first chapter is called “Zurara’s tears” about how the Portuguese royal chronicler Zurara was genuinely heartbroken to see the African slaves separated from their families in ancient Lagos, Nigeria, where he watched the first slave auction in 1444. Zurara wasn’t a wholly calloused and evil person but he had no doubt that the suffering of the slaves was ordained by God for the sake of their salvation. So he described their suffering as being somehow connected with Christ’s necessary suffering, just part of what they had to go through to be saved.

It makes me wonder to what degree the “Because I said so” God of modern Calvinism came into being as a result of the need to reconcile the cruelty of slavery with the belief that God remains in charge. I don’t think that our ancestors were being deliberately deceitful to explain slavery in terms of divine providence. They just didn’t have a theological framework for saying that following Jesus was incompatible with that practice.

There’s nothing in the Bible that condemns slavery explicitly and there are many verses that seem to justify it. So our ancestors would have had to go very much against the grain to conclude that loving your neighbor precluded supporting something that seemed to have Biblical sanction like slavery. (Sounds like some other issues we face in our day.) In any case some Christians did go against the grain but the vast majority didn’t. So we inherited the God created by those who were genuinely trying to be faithful Christians and live in a world in which they had to witness cruelty they didn’t feel like they had the power or the responsibility to change. Thus they concluded it must have been God’s will and part of God’s plan to save people from a hell that had to have been worse than slavery or God wouldn’t have let slavery happened.

It seems to me that this is at least partly how God became a “because I said so” God whom we are obliged to “glorify” (say nice things about, condemn other people on his behalf, etc) as something which happens completely independently of how we treat other people. After saying the way things are must be God’s will in order to cope with the strangeness and genuine heartbreak of seeing cruelty, generations later Christians who inherited this warped perspective thought the abolitionists and civil rights protesters were actually going against God’s will and focusing on shallow worldly concerns rather than trusting that God could use slavery and segregation (in their rationalization) to rescue people from a hell far worse than the suffering slaves and their descendants went through in this life. We have inherited categories & fault-lines from debates that we didn’t participate in but we allow these fault-lines and categories to define our current debates as though they are ahistorically inherent to Christian orthodoxy rather than being historically produced phenomena.

Of course the Bible is filled with prophetic exhortations which called the Israelites out for making a fuss over God while ignoring the marginalized people God cares about. The Bible has the resources we need to know the true God whose nature is completely different from the “because I said so” God, but we might need to read some verses that have never made the cut for the Four Spiritual Laws brochures.

This is why it’s so important to recognize that we bring lots of inherited baggage we didn’t choose to carry with us every time we open the Bible for interpretation. Looking into where this baggage came from is a legitimate theological task if we wish to gain a more truthful reading of God’s truth. It might make us puff out our chests a little further to think that we serve a “because I said so” God but we need to look at whether the God we think we know is really Biblical or the God created by colonialism & slavery.

3 thoughts on “The “Because I said so” God: a product of colonial evangelism

  1. I wonder if the proper way to narrate this is to see Duns Scotus’s hyper-voluntarist God at play in both Spanish Catholic colonialism and Dutch Reformed thought.

  2. I think that a better way to think of what Calvin and Beza were on about is to think through a textual lens. Because most of C and B is pure late Augustine with a soupçon of Anselm.

    Moreover, up until the mid-seventeenth century, the slave trade was in Iberian hands, and Reformed theology took root and sprouted in Switzerland and points north, which was rather far removed from those particular concerns. The Dutch had already embraced Calvinism when Dutch merchants in east Asia came to trade but didn’t make missionary efforts because the people of Asia were clearly reprobate. (And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the Dutch Reformed Church in south Africa…)

    • Thanks for the historical perspective. I still think colonialism (or at least the juxtaposition of a doctrine of divine providence and white men doing very bad things) is a tributary into the river of the “Because I said so” God. Certainly one of many but part of the discourse. Just like segregationism is a tributary into the river of “family values.” It’s not so much to claim a casual link or to say that segregationist thought is the true hidden core of the family values movement, but it informed its development in the early 70’s and it helps to explain the family values movement’s fixation on the “welfare mama” in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

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