by Susan Trollinger
Traveling east on I-70 the other day, Bill and I passed a semi with a sticker on the back of its trailer. It was a simple graphic on which appeared a four-lane road (drawn in black), like an interstate. And then that road separated into two pairs of lanes going in different directions. Two lanes veered off to the left, and at their end was a cross. The other two lanes veered off to the right, and at their end was “SIN.”
Whoever placed that sticker on the back of that truck undoubtedly had what they took to be a simple and crucial message: you need to make a choice; are you going to live a life of sin or a life with Christ. Got it.
But there’s a problem. When we attend to the history of Christianity, this simple dualism just doesn’t work. Perhaps we could go farther back than this, but a reasonable place to start is the fourth century and Roman Emperor Constantine’s deployment of Christianity to win a military battle. Given Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that the Christian’s call is to turn the other cheek, putting a Cross on the breast of every Roman soldier seems problematic, to say the least.
Jumping ahead, we have the Crusades from the 11th century to the 13th (and beyond), inaugurated by Pope Urban II which resulted in the torture and slaughter of millions of Jews, Muslims, and others who got in the way of advancing Crusaders.
Of course, modernity has plenty of examples, as much of the world was violently colonized by Western countries in the name of Christianizing “the natives.”
And then there is industrial slavery. A so-called common sense and literal reading of the Bible made clear to many Southerners (and some Northerners too) that slavery was very much in keeping with God’s order. Abolitionists tended to be Christians in the 19th century—Quakers, mostly. But they could not offer proof texts from the Bible to support their arguments.
But white Christian plantation owners in the South certainly could. Jesus never spoke out against slavery. And Paul seemed to say that slaves should obey their masters. In the course of the Civil War, Southerners (and some Northerners too) argued vehemently that slavery was righteous. After the war and very soon after Reconstruction in the South came apart at the seams (in part because Northern whites were happy to defund Union troops keeping order in the South), so-called Christian arguments were mobilized to legitimate racial segregation and Jim Crow (Righting America at the Creation Museum, 185-188).
Throughout the 20th century and continuing today Christian organizations, like Answers in Genesis, make an all-too-simple equivalence between Darwin and racism. Darwin plus evolution equals racism while Christians know that we are all God’s children. If only.
Christians of all stripes must face the ways in which certain readings of the Bible have been used to oppress the very people that Jesus called Christians to love—the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the forgotten, the immigrant, the ostracized.
The problem with the sticker is that it reinforces the extremely problematic idea that Christians are without sin. But such an idea is obviously false. And today, this point is being made loud and clear in the streets of our cities and abroad. Especially we white Christians must listen. We must listen to their voices, and we must attend to our own racist past and present. We must own our sin. And offer reparations.