“Reconstructing…” by Wilson-Hartgrove

Book Review: Reconstructing the Gospel

As part of my ongoing effort to educate myself about the problem of systemic racism in the U.S., I followed a number of activists on Twitter who share my faith*.

North Carolina author, activist, minister, and nonprofit founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is relatively new on my radar thanks to retweets from author, speaker, and activist Lisa Sharon Harper. Both of them, in conjunction with a handful of other theologians, have contributed to a book published by IVP entitled “Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning.” When I saw this book cover flutter across my Twitter feed, I knew it was a book I’d want to read and review on my blog. [Review coming soon!]

When I reached out to the generous folks at IVP, they not only agreed to send a review copy of “Still Evangelical?” but offered to send a copy of Wilson-Hargrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion as well. Each of these books is helping me to better understand the problem of systemic racism and the moral responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ advocate for essential change in our country.

Reconstructing the Gospel

Slave Bible at The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.I ended up reading Wilson-Hartgrove’s book first thanks to an online book club opportunity, and the book rocked my world. Reconstructing the Gospel is divided in two parts: Part One details the relatively brief history of what the author describes as “slaveholder religion”; Part Two reminds the reader what the Scripture says is good news and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

“The gospel that was twisted to accommodate America’s original sin must also be reconstructed if we are to experience the healing that Jesus wants to bring. Otherwise, evangelism is violence and those of us who spend our time in church meetings are perpetuating a death-dealing culture without even realizing it” (p. 17).

Photo (left): Slave Bible on display atThe Museum of the Bible

It is the author’s conviction that we Americans inherited—and ignorantly perpetuated—a “divided gospel.” Wilson-Hartgrove is convinced that if you were to dig down to the root of our political divisions and class disparities, you would find a sick gospel that was twisted and manipulated to justify owning, using, and abusing fellow human beings created in the image of God.

Do not doubt his conviction. It is based on FACT.

When my family and I visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. last November, we saw first-hand a copy of a “Slave Bible.” I had never even heard of such a thing, but there it was right before my very eyes!

Around 3 minutes into this video (left) which I was live-streaming from the Museum of the Bible, you can see the display for yourself. I’m reading the description card.This was the first time I ever knew there was such a thing as an edited version of the Bible solely intended for slaves! ? 

What made the slave Bible so different from that of the slave holder? Passages that talked about freedom for the captives had been cut out.

The book of Exodus? Not there.

Why?

The slave holders did not want slaves getting any ideas about freedom from the Bible.

I can’t even imagine how someone justified this bastardization of the Holy Word of God, but they did. This was a printed and bound copy. There are more. Somewhere.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass Portrait

In time, many men and women who had been brought to this country against their will, sold as chattel, and treated like animals regained a sense of human dignity. They learned to read and write the American language. They learned about God. And eventually, they learned the stories that had been cut out of the slave Bibles—including the story of the Hebrews being delivered out of bondage in Egypt by Moses. And these stories gave them hope and a vision for the future. 

Frederick Douglass, though born into slavery, escaped his bondage and became an accomplished orator, a gifted writer, and a political activist. He became the leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York1. He embraced the true gospel of freedom and equality and grace.

He wrote, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (quoted on page 35 of Wilson-Hartrove’s book).

Slave-Holder Religion is Alive and Well

What’s crazy to me is that, although Douglass penned his observations in the mid-1800s, slave-holder religion is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, it has gained a second wind thanks in part to the overtly racist comments and dehumanizing tweets about people of color from the current President of the United States who not only claims to be a Christian but also garnered 80% of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election (see one tweet below; many others can be found on his Twitter feed here).


Dehumanization is often used to groom unsuspecting people to tolerate what would otherwise be unacceptable treatment of another human being. In her May 2017 article “Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language” Dr. Brené Brown warns:

We must never tolerate dehumanization—the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history. When we engage in dehumanizing rhetoric or promote dehumanizing images, we diminish our own humanity in the process.” (emphasis mine)

Wilson-Hartgrove would agree. His personal journey out of racial blindness happened over a period of time through a number of enlightening encounters with people of color.  As he recounts the time he was talking to a group of teens at a youth camp about the virtues of biblical love and faithfulness only to be called out for his ignorance:

I not only assumed that the good life I imagined as a white man in America was what God wants for everyone, but I also naively suggested that these young people had the freedom to choose biblical faithfulness in all the same ways I did. Truth was, I didn’t have a clue” (p. 43).

When the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II courageously agreed to speak at his church in Klan country, Wilson-Hartgrove was no longer examining his faith alone. He had a mentor, and this man would help lead him from racial blindness to sight, from ignorance to knowledge, and from white independence to multi-racial interdependence in the “beloved community” of Christ followers. 

Ignorant No More

Proximity, humility, and an open heart—each of these is necessary for a life free from the shackles of slave-holder religion and the bad theology of white supremacy which has wormed its way into the church.

As the author builds his case against slave-holder religion, he argues that when we accept without question the religious traditions handed down to us, we often through ignorance make things worse. In other words, there is a white American “Christian” culture that blinds us to what is happening in the world around us. When we are blinded by racism, we limit the gospel to changing individual hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change more than that. He came to change the world (p. 132).

Racial inequality is rampant, complex, and systemic. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to engage politically: To change our country. To change the world. #slaveholderreligion #wilson-hartgrove Share on X

Racial inequality is rampant, complex, and systemic. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been called to engage politically: To change our country. To change the world.

For those not blinded by racism, Jesus came to change more than individuals’ hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change the world. He did it by gathering together a fusion coalition of the poor and the sick, tax collectors and zealots, religious defectors like Nicodemus, and lepers who had been written off as unclean. Preaching the good news that God’s politics made room for all of them together in a new social order…the political threat of this popular movement got Jesus arrested and killed” (pp. 132-133, emphasis mine).

To say that Reconstructing the Gospel opened my eyes would be an understatement, for that implies that only my eyes and brain were affected. The truth is that my entire body was affected by this book, because for the first time in my life, I have begun to viscerally understand what it means to live in skin. “White” skin. I get it.

Living in White Skin

Now, when I am out, I try to stay mindful of the privilege automatically afforded me and the responsibility I have as a follower of Jesus Christ to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God (cf. Micah 6:8). Not to solve problems, but to observe and listen. To “see” people for who they are and affirm the imago dei in each person.

Wilson-Hartgrove calls us back to the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, touching the untouchable, embracing the marginalized, and setting the oppressed free. It’s a social gospel, for sure. “By endeavoring to live as Christ lived in the world, the church helps everyday people see and remember that another way is possible” (p. 143). This gospel message does not neglect the soul; it touches the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

And here’s where we must slow down and take a good, hard look inside. Before we rush out to fix the problems of the world, we must first face the facts that—as much as we try to interpret and apply the Scriptures faithfully and accurately—most of us have inherited a broken gospel. Each of us needs to take a hard look at what we’ve been taught as right and good, and humbly hold the doctrines, attitudes, and practices of our faith up to the entirety of Scripture. Wilson-Hartgrove continues,

Reconstructing the gospel can never only be about the individual. This is why so many noble efforts at reconciliation fail. They pretend that broken people with the best of motives can simply opt out of hundreds of years of history through individual choices and relationships…But if we stop short of the personal work…then we carry the germ of white supremacy with us into our most noble efforts to rid this world’s systems of racism. Nothing is uglier than the inevitable explosion when white people try to participate in anti-racist work without addressing their own hidden wound. Each of us has to do our own soul work” (p. 156).

This is where I am right now: I’m doing my own soul work. It’s hard, and it’s taking way longer than I had hoped it would. The fact is, it might take the rest of my life to fully comprehend how hidden biases have affected my attitudes and actions, and how much damage I’ve unconsciously done thanks to ignorance and the slave-holder religion I inherited from my parents who inherited it from their parents who inherited it from theirs and so on.

Deconstruction is a Messy, but Necessary Process

Even though no one in my family tree ever owned a slave, we were still impacted by the false teachings and immoral compass of slave-holding theologians and leaders in our country. Thank God for grace, mercy, and enlightenment!!!

A dilapidated room in an abandoned house

Before the reconstruction of one’s faith comes deconstruction. Teachings based on poor hermeneutics steeped in white supremacy must be torn down. Slave-holder theology enmeshed in traditions, hymns, and “Christian” books must be must be ripped out. Ignorance and arrogance must be taken to the dumpster. Deconstruction is a time-consuming, messy process, but it is absolutely necessary for anyone who hopes to become more like Christ. 

Deconstruction is a time-consuming, messy process, but it is absolutely necessary for anyone who hopes to become more like Christ. #slaveholderreligion #reconstructingthegospel Share on X

This “soul work” involves more than proximity to people who are different than me. It requires humility and compassion and a willingness to listen and learn from people who I’ve never. “For healing to begin, we must learn to listen with our hearts” (p. 166). When we listen in humility and with our hearts, we are open to hearing the message as it is given, not as we think it should be.

I highly recommend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s 2018 book: Reconstructing the Gospel. It is eye-opening, convicting, and, most of all, extremely helpful in promoting a type of racial reconciliation that could turn this nation, and the world, toward the God who sees, hears, and loves everyone.

* BTW, I rarely use the word “Christian” to describe myself any longer because it no longer means what it used to mean. When the adjectival label “Christian” is routinely applied to people who so blatantly speak and act in a manner completely opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ,  the term can no longer be used to describe me or my faith.

For many years now, I have preferred the term “Christ follower” or “follower of Jesus Christ” to the term “Christian.” That’s the truth. I believe what the Scriptures say about Him, and I try to follow His teachings. More than anything, I want to live like He lived: Advocating for the oppressed. Embracing the marginalized. Confronting the hypocrites. When I say someone “shares my faith,” that’s what I mean. They follow the same Jesus I do, and you can tell it by what they say and what they do. You know the tree by its fruit.

1 Wikipedia contributors. “Frederick Douglass.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Aug. 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2018.

Photo credits:
“Frederick Douglass Portrait” is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.

“Cracked Cream Walls” photo by Nolan Issac (@nolanissac) on Unsplash


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Monumental Crisis (2017)

A Monumental Crisis: Biblical Response to the Removal of Confederate Monuments

Are you open-minded enough to entertain a thought without accepting it? What if the thought has merit? Would you consider changing a deeply-held conviction? Or is it impossible to change your mind on certain issues no matter what?!

Abraham Lincoln at State Capitol in Topeka, KS
State Capitol, Topeka, Kansas

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m an INTJ. Learning my personality type back in 2013 was one of the most liberating experiences of my life! Without delving into a diatribe declaring the importance of understanding your personality, I want to share ONE aspect of mine about which I am particularly proud: My beliefs run deep, and I am not easily swayed.

I love learning, and I truly enjoy exploring issues from all sides (which can be annoying for people who don’t like answering all my questions). And, truth be told, even after intense debate and scrutiny of various positions, I rarely change my opinion mainly because it took a lot of time and consideration for me to arrive at it in the first place. 

However, when I am presented with logical arguments based on facts that run contrary to my convictions, I am willing to re-evaluate and update my views when necessary. I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t happen very often, but it happened recently, and I’d like to share my journey with you.

A Crisis of Biblical Importance

The purpose of this article is primarily to help conservative white evangelicals think through a biblical response to the possible removal of Confederate monuments across the United States.

Let’s begin with a Haiku. Because. I just felt like writing one. ?

Life is History.
Study it. Grasp it. Teach it.
Learn from it. Make it.

Archaeology and history are two of my favorite subjects. I have a deep appreciation of the past and a passion for historical preservation.

Over the past few years, my family has been blessed to visit many of the monuments and memorials in Washington D.C.; Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota (or as OnStar called it, “Moun Trushmore”); the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; the Veterans Memorial Park in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and the beautiful West Virginia Veterans Memorial in Charleston.

We’ve visited George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, and the Arlington House/Robert E. Lee Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the summer of 2016, we drove from California to North Carolina through the middle of the United States on Highways 50 & 70. This was our first time on that particular route, and within the course of a week, we were able to visit seven national parks, six state capitols, and one historical building that witnessed the beginning of the end of slavery in this country.

Nationwide Memorials to the Civil War

Every state capitol we visited featured some type of war memorial with authentic, battle-worn cannons, long guns, sculptures, statues, and/or monuments—each one created to honor those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom. And nearly every state capitol we visited had some type of memorial of the Civil War—even Denver, Colorado!

While driving through Kansas, in between two major storm systems (That was fun! Not!), we unexpectedly stumbled upon a town I had not previously heard of: Lecompton, Kansas. It’s branded as “The Birthplace of the Civil War,” and since we were in the middle of studying the Civil War, we decided to stop and check it out. And much to our benefit, we arrived on a local history day. Middle-school children from neighboring communities enjoyed a dramatic presentation at the theater, a visit to the local museum, a dramatic recitation of an important speech, and a visit with a 19th-century trader at his trading post.

We were invited to participate in all activities, and we sat in on the re-enactment of an anti-slavery speech which was given in the exact same 160-year-old building where it had been given in the 1800s! It was inside this building, Constitution Hall, that a pro-slavery constitution was drafted and rejected—affecting the upcoming election and igniting what would eventually explode into the Civil War.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

That trip across the country was both beautiful and educational, but it was good to be home. We live in North Carolina, and our own state capitol building in Raleigh is surrounded by memorials to at least six wars. Here are some of the photos we took a couple years ago when we walked around Union Square. The craftsmanship on these statues is truly breathtaking—especially the detail of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Why am I sharing all this?

When I hear the arguments for and against removal of certain memorials, I take them seriously because I’ve stopped. I’ve learned. I’ve listened. I’ve touched. I’ve photographed. I’ve remembered. I’ve held my breath in gratitude. 

I get it!

Monuments are powerful reminders of our shared history, but our shared future is more important. #memorials #monuments Share on X

However, I have come to believe that while monuments and memorials are powerful reminders of our shared history, our shared future is more important.

In 2015 when a young white supremacist killed nine African American men and women at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the cry for the removal of Confederate symbols hit an all-time high. It began with a debate over flying the Confederate flag on state property, and it soon spiraled out to include the removal of Confederate monuments. I was wholeheartedly against that decision.

My reasoning sounded something like this:

The statues are preserving our history and honoring those who fought in the War between the States. Removing them is like erasing history, and I’m against that. We need to learn from our mistakes, and showing our kids historical monuments is memorable and important. Besides, they honor real people who lost their lives fighting for what they believed in, and their sacrifice deserves to be honored.

This rationale is based on three wobbly pillars: outdated information, “white-titlement,” and idolatry.

Outdated Information

In ancient times, an enemy could influence the historical record simply by defacing monuments (e.g., the Sphinx) or destroying documents and artifacts (e.g., the library at Alexandria). As Winston Churchill so profoundly remarked: “History is written by the victors.” Well, that was then. This is now.

The point is this: We live, eat, and breathe in the twenty-first century. To think that relocating a few hundred statues and memorials will somehow change the historical record is pure nonsense. Removing monuments from the public square will no more erase history than removing Nixon from the White House erased Watergate or removing Donald Trump’s Twitter account will erase his tweets.

Thanks to advanced technology, high-speed internet, and physical storage of data, preserving information has never been easier. Add to this the wide availability of access to audio and video recording devices and software, erasing history or modifying it for personal gain has become—for all intents and purposes—impossible. In other words, crowd-sourced history is here to stay, and it is instantly accessible 24/7/365 from your smart watch.

Crowd-sourced history is here to stay, and it is instantly accessible 24/7/365 from your smart watch. Share on X

White-titlement

“White-titlement” is a term I’ve coined to refer to the sense of entitlement some white people feel when confronted with a request (or even a demand) from people of color that makes them feel uncomfortable. It comes out in phrases like, “What’s the big deal?” and “It doesn’t bother me!” and “Why can’t they just get over it? Nobody I know has ever owned slaves.”

White citizens of the United States will never have the same experience that African Americans have when viewing Confederate memorials and statues, BUT we can try by using our imaginations. So, imagine this: 

You are an African American citizen of the United States of America, and though you were born and raised here, there is slavery in your family tree.

Your great, great grandparents were kidnapped from their homes/friends/family/culture, transported in horrific conditions across the ocean, and then sold to the highest bidder for a lifetime of servitude.

They lost everything while being denied any opportunity for gain. Many years later, when some lobbied to abolish slavery, others fought against it.

And when you see monuments on public display honoring those who fought to defend the right to own slaves—whether they owned slaves or not—is worse than pouring lemon juice on a paper cut.

It’s a constant reminder that your origins in this country began with kidnapping, humiliation, and enslavement and that some of your fellow citizens will never accept you as equals.

When it all comes down, there is no way a white person can experience a Confederate monument the same way an African American person does: It’s impossible. Our recent ancestors were not enslaved!

Are you still reading?

I hope so, because at this point, all I’ve done is stir the pot, right? My arguments are probably less than convincing, and you’d like to counter each observation—plus make a few more points of your own which I haven’t addressed.

I am aware.

You want me to do some research so that I understand the “real” cause of the Civil War and how it was about taxes and other issues. You want me to appreciate the fact that these were real people who gave their lives, and believe they should be honored for their sacrifice. You want to point out that Yankees also owned slaves, and that slavery was not the main reason for the War. Oh, wait, I already said that.

You want to point out that tearing down statues is anarchy, and we cannot acquiesce to mob rule. Destroying monuments is a crime and they should be punished. So, we should leave the monuments there to prove a point.

I know.

What if I told you that NONE of what I’ve written so far addresses the root cause of this emotionally-charged, extremely divisive dilemma?

What if I told you that as FOLLOWERS of JESUS CHRIST, we should have NO issue with the removal of Confederate statues, memorials, or monuments?

What if I told you that UNDERNEATH the rhetoric and racism lurks a different, more SINISTER problem as old as the world itself?

It’s true.

The problem is idolatry, plain and simple. It’s the third wobbly pillar and the most damning of all: idolatry.

Idolatry

Although no one believes the statue of Stonewall Jackson is representative of a god, and nobody was worshiping the Robert E. Lee statue prior to the events in Charlottesville, idolatry exists just the same.

According to Merriam-Webster, idolatry is “immoderate attachment or devotion to something,” and Random House defines it as “excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.” Just let that sink in for a moment.

There’s no denying the fact that there exists “immoderate attachment and devotion” to our Confederate memorials—even among Christians—and this “excessive reverence” for works of bronze, metal, clay, and stone is, in fact, idolatry.

The fruit of idolatry is conflict, pride, self-reliance, and division. Share on X

The fruit of idolatry is conflict, pride, self-reliance, and division—all undeniable qualities of this monumental conflict.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8

Do not be deceived: The fight over monuments is nothing more than one of satan’s tactics to divide and conquer.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

As long as our eyes are fixed on each other and not on the Lord, we risk turning people away from hope and salvation that can only be found in Him.

The Christian Response

What’s our mission here? What have we been called to? To fight the relocation of historical artifacts, because we don’t want them moved? Or is our mission to win people over to the saving grace of Jesus Christ? Jesus said,

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20

What are we, as Christians, to be known for?

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” 1 Peter 3:8

Are we willing to sacrifice our own handiwork for the sake of unity and peace?

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3:17-18

Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones in order to reach those who otherwise might not be reached?

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23

Have we placed the love of things above the love of people?

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ponder as you examine your own heart and evaluate your response to this monumental crisis:

  1. If I knew that my attitude against removing Confederate monuments was a stumbling block to another person’s coming to know the Lord, would I be willing to stand down?
  2. Is preservation of a temporal monument more important than an eternal soul?
  3. Is the adversary using my words and/or actions to make another person feel oppressed, unheard, and hostile to the gospel message?
  4. Is my heart being hardened towards protesters? People of color? Liberals?
  5. What does Scripture say about this type of conflict?
  6. Based on what I know about Jesus, how do I think He would respond to this crisis?
  7. And, finally, how would He have me respond to the crisis? To my neighbor? To those seeking light in a dark world?

As you do a little soul searching and self examen, I encourage you to open the Scriptures with a friend. Dig for the truth. Be teachable. Allow the Holy Spirit to speak truth into your soul. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Romans 14:10-13

After much consideration, I have come to agree that monuments honoring soldiers who fought for the Confederacy should be moved to museums or venues specifically designed to educate people about the Civil War. There really is no need to have them in the public square. It’s time to move on.