The latest news from retrograde Florida is that the local Department of Education changed the standards regarding the teaching of slavery in America. Included in the new standards to be taught is “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Predictably, society divided into its camps. One group accuses the local department of education, and Republican governor Ron DeSantis by extension, of seeking to whitewash racism and slavery. The defenders of the standards argue for the truth of the statement and the intention of seeking to highlight the resiliency of those enslaved. There is certainly an argument to be made that the statement, sans context, is correct. The context, however, is incredibly important. There aren’t many (if any) of the new standard’s defenders noting that, historically, White people in the South often punished these enslaved Africans and their free descendants for using those skills for anyone’s benefit other than their White oppressors. Currently, the governor of Florida signed a bill that created a chilling effect on how teachers talk about race and the horrors of slavery in the classroom. On the heels of that come educational standards that undercut the brutality of what slavery and the Jim Crow period were in this nation’s history, and how it continues to affect us today. You can almost hear someone saying slavery was horrible, but slaves got some skills from it.
The saying is that the presence of the word “but” in a sentence negates everything that came before it. That’s what caught my attention as I thought about these new educational standards in my state. The young and impressionable students who will learn this new standard will come away from their historical education thinking slavery was bad, but it couldn’t have been that bad because those enslaved did gain skills they were able to use for their personal benefit. And I was reminded of two other times where I have run against this paradigm–in our church.
The first example was fifteen years ago, when I was a student in the seminary. While I was not in the class where it was mentioned, I was there when the Black students came out that class. They couldn’t believe that one of their White classmates would say such a thing. Slavery was bad but without it Africans would not have come to know Jesus. Let us put aside for a second the notion that this statement is, in a certain way, factually incorrect. The statement is a blatant attempt to justify a moral stain by constructing a positive result. As if any seemingly positive consequence would justify the crime at hand.
The second example is one many of us have heard often in reference to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters: love the sinner but hate the sin. When we understand what the presence of a “but” means, we can understand why the members of that community feel more hate than love from us in the way we treat them.
The question I am always left with in all these examples is–why? Why is it that some of us need that conjunction in these statements? Why do we feel the need to undercut the deleterious effects of chattel slavery on our society? And why do we need to undercut God’s radical love with a hate God never asked us to hold? As much as I would want to be wrong, I think it is because we are unwilling as a society and a church, to reckon with our place in, and justification of the mistreatment of, African-Americans in the country–for centuries. And I think it is because we need to find a way to justify our own homophobia, so we cover it in religiosity. But I would love to imagine (and see) a world where, as a society and a church, we take full responsibility for what was done to enslaved people in our country and how the consequences for those crimes continue to reverberate into our lives today. I would love for our church to find love in our hearts for people who are simply children of God as we are. A love untainted by any form of hate. I believe that if we can find a way to do that, if we can find a way to focus on the things that are true before our conjunctions, then we can live out the command that God once gave to the children of Israel–to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
Notes and References:
 Let me say from the outset that I believe these two examples are common in Christianity, but Adventism is what I know.
 A tip of the hat to my colleague Dr. Keith Augustus Burton who has done extensive research on the presence of Christianity on the African continent prior to its presence even in Europe.
 Micah 6:8.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at TheHinesight.blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.
Title image: Wikimedia Commons
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