Sunday, January 13, 2008

Religious Spin and the American History of Slavery (Favorite Essays, Part 3)

The Contradictory Religion of a Slave Girl
The transformation of the Jesus Movement into the Christian Movement has been the source of much strife and confusion throughout the history of Christianity. Translated to mirror and support a more hierarchic societal structure, the words of Jesus lost the spirit of their meaning and became more literal and patriarchal in the form of the Christian Movement. One result of this confusion is the ability of a dominating group to take advantage of marginal and/or disenfranchised groups for their own personal gain. Simply put, the Christian Movement supports prejudice. Examples of the horrors of this theology can be found in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II and the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants in the American South through the nineteenth century. Proof of the contrasting natures of the Jesus and Christian Movements, as well as the confusion these contrasts cause, can be found in the story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
Jacobs’ account enables one to understand why she and other slaves adhered to the patterns of the Jesus Movement, which evoke inclusiveness (despite status) and ethicality (through justice and compassion). The teachings of Jesus were very inspirational to slaves who sought freedom from oppression and equality in their community. On page eleven, Jacobs states, “My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.’” Time and again she shows a belief in such words even as she witnesses a lack of reciprocity from slaveholders who consider them selves to be Christians. This paradoxical situation was the source of much confusion for Jacobs, as she witnessed the contradictions between her own Christian beliefs and the Christian beliefs of slaveholders.
Christianity had been taught to the slaves as a means of keeping them subservient. An example of this can be found in Jacobs account of a sermon given by the Reverend Pike after a well known slave insurrection, in which Mr. Pike delivers the following message: “…You are rebellious sinners…‘Tis the devil who tempts you. God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways… Instead of serving your masters faithfully, which is pleasing in the sight of your heavenly Master…You must forsake your sinful ways, and be faithful servants. Obey your old master and your young master- your old mistress and your young mistress. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master”(60). Fear of the denial of their souls into heaven has long been a powerful tool in the Christian Movement with which to convince subordinates to ignore their earthly troubles. Moreover, slaveholders convinced themselves of their right of superiority through their religion. Jacobs asserts that her father’s act of teaching his children “that they were human beings” is “…blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach…” (12), and goes on to recount conversations with her master, Mr. Flint, in which she states, “…he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his…” (18), “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things” (27). She also states the sentiments of her mistress, “…my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; that they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress” (34). Finally, Jacobs says, “They seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves”(40).Despite these mandates Jacobs continued to believe that slaves were indeed human beings and were as eligible for their rights as were their slaveholders.
Discrepancies between the way slaves were supposed to behave and the so-called Christian behavior of slaveholders fortified Jacobs’ moral standing. The hypocrisy of how the slaveholders expected her and other slaves to behave (supposedly through the mandate of religion), as opposed to how the slaveholders themselves behaved was clear evidence to Jacobs that her convictions were accurate and that she should defend her morals at all costs; however, her gender made her situation more complex and thus the cost of her morals was a high one.
The duality of the Christian religion, which expected women to be chaste and pure, and yet expected women of slavery to yield to their masters in all things, and which also denied these same women the right to a lawful marriage, was a source of much torment and confusion for Jacobs. If she yielded to her master then she could no longer be chaste and pure; however, if she did not yield to her master then she was, through this disobedience, defying what was perceived as God’s will. Since she could not legally marry she was also considered dishonored if she took a lover. This situation pushed her into making a moral decision that was more or less based on the idea of free will, an idea which governed her belief in human rights as well; Jacobs chose to take on a lover who was a white slaveholder. She justified it by stating, “There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible” (48). Even though she had made the decision based on belief that it was better to choose one’s lover than to be raped, she still suffered much guilt from the act. Guilt was bestowed on her by her grandmother, who reacted to the news by saying, “I had rather see you dead than to see you as you now are. You are a disgrace to your dead mother…Go away! ...and never come to my house, again” (50). She was also chastised by her master, who claimed that she was a “disgrace” and “had sinned against [her] master” (51). In a cruel irony, her master even proposed that he could “make a lady” of her (46). In the midst of all these contradictions it was impossible for a woman in slavery to achieve the societal demands of what is considered a proper lady. Jacobs sums this situation up sorrowfully when she states, “…do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws…but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery. I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man…” (48).
These were not the only contradictions presented by Christianity to the slaves. Although religion offered slaves comfort and strength, it also raised many misgivings. When slaves were put through particularly hard times they resorted to the reasoning that it was God’s wish. Typical themes from Jacobs’ story include the view that God was the reason for a person’s strength, and/or that God was testing a person through strife; however, the dominant theme that can be found in the story is the wish for God to kill a person, or let them die. This was seen as a mercy by slaves who didn’t want to see their loved ones go through the agonies of a life of slavery, or who didn’t want to go through any more such trials themselves. Again and again, throughout Jacobs’ story, one can find evidence of this wish. Where murder and suicide were considered an abomination, a natural death by God’s mercy was seen as acceptable and fortunate. On the other hand, there are times when Jacobs’ describes moments where she pleads with God to let someone she loves live. How can a person be of sound mind when they concurrently praise their God for their fortunes, question their God for their misery, beg their God for a merciful end to suffering through death, and plead with their God to let a loved one live?
Through all of these theological inconsistencies Jacobs finally finds the way to freedom for her children and for herself. The triumph is bittersweet, however, as it comes at the cost of her principle, which is that a human being- a creature of body, mind, and spirit- cannot be bought and cannot belong as property to another human being. On hearing of her emancipation, Jacobs writes, “…I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his” (163). Amy Post appends Jacobs’ story by stating, “…through anxiety, turmoil, and despair, the freedom of Linda [Harriet Jacobs] and her children was finally secured, by the exertions of a generous friend. She was grateful for the boon; but the idea of having been bought was always galling to a spirit that could never acknowledge itself to be a chattel. She wrote to us thus, soon after the event: ‘I thank you for your kind expressions in regard to my freedom; but the freedom I had before the money was paid was dearer to me. God gave me that freedom; but man put God’s image in the scales with the paltry sum of three hundred dollars. I served for my liberty as faithfully as Jacob served for Rachel. At the end, he had large possessions; but I was robbed of my victory; I was obliged to resign my crown, to rid myself of a tyrant.’” (166). In these final words can be seen the biggest contradiction of all, which is that a woman cannot rejoice in her freedom through the simple fact that her freedom had to be purchased.

Works Cited
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001.

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