Three inscriptions about enslaving ideology

By Simon Barrow
January 5, 2011

At the beginning of the first volume of Selena Axelrod Winsnes' English translation of Danish sources on West African history, originally published from 1697 to 1822, there is a reproduction of the opening text from a slave ship captain's log. It records the commencing of a journey "In the Name of Jesus."

This journey was one in which human beings were crammed together like animals for transportation, their (barely) living and (often) dying being at the disposal of Christian masters, carried out for the ends of power and profit.

To the modern Christian sensibility, the notion that such things were done at all, let alone in the name of Christ, is unthinkable and unconscionable. More tellingly, it illustrates the depths of depravity to which those who uncritically believe themselves to be obeying biblical precepts and 'right doctrine' are capable of sinking.

That log record for a slave ship bound from Ghana should stand as a permanent warning to Christians that no dogma, no text and no ascription to Christ can ever legitimately be used to justify the mistreatment, dismissal, imprisonment, killing or dehumanising of any person or group of people. Such usage can only serve as a further abuse of the tortured Body of Christ.

That ought not to need saying, but it does.

A Nigerian Christian abolitionist once posed the simple, direct question "Would you speak of or act towards Jesus Christ like that?" as the litmus for Christian behaviour towards all people. It is instructive and worrying to apply this test to some of the rhetoric and propositions being used in contemporary church debates about the status, dignity, rights and ministry of gay people, for example. Or to the support of some Christians in various parts of the world (including the US) for judicial executions. Or indeed to the abuse meted out against migrants and asylum seekers by the likes of the  Daily Mail newspaper, which often claims to defend "Christian Britain" against such "aliens".

When people fleeing persecution are excluded or imprisoned by harsh immigration policies imposed at the hands of those whose wealth was built on slavery and is now maintained by massive global inequality; when those of "foreign" ethnicity or religion are demonised; when women and children are trafficked; and when laws are promulgated (by  Christians, among others) which could lead to the incarceration or death of non-heterosexuals, then we gave to ask: have the lessons of history really been learned? Have Christians and others shaped by the Christendom order that subjected faith to the standards of temporal, commerce-driven power decisively moved beyond their own enslavement to enslaving ideas and practices?

At Cape Coast castle in Ghana, one of the prime sites of the transatlantic slave trade, which I visited recently, there stand two other illuminative inscriptions. The first is a plaque unveiled by Barack and Michelle Obama on the occasion of their trip there on 11 July 2009. Both were visibly moved and shaken by what they saw of the inhumanity institutionalised by the slave-driven economy (see my previous blog, 'Living with the shadow of slavery'

The Obamas are held in great affection and esteem in Ghana, not so much because of any judgement on the policy direction of the USA, but because they personify the huge historical shift for black people in post-slavery societies. That someone of African descent has become American president is a matter of immense importance in Africa -notwithstanding the economic, political, social, cultural and religious legacies of enslavement which still have to be tackled in their societies and ours.

The other plaque was inscribed by Ghanaian leaders and elders in 1992, and is as simple and direct an epitaph for the past and signal for future commitment as you could hope to find.  It reads, in full:

"In everlasting memory
 of the anguish of our ancestors.
May those who died rest in peace.
 May those who return find their roots.
 May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity.
 We, the living, vow to uphold this."

As all people of faith should add: Amen.


(Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow is travelling in Ghana over the New Year in 2011)

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