A Religion the Master Had Profaned
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In his book Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Sings of Life and Death, Howard Thurman draws this conclusion, reflecting on the faith of the enslaved and the power of the spiritual hymns they would sing upon learning of the liberating God: “The slave, by some vastly superior creative insight, undertook the redemption of a religion the master had profaned.”
I thought of that as I visited Dixwell Congregational UCC this past weekend. This church was birthed in the cauldron of the colonial catastrophe that was enslavement. The white man who who gathered free black leaders and former enslaved leaders to form their own church for the first time in New Haven CT 1819, formally establishing it with a signed charter and covenant in February of 1820, would win the opprobrium of his family and be banished from his household.
He would soon relinquish leadership of the church to James Pennington, a black pastor who would organize the Dixwell church to fight for the release of the enslaved Africans aboard the Amistad and then help to found the American Missionary Association which would plant black churches and found black colleges around the country.
As I preached at the celebration of their bicentennial year (which was actually two years ago but had to be delayed for obvious reasons), I recalled what was going on in the church 200 years ago. White pastors were preaching to enslaved peoples that it was their duty to follow the will of their masters, appointed by God both to enslave them and control their base desires and render them human-like. Those white pastors tore out entire books and stories from the Bible, like the book of Exodus, where God was portrayed as, in the words of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “one who had a preferential option for the poor” and who therefore called Moses the liberator to go to the Pharoah and “set my people free.”
Recalling in the sermon a God who would never tolerate the enslavement of children created in their image, I dared suggest that Dixwell church became God’s new Moses, called and formed and sent to suggest to the white church that had profaned its religion that the masters must “let God’s people go.”
This is what Dixwell and their pastors and members have done for 200 plus two years: preached God’s liberating call to justice and fought for both the freedom of the oppressed, enslaved, and marginalized while also doing their level best to redeem the religion the master had profaned.
Dixwell, and their sister church just 40 miles away, Faith United Church of Christ – itself also forming within months of Dixwell with all black members – have undertaken the work of restoring the church to the roots of love and justice Christ implanted within us, but which a thirst for world domination and subjugation through the lens of colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy had diminished if not entirely, then substantially.
I give God thanks for Dixwell and Faith, and every church since formed as a deterrent to the impulses of a church founded in the centering of whiteness, the ravages of racism, and the theological defense of enslavement.
It is my fervent hope that the redemptive work begun and undertaken by these communities of faith will instill a leaven of love in the loaves of bread we share at our tables of fellowship; and that this bread will feed a new longing for the restoration of all people to their status as children of the living God, a God whose very image they incarnate in their beautifully hued body.
May the work of redeeming the Church from the evil of racism and white supremacy continue so that there is no longer any profaning of the religion Christ began on this, our journey Into the Mystic.
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