Each day during our series, The Colorful Kingdom, we at Oakland Communion are journaling our responses to various prompts in the book Multiethnic Conversations. Each week during this series, I'm making one of my journal entries public with the hope that it will give each person journaling something to push up against and everyone else a place to enter the conversation.
Q: How might the development of America been different without slave labor?
A: The Man in the High Castle is a TV series that asks, "How would things be different if the Allies lost WWII?" In it, the entire piece of land that used to be the United States is divided between Germany and Japan, and Americans are degraded, second-class citizens.
I would love to see the creativity of storytellers and filmmakers brought to bear on the question above in Netflix original series, because I think the plausible truth would be more beautiful and complicated than we might initially think. So how might the development of America been different without slave labor?
Of course, without slavery, the need to racialize society as a method of social control loses much of its purpose, since the powers-that-be don't need to keep millions of African slaves in check through fear and hatred by poor whites. My hope would be that racism and its systemic inequities, at least in the way that we know it today, would be hugely diminished in such a world (Although, Willie James Jennings casts some doubt on that idea in his assessment of the origins of race in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.).
But I imagine there would be a price to pay for all this potential harmony. In our reading this week, DeYmaz and Okuwobi quote a church leader, Rev. W. M. Rogers, from the early 1800s, "When a slave asks me to stand between him and his master, what does he ask? He asks me to murder a nation's life; and I will not do it, because I have a conscience, because there is a God."
This horrific quote from a white pastor, despite its unconscionable lack of care for his brother and its terrible theology, actually reveals two deeply important things:
- Slavery was the economic engine of the United States, and without it the nation would (it was feared) be in danger, and
- A false theology was constructed by white Christians of the time that prioritized the success of the nation over the lives of real people.
I wonder, if slavery didn't exist, would America have had the wealth to pull away from England? To defend itself in the War of 1812? Would colonists have expanded so quickly into the land and destroyed the lives and land of Native Americans with the same terrible efficiency if there wasn't free labor to work all that land? How would that have impacted the United States' ability to fight other claims to the land from Spain or France? Would The United States today be a super power in North America or a small band of colonies on the Eastern seaboard? In other words, was there a real possibility that Rogers was right--that destroying slavery would "murder a nation's life?"
This question is so crucial for us to answer because I think Americans are presented with similar choices today. (Whatever you think about the underlying facts/falsehoods of these questions, this is often how they are framed.)
Do we care for Syrian refugees even if we run a risk of terrorists hiding among them?
Do we hire people returning from prison even if we run a theoretically higher risk of a crime being committed by an employee?
Do we provide housing for the unhoused in our communities, even if it's not economically efficient and takes funds away from policing?
All of these are versions of a deeper question: Do we really love our neighbor as ourselves, or do we just love ourselves?
If the answer is the latter, we will construct theologies that protect our self-protective stance. We will end up, when pressed, blaming our selfishness on our imagined "will of God."
But if we love people more than profits, more than status, more than power, as Jesus told us we must, we must be willing to stand on the side of marginalized and the oppressed even, or maybe especially, when it hurts.