The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence

By Andrew R. Murphy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 28
Enduring the Sacred
Scars of Slavery

Yolanda Pierce


Introduction

How does one of the central images of Christianity, that of Christ’s suffering and crucified body, function in relationship to black enslaved and suffering bodies? How did the enslaved interpret, for themselves, physical violence under the hands of Christian masters? Under the system of chattel slavery, proslavery advocates constructed a theology in which bodily suffering is both punishment for sin and reward for intimate identification with Christ. This theological stance allowed slave masters to use the same scriptural references to reprimand and reward: the whip is punishment for disobedience and a holy reminder of participation in Christ’s suffering. Yet, for those actually in bondage, did a theological understanding of physical violence produce a passive acceptance of earthly suffering or did it cause active resistance through an identification with the suffering of Christ?

This discussion of American slavery, religion, and violence is framed around the biblical passage of Isaiah 53, known in Christianity as the “Suffering Servant” passage, particularly the hallmark verse of Isaiah 53:5: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”1 The majority of late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century first person slave narratives provide great detail about the bodily violence inflicted on the narrators at the hands of their “religious” owners. Because of this intense focus on their human “wounds” and “bruises,” these writers edify the hypocrisy of their nominally Christian slave masters, but they also offer their own sophisticated theological interpretation of physical punishment. In this emerging “theology of suffering” articulated in the slave narratives, pain inflicted by the human hands of slave masters is evidence of the masters’sins and transgressions. This theology, in which slave masters, and not God, are responsible for suffering, contrasts sharply with interpretations of other forms of suffering which could foster a more intimate

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