Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion

"I am a man torn in two. And the gospel I inherited is divided."Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove grew up in the Bible Belt in the American South as a faithful church-going Christian. But he gradually came to realize that the gospel his Christianity proclaimed was not good news for everybody. The same Christianity that sang, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" also perpetuated ra...

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Title:Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion
Author:Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
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Edition Language:English

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion Reviews

  • Joshua

    A few months ago, one of my white nieces asked a good black friend of mine what period of history she would choose to live in, if she could pick from any. Her response, so calm and poised, said that she was very content to live as she was today, because people who looked like her couldn’t live with the rights she had today in other decades in history. This moment stuck with me - and exposed the ignorance in my own heart. I didn’t - and don’t - have a worldview or an ans

    A few months ago, one of my white nieces asked a good black friend of mine what period of history she would choose to live in, if she could pick from any. Her response, so calm and poised, said that she was very content to live as she was today, because people who looked like her couldn’t live with the rights she had today in other decades in history. This moment stuck with me - and exposed the ignorance in my own heart. I didn’t - and don’t - have a worldview or an answer to that question that resembles my friend’s answer at all. And that caused me to pause.

    It’s been said that Christianity is an American white man’s religion - and this book challenged, convicted, and spurred me to think and rethink how I view the gospel. I may be left with more questions than answers, but they are questions that need to be asked and wrestled over. May Jesus continue to keep stripping away our prejudice, pride, and ignorance until people experience His kingdom come on earth as in heaven.

  • Shannon Lewis

    Mandatory reading for all Evangelicals. Timely & relevant, Jonathan cuts to the soul of the significant issues of race & power within the church. I'm going to be reading this over & over to take it all in. I am pretty sure, come the end of 2019, this book will be my "Book of the Year." Thank you for writing it, Jonathan!

  • Jeff

    It's been almost two months since I finished this book, and the review is way overdue.

    I believe that this is a very important book for the Christian subculture of our day. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has given us some sobering things to ponder, both as a church and as a society.

    When I began reading this, I was intrigued by the subtitle, "Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion." Surely, I thought, this is not relevant to me. I have never owned slaves, and as far as I know

    It's been almost two months since I finished this book, and the review is way overdue.

    I believe that this is a very important book for the Christian subculture of our day. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has given us some sobering things to ponder, both as a church and as a society.

    When I began reading this, I was intrigued by the subtitle, "Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion." Surely, I thought, this is not relevant to me. I have never owned slaves, and as far as I know, no one in my family for at least several generations back has owned slaves.

    I was wrong. It is extremely relevant.

    You see, we have inherited the concepts of slaveholder religion. It's not our fault, necessarily, but it is our fault that we have not worked harder to fix it.

    The book starts off with a bang, in the foreword by the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. Oh . . . and before I forget, I should mention, because it matters quite a bit . . . Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is "white." Here's the first part of the foreword:

    "So-called white evangelicals, who say so much about what God says so little--and so little about what God says so much--have dominated public discourse about religion in America for my entire public life. They have insisted that faith is not political, except when it comes to prayer in school, abortion, homosexuality, and property rights. They have overlooked the more than 2,500 verses in Scripture that have to do with love, justice, and care for the poor, and they have tried to make Jesus an honorary member of the NRA."

    Like I said . . . "bang!"

    What, exactly, is "slaveholder religion?" It is, in a sense, what Dr. Barber described in that paragraph in the foreword. It goes all the way back to a time when so-called Christians who thought it was okay to own another human being actually believed that it was a good thing that they owned slaves, because if those people had stayed in Africa, they might never have heard the Gospel.

    This is truth; they actually believed that. It is documented in the book from historical writings.

    Slaveholder religion comes from horribly misreading Scripture and twisting it to favor "white evangelicals." And in this book, Wilson-Hartgrove tells us about racial blindness, which has led us into a place where the body of Christ is tragically divided, even though we aren't aware of it. Well, of course we aren't aware of it, because we are blind to it, and, for the most part, we don't want to see it.

    There are a number of statements in this book that are both quote-worthy and worthy of deep thought.

    In the chapter about racial blindness, he says, "white evangelicals can't ignore black and brown sisters and brothers in America who ask why 81 percent of us voted in 2016 for a man who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. At least we can't ignore them if we see them." (p. 45)

    Same chapter, p. 54: "If we are honest to God and ourselves, we have not wanted to see. Far too often, we have chosen blindness, even refusing the hands of friends who reached out and tried to lead us to the one who could restore our sight."

    P. 61 and 62, chapter 4, "Living in Skin:" "The unique contribution of slavery during the establishment of the American colonies was the employment of skin color to assign a class of people to perpetual servitude. . . .In explicit contrast to the enslavable black flesh of Africans, people of European descent began to imagine themselves as

    . By virtue of their whiteness--and for no other reason--the imagined a divine right to own black bodies."

    In the course of the book, Wilson-Hartgrove points out a very uncomfortable fact about the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I believe that he was, at one point, as well. Turns out the whole reason the SBC exists is because there was a group of Baptists that wanted to keep slaves. So, they split from the rest of the Baptists who had, correctly, determined that owning another human being was a despicable practice.

    So, in 1995, the SBC "issued an official apology for its endorsement of slavery." But then, they turned right around and applied the same passage of Scripture that had been used to endorse slavery (Ephesians 5-6) as they forced everyone who worked for the International Mission Board "to sign a statement of faith to which they added an article about female submission."

    Racial blindness is in our spiritual DNA, says Jonathan.

    In the midst of all this, though, he gives us stories of courageous people such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. And he shows us, through the stories of Jesus healing blind men in the Gospels, that, while Jesus does, in fact, heal blindness, "we all have to admit our own blindness--even those of us who have pledged to follow him."

    Jonathan found help for his dilemma in an activity known as "porch-sitting." It was a way of coping with what "some in the "African American community calls DOTS (daily ongoing traumatic stress)." He found acceptance on the porch of someone he simply calls "Ms. Carolyn," where "neighbors gossiped and laughed about each other, assessed our surroundings, and argued about what was really going on in the world and what any of us could do about it." It was a place where people didn't act like they "had it all together." Described the way Jonathan described it, it was possibly a more authentic experience of "church" than anything most of us have experienced.

    So why does this issue persist? "White supremacy doesn't persist because racists scheme to privilege some while discriminating against others. It continues because, despite the fact that almost everyone believes it is wrong to be racist, the daily habits of our bodily existence continue to repeat the patters of white supremacy at home, at school, at work, and at church. White supremacy is written into our racial habits. In short, it looks like normal live." (p. 77)

    Wilson-Hartgrove moves on to part II, "The Christianity of Christ." In this section, he shows us the parts of history where people fought against the evils of slavery and tried to make a difference. He also describes meeting the man who would write the foreword for this book, Dr. Reverend William J. Barber II.

    He describes Jesus's meeting with Nicodemus in the New Testament, and how Jesus extends a hand to us, an invitation to "leave your people, your country, and your father's household and come be a part of the beloved community." Too many of us have tried to follow Jesus without doing those other things, and it has presented great problems for us.

    He then lets us know that the last thing we need is for a white person to lead the charge. "A man who knows he is blind doesn't pretend he can run on his own, much less pretend that he can lead others. But if someone with vision extends him a hand, he can begin to find his way." (p. 121)

    He then speaks of the way of the cross. "For those not blinded by racism, Jesus came to change more than individuals' hearts or the culture of families. Jesus came to change the world. He did it by gathering together a fusion coalition of the poor and the sick, tax collectors and zealots, religious defectors like Nicodemus, and lepers who had been written off as unclean. Preaching the good news that God's politics made room for all of them together in a new social order, Jesus built a popular movement in Galilee and throughout the Judean countryside that ultimately led to a nonviolent uprising in Palm Sunday's Triumphal Entry. The political threat of this popular movement got Jesus arrested and killed."

    There are answers. There are things we can do to help ourselves. The first is to "shut up and listen." Listening is an art that has been lost in American culture. We all want to talk. We spend the time we aren't talking not listening, but, rather, thinking about what we are going to say next. We need to stop and listen! Then, we need to do what he calls "staying put." The monastics call this "stabilitas." We are not in control of the world, and we need humility. We cannot solve problems we do not understand. It is not the opposite of action. "It is the necessary counterbalance to faithful action in solidarity with people who are suffering." We tend to believe that our efforts will be more helpful elsewhere. That's why white evangelicals are always taking mission trips . . . to somewhere else! The final thing is to always be reforming our lives. This should be true whether we are speaking of racism or anything else. When I stop growing, I start dying.

    Long review, I know. But this book is so very important, and it opened my eyes to some ways of thinking that I was guilty of. I confess that I have not sussed it all out, yet. It will be in my mind for a while. I may read it again, soon. But the truth is, racism/bigotry is alive and well in the USA. Perhaps more then ever. And we can't afford to continue to be blind to it, thinking everything is okay.

    Because it's not.

  • Adam Shields

    Short review: “There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King."

    Reconstructing the Gospel is an attempt to work through the problem of sin and culture infecting the presentation and living out of the gospel. A gospel that justifies slavery, racism and oppression of the poor and marginalized is not the same gospel that Jesus was presenting. I remember reading John MacArthur's commentary on Luke. Ma

    Short review: “There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King."

    Reconstructing the Gospel is an attempt to work through the problem of sin and culture infecting the presentation and living out of the gospel. A gospel that justifies slavery, racism and oppression of the poor and marginalized is not the same gospel that Jesus was presenting. I remember reading John MacArthur's commentary on Luke. MacArthur specifically 'corrected' the reading of Jesus' sermon on the Plains where Jesus says, 'blessed are the poor' to note that Jesus was talking about spiritual poverty and removed the economic implications of Luke's focus. MacArthur never noted (nor have most presentations of Luke that I have read) note that there is a good likelihood that Luke was, or had been, a slave based on his name, background and occupation. Luke's presentation of his gospel as one where Jesus was actually interesting in physically poor and oppressed is often spiritualized by American Christian readings.

    It is this type of misreading of scripture and Christianity that Wilson-Hartgrove is trying to point out and correct.

    Reconstructing the Gospel is a mix of personal memoir of discovery, history and some proscriptions on how we work on reconstructing the gospel for ourselves (plural). The reconstruction suggestions are not simple. As illustrated by his own story, the primary method of reconstructing the gospel is spending LOTS OF TIME learning from people that are poor or oppressed. There isn't really a short cut to discovering blindspots. Reading a couple of books won't really fix it.

    I have a probably too self indulgent review full review on my blog. It is hard not to connect Wilson-Hargrove's book with either the ton of books that have tried to define the gospel or the reading I have been doing on history or the books on race and culture.

    But because we can't really read a book apart from the other related books, I spend about 1400 words making connections on the full review on my blog

  • Crystal

    This is a small but powerful book that helped me define and understand better the concerns that have been growing inside me about (white) American Christianity. While I have refused to give up my faith, I've struggled for the past several years to find a church that I felt comfortable in, that didn't feel segregated, ignorant, or even racist in major or minor ways. I haven't really attended church since the majority of American Evangelicals elected their latest "Family values" candidate, a thric

    This is a small but powerful book that helped me define and understand better the concerns that have been growing inside me about (white) American Christianity. While I have refused to give up my faith, I've struggled for the past several years to find a church that I felt comfortable in, that didn't feel segregated, ignorant, or even racist in major or minor ways. I haven't really attended church since the majority of American Evangelicals elected their latest "Family values" candidate, a thrice married man who has paid porn stars for money and bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women, a man who calls neo-Nazis fine people, but my latinx friends 'drug dealers and rapists', a man who is celebrated by neo-Nazis like David Duke. How can I submit to a church too blind to see the problems with holding him up as 'God's anointed'?

    The answer is simple. I don't. But I've been hanging in limbo, trying to figure out what that means for me, my faith, and any chance of fellowship with other believers. Then I came across a mention of this book, written by a man who graduated from the same college as me, a few years after I did, that I knew distantly through my roommate. Our (distantly) personal connection as well as the topic piqued my interest, so I did what I rarely do, and immediately bought a copy.

    I am very grateful that I did so. Reconstructing the Gospel isn't a large volume, but it is a powerful, heartfelt one. Jonathan is honest about his own roots, in admittedly racist North Carolina Christian culture, and about his own journey away from that, into what he has become and is becoming, a devout Christian in recovery from "whiteness" and growing in fellowship with what he hails as the true American church, the historically black church. There's much about Jonathan's cultural heritage and upbringing with which I cannot identify, as a northern-born descendant of Anabaptists. But I'm still an heir of the foundational white supremacy of our country and of the white American church. and Jonathan helped me see, more than anyone has before him, how much that mistaken identity of "whiteness" has poisoned not only our systems as a whole, but each individual "white" person who has bought the concepts, who has participated in the lifestyle, who has benefited from the systemic racism all around us. That includes me.

    I've read critiques of this book that it's not heavily theological, and that's true, but I'm not sure that the lack thereof deserves criticism. This book examines the big picture of the brokenness of our divided country and church, and the small picture of Jonathan's life, and the lives of those around him who have influenced him and helped (or hindered) him in his walk. It doesn't pretend to be a theological textbook. What it offers to be is a call to change, community, and true holiness for those 'white' Christians who are willing to hear. I'm willing to hear, and therefore much of what Jonathan writes really ministers to me, and I hope that I will continue to follow through on what I've read and learned, as I continue to seek out reconciliation on scales both large and small, and to do the work of justice we are called to, as I recover from the toxic concept of "whiteness", especially white Christianity.

  • Erin *Help I’m Reading and I Can’t Get Up*

    Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in order to produce an honest review.

    This book is a passionate, emotional look at the Southern evangelical Gospel and its inextricable rootedness in racism and slavery. It is charitable, Scriptural, theological, and personal. The author's deep ties to his state (North Carolina, where I also live!) and to the work being done here, particularly the work of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II-- whose books I highly recommend-- drive the feelin

    Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in order to produce an honest review.

    This book is a passionate, emotional look at the Southern evangelical Gospel and its inextricable rootedness in racism and slavery. It is charitable, Scriptural, theological, and personal. The author's deep ties to his state (North Carolina, where I also live!) and to the work being done here, particularly the work of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II-- whose books I highly recommend-- drive the feeling that this is not an academic exercise; this is his life. And ours.

    Though Part I is a bit muddled, I implore you to push through-- everything afterward is well worth your time.

  • Ethan

    A personal story of reflection regarding the Christianity in which the author was raised and his reckoning and grappling with its roots in and complicity with slavery, white supremacy, and oppression, and the attempt to "reconstruct" the Gospel to be more consistent with the Good News of Jesus.

    The author is white and shares his story of having to acknowledge how churches in the American South perpetuated oppression both in the days of slavery and long afterward, and how it remains em

    A personal story of reflection regarding the Christianity in which the author was raised and his reckoning and grappling with its roots in and complicity with slavery, white supremacy, and oppression, and the attempt to "reconstruct" the Gospel to be more consistent with the Good News of Jesus.

    The author is white and shares his story of having to acknowledge how churches in the American South perpetuated oppression both in the days of slavery and long afterward, and how it remains embodied in much of what passes for Evangelical political action. He speaks of getting to know black people active in the community and the church in North Carolina and how those experiences transformed him. He writes of the work of justice being done which seeks to relieve oppression.

    For those willing to hear, and especially those who already agree with at least most of the author's premises, the book is powerful and compelling. Yet I wonder how it would be viewed by who would be ostensibly the author's desired audience, those who have not yet come to his viewpoint: it may seem strident and overly, to put it nicely, "prophetic" in tone. At times the author becomes guilty of confusing the symptom from the cause: colonialism, and the spread of capitalism as the world's economy, for instance, do not stem from "slaveholder religion," but come from farther upstream, Western cultural and religious chauvinism which defined how it looked at the world, led its people to explore and conquer and enslave, and remains in many forms to this day.

    Overall a challenging message to hear for those willing to hear it. Most of the time the author is not wrong. That does not mean that what he has to say is easy to absorb.

    **--galley received as part of early review program

  • Joel Wentz

    This book surprised me in a few ways, and it's easy to recommend to people immersed in the American-Evangelical tradition of Christianity.

    Overall, the book is much more 'memoir' and personal reflection than I was expecting. While the work is saturated in theological reflection, it is primarily expressed in personal language. Certain chapters feel lifted from a diary, which is absolutely not a bad thing, as long as you don't go into it expecting scriptural exegesis and didactic instru

    This book surprised me in a few ways, and it's easy to recommend to people immersed in the American-Evangelical tradition of Christianity.

    Overall, the book is much more 'memoir' and personal reflection than I was expecting. While the work is saturated in theological reflection, it is primarily expressed in personal language. Certain chapters feel lifted from a diary, which is absolutely not a bad thing, as long as you don't go into it expecting scriptural exegesis and didactic instruction. Wilson-Hartgrove is more interested in teasing up challenging questions and shining a light on difficult realities than simply prescribing steps to move forward (I'm sure he would say the impulse to prescribe solutions is precisely one sign of 'slaveholder religion'). So, dear reader, know this going in. Also know that, especially if you grew up strictly in white-American-evangelical churches, you will be challenged by this book. I've done a lot of reading and reflecting on the types of issues raised here, and even so, parts of this book stretched me, even disturbed me, and left me longing for a truer Christianity. But perhaps this is exactly what Wilson-Hartgrove was going for.

  • Kari

    The content in this book is good but I don’t think it is organized quite well enough. I also think it needed to be fleshed out more - whether that was more of JWH’s story or more historical context (or both).

  • Laura

    Written by a man filled with guilt from a prejudice he learned at home and fueled by his church, he assumes all view the world through a racial lens and that all white people share his guilt. The book is offensive to anyone who believes all are created by God to be equal. Perhaps this book has more meaning to someone who grew up experiencing Jim Crow laws and didn't see them as wrong. Never having believed they were just I can't assume the authors guilt just because I happen to be white.

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