Another book on racism? Haven’t we moved beyond that topic yet? Isn’t it time for all of us to get over it? It is precisely these responses to racism that prompted Skot Welch, Rick Wilson and Andi Cumbo-Floyd to write Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith and a New Way Forward.
Welch and Wilson have led diversity workshops for church groups and hosted a radio show on race relations in Grand Rapids, Mich. In both contexts they heard an array of defensive reactions to the idea that racism still troubles the waters of our current times. The book stems from their desire to address the assumption that whiteness is a societal norm, which leads many to say, “Racism is not my problem.”
We might think that the most common roadblocks to equality and reconciliation are conservative ploys to avoid the systemic issues at hand. But the authors show how progressive “color-blindness” is equally prevalent as a barrier to improvements. The problem with color-blindness, from the perspective of many people of color, is that it fails to see what people experience day-to-day: “If you don’t see my ethnicity, you don’t see me.”
Plantation Jesus is in many ways an inevitable book rising out of Americans’ heightened awareness of historical harm and trauma for indigenous groups and people of color. Specifically, the book addresses how slavery left wounds and scars that have yet to heal. As one black woman put it, “I share the pathos of generations of people — my people — kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated and traumatized in every possible way.”
So what does Jesus have to do with all of this? The false Jesus of slavery days has survived to the present day. The book is filled with examples of how white Christians used their faith and their interpretations of the Bible to justify the enslavement of African-Americans, and how these ideas persist.
People of European descent may take it for granted when their portraits of Jesus present him as a white European. But what does it mean for people of color to see these images as definitive portrayals? While we might limit the myths of white supremacy to the neo-Nazis of our day, this book helps to show similar myths operating in places one might not suspect.
I appreciated the amount of history the authors included. I generally thought that if an enslaved person converted to Christianity, it was a good thing to help them along and save their soul. But as Welch and Wilson point out, conversion for many blacks was itself a form of subjugation; it was part and parcel of surviving a situation where violence and coercion colored every aspect of life. Historical references to the post-Civil War peonage labor system are powerful, especially as this system is reflected in today’s sports and prison realms.
I also realized how true it is that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” As a book review writer, I usually refrain from personal anecdotes. But it seems appropriate here. Recently, I experienced an awkward and uncomfortable interaction with a person of color. For weeks I mostly thought, “My, they are touchy.” I truly felt it was their problem because, I told myself, “I meant well.” Reading this book took the lid off of my defensive reaction, exposing my ignorance and insensitivity.
At root, I saw that I had no real understanding of how this person experiences life on a day-to-day basis, let alone how past experiences might have layered up for them over time. “Meaning well” can no longer be an excuse for hurtful words or actions: “We must listen, acknowledge the harm, even when it was unintended, and pledge to do better.”
Whereas the Plantation Jesus looks more like the oppressor, the real Jesus looks like the oppressed: “The real Jesus abides with the suffering of his people but will not suffer the existence of systems that perpetuate it.” It is this Jesus that promises a pathway toward true reconciliation. This path will require people of privilege to step up and step out with humility and courage.
To aid this process, the authors have included more than a dozen exercises designed for church groups to experience together with the help of a leader. At the end of the book is a list of recommended books and films.
As the poet Steve Turner put it: “History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens.” This book revisits racism in a way that moves us toward a time when we can finally put it to rest. It starts with deep listening.
Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.