Gospel Rhythms: A Guide to Intentional Devotion

Yesterday my church handed out a helpful devotional guide called “Gospel Rhythms.” What I appreciate about it is its intentional approach to devotion in the Christian life. It removes devotion out of the realm of legalism, and instead emphasizes the importance of reflecting on Christ in a variety of intentional ways. It also brings important emphasis to the role of liturgy, community, and historic devotional practices that the modern church has largely abandoned in favor of legalistic “quiet times.” If you click on the images below, a larger image should appear.

Gospel Rhythms 1

Gospel Rhythms 2

Gospel Rhythms 3

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Gospel Rhythms 5

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“Daddy, Why Is Everyone in That Neighborhood Black?”: The Ideology of Slavery in Mass Incarceration and Urban Segregation


Even though President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and two years later slavery was officially abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment,[1] “racial stereotypes from the days of slavery are still present in American society, even among the young, and even among African Americans.”[2] Anyone who seeks to understand slavery must also seek to understand its ideological underpinnings. As Harvard Kennedy School Professor William Julius Wilson rightly points out, “[I]mperialism is not only a policy, but also and even more so, an attitude of mind.”[3] Hence, when it comes to understanding racial imperialism, Wilson correctly points out the importance of understanding the “belief systems of the broader society that either explicitly or implicitly give rise to racial inequality….”[4]

At the broadest level, this essay explores the nexus between slave system ideology and slavery as an institution. More narrowly, I argue that Greek, Roman, and American slave systems exhibit similar racist ideologies and stereotypes in respect to slaves, and that ideologies and stereotypes of slaves from antiquity significantly influenced those of the West. I then argue that even though chattel slavery is now illegal, slave system ideologies and stereotypes still adversely affect the African American community today. In particular, the issues of mass incarceration and racially segregated neighborhoods indicate that such stereotypes and ideology still wield considerable control over African Americans. I hope that observing parallels between ancient and modern ideas about slavery will highlight the importance of understanding the connection between slavery as an institution and slavery as an ideology, both of which are equally oppressive. I also hope it will contribute to a better understanding of the causes of modern injustice and how best to combat them.

Connecting Slavery Past and Present

Comparative work is always challenging, especially when a topic crosses three millennia and connects vastly different cultures. In light of this, I would like to put forward some of my theoretical rationale for making such a connection. One scholar on whose work I partially rely is historical and cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson. Prior to Patterson’s groundbreaking Slavery and Social Death, scholars largely defined slavery as a relationship between an owner and a “thing.” But Patterson rightly disabused scholars for failing to consider the very human implications of slavery. He proposed what is now the widely held definition of slavery, which understands slavery as social death:

[T]he slave is always an excommunicated person. He, more often she, does not belong to the legitimate social or moral community; he has no independent social existence; he exists only through, and for, the master; he is, in other words, natally alienated […and] in a perpetual condition of dishonor.[5]

Because slavery is so profoundly human and communal, I believe Patterson’s definition encourages an exploration of the various ways in which humans have constructed ideologies and stereotypes around the slave/free dialectic, and how that influences how they view themselves  and the “Other.” His definition also yields considerable insight into the ways in which slave system ideology still renders some African Americans socially dead.

Another rationale for a cross-cultural comparison of slavery is that, according to Patterson, all slave societies share constituent “cultural conceptions of slavery.”[6] More will be said about this below, but if Patterson is right, then one should compare how these constituent elements get worked out in various contexts. One such context is its institutional context and,[7] because I will deal here with two institutionalized forms of slave system ideology, understanding slavery as an historical institution with shared constituent elements will prove helpful.

Finally, and most importantly, cross-cultural comparisons in the field of slavery are essential because Western democracy was deeply shaped by the institution of slavery. As Patterson declares, “It is no accident that the first and greatest mass democracies of the ancient and modern worlds—Athens and the United States—share this evil in common: they were both conceived in, and fashioned by, the degradation of slaves and their descendants and the exclusion of women.”[8] It is because of slavery that the West values freedom as an ideal,[9] and hence I believe Patterson is correct when he says that “in all respects our modern conceptions of, and intense commitment to, freedom were fully established in the ancient world, anda pattern of continuity links the ancient to the modern expression and experience of the value.”[10] In other words, the cultural identities of those who live in slave societies, or are descended from them, have been integrally fashioned by that culture’s reliance on slave system ideology to define an “us” and a “them.”[11] One cannot sidestep this when studying modern forms of oppression that have been shaped by slavery.

Racism as a Slave System Ideology

Greek and Roman ideologies undergird modern notions of racism. Popular wisdom is that the slave systems of antiquity were not driven by racism, and that racism itself was invented in the nineteenth century.[12] Benjamin Isaac’s book The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, however, convincingly argues that while modern biological racism may be a product of modernity, other “forms of racism…were common in the Graeco-Roman world.”[13] Isaac contends that these early forms of racism served as a prototype for later forms, and hence he refers to racism in antiquity as “proto-racism.”[14]

Importantly, racism is not merely biological; it also represents “sets of ideas.”[15] Isaac broadly defines racism as

an attitude towards individuals and groups of peoples which posits a direct and linear connection between physical and mental qualities. It therefore attributes to those individuals and groups of peoples collective traits, physical, mental and moral, which are constant and unalterable by human will, because they are caused by hereditary factors or external influences, such as climate or geography.[16]

This emphasis on attitudes is important. In antiquity, slaves often lost their freedom as a result of war, and Isaac effectively argues that Greek and Roman ideologies of slavery were closely connected with their attitudes towards conquered peoples in general.[17] Recognizing racism as something more than biological also helps one to recognize that it can take on a variety of shapes and forms,[18] yet preserve “a remarkable element of continuity which is undeniable, once it is traced over the centuries.”[19]

Just as the ancient world’s concepts of freedom deeply influenced later thinking, unfreedom—slavery and its concomitant racist ideology—demonstrates a similar pattern of continuity.

[I]f they [the Greeks and Romans] have given us, through their literature, many of the ideas of freedom, democracy, philosophy, novel artistic concepts and so much else that we regard as essential in our culture, it should be recognized that the same literature also transmitted some of the elementary concepts of discrimination and inequality that are still with us. It is possible also that in considering these phenomena in their early shape, we may gain a better understanding of their contemporary forms.[20]

So even though racism took on different forms in antiquity than it does today, it nevertheless profoundly influenced the thinking of its time and “deeply influenced later authors in the age of the Enlightenment and afterwards, who accepted these ideas together with others which they found in the Greek and Latin literature.”[21]

Another crucial insight that Isaac offers is that in addition to pioneering systematic thought about political and social systems, the Greeks also broke new ground by constructing “a rational and systematic basis for their own sense of superiority and their claim that others were inferior.”[22] This idea of superiority is a critical component of racist, slave system ideology. G. M. Frederickson rightly points out that racism always involves an illogical hierarchy: “[Racism] originates from a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethnoracial Other in ways we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group.”[23] As we will see, this illogical hierarchy shows up in various ways throughout history.

Slave System Ideology and Morality

One avenue through which slave system ideology can be explored is through the avenue of racism and its relation to one’s morality. Recall from the earlier-mentioned definition of racism that one expression of racism attributes to people unchangeable moral attributes. This moral ideology shows up in Patterson’s enumeration of the three elements that combine to make slavery a state of social death: (1) “The slave is always conceived of as someone, or the descendant of someone, who should have died, typically as a result of defeat in war, but also as a result of poverty,” (2) the slave is someone whose “physical life was spared,” and (3), he was made subject to the one who spared him.[24] It is important to note, then, that the slave should have died because it was his own fault, and therefore he deserved to die:[25]

Here the dominant image of the slave was that of an insider who had fallen, one who ceased to belong and had been expelled from normal participation in the community because of a failure to meet certain minimal legal or socioeconomic norms of behavior. The destitute were included in this group, for while they perhaps had committed no overt crime their failure to survive on their own was taken as a sign of innate incompetence and of divine disfavor.[26]

The slave, then, was someone who was in some sense not “good” enough, and therefore she/he deserved to be relegated to a state of subjugation.

This moral ideology shows up in a number of ancient sources. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo links goodness with freedom, and vice with slavery, when he writes,

This too is a truth well known to everyone who has taken even a slight hold of culture, that freedom is an honourable thing, and slavery a disgraceful thing, and that honourable things are associated with good men and disgraceful things with bad men. Hence, it clearly follows that no person of true worth is a slave, though threatened by a host of claimants who produce contracts to prove their ownership, nor is any fool a free man….[27]

Aristotle views slaves as something less than human, and he writes that “It is manifest…that…some are free men and others slaves by nature” (1255a1-2).[28] Peter Garnsey writes that the essence of Aristotle’s view is that “there are people who are deficient in reason and need to be subordinated to their intellectual and moral superiors in a master/slave relationship.”[29]

While not speaking explicitly of slavery, rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata expresses a similar moral ideology which serves to justify the superior status of “good” people and the inferior status of “bad” people (a category which implicitly includes slaves):

But if there were really a captain in command [i.e., God] who saw and directed everything, first of all he would not have failed to know who were the good and who were the bad among the men aboard, and secondly he would have given each man his due according to his worth, giving to the better man the better quarters beside him on deck and to the worse the quarters in the hold….[30]

Finally, Musonius Rufus uses moral rhetoric in his attempt to minimize the effects of exile (which throughout history has been the experience of many slaves):

The person in exile is not prevented from having courage, justice, self-control, wisdom, or any other virtue, just because he is in exile. When these qualities are present, they tend to honor and benefit a person and show him to be deserving of praise and fame. The absence of these qualities works to harm and shame him by showing him to be bad and without fame. Consequently, if you are a good and virtuous person, exile would not harm or diminish you, because you still have the things that can best assist and elevate you. And if you happen to be a bad person, it is vice, not exile, that harms you—vice, not exile, that brings you grief.[31]

According to Isaac, the Romans exhibited “proto-racist” characteristics when they used moral rhetoric to describe their enemies as moral inferiors.[32] For example, they believed that the Syrians were inherently suitable for slavery because they possessed the characteristics of “servility, effeminacy, [and] perversity”[33]—which the Romans believed emasculated them.[34] The Syrians were also stereotyped as lazy: they were “good at feasting, they tend to go to the baths rather than exercise, and they over-eat.”[35] At least for some elite Romans, then, the Syrians represented the opposite of the Roman ideal.[36]

These examples from antiquity share a common motif: good things happen (or at least should) happen to good people, whereas bad things—which, importantly, include being controlled by another—are the lot of bad people. Garnsey gets at this ideological bent when he points out that it is possible to put together a fairly substantial collection of thoughts and theories about slavery from the works of philosophers and theologians in antiquity, and that together “they include considered theoretical statements that offer justifications of slavery….”[37] Clearly, one such justification included the belief that slaves were morally inferior and deserved to be controlled.

Moral Ideology: A Means of Control Beyond Slavery

Moral categories were also important to manumission processes. When it came to Roman manumission, only worthy slaves were considered: “The criterion applied here was clearly a moral one, with the implication that within the body of slaves two sub-categories could be discerned, the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’, only one of which might be properly considered for manumission.”[38] And gaining freedom of slavery did not efface one’s moral inferiority: “The act of manumission did not transform the slave as a human being. In the eyes of society he still carried many of the moral and mental deficiencies associated with servitude.”[39] Nevertheless, manumission placed the freed slave on equal terms with the freeborn. This created a logical problem because freedmen, who were believe to have been “stained” by their “servile” past, were now on equal footing with “unstained” freeborn citizens. Rather than abolish the categories as fallacious, however, “the answer was to invent the freedman as distinct social type [sic], different from both slaves and freeborn.”[40] This primarily took place by the invention of moral categories such as “good” and “bad” freedmen, categories that maintained distinctions between freeborn and freed.[41]

In spite of the legal limitations imposed on a master’s ability to control a freed slave, the creation of moral categories allowed masters and free citizens to maintain ideological control over freedmen.[42] Consequently, the manumitted slave did not become completely independent of his master; rather, “manumission merely redefined their relationship….”[43] The “good” freedman was obedient, and understood his proper station in life; he did not demonstrate “ambition and disregard for the limitations which his past imposed.”[44] In all respects he was “equal but inferior.”[45] This moral discourse, then, was a “means of conditioning freedmen,”[46] and its ultimate aim was to keep freedmen in a perpetual state of submission to their “ex”-masters, and to reinforce their alleged inferiority to the rest of free society.

Modern Slavery and Moral Rhetoric

As was discussed above, Isaac posits that “the specific forms of rationalizing these prejudices [in antiquity] and attempting to base them in systematic, abstract thought were developed in antiquity and taken over in early modern Europe.”[47] Indeed, one finds similar moral stereotypes of African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many prominent whites in Europe and the U.S. regarded black people as mentally inferior, physically and culturally unevolved, and apelike in appearance (Ariel, 1867; Burmeister, 1853; Haeckel, 1876; Hunt, 1863; Lawrence, 1819; Parker, 1878; Vogt, 1864; White, 1799). In fact, this view of blacks was so widely accepted that the entry for “Negro” in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1844, p. 316) stated authoritatively that the African race occupied “the lowest position of the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species”.[48]

When comparing blacks and whites, Andrew Johnson believed there was a “great difference between the two races in physical, mental, and moral characteristics.”[49] Just as the Greeks viewed the Persians (and the Romans viewed the Syrians) as naturally suited for subjugation, white Americans largely viewed blacks as morally inferior to whites, and therefore thought they deserved to be enslaved.[50]

Unfortunately, abolition did not eradicate the racist ideologies and stereotypes that buttressed the system. And it is here that one sees parallels with the ideological control that the Romans employed to keep manumitted slaves in a state of perpetual bondage. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that after slavery was legally abolished, southern whites were uneasy about the presence of “4 million newly freed slaves.”[51] Fearing that their “unruly” moral inferiors “might rise up and attack them or rape their women”—a fear that is responsible for the modern stereotype of black men “as aggressive, unruly predators”[52]— southern whites “strongly believed that a new system of racial control was clearly required….”[53] The primary means of maintaining control, explains Alexander, was for white elites to convince the white poor of their superior status to blacks, a tactic which ultimately aligned poor whites with their white political leaders, and which served to reify the predominant ideology of black inferiority.[54]

In addition to promulgating ideological control by means of moral rhetoric, systems of control were able to further adapt as they became institutionalized within the criminal justice system. During the days of Jim Crow, Alexander recounts, blacks were aggressively pursued for committing such nebulous crimes as “‘mischief’ and ‘insulting gestures’.”[55] “The criminal justice system,” she explains, “was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.”[56] It was clear that slavery was far from over for many “freed” slaves. As Douglas Blackmon puts it, “the harsher reality of the South was that the new post-Civil War neoslavery was evolving—not disappearing.”[57]

All of this demonstrates the plasticity of slave system ideology: although slavery had been abolished, its undergirding ideology was adaptable to changing circumstances, and even provided the justification for new forms of institutional control over freed slaves. Similar to Roman ideological control over manumitted slaves, Jim Crow simply became another means whereby one “superior” group subjugated its moral “inferior.”

Racial and Moral Rhetoric Transform Again

Slave system ideology would further demonstrate its malleability after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What eventually happened, recounts Alexander, was that racialized rhetoric was softened, and those who had traditionally favored segregation increasingly couched their opposition to the Civil Rights Movement in language about crime and morality. Policies related to “cracking down on crime,” she explains, “cohered along lines of racial ideology.”[58] Through a complex mix of race, politics, and economics, poverty became increasingly blamed not on “structural factors related to race and class but rather by culture—particularly black culture.”[59] Much like the manumitted slaves of Rome who were kept under control by means of “good/bad” freedmen rhetoric, post-slavery America created the moral categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and “the racialized nature of this imagery became a crucial resource for political leaders who succeeded in using law and order rhetoric to mobilize the resentment of white working class voters, many of whom felt threatened by the sudden progress of African Americans.”[60] Again, rhetoric espoused the tired ideology that one group was morally superior to another. It was in this context, explains Alexander, that the stereotype of the undeserving black “welfare queen” was invented, and juxtaposed with images of “deserving,” hard-working whites.[61] From the time of the Democratic New Deal, working-class blacks and whites had been allied around common economic interests, but that link was eventually destroyed by a racist ideology designed to maintain categorical distinctions between races.[62] Just as the coalition of poor whites and blacks was broken in the days of Jim Crow, blacks once again found themselves classified as inferior on the basis of a highly flexible racist moral ideology.

Institutional expressions of slave system ideology were equally adaptable. Just as slave system ideology became embedded within the penal system in the days of Jim Crow, the 1980s witnessed new forms of penalized institutional control. In the midst of inner-city economic turmoil and the appearance of crack cocaine, President Ronald Reagan launched his “War on Drugs.” This political agenda emphasized fighting street crime,[63] but it was discriminatory in that it dealt harsher penalties for crack—a drug associated with blacks—than it did for powder cocaine, a drug more prominent in white communities.[64] According to Alexander, “The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”[65] In Punishment and Inequality in America, Bruce Western avers that the driving problem was not crime, but rather inner-city black neighborhoods; places already suffering from economic hardship became the targets of a new style of penal justice.[66]

By the 1990s, mass incarceration became the new means of controlling black Americans.[67] In 1991 a quarter of African American youth were victims of the criminal justice system, and “the Clinton Administration’s ‘tough on crime’ policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”[68] In a manner similar to Jim Crow, Alexander argues,

a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right the vote. The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.[69]

Embedded within the War on Drugs, then, are a host of race-based problems such as the neighborhoods chosen to target, police incentives, and stop and search procedures, which, together, effectively guarantee “that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.”[70] Some scholars refer to this as structural racism, an idea based on the premise that racism can become embedded in social structures and keep people marginalized and under the control of someone/-thing else (unfree).[71] Furthermore, even after one is formally “manumitted” from the system, one remains in “a closed circuit of perpetual marginality” as a result of ongoing legalized discrimination.[72] The result is that African Americans remain trapped “in a virtual (and literal) cage.”[73]

Once again, it is clear that while institutional forms of control can change, the ideology that buttresses it can still wield considerable control. Consequently, a strong delineation between the categories of slave (unfree) and free is not easily maintained in a “post-slave” society in which slave system ideology continues to keep the racial outsider in a state of perpetual duress.

Slave System Ideology and Environment

When racism singles out a group of people as having unchangeable moral attributes, this is not always explicitly tied to ethnicity. According to the definition of racism employed here (see above), often the critical link is to external, environmental criteria related to geography:

The implication is that the essential features of body and mind come from outside and are stable. They do not occur through genetic evolution or conscious choice. Social interaction plays a secondary role. Individuality and individual change are thereby ignored. When applied to human groups these ideas lead to a belief that their characteristics are uniform and constant, once acquired, unless people migrate.[74]

In antiquity, environmental theory often was bound up in ideology linking proto-racist ideology and slavery. Isaac provides several useful examples.[75] Polybius, for instance,

explains that the Arcadians have a harsh character “resulting from the cold and somber weather conditions usually prevailing in this region—conditions to which all men by nature must necessarily adapt; for there is no other cause why we differ to such an extent from one another in character, appearance and colour as in most of our activities in accordance with our nationality and the distance we are separated from each other.”[76]

In the first century, Vitruvius links environmental characteristics with moral weakness:

those that are nearest to the southern half of the axis, and that lie directly under the sun’s course, are of lower stature, with a swarthy complexion, hair curling, black eyes, [strong legs,] and but little blood on account of the force of the sun. Hence, too this poverty of blood makes them over-timid to stand up against the sword, but great heat and fevers they can endure without timidity, because their frames are bred up in the raging heat.[77]

Vitruvius goes on to assert Roman superiority on environmental grounds:

the truly perfect territory, situated under the middle of the heaven, and having on each side the entire extent of the world and its countries, is that which is occupied by the Roman people (6.1.10). In fact, the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects—in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour…. Hence it was the divine intelligence that set the city of the Roman people in a peerless and temperate country, in order that it might acquire the right to command the whole world (6.1.11).[78]

And important for our purposes here, protoracist ideas related to a people group’s environment were frequently used to justify slavery in antiquity. The Greeks applied such thinking to Persians—who they believed were naturally suitable for servitude—and the Romans later promulgated the same ideology, but substituted themselves for the Greeks.[79]

Degenerative Effects of Slavery and the Segregation of Contaminants

Not only were some people groups marginalized and considered naturally suitable for slavery in antiquity, but some were further ostracized if they actually experienced slavery. This is because it was commonly believed that slaves suffered degenerative effects from their time of servitude.[80] For example, Cicero writes, “In your province there are a great many who are deceitful and unstable, and trained by a long course of servitude to show an excess of sycophancy.”[81] And Plato says that according to Homer, “If you make a man a slave, that very day/Far-sounding Zeus takes half his wits away.”[82] Isaac explains that

many Roman authors assume as a matter of course that the conquest of a people and their subjection to another inevitably set in motion a process whereby they increasingly lose their belligerency, their sense of freedom and their virility, the longer they are subjects. Cicero, Josephus and Tacitus agree that it is an irreversible process (Josephus, Bellum Judaicum 2.15.4:356-8; Tacitus, Agricola 21; Historiae 4.17, 4.64.3).[83]

Another consequence of assigning character traits based on environment was a belief that a change in location—understood broadly as a change in geography or a change of status—resulted in a further degeneration of character and ran the risk of contaminating others.[84] Hence some believed that the logical solution was to keep “contaminants” separate. As a result, slaves were frequently banned from Rome in order to prevent such a contamination of the public:[85]

According to Gaius, those slaves who had been chained by their owners as a punishment, branded, publicly interrogated under torture and found guilty, or used to fight in the arena or sent to gladiatorial school or imprisoned would not become citizens upon manumission but instead receive the status of peregrini dediticii, defeated and surrendered foreigners. In addition they were banned from living in the city of Rome, having to remain beyond the hundredth milestone.[86]

In sum, environmental ideas were frequently connected with slavery in antiquity.[87] The common experience that disqualified slaves from becoming citizens was their degenerated character, the result of which was a desire to prevent them from contaminating others.[88]

Environmental Theory in Modernity

With few exceptions, argues Isaac, students of the classics since the time of the Renaissance were largely exposed to the environmental theory without serious critique, and hence “It should not surprise us…if the intellectuals of the Enlightenment accepted the theory and its corollaries without serious criticism.”[89] He points out how Greek and Roman ideas on environmental theory influenced the racist ideas of such thinkers as Jean Bodin (1529/30-1596), John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), David Hume (1711-1776), Johann-Gottfied von Herder (1774-1803), Christoph Meiners (1747-1816), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862).[90]

It is also no surprise, then, that Antebellum slaves were often stereotyped along environmental lines. One example of this can be found in nineteenth-century minstrel shows, a form of popular entertainment for whites, in which white actors painted their faces black and performed “what they described as ‘Ethiopian Delineation’” and which they claimed were stage-based “ethnographies of blacks.”[91] Several stereotypes were prevalent in these “ethnographies,” including stereotypes of blacks as animals, hypersexual, childish, thieves, and as possessing a particular odor.[92] The popular minstrel show character “Jim Crow” portrayed the stereotype of blacks as shiftless and lazy.[93] Understanding these stereotypes is helpful when it comes to understanding why many whites wanted to keep their distance from blacks.

Modern Separation of Contaminants through Housing

Up to this point I have argued that ancient slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration all represent ways in which one group of people maintains ideological and/or institutional control of another, and that slave system ideology often manifests itself through the desire of one group to keep its distance from what it believes to be an inferior “Other.” I have also shown that this inferiority is sometimes grounded in a belief that falsely links an environment with stereotypical beliefs about that environment. Here I will develop this rationale further, and will demonstrate the ways in which moral categorization and environment-based ideologies coalesce and mutate into another modern form of slave system ideology: segregated “ghetto” neighborhoods.

Many cities are geographically segregated along racial lines. Residential segregation is  another manifestation of slave system ideology, another means through which the environmental theory of racism is used as a means of determining the character of the “Other.” The very use of the term ghetto makes it clear that we are once again dealing with the power of racist ideology to create stereotypes, this time integrally linked to geography. Robert A. Wilson points out that

the word “ghetto” is stereotypic in that it evokes an image of a disorganized neighborhood which contains an overdose of all of the pathologies associated with urbanization. If one asks a social scientist, “What is a ghetto?” he probably will elicit a description of an urban area including at least three elements: (1) a high concentration of lower-class Negroes, (2) a high level of social disorganization, and (3) a high level of anomie.[94]

Many thought that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 would end residential housing segregation.[95]  However, in her summary of research through 2003 on housing segregation, sociologist Camille Zubrinsky Charles points out that “residential segregation persists, and substantial evidence points to continued resistance to more than token numbers of black (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic) neighbors….[96] Some leading sociologists have referred to this as American Apartheid.[97]

Particularly revealing is the reason for neighborhood segregation. Three theories are generally posited: class and economic reasons, ethnocentrism (manifested in one group’s desire to remain exclusive), and outright racial prejudice.[98] The predominant view among sociologists is that racial stereotyping is the most powerful  factor.[99] One study found that whites prefer to remain separate from blacks because they view them as less intelligent, and think they are more likely to depend on welfare.[100] These findings mesh with national survey data; a 1991 nationwide survey found that 78 percent of non-blacks considered blacks more likely than whites to live off welfare, and a 2008 survey found that 47 percent of the respondents believed that blacks had “no motivation.”[101] Clearly, the Jim Crow-era stereotype of “the lazy black man” and the War on Drugs’ image of the stereotypic “welfare queen” remain etched in many white minds.

Earlier it was shown that the underlying feature of slave system ideology throughout history was a belief in one group’s superior status relative to another. A substantial research project recently found that a strikingly similar ideology undergirds the choices that drive housing segregation:

We believe that the best substantive reconciliation of these incommensurate patterns is to acknowledge that the U.S. has a relatively clear-cut racial/ethnic hierarchy, or racial order, at least at its top and bottom ranks. The historical and present dominant social group is white Americans. The historical (and at least perceptually, if not also in fact) present bottom group is African Americans. […] For whites, integration—especially with blacks—brings the threat of a loss of relative status advantages. […] Whites are the group, then, most likely to view any increased racial residential integration—with any other group—as changing traditional status relations of relative dominance and privilege. That is, they tend to view integration with any of the minority groups as threatening or undermining a previous status relation of superiority.”[102]

Much like other forms of slave system segregation throughout history, housing segregation can largely be understood as a means of avoiding “contamination.” Fallacious views about African Americans’ moral and environmental characteristics have resulted in whites’ desire to avoid what they believe are behaviors distinctly associated with blacks—negative behaviors such as “crime, family disruption, and dependency.”[103] In some instances, this geographic aversion to blacks has even gone as far as using highway infrastructure to keep blacks at a distance.[104]

Structural Housing Discrimination and Segregation 

In addition to slave system ideology manifesting itself as attitudes towards others based on their geographic location, several scholars have concluded that it has also become structurally embedded within the housing market.[105] Whites pay a premium to live in segregated neighborhoods.[106] Slave system ideology is evident at nearly every stage of the home buying/renting process: real estate agents schedule fewer home showings for black home-seekers than for similar white clients, they steer minorities to ethnically divided neighborhoods, and black home-seekers have less access to available properties.[107] Furthermore, blacks (and Hispanics) are denied loans at a significantly higher rate and are frequently charged higher fees and interest rates.[108] In December 2011, the Department of Justice settled its largest fair lending settlement in history, being awarded a $335 million dollar settlement after it accused Countrywide Financial Corporation of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics by charging them higher mortgage fees and interest rates than white applicants with comparable credit scores and other qualifications.[109]

All of this continues to have devastating effects on minority communities. I cannot address in depth here the specific ways that poverty and economics influence the segregation of neighborhoods and the perpetuation of mass incarceration, but in short, economic problems adversely affect segregated neighborhoods much more than they do non-segregated neighborhoods. Racial and structural discrimination embedded in housing markets makes it hard for some black communities to generate wealth, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.[110] Concentration of poverty in one racially defined neighborhood then perpetuates negative stereotypes. Together, these dynamics continue to fuel white anxiety, and whites’ desire to contain and segregate the “Other.”[111] This not only creates a vicious cycle of economic disadvantage by confining poverty within certain economically disadvantaged communities;[112]  it also importantly relates to mass incarceration, because it is within these very “ghetto” neighborhoods that the racialized War on Drugs has been fought—a “war,” as has been shown, that is driven largely by slave system stereotypes and that is aimed at keeping one class of people perpetually marginalized and controlled.


I have shown that “control and containment” ideology has been an enduring feature of slave system ideology since antiquity. I have also demonstrated that containment is highly adaptable; it can be structural in legalized slavery, or structural within penal systems and housing markets. Equally important, we have seen that containment is highly ideological. Even if a particular structural form of control is absent from a certain place and time, slave system ideology can continue to wield its powers of subjugation. The malleability of slave system ideology calls into question a rigid distinction between the categories of slave and free. Given these categories’ intrinsic plasticity, and the amount of control that ideological and structural forms of control can possess, it may not be overreaching to conclude that mass incarceration, neighborhood segregation, and perhaps even racism itself, are all simply forms of slavery by another name.


[1] Except as punishment for a crime; see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 31.

[2] S. Plous and Tyrone Williams, “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 25, no. 9 (1995): 812.

[3] Benjamin H. Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 7. Italics mine.

[4] William J. Wilson, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: Norton & Company, 2009), loc 2032.

[5] Orlando Patterson, Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 9–10.

[6] Patterson, Freedom, 10. This does not mean, however, that slavery is “flattened” to one cultural conception, or that slavery does not exhibit variety within its cultural context. As Patterson writes, “it should be clear that we are not dealing with a static entity but with a complex interactional process, one laden with tension and contradiction in the dynamics of each of its constituent elements” (10).

[7] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 13.

[8] Patterson, Freedom, 405.

[9] Ibid., 16. Admittedly, this is a bold claim. It is important to note, however, that in attempting to elucidate an historical evolution of freedom, Patterson does not dismiss notions of intrinsic human freedom. That is, freedom for Patterson is not merely a historical concept, but rather it is freedom as an ideal that rests on slavery’s foundation. According to Patterson, humans still have a desire and innate sense of freedom that transcends its evolution as an ideal.

[10] Patterson, Freedom, xii. Italics mine.

[11] Ibid., 405.

[12] Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Benjamin Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” World Archaeology 38, no. 1 (March 2006): 32.

[15] Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 1.

[16] Ibid., 23.

[17] Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 169–224.

[18] Ibid., 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 516.

[21] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 32.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] George M. Fredrickson, Racism: a Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), in Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 23.

[24] Patterson, Freedom, 10.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 41.

[27] Philo, Every Good Man Is Free, in Philo, vol. 9, trans. F. H. Colson, Loeb Classical Library 363 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941), 89.

[28] Aristotle, Pol. in Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 38.

[29] Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 38.

[30] Lucian, Zeus Rants, in Lucian, vol. 2, trans. A. M. Harmon; Loeb Classical Library 54 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1915), 165.

[31] C. Musonius Rufus, in Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings (William B. Irvin, ed.; Cynthia King, trans.; Createspace, 2011), 48. Italics mine.

[32] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 44.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 44.

[35] Cicero, de provinciis consularibus 2.5.10; Livy 35.49.8; Livy 36.17.4-5 in Ibid.

[36] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 44.

[37] Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, 13. Italics mine.

[38] Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 32.

[39] Ibid., 36.

[40] Ibid., 59.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 58.

[43] Ibid., 36.

[44] Ibid., 59.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 58–9.

[47] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 33.

[48] Plous and Williams, “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery,” 795.

[49] J. D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1899), 566, in Plous and Williams, “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery,” 796.

[50] Plous and Williams, “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery,” 796.

[51] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 27.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 30.

[56] Ibid., 32.

[57] Douglas Blackmon, “A Different Kind of Slavery,” Wall Street Journal Online, March 29, 2008, in Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 32.

[58] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 42.

[59] Ibid., 45.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 47.

[62] Ibid., 46.

[63] Ibid., 50.

[64] Ibid., 52.

[65] Ibid., 53.

[66] Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007), in Wilson, More Than Just Race, loc 1046.

[67] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 54.

[68] Justice Policy Institute, “Clinton Crime Agenda Ignores Proven Methods for Reducing Crime,” April 14, 2008, available online at http://www.justicepolicy.org/contenthmID=1817&smID
=157&ssmID=71.htm, in Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 56.

[69] Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 57.

[70] Ibid., 185.

[71] Ibid., 184.

[72] Ibid., 186.

[73] Ibid., 184.

[74] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 45.

[75] Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 85–99.

[76] Polybius 4.21, trans. in Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 82.

[77] Vitruvius 6.1.4, trans. M. H. Morgan, in Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 83.

[78] Vitruvius, trans. M. H. Morgan, in Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 84.

[79] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 45.

[80] Ibid., 44.

[81] Cicero, ad Quintum fratrem 1.1.16, trans. Isaac, in “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 43. Regarding the aforementioned discussion of mass incarceration, it also is noteworthy to point out here the way in which prisoners are stigmatized and believed to suffer degenerative effects from their period of “slavery.” Hence, Alexander writes, “the stigma of criminality functions in much the same way that the stigma of race once did. It justifies a legal, social, and economic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (17).

[82] Homer Odyssea 17.322-3, cited by Plato, Laws 776e777a, trans. Isaac, in “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 43.

[83] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 44.

[84] Ibid., 45.

[85] Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World, 33.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Isaac, “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 39–40.

[88] Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World, 33.

[89] Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, 102.

[90] Ibid., 102–8.

[91] Robert C. Toll, “From Folklore to Stereotype: Images of Slaves in Antebellum Minstrelsy,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 8, no. 1 (June 1971): 39.

[92] Roger D. Abrahams, “The Negro Stereotype: Negro Folklore and the Riots,” The Journal of American Folklore 83, no. 328 (Spring 1970): 230.

[93] Joy Moses, “Moving Away from Racial Stereotypes in Poverty Policy,” Center for American Progress, February 23, 2012, How we got here and why we’re stuck, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/report/2012/02/23/11130/moving-away-from-racial-stereotypes-in-poverty-policy/ (accessed March 23, 2013).

[94] Robert A. Wilson, “Anomie in the Ghetto,” American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 1 (July 1971): 66.

[95] Camille Zubrinsky Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 182.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[98] Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” 182.

[99] Lawrence Bobo and Camille L. Zubrinsky, “Attitudes on Residential Integration,” Social Forces 74, no. 3 (March 1996): 883.

[100] Ibid., 894.

[101] Maria Krysan, “Data Update to Racial Attitudes in America” (Chicago: Institute of Government & Public Affairs, 2008) in Joy Moses, “Moving Away from Racial Stereotypes in Poverty Policy,” Center for American Progress, February 23, 2012, Background of public opinion and policy, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/report/2012/02/23/11130/
moving-away-from-racial-stereotypes-in-poverty-policy/ (accessed March 23, 2013).

[102] Bobo and Zubrinsky, “Attitudes on Residential Integration,” 904.

[103] Douglas S. Massey, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” The American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 2 (September 1990): 342.

[104] Wilson, More Than Just Race, loc 472.

[105] John Yinger, Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995); Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); in Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” 191.

[106] Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” 191.

[107] Ibid., 193–4.

[108] Ibid., 194. Another study estimates that blacks and Hispanics pay a “discrimination tax” of about $3,000, amounting to a total of $4.1 billion per year in additional costs for minorities; see Yinger, Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost, 95–103, cited in Charles, “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation,” 196.

[109] Attorney General, “USDOJ: Justice Department Reaches $335 Million Settlement to Resolve Allegations of Lending Discrimination by Countrywide Financial Corporation,” USDOJ: December 21, 2011, http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2011/December/11-ag-1694.html.

[110] Massey, “American Apartheid,” 354–5.

[111] Ibid., 337–342.

[112] Ibid., 354–5.


Abrahams, Roger D. “The Negro Stereotype: Negro Folklore and the Riots.” The Journal of American Folklore 83, no. 328 (Spring 1970): 229–49.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Bobo, Lawrence, and Camille L. Zubrinsky. “Attitudes on Residential Integration.” Social Forces 74, no. 3 (March 1996): 883–909.

Charles, Camille Zubrinsky. “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 167–207.

Garnsey, Peter. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Irvine, William Braxton, ed. Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2011.

Isaac, Benjamin H. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Isaac, Benjamin. “Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.” World Archaeology 38, no. 1 (March 2006): 32–47.

Lucian. Zeus Catechized, in Lucian, vol. 2. (trans. A. M. Harmon; Loeb Classical Library,  54; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Massey, Douglas S. “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass” The American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 2 (September 1990): 329–57.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Moses, Joy. “Moving Away from Racial Stereotypes in Poverty Policy.” Center for American Progress. February 23, 2012. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/report/
2012/02/23/11130/moving-away-from-racial-stereotypes-in-poverty-policy/ (accessed March 23, 2013).

Mouritsen, Henrik. The Freedman in the Roman World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Patterson, Orlando. Freedom. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

———. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Philo. Every Good Man Is Free. In Loeb Classical Library, translated by F.H. Colson. Vol. 9. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941.

Plous, S., and Tyrone Williams. “Racial Stereotypes from the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 25, no. 9 (1995): 795–817.

Toll, Robert C. “From Folklore to Stereotype: Images of Slaves in Antebellum Minstrelsy.” Journal of the Folklore Institute 8, no. 1 (June 1971): 38–47.

U.S. Department of Justice. “USDOJ: Justice Department Reaches $335 Million Settlement to Resolve Allegations of Lending Discrimination by Countrywide Financial Corporation.” USDOJ: Justice Department Reaches $335 Million Settlement to Resolve Allegations of Lending Discrimination by Countrywide Financial Corporation. December 21, 2011. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2011/December/11-ag-1694.html.

Wilson, Robert A. “Anomie in the Ghetto.” American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 1 (July 1971): 66–88.

Wilson, William J. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. New York: Norton & Company, 2009.


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What’s the Book of Job All About?


My understanding of the book of Job has evolved over the years. There was a time when I thought the book was all about a man who was robbed by Satan, but who ultimately received his “breakthrough” against the forces of darkness. As a result, Job received the “double portion” blessing from God that he deserved. In the end, Job was God’s man; all he needed to do was persevere until his promised time of deliverance. This interpretive framework might properly be called a “spiritual warfare” model of interpretation.

I have not yet done a full exegetical analysis of the book of Job in Hebrew, something that would be necessary for a proper understanding of the text; however, much interpretive insight can be gained from the practice of reading in context, even when it’s only done in English. In fact, many interpretive errors would be avoided if pastors and students of the Bible upheld the context of scripture as their number one interpretive priority. What does this mean? This means seeking to find meaning in paragraphs, chapters, and ultimately entire books rather than isolated “proof texts” that are taken out of context.

As I’ve been reading through Job in accordance with my McCheyne Bible Reading Calendar, two interpretive questions have arisen from the broader context of the book: What did Job do wrong (I ask this because, from my prior readings of Job, I know that he ultimately repents for his sin)? The second is, What is Job really all about? Asking interpretive questions is one of the fundamental practices of sound biblical exegesis. A good practice to follow when reading the Bible is to write down all of the interpretive questions that come to mind, however insignificant or difficult they may seem.

My rough interpretive hypothesis is this: the text is ultimately an attempt to point out the utter sovereignty and “otherness” of God. One of Job’s early pleas to God in verse 10:2 seems to be key: “I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me” (ESV; Italics mine). In short, Job wants to know why God is afflicting him. He seems to be confused because he believes he’s a righteous man. As a result, the text is replete with questions from Job: “Does it seem good to you to oppress…and favor the designs of the wicked?” (10:3). “I shall be condemned; why then do I labor in vain?” (9:29). “Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees?” (10:4).

The idea that Job’s questioning of God is key becomes clearer when God finally responds to Job in chapter 38 with questions of his own: “‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Italics mine). God then goes on to uphold his own sovereignty with such questions as, “‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’” and “‘…Who determined its measurements–surely you know!’” (38:4-5).


When Job eventually realizes that he improperly questioned God’s mysterious sovereignty, he repents by saying, “‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth’” (40:4). But the passage that really seems to sum up the entire book is found in 42:1-6 where Job concludes,

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Note here that Job admits his glaring sin: He had the audacity to say to God, “I will question you, and you make it known to me.” Perhaps even more at the root of Job’s questioning is his presumptuous attempt to peer into the unknowable, sovereign will of God, something which in the end leads him to lament, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Interestingly, Martin Luther spoke of this in theological terms. He spoke of Deus revelatus (God revealed) and Deus absconditus (God hidden). By Deus absconditus Luther was referring to “God as he actually exists beyond the grasp of human conceptualization–particularly when the human mind is darkened by sin…” (Kolb, 449). Those who attempted to fully understand such a transcendent God were referred to by Luther as theologians of glory. For Luther, theologians of glory stood in contrast to theologians of the cross. According to Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, the ultimate failing of theologians of glory is that they “operate on the assumption that creation and history are transparent to the human intellect, that one can see through what is made and what happens so as to peer into the ‘invisible things of God’” (in Kolb, 446). God, to some extent, then, can never be fully known. Although he has revealed himself, namely in the cross, he will always transcend complete human understanding. In the words of Job, he is simply “too wonderful.”

Job’s recognition that he had been a theologian of glory, then, is what eventually led him to the beautiful confession that I am hypothesizing to be the thesis of the book: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2). Job realizes that there are simply some things about God and God’s sovereign, mysterious will that he will never know. Instead of striving with God and seeking to fully understand why he’s being afflicted, he eventually resigns himself to God’s unsearchable and wiser determinations. Put differently, one might say that Job learned to pray, “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).

What do you think? What’s your take on Job?


Kolb, Robert. “Luther on the Theology of the Cross.” Lutheran Quarterly 16, no. 4 (2002): 443-66.

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On the Intersection of Religion and U.S. Territorial Expansion


Someone recently asked me how America’s territorial expansion interacted with its religious beliefs? This is a really good question, and it brings to mind the important nexus between religious beliefs and geography.

One important way in which territorial expansion interacted with religious beliefs in the U.S. involved one’s theological views on the Christian millennial reign of Christ. The more optimistic “postmillennial” position understood the thousand-year reign of Christ to come about as a result of the specific works of God’s saints. That is, God’s people were understood to play a critical role in ushering in God’s kingdom. As professor of comparative religion Peter W. Williams rightly points out in America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-first Century, such millennial views played a critical role in the creation of Americans’ self-identity as many Americans understood themselves as having been given a God-given mandate to increase their territories—something that has been referred to as Manifest Destiny (230). As history has shown us, this “divine” mandate often came at a high cost  for those who became the victims of oppressive policies that were enforced in order to ensure that God’s “will” would be accomplished.

When attempting to understand the ways in which religion and geographical expansion interacted in the U.S., the notion of societal “reform” is also germane. As reform-minded evangelicals sought to establish distinctly Christian norms of behavior (193) and, as they sought to become the “city set upon a hill” as envisioned by Winthrop (ibid.), they increasingly sought to bring about social policies that were decidedly informed by their evangelical understanding of morality. Evangelicals were not the only ones who held such lofty views of reform, however (ibid.). Enlightenment inspired Deists also sought to bring about social reform by means of enlightened human reason (ibid.). Religion, reform, and geography, then, all importantly intersected as the political process increasingly became the means through which moral interests were accomplished. Robert Kelley, as quoted by Williams, summarizes this moral and political intersection well when he explains that “Wherever Yankee Whigs went in their westward migration, they carried with them a righteous and confident urge to use the secular government to create a morally unified society” (194).


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The Antithesis of the Prayer of Jabez


The prayer of Jabez (1 Chron 4:10) as it’s commonly taught is all about getting more from God—more success, more “favor,” and generally more “stuff.” It’s about creating a God in one’s own image, and ultimately about manipulating God to colonize other people and things for one’s selfish gain. I find it curiously interesting that The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking through to the Blessed Life, along with its emphasis on “enlarged borders,” was a popular book amongst Bush white house staffers just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In contrast to the anthropocentric “prayer of Jabez,” here’s a beautiful Puritan prayer that offers a very different perspective on the Christian life:

The All Good

My God,

Thou hast helped me to see,

that whatever good be in honour and rejoicing,

how good is he who gives them,

and can withdraw them;

that blessedness does not lie so much in receiving good from and in thee,

but in holding forth thy glory and virtue;

that it is an amazing thing to see Deity

in a creature, speaking, acting,

filling, shining through it;

that nothing is good but thee,

that I am near good when I am near thee,

that to be like thee is a glorious thing:

This is my magnet, my attraction.

Thou art all my good in times of peace,

my only support in days of trouble,

my one sufficiency when life shall end.

Help me to see how good thy will is in all,

and even when it crosses mine

teach me to be pleased with it.

Grant me to feel thee in fire, and flood and every providence,

and to see that thy many gifts and creatures

are but thy hands and fingers taking hold of me.

Thou bottomless fountain of all good,

I give myself to thee out of love,

for all I have or own is thine,

my goods, family, church, self,

to do with as thou wilt,

to honour thyself by me, and by all mine.

If it be consistent with thy eternal counsels,

the purpose of thy grace,

and the great ends of thy glory,

then bestow upon me the blessings of thy comforts;

If not, let me resign myself to

thy wiser determinations.

From The Valley of Vision (Banner of Truth, 2013), 10-11.

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10 Things You Should Know about the American Religious Landscape

The American religious landscape is constantly changing. Here are ten things you should know about the present state of religion in America. All but numbers three and five on the following list were adapted from Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends.


1.) In contrast to other developed nations, the U.S. is an extremely religious country. Ninety-three percent of Americans believe in God; nearly 70 percent pray several times week, and 25 percent attend a weekly religious service.

2.) The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has been increasing since the ’50s (3% of Americans in 1957), but it has increased dramatically since the 1990s (17% in 2008). This doesn’t mean these Americans don’t believe in God, only that they are relinquishing their ties with formal religious affiliations.

3.) White evangelicals represent about 25% of the U.S. population, and black evangelicals another 8%. This means that a third of the population (1 in 3 people) identifies as an evangelical Christian. That’s a lot of evangelicals.

4.) Although the change is in many ways still at a surface level, white churches are not as predominantly white as they once were; they have increasing numbers of blacks, Latinos, and Asians in their congregations.

5.) The U.S. is in the midst of a third-wave of immigration. Many of these immigrants are coming from South America and are bringing with them their Catholic beliefs. Muslims are also a part of this third-wave of immigration.

6.) Fewer people take the Bible literally. Since the 1970s, the number of people who believe the Bible should be taken literally has decreased from around 40 percent to 30 percent.

7.) Churchgoers are increasingly concentrating their attendance in large churches; the median congregant attends a church with 400 attendants.

8.) Only about half of the largest churches today will remain as large twenty years later. This is likely because they grew quickly by riding a cultural trend to the top, and then were overtaken by other churches that rode their own generation’s trend to the top.

9.) Only about .3 percent of college freshmen plan to become clergy. This stands in contrast to 1 percent in the ’60s. Moreover, the academic intelligence of clergy has been decreasing, and the most intelligent students are choosing other careers.

10.) White evangelicals are becoming increasingly theologically liberal; a majority now believe that other religions can lead to eternal life.

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Luther on a Gospel-Centered Worldview


There’s a lot of talk amongst evangelical Christians these days about returning to a historic emphasis on the gospel as the central and abiding teaching of the Christian faith. I think this is the right move for an evangelical faith that has lost its way in recent years. With that being said, some are better than others at explicating just what it means to live according to a “gospel-centered” worldview.

Last night I gathered with a group of friends to discuss theology, and our essay of choice was Robert Kolb’s “Luther on the Theology of the Cross.”  I was reminded in Kolb’s explication of Luther’s theology just what it is that should be the core of any gospel-centered theology:

To force Luther’s observations from the foot of the cross into four convenient categories for easier consideration, it can be said that he saw from the vantage point of the cross 1) who God really is, 2) what the human reaction to God must be, 3) what the human condition apart from God is and how God has acted to alter that condition, and 4) what kind of life trust in Christ brings to his disciples. (449)

This is a rather simple, yet profound paradigm that can be nuanced in countless ways. I would argue that every sermon, every counseling session, and every expression of Christian ministry should, in some sense, incorporate these four important elements. What are your thoughts? How have you seen these elements successfully or unsuccessfully integrated into Christian ministry?

Posted in Gospel Centered Christianity, Reformed Theology, The Church, Uncategorized, Worldview | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments