I was 48 years old the first time I heard a white Southern minister mention the Battle of the Colfax Courthouse. It’s as crucial to a Southern identity as The Alamo is to the story of Texas, but no one talks about Colfax.
In 1873, a white paramilitary force attacked freed slaves defending the elected government of Louisiana at the Colfax County Courthouse. Outnumbered and outgunned, the freedmen surrendered and were slaughtered on Easter Sunday. It was the first major victory in the counter-Reconstruction that spread across South, allowing whites to reestablish much of the Antebellum racial order. Good white church folk with a Bible in one hand and their “2nd Amendment remedies” in the other did their bloody work without conscience or mercy.
That story forms the backbone of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. A memoir of spiritual reckoning, the book is an unflinching exploration of the mental and spiritual impact of racism on white souls, written from the perspective of a passionate evangelical believer.
Under isolation from the wider Christian community and bent by violent pressure from plantation owners, a unique slaveholder religion evolved to dominate the South. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was stunted. For generations, messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race or challenged the power of property owners could not be taught from a pulpit at risk of life and limb. That theological legacy has yet to be confronted or reconstructed.
Former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, writes of the painful “doublethink” necessary to survive under totalitarian oppression. He describes it as a psychological cleaving between the world as observed by our senses and the reality imposed by a violent, oppressive regime. Relentless pressure to maintain enthusiastic public belief in patent falsehoods creates dissonance that strains sanity. Wilson-Hartgrove describes this dissonance, played out among well-meaning white Americans for centuries, as “shriveled heart syndrome.”
Slavery is an act of war. You can’t maintain it without violence. If black people were to be kept in slavery, they had to become the enemy. That meant cutting off any empathy that arose from witnessing the suffering of a fellow human being. But you can’t shut up compassion in a human heart one minute and then go back to normal the next….Generations of committing an act of war against a group of people would have to have equally long consequences. But we’ve hardly known how to name them. Just as laws and custom are passed down, one generation to the next, shriveled heart syndrome has become part of white people’s shared inheritance.
This is the toll of “whiteness” and its essential moral compromises. Generation after generation, it degrades compassion. As time passes, the reasons and origins of this moral degradation are forgotten, but habit, culture, religion and economics perpetuate an atrophy of the soul. Though many white Americans recoil in horror at any honest confrontation of our racial history, Wilson-Hartgrove explains what they have to gain from a reckoning.
Racism thrives on the lie that I don’t need the people my life depends on – that they, in turn, don’t need me in a relationship governed by justice. The wages of whiteness, it turns out, is a loneliness in which individuals are damned to face the greatest challenges of life on our own. At the very center of this hell are those whose isolation is combined with power, deluding them into believing that the fate of the world depends on their hard work and good judgment.
Reconstructing the Gospel marks my first experience with an honest, popular religious narrative addressing racism from an evangelical perspective. I find myself wondering how my own spiritual journey might have been different if such a voice had been audible earlier in my life. What if there had been a readily-available alternative to what Wilson-Hartgrove calls “Slaveholder Religion” when I was a child at church-camp?
As a Southern kid struggling to understand the self-righteous bigotry among those I loved, how would it have felt to read such a clear explanation of our dilemma?
Reconstructing the gospel can never only be about the individual. This is why so many efforts at reconciliation fail. They pretend that broken people with the best of motives can simply opt out of hundreds of years of history through individual choices and relationships. Such relationships are necessarily dishonest, both because they ignore the real material conditions that weigh on people’s lives and because they offer a false sense of relief from white guilt, which keeps people like me from facing the hidden wound of our whiteness.
Reconstructing the Gospel carries the spiritual power of previous works like David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, a book little noted beyond religious spheres that nonetheless impacted millions of lives. However, unlike Switchblade, Reconstructing the Gospel will not benefit from splashy promotions by popular religious publishers.
The Graham organization, which was supportive of Wilkerson’s book in the 60’s, is under new management. Franklin Graham’s leadership has bent the organization Billy Graham built toward a relentless, last-stand defense of slaveholder religion. The market for white evangelical religious publishing sits mostly on the victor’s side of the Colfax legacy. Reconstructing the Gospel will struggle to find space in a religious publishing environment hostile to any reconstruction or reconsideration of race relations.
Like tracts circulated underground behind the Iron Curtain, it nevertheless seems likely to reach a hungry audience despite mainstream white evangelical resistance. The book carries unusual weight because it offers more than lament. It charts a path toward hope.
“Just shut up and listen” might be the most important instruction for anyone committed to unlearning whiteness. A shriveled heart, I know from experience, cannot listen well. In conversation, it interrupts to make a point. In daily life, it often prefers distraction to genuine engagement with God or other people.
A prophet is called to speak truth to power. That’s why so few of them enjoy long lives or peaceful ends. Hope offered in Reconstructing the Gospel comes at a price, payable only at a high cost in courage.
Whiteness, I have learned, is a religion. It is fueled by its power to give those who believe it a sense of worth. And for anyone who needs it, it is a faith that must be sustained in spite of the evidence. No one can be persuaded that the belief that tells them who are they isn’t true.
We know how our first effort at Reconstruction ended. Pursuing reconciliation and reconstruction in the Age of Trump demands a faith that is truly “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That courageous faith makes Reconstructing the Gospel a rare fountain of hope in a parched wilderness.