“The Gospel According to America: Black Demons and the Original Sin of Slavery”– #EtownEngage

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On January 12-13, Elizabethtown College hosted a teach-in called #EtownEngage. Over 20 faculty from across the disciplines opened their classrooms to the community and hosted discussions on issues related to recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and elsewhere–a conversation pointed to by the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter.

In (WCH) REL 226: The New Testament, I gave a talk called “The Gospel According to America- Black Demons and The Original Sin of Slavery?”

Our conversation began with a twist on the debate, “Is America a Christian Nation?” Instead, students paired up and named reasons why people argue “yes” and “no.”

We talked about the pilgrims and their use of the Bible as a commonplace.

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We talked about the Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison and his idea that slavery was America’s “original sin.”

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“James Madison” by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852), Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And we noted the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the echoes of Negro Spirituals in his rhetoric.

We also brought up America’s religious diversity and the separation of church and state. But what became clear was that the Bible carries currency. The question is what does it get you.

In her article for The Independent, Rose Troup Buchanan highlights comments made by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

[Wilson described feeling] “like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” during his confrontation with teenager Michael Brown.“… he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

As a thought experiment, we read Wilson’s testimony in light of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene Demoniac, and discussed the following questions:

Do you think referencing an ancient mythology and age-old racial portraits impacted effected Darren Wilson’s case in the court of public opinion?

If we read Michael Brown as the demon of Mark 5, who do you see playing the other characters?

What do you make of biblical language being used in a court of law?

Many colleges understand the history of Western civilization to be a key curricular component. Should the Bible be studied in today’s classrooms? Why or why not? How or how not?


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Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.