Tupac Shakur (Image: Flickr Zennie62/ Creative Commons)
Yesterday, I went back to 1997, and before I head Back to the Future, I want to stop off in October when Tupac’s first posthumous single, “I Wonder if Heaven Got A Ghetto”” was released.
My Mom shook her head at it incredulously. “Of course Heaven won’t have a ghetto! If it did, it wouldn’t be heaven!” I’d laugh at her repeated response, and actually the fact she was even listening to Tupac along with me at all. But something about the song simultaneously fascinated and frightened me. A segregated Heaven- even if filled with some of the best musicians and singers and chock full of very worldly pleasures- wasn’t Heaven. Was it?
I finished “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi a few weeks ago. Kendi breaks down how from the the 16th century onward, Black people were branded as different, subhuman, more beast than part of mankind. So “obvious” were these truths, that they impacted every facet of colonial life: government, medicine, agriculture, and even the shape and growth of the territories. Damingly, racism played a huge role in how even Jesus’ command to spread the Gospel was disseminated. In Stamped, Kendi writes:
In 1667, Virginia decreed that “the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage.” New York did the same in 1664, as did Maryland in 1671. “May more” masters, the Virginia legislators inscribed, “carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity” to slaves. (pg. 49, Kindle Edition)
So African slaves could (and perhaps, should) be converted, but salvation was strictly spiritual. Cotton Mather, famous Protestant pastor and leader of the time made clear his views on saving slaves:
In the collection of sermons Small Offers Toward the Service of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, Mather first shared his racial views, calling the Puritan colonists “the English Israel”— a chosen people. Puritans must religiously instruct all slaves and children, the “inferiors,” Mather pleaded. But masters were not doing their job of looking after African souls, “which are as white and good as those of other Nations, but are Destroyed for lack of Knowledge.” (pg. 59, Kindle Edition)
Mather released The Negro Christianized in June 1706. The “Providence of God” sent Africans into slavery and over to Christian America to have the capacity to learn from their masters the “Glorious Gospel.” They “are Men, and not Beasts”, Mather stressed, opposing segregationists. “Indeed their Stupidity is a Discouragement. It may seem, unto as little purpose, to Teach, as to wash” Africans. “But the greater their Stupidity, the greater must be our Application,” he proclaimed. Don’t worry about baptism leading to freedom. The “Law of Christianity . . . allows Slavery,” he resolved. He cited the writings of other Puritan theologians as well as St. Paul. (pgs. 68-69)
In 1729, Samuel Mather completed his esteeming biography of his deceased father, as Cotton Mather had done for his father, and as Increase Mather had done for Richard Mather. “When he walked the streets”, Samuel wrote of Cotton Mather, “he still blessed many persons who never knew it, with Secret Wishes.” He blessed the Black man, dearly praying “Lord, Wash that poor Soul; make him white by the Washing of thy SPIRIT.” (pgs. 75-76)
Cotton Mather (Image: Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Mather was far from the only Christian leader of that time (and for centuries after) who taught that African people would be made right, with souls becoming White, in the afterlife. Curse of Ham, seed of Cain, Tower of Babel or whatever, it seems so many White Christian leaders could not fathom sharing a Heavenly Kingdom with the souls of Black folks, unless they were White, of course.
This makes me think, do Christians today really see the Imago Dei in those outside of our respective groups? Can Christians see God in Muslims or Hindus? Can we see God in the imprisoned, the homeless or the drug-addicted? How about those who are citizens of nations across the globe, those who have worldviews diametrically opposed to our own?
When we Western Christians think of life post-Resurrection, are we imagining a Paradise that not only looks like what we think perfect is, but is full of… only us?
Or maybe there is some space for those not really like us. Maybe a ghetto.