“There’s no causal relationship, or even descriptive relationship really, between [Jonathan] Edwards’ theology proper and the eighteenth century slave-holding that Edwards engaged in. There’s no genetic relationship between the ‘Doctrines of Grace’ or a high view of Gods sovereignty that leads necessarily to the consequence of holding slaves.” 
I’ve been told there is no “genetic relationship” between theologies that conceptualize God as all-controlling, all-determining, and utterly unfeeling and the political, cultural oppression of human beings in societies set up by adherents of such views.
I’ve been told theologies that teach God “ordains” the unjust circumstances under which some human beings suffer (while others prosper) and “predestines” those circumstances hasn’t been used as justification for continued injustice and oppression.
I’ve been told that people can have “good theology” and yet own human beings like chattel, deem them less than human, and brutalize them. Such actions, they say, don’t reflect the slave-owners’ conception of God at all.
But I think we all know Thomas Paine was right when he said,
“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel [person].”
Well, I’m proud to say at least two eminently qualified Christian theologians have had the intellectual integrity and courage to make the case for just such a “genetic” link, and to refute this classic copout with a clear argument from history, sociology, and politics.
In the book, Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo, Drs. Charles Amjad-Ali and Lester Edwin Ruiz contributed a chapter entitled “Betrayed by a Kiss: Evangelicals and U.S. Empire.” In this beautiful chapter, this pair of astute and uncompromising scholars do not mince words. They lay the blame for colonial imperialism squarely at the feet of theological determinism and the ethnocentrism it undergirds.
In this post, I will share select and extended quotes from this chapter, while also strongly encouraging you to buy the book and read the chapter itself in full.
1. The Context for U.S. Colonizing: European Empire
Transforming empire requires that attention be given to the consequences of its sociopolitical and economic power and the kind of knowledge that this power has generated in the context of the theology that has provided, and continues to provide, the fundamental religio-moral underpinnings for empire. This theology is paradigmatically expressed in the various strands of contemporary evangelical theology.
All empires for the last five hundred years have had European roots. The contemporary Euro-American history and imperial model begins with Christopher Columbus in 1492, followed by Vasco de Gama in 1498. While the Western imperium began with the Iberian Catholic colonization, the last four hundred or so years, following the “sinking of the Spanish Armada” in 1588, was dominated by the emergence of northwestern European empires, mostly from Protestant countries.
2. The Doctrine of European Colonizers: Calvinism
When the colonizers first came to the Americas, they carried a theological and doctrinal certitude of God’s foreordained support. In 1492, in the shadow of the Reconquista of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand began to support trade routes to India, which would bypass the Muslim enclosure and thus establish their own imperium. They found Columbus a willing executor for this task, and shortly thereafter the church. God had brought them success against the Muslims who had rules Spain for 781 years, and God was to be their guide and succor in this new venture.
The other migration to the Americas that is hyperbolized as paradigmatic and quickly given a Reformed predestinarian justification, especially by conservative evangelical Christians, is that of the Puritans. This disaffected community experienced failures in the “New World,” including the death within a year of arrival of 50 percent of those on the Mayflower. Despite these disasters, Puritans painted their coming to America, colonizing the native population, and taking over their land as God’s preordained will for God’s chosen people. Ultimately they had a similar attitude (and theology) as Columbus and the Spaniards, even though they had had very dissimilar experiences in Europe and different reasons for their journeys to the “New World.”
One might ask why the Reformed tradition with its double predestinarian theology, in both the United States and South Africa for example, produced extremely unjust and malevolent policies. Proponents of this heritage have often justified their right to others’ land, labor, and bodies as entitlements of God’s chosen people. Non-Western peoples, they argue, are under the permanent curse of a negative predestination and therefore not entitled to their own lands, culture, or future. God’s chosen people, even when they expropriate the lands of the “native peoples,” are without blame because this is what God intended. Therefore, neither confession of sins nor penitent behavior nor restorative and restitutive justice is required. Jewish theologian Will Herberg argues that in the United States it does not matter whether one is Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, because in significant ways everybody falls prey to this theology and its justification.
3. The Effect of Calvinism: The Delusion of American Exceptionalism
This theology dominates contemporary U.S. foreign policy: America is the righteous, blameless one because it is preordained to this hegemonic status. Any enemy is totally wrong, bereft of any goodness, because of their ontological preordained status and because they dare challenge the God-given power of the United States. This blissfully uncomplicated, simplistic, and misinformed understanding of self and “enemy” takes on interesting, if amusing, forms. For example, the United States defines itself metaphorically as both David (because of its righteousness and the justness of its cause) and Goliath (for who else but one specially blessed can have the power, strength, and armor that Goliath displayed?). Such schizophrenia is at times totally unbearable and for its victims and unmitigated disaster (cf. the war in Iraq, launched in 2003 and still dragging on as of this writing five years later, and the U.S. war on terrorism).[…]
This theology has been readily extended to a national (and nationalistic) theology. God’s blessing of America is thus based on its right relationship with God, its piety and righteousness. As God’s chosen, the nation is a light unto the world (Isa. 42:6; 49:6, Matt. 5:14), a beacon on the mountain (Isa. 30:17), and a city on a hill (Matt. 5.14). Chosen by God, America is able to fulfill God’s will and therefore to keep moving from success to success, continuously acquiring ever-expanding power, wealth, and privilege unmatched in history. Recalling Alfred North Whitehead’s “misplaced concreteness” or G. W. Hegel’s “bad infinity,” this theology, if not ideology, is based on the bad covenantal theology espoused by the Puritans and continues to dominate the U.S. political psyche, but now without direct reference to God.”
Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Justice and Christian Community, and Director of Islamic Studies at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Ordained in the Church of Pakistan (since 1987)
Dr. Lester Edwin J. Ruiz is the director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at the Association of Theological Schools. Prior to ATS, Ruiz was a faculty member of New York Theological Seminary in New York City since 1997 where he was professor of theology and culture.
Ordained in the the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches (American Baptist Churches, USA).
- Thabiti Anyabwile, “Jonathan Edwards and American Racism: Can the Theology of a Slave Owner Be Trusted by Descendants of Slaves?” (26:44—27:07)