Fredrick Douglas’ and James’ Test for True Religion: Does American Faith Pass?

The evil done in spite of the Christian faith (against the conscience) pales in comparison to the evil done on behalf of the faith (in good conscience).  Christian complicity in systemic evil, such as slavery, national socialism, white supremacy, bigotry, oppression of women and minorities, or simply the abuse, due to misshapen theology, visited upon the powerless (children, women, people of color, foreigners, the worker denied his wages in James), is a clear sign of a religion that has gone deaf. The danger of evil and especially of an evil religion is that the voice of the oppressors drowns out the voice of the oppressed, all in the name of Christianity. We can, I argue below, be preserved from evil or be preserved from being the devil ourselves in developing our capacity to hear.  

There are several tests which the New Testament provides to judge true religion. As James describes it, one must be a doer of the word. A religion that does not provide for widows, orphans, and the poor, is not true religion. A religion which creates widows and orphans and which impoverishes, kills, excludes, and oppresses, is, by extension, “defiled and impure” (James 1:19-27).  One who denigrates the impoverished and joins the oppressor is not a Jesus follower. The Christian loves his neighbor who is by definition (according to both James and Jesus) one of the poor and oppressed (James 2). In his various tests of true religion James provides, though, a singular definitive marker for distinguishing Christianity from pure evil – the capacity to hear the oppressed.

We might hope that our particular (“orthodox”) expression of the faith (e.g., Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, or personal pietism, etc.) will preserve us from systemic complicity in evil, but orthodoxy is apparently no protection. “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19, ASB).  A small dose of history indicates near universal collusion (with exceptions within any particular group) with slavery, anti-Semitism, and various forms of political evil.  Membership in a particular church will not preserve from complicity in evil and, in fact, church history teaches us that membership in any particular church has sometimes been more of a guarantee of complicity than not. (Even James is having to warn one of the first churches against denigrating the poor.)

Frederick Douglas claimed there was a difference so wide between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land “that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.”  What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave, was a truth obscured by economics, national and regional loyalty, and what amounted to a way of life.  The “slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” did not have the perspective to understand it was an abomination to the name of Christ. “Isn’t this the purest form of deceit,” to call evil good in the name of Christ?

Douglas is describing the slave-holding religion of the South, but one wonders, in this present time of Christian support of a politics of hate, if the predominant religion of this land should be called Christianity? Is a faith that requires oppression and exclusion, which explicitly tolerates and promotes white supremacy, “Christianity.” Isn’t this, as Douglas would have it, “the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.” Isn’t this precisely the false religion which James warns should not be confused with authentic forms of the Faith? This sort of religion makes distinctions among people. It says to the poor man, the foreigner, the person of color, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool” (James 2:3). In dishonoring the poor man and favoring the rich, James explains, you have dishonored Christ.

James seems to know of only one form of wealth; ill gotten gain obtained by oppressing the poor, the cry of which passes by the deaf ear of the oppressors and falls on the ear of God. If you cannot hear the oppressed, this marks you out as one who has “fattened his heart in a day of slaughter” (James 5:5).  The religion which Douglas condemns is precisely the unjust religion James condemns and both appear to parallel contemporary forms of the faith.

The question is if a Christianity which shuts out the voice of the victim, the harassed, and the oppressed, deserves the name?  In this age of #MeToo, is it Christian to encourage the silencing, subordination, and denigration of women?  Isn’t this a clear case, in Douglas’ words, of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil.”  Faith and I are not unfamiliar with what it feels like to be fired for voicing grievances and sounding the alarm in the face of the worst sort of abuse. We learned the hard way that the oppressor and the abuser by the same power he wields to abuse, also has the power to impoverish and silence.

Isn’t the instinct to silence the aggrieved the evil that put Christ on the Cross (arrested at night, illegally tried).  Douglas says, “I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me.” To paraphrase Douglas, we still have vile oppressors for ministers and women denigrators for religious professors. “The man who wields the blood-clotted whip during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.” The man who has robbed me and my family of my earnings “meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.” James warns, however, that the enrichment of some at the expense of others creates the wealth that “will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).

Is this not the same one of whom Jesus speaks, the one who “loves the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” Is this a Christian or one of the Pharisees and hypocrites who make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, is full of extortion and excess. Do we have here one of the whited sepulchers, which appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness? Jesus seems to be targeting religion gone bad – and this religion is marked out by its excessive display, arrogance, and extortion. Douglas concludes, “Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Could anything be more true of our churches?”

Living, as I do, in “Little Dixie” I cannot imagine that the relief Douglas felt on escaping this country in 1845, as a fugitive slave, is much different than the relief young black men feel after having escaped portions of this State and country. Douglas, on his arrival in the British Isles said, he experienced “an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued” in America. Out of a sense of duty to his fellow African Americans, Douglas returned and began to speak and write. He describes his extreme nervousness in telling his story for the first time, yet this voice of a former slave became key in recognizing the abomination of “Christian slavery.”

Just as #MeToo has given a platform for abused women, just as high school students have become the loudest protesters of gun violence, and as the still small voice of DACA claimants are occasionally heard, the clarity of the voice of the victim is unmistakable. We do not expect the slave-holder, the NRA, the Harvey Weinsteins, the wielders of power, the rich, or the abusers, to give us the proper perspective on the evil they themselves promote. It is not those who crucify who speak the truth but their victims.

We must turn to the aggrieved, the slave, the abused, the victims, just as we turn to the Crucified for the truth. The sign that we have learned the way of the cross is that we hear the voices of the crucified. The sign of the anti-Christ is to imagine the crucified are permanently silenced.  The oppressor imagines the impoverished, the slave, the outcast – the very one he has impoverished, enslaved, and cast out, is silenced by this fact.  James promises, “the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabbath” (James 5:4).

To hear as God hears ensures we have not gone deaf on oppressive religion.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Fredrick Douglas’ and James’ Test for True Religion: Does American Faith Pass?”

  1. “What was absolutely clear to a run-away slave, was a truth obscured by economics, national and regional loyalty, and what amounted to a way of life.”

    There isn’t anything about this article that doesn’t ring true to me. This comment, though, caused me to think that, (with the emphasis on and Christian support of persecution of “illegal immigrants”) many people who claim to follow Jesus today would be more offended that Douglas was a “runaway slave” (illegal, stolen property) than that he was right about their faith.

    We are truly seeing, in our time, an evil church.

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