During his trial, Nat Turner was often referred to as a preacher. And in his Confessions, Turner repeatedly cited scripture, especially Matthew 6:33, as the source of his uprising.
To Turner, the kingdom of God on earth could mean nothing less than the realization of the full humanity of his people.
In a modern context, we can abhor the violence displayed in Turner’s Revolt while still recognizing the singular power of the biblical narrative to call a people to their communal strength and moral purpose under God.
To the enslaved, those ground under the heal of oppressive social constructs and economic realities, the Bible serves as a text of inspiration which affirms both their access to the love of God and their right to exist as free beings in the world.
The slave masters knew that in the Word were the seeds of their own destruction.
After Turner’s Revolt, restrictive laws were put into place in the South banning slaves from reading and from meeting separately to form their own religious communities.
The power of the Bible is in its ability to reinterpret the world. We access the mind of God through imaginatively constructing a narrative of redemption as a community through the Word.
It is this communal redemption which evoked fear in the slaveholding, white supremacist class.
The spiritual descendants of those slave masters continue in their appropriation.
Power is consolidated to those who reinforce the patriarchal, racist, and economic structures of white supremacy.
Evil has its own right to interpretation, and its own community that can transform Jesus from a poor, brown, Jewish, itinerant preacher into a symbol of condemnation and eternal pain.
Those who seek to oppress and control have used the Bible, combined with raw military force, to terrorize people whose very existence is revolutionary within a supremacist system.
I know well the pain of being raised in the shadow of white supremacist theology. As a child, I was told repeatedly of the fire and horror that would engulf the world and punish sinners. And I can only imagine what such an upbringing is like for those who are told that their very being is an abomination – that their journey for love and acceptance is, in and of itself, a sin.
As people of faith, progressive Christians, this painful theology has seemed like too much to overcome. This leads us to abandon the written Word, especially in the public sphere, when we declare our ethical values and moral commitments.
To the mass public in the United States, the Gospel is represented by the odious interpretations of people like Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and, God help us, Donald Trump. Their hateful fundamentalism twists the Good News into a message of exclusion, misogyny, and xenophobia.
We must always recall the revolutionary spirit of the Gospel – the spirit which led to Jesus as the Christ’s execution at the hands of oppressive state powers. It is our duty to show that our ethics are deeply grounded in the biblical texts.
Our progressivism is justified in the narrative truth which pervades the Bible showing freedom and redemption.
It is only by reclaiming the moral reality of the Gospel that we can combat the destructive capacity of fundamentalist theology.
We must also be seen to publicly struggle with the Word in all its contradictions.
In mining the Bible for liberative possibilities, we need to show the power of the Christian imagination in dealing with “texts of terror” (a designation borrowed from Phyllis Trible’s groundbreaking book of the same name) which challenge the way we conceive of God.
There is no way to escape the painful legacy of the idea of “Christianity,” but we can show how Jesus as the Christ demonstrates that this pain always carries the seeds of rebirth within it.
Most of the UCC services I have attended begin with the preacher reciting Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.”
The word “my” is usually replaced with “our” as a signal that we are willing to do the hard work of reclamation as a community against the normative influence of established hierarchies.
This is our Bible and our religion – like Nat Turner, we must be fight for them and our humanity.
We control our narrative by refusing to cede the public voice of God to those who would use it to promote hatred and violence.
The Bible is one of the most destructive forces to ever exist and its capacity for destruction is only matched by its ability to call for creation.
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.