“God the Father” has some white supremacist dirty laundry in the United States. The image of the Divine Father is pitched as potentially comforting; yet the Father also demands acquiescence with domination and an unjust system. Take, for instance, religious teaching in the racialized contexts of plantations and prisons. Adoption by the Heavenly Father is offered as if a gift, but in fact requires obedience to the captor, normalizes surveillance, and shores up an oppressive social order.
If the prison is the new plantation, as prison abolitionists have argued, slave catechisms can be seen as precursor texts to the discourses of present-day prison ministries.1 That is to say, when materials produced by prison ministries are placed alongside slave catechisms, an uncomfortable parallel becomes apparent, even despite the differences. Reading them together substantially diminishes any sense that prison ministries are harmless, and further, questions whether there can be any innocent use of the language of “God the Father” in the United States. One example of each of these religious pedagogies illustrates such deployment of the Father God.
In the slave catechisms that proliferated after 1835 in the South, slaves were welcomed as children of God, so long as they were obedient. Slaves were evangelized and catechized from the seventeenth century on, but the practice intensified in a proslavery response to abolition movements in the middle part of the nineteenth century.
Obedience, as many people have noticed, is a central theme of the religious instruction of slaves. Not surprisingly, slaves’ inclusion into God’s patriarchal family is predicated on obedience. Peppered throughout the catechisms are injunctions to obey parents and masters, as well as God. As Mitzi Smith shows, the catechisms urge slaves to love their masters, as they would love God, and to accept slavery and its tortures as from God. In a sense, God the Father becomes a kind of proxy for the slaveholder.
One of the most obviously instrumental of these catechisms was published serially between July 1836 and February 1837 in The Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register, titled, “Proposed Catechism: To Be Used by the Teachers in the Religious Instruction of Persons of Colour.”2 In it, the all-seeing and all-knowing Father God is capricious, alternately caring and threatening.
In the first installment of these lessons, the slave is instructed, in the characteristic sequence of question and answer, that salvation is not a one-time gift: “Will you certainly be saved, because you are in his Church?” (“Not unless I walk worthy of my Christian calling.”) And again, “What were you made in baptism, besides a member of Christ?” (“A child of God.”) “Will God love you as his child?” (“Not unless I am a good child.”)3 The Father’s love is clearly not a free gift. This conditionality prefaces the demand for obedience, surveillance to judge that obedience, and spiritual and physical punishment if it is not forthcoming.
The lesson “On the Creed” elaborates the nature of the Father by interpellating the catechumen into a space of surveillance for potential evil: “Where is God?” (“‘The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.’ Prov. xv.3.”) Then, relying on Psalm 139, the Psalm of surveillance: “Can you hide yourself from God?” (“‘Whither can I go from his spirit, or whither can I flee from his presence?’”) “Does he always see you?” (“He compasseth my path and my lying down, and is acquainted with all my ways. Thou, God, seest me.”)4 This teaching bears out in spiritual terms the racialized surveillance that Simone Browne argues begins in the system of slavery.
The discomfort of surveillance is immediately countered with an insistent sense of belonging to God the Father that is also a coerced dependence. “Of whom is God the Father?” (Of everyone, of Jesus, of Christians). “How is he your Father?” (“Because he made me.”) “How else?” (“Because he keeps me alive.”) “And how besides?” (“Because I became his child at my baptism.”)5 Embedded in this belonging is control: slaves are made to know that they are only alive because of God’s will.
The implicit threat amplifies through an active push and pull between care and violence:
And what will He do for such children? If we be sons then we are heirs, and He will withhold from us no good thing. Rom. viii.17, Psalm lxxxiv.11.
Can you sin against God and get off? No: for who hath hardened himself against Him and prospered? Job ix.4.
Can anyone hurt you unless He chooses? If God be for us, who can be against us? Rom. viii.3.
Does God take care of you? Yes: He careth for us. 1 Peter v.7.
Can God kill you? He is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. Matt. x.28.6
The slave catechumen is always on the brink of physical and spiritual harm or death according to God’s choosing.
Fast-forward two centuries to a time when people in unprecedented numbers are confined in cages and paid as little as eight cents an hour for required work, and sometimes nothing at all. Like their antebellum precursors, prison ministries are touted as having beneficial effects for society. As Tanya Erzen argues in her important book God in Captivity, prison officials like these ministries because they are thought to bring behavioral control. They are also lauded for creating “pro-social” behavior and reducing recidivism, although this latter is disputed.
In one of the most prominent prison ministries, Prison Fellowship, the Father God is offered as a form of assurance. Throughout their materials, the prisoner is painted as intimately acquainted with sin and therefore more than usually grateful to God the Father for his sacrifice of his son. Obedience to God and to authority is expected of the adopted sinner.
The extensive online devotional materials provided by Prison Fellowship include a series of reflections called “I Surrender.” These are written by the formerly incarcerated. The now deceased Prison Fellowship founder, Chuck Colson, features prominently. Not unlike the slave catechisms, these materials emphasize the need for obedience and dependence of incarcerated persons on the Father. God’s surveillance is offered up as a form of caretaking.
In the introduction to the series, Colson indicates that “becoming a child of God” still requires work and “a process of surrender.” It requires subservience to authority and an attitude of dependence: “As we allow Christ to have authority over different areas of our lives, He changes us. As we learn to depend on Him, we find true freedom. Surrender means giving up our rights to ourselves, becoming dependent on Christ, and being obedient to Him.” The literal unfreedom of prison, the reader is led to believe, is nothing compared to the spiritual freedom found in obedience to Christ. Full dependence on the Father is demanded.
This authority extends to other societal and prison authorities as well. In the devotion titled, “I Surrender My Willfulness,” formerly-incarcerated writer Alex says, “He wants us to obey Him through his designated authority figures—our parents, employers, government and spiritual leaders. I realized this truth while I was in prison, and I have personally discovered that as I have submitted myself to God and those in authority over me, I have been the better for it.” While it is undoubtedly true that resistance results in further punishment inside prisons, Alex’s spiritual affirmation of this fact is not unlike statements repeated by slave catechumens. Both justify and obscure submission to an oppressive authority by calling it obedience to the Father.
Surveillance is offered as a hopeful antidote to the outcast status of the incarcerated. In the reflection titled, “I Surrender My Failure,” the incarcerated reader is positioned as just that, a failure. “You feel like a failure in the world’s eyes, worth nothing.” Abjection is presumed. But hope is offered: “But you must look at your life in a different perspective. You are a child of God, made in his image. Jesus loves you more than you can imagine and He gave his life to save yours. You are worth a great deal to him.” Reassuring biblical passages are offered in a sidebar. One of these is the very same Psalm 139 about God’s surveillance which is cited so frequently in the slave catechisms. Surveillance is offered as hope, a gift from the Father. The passage is meant to indicate God’s love in knowing the believer intimately. But, as I (and others) have argued elsewhere, the Psalm itself is less sanguine about God’s surveillance. The application of this passage seems sinister in the context of the complete and total surveillance in prison and given its history in slave catechisms.
In the slave catechisms and in the Prison Fellowship materials, the Father acts as a divine guarantor for oppressive power—ultimately aiding the state and business structures that profit from slavery or the prison industrial complex. God’s power is figured through surveillance, strengthening from the outside a tactic also used by slaveholders and prisons. Yet, the need to invoke the Father as an external power implies that these structures are not quite as powerful, in control, or moral as they purport; they need outside assistance.
If the discourse of the Father God has a racist and oppressive history in the United States, what does taking this history seriously require? If we wish to genuinely to address the white supremacy that still haunts the nation, what reparations can the paternal God be made to make—reparations that do not involve the death of the son, surveillance, obedience, or social control? Scripture is the technology by which the Father, love, and surveillance are proffered as transcendent, allowing incarcerated people to imagine something beyond their confinement, even if it is coopted for control. The challenge is to think about how that technology and that hope can be put to imagining an actual way out of the prison industrial complex and its injustices.
Many thanks to Sarah Grace Engel for her outstanding research and editorial assistance.
Protestant Episcopal Church. 1836a. “Proposed Catechism: To Be Used by the Teachers in the Religious Instruction of Persons of Colour: Lesson One.” Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register 13, no. 149 (July); Protestant Episcopal Church. 1836b. “Proposed Catechism: To Be Used by the Teachers in the Religious Instruction of Persons of Colour: Lesson Three.” Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register 13, no. 151 (September).↩