Christians are taught to think of the good news of Jesus Christ in this way:
God loves us, but we’re sinful. As a result, we’re separated from God. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. All we have to do is believe that his death was enough and we get to go to heaven.
That’s some good news. Seriously, who wants to languish in hell forever?
But one day several years ago, as I walked away from the King Center in Atlanta, one thought haunted me: The good news of my gospel doesn’t feel good enough.
It was the last stop on a pilgrimage taken by select staff from a national college ministry. At the time, I served as the ministry’s director of racial reconciliation in Greater Los Angeles. Over four weeks, the pilgrimage took this diverse group of twenty-five key staff leaders and family members through ten states. We investigated two of the most brutal realities of US history: the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the experiences of Africans on American soil, from antebellum slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
I had been to the King Center just a few months before, so when we arrived on the last day of the pilgrimage, I planned to just mill around while the other group members got their fill. I wandered into the main hall. It all looked like it had when I’d seen it previously until I caught a glimpse of something unfamiliar. Paintings lined the walls. Between each painting a dollar bill was mounted. I was intrigued, so I moved closer. Here was a painting of enslaved people, and in the art they were happy.
I found a plaque on the wall that offered instructions for how to move through the exhibit. It asked the viewer to examine the painting, then try to find that same picture on the dollar bill displayed next to it. I looked closely at the next painting. It was a different scene showing a different enslaved person. This man was carrying a beautiful basket full of cotton, and he was happy. And he had shoes. How strange. Most slaves didn’t have shoes.
I could hear the line from an old spiritual born from the misery of plantation life. It declares, “All o’ God’s chillun got shoes.”
For an enslaved person, the differences between being a slave and being a white person were obvious. Whites had freedom of movement and thought, a declaration of their independence, and a Constitution that affirmed their equality. And in addition to all of that, white folk had shoes. Owning shoes represented human dignity. The saying “All o’ God’s chillun got shoes” seemed harmless to outsiders, but it was a statement of resistance. Having shoes served as a reminder to each member of the enslaved community that you are a child of God. Though the slave master and society do not recognize it, you were born with human dignity. There is a place in God’s Kingdom where you have shoes!
So this painting of a happy slave carrying a beautiful basket of cotton while wearing neatly tied shoes struck me as odd. I followed the instructions of the exhibit and found the painting represented on the dollar bill mounted next to it. I moved to the next painting and viewed a scene of an idyllic countryside bursting with cotton. A straight-backed slave family—mother, father, and two children—picked cotton together. They were fully garbed with aprons to protect their clothing, and they all wore shoes.
I examined the dollar bill next to this painting. There was the same happy slave family in the lower-right corner of a ten-dollar note from Charleston, South Carolina. I searched for more information about the exhibit and found a plaque reading “Confederate Currency: The Color of Money.”
Dozens of these paintings lined the walls, and displayed between the paintings was actual currency used by the Confederacy. The Confederate States of America put pictures of happy, fully clothed slaves wearing shoes on their money because they knew that the currency traveled around the world. It was southern propaganda in the era before television, tweets, and Facebook.
The King Center also displayed copies of the secession ordinances. The state of Mississippi spelled out its reasons for seceding from the Union: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” This helps explain why member states of the Confederacy put slaves on the money they printed. For them, enslaved people equaled money. To lose the people was to lose money—too much to still be able to maintain their way of life.
As I stared at the secession ordinances, I remembered our first stop on the pilgrimage: Dahlonega, Georgia, the site of the first American gold rush. It was Cherokee land and had been for nearly thirteen thousand years. The Cherokee Nation signed a dozen treaties with the United States between 1795 and 1819 in attempts to protect the land and the people. The 1820s were a time of great promise for the Cherokee Nation. In that decade the Nation developed its own written syllabary, drafted its own constitution, and established its capital city: New Echota, in Georgia.
But in 1828, a little Cherokee boy found gold. The same year, Georgia began passing laws stripping the Cherokees of their lands and rights. Within years, miners moved in and—without permission—set up camps on Cherokee territory. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave him power to negotiate removal treaties with tribes living east of the Mississippi River. At the same time, the state of Georgia divided the Cherokee Nation’s land into lots for the miners.
In 1831, the Nation asked the US Supreme Court to grant an injunction against Georgia’s punitive laws. The court ruled that it lacked the proper jurisdiction to take the case. A group of missionaries, including Samuel Austin Worcester, later exercised civil disobedience by refusing to obtain a state license to occupy Cherokee lands. In essence, they thumbed their nose at the state’s right to rule over Cherokee land. The missionaries were jailed. Cherokee Chief John Ross took their case to the US Supreme Court and won. In Worcester v. Georgia, the court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign nation. As such, the state of Georgia did not have the right to impose regulations on the Nation; only the federal government had that authority.
Still, by the end of 1838 and in defiance of the US Supreme Court, President Jackson’s coerced treaties had resulted in the removal of nearly forty-six thousand Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole men, women, and children. The illegal deportation cleared twenty-five million acres of land for white settlement, mining, and ultimately slavery. The US Branch Mint at Dahlonega opened for business and produced its first gold coins the same year.
As I reflected on Dahlonega while standing in front of the Confederate currency exhibit in the King Center, a thought hit me. This is the Bible Belt. These things happened at the hands of people who claimed to believe in Jesus and the power of the Cross for salvation. How could they believe the gospel and do this?
Excerpted from The Very Good Gospel Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Sharon Harper. Used with permission of WaterBrook an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.