Liberation Theologies: Decolonizing the Masters’ Tool

On August 21st, 1831 Baptist preacher, Nat Turner, lead one of the largest slave insurrections in the history of the United States. In an explosion of prophetic and apocalyptic rage, Turner overthrew his legal owners ruling by fighting back, killing the elite colonial slave-owning families who had subjugated his life to a hell on Earth. With more than 70 other liberated slaves, Turner’s insurrectionary self-defense sparked brutal repression from local white vigilante militias and the State. After six weeks of freedom, he was caught and brought back to Southampton County, Virginia to be put on trial; his revolutionary actions were recorded by white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, later titled, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first! (Gray)

Being Born into slavery as the chattel property of Benjamin Turner, Nat or Nathaniel (the Hebrew meaning, “gift from god”) Turner inherited two conflicting yet syncretized versions of religious expression; the first, and most obvious, being his Christian identity as a Baptist preacher, sharing the religion of his slave masters (he was bought and sold between 4 legal owners); the second, being his Mother Nancy’s African folk-traditions brought directly over in the year 1799 when she was purchased by a Methodist slave owner. Further in his recorded confession he details multiple mystical experiences: talking to spirits, having flash backs to previous lives, practicing divination through tree leaves, and deciphering hieroglyphic characters all of which direct his passion toward revolt. In an act of religious syncretism Turner used knowledges from Baptist Christianity (individual freedom and soul freedom), the Hebrew prophets (histories of prophetic witness), and past-life ancestral mysticism (possibly informed by indigenous African traditions) to act upon his direct liberation from slavery. In this way Turner used the religious tool of his master and the indigenous traditions brought over from Africa by his Mother to subvert and challenge the legal slave-system for collective emancipation. For Turner, God had judged the materiality of slavery as demonic and condemned the institution to exorcism; it was God who actively directed him through revelation, signs, scriptures, visions, and dreams to defend himself from slavery. Turner embraced the counterviolence of God against slavery and dehumanization, igniting violent insurrection to advance the Kingdom principles of freedom, equality, liberation, justice, and salvation for the common good. “It was not motivated by hatred, racism, fanaticism, or evil. His revolutionary violence was the self-defense of the oppressed slave and God’s counterviolence against the inherent barbarism and violence of slavery” (Lampley 3). Continue reading Liberation Theologies: Decolonizing the Masters’ Tool