October 2020

When Shame was a Gift from God

50 year old remembrance of God’s mercy 1970 — 2020 Al LaCour


Disputes and protests over racial injustices now tear at the seams of America’s social fabric. Over the years, I have heard firsthand stories from Christian brothers and sisters of color who have personally experienced racial profiling or suffered unjust treatment.

As I listen to their stories, I grieve. But I also want to heed God’s mandate to “look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them had happened to you.” (Hebrews 13:3b, the Message) As a follower of Jesus, and a member of Christ’s Body, I know “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV) At least, that is how the church is supposed to operate.

Maybe white followers of Jesus should only listen to believers of color who have suffered from racial injustice. Any person from “white privilege” will fail in attempts to identify or compare with their painful stories. Do I dismiss, devalue, or disqualify their raw experiences? And should a white brother ever speak about racial injustices or about slavery?

For those in Christ, ultimate Identity is found only in Christ. For all who share in the Gospel Story (which is God’s meta-narrative), there is only one righteous Hero, one worthy Victim — Jesus Christ. Followers of Christ cannot justify their lives based on what they have personally accomplished or suffered. My (white man’s) story has no authority, power, or priority over any other believer’s story.

But if the church is a community of shared stories, Christ calls us to grow and serve each other in love. As I wrote what follows, I invited fellow Christians, each a person of color, to help me to listen to, and to interpret my own narrative. And I pray that my personal story will help fellow white believers to reflect on their own race relationships.

In the summer of 1970, I worked for a missionary chaplain, alongside African college students at University College of Cape Coast, Ghana. Our mornings were spent constructing a two classroom school to teach English as a second language to local Fante village children. Our afternoons were spent in a summer long Bible School day camp program.

We also took the village children on excursions, including to historic Elmina and Cape Coast Castles on the Gulf of Guinea. I have described the significant impact of one day at Elmina Castle in a chapter of the recently published Hear Us, Emmanuel. Here I reflect in more detail.

In 1970, African-Americans were making pilgrimages to Cape Coast and to Elmina to reconnect with their West African roots and to retrace their ancestors’ footsteps through the castle’s infamous “Door of No Return.” As we visited Elmina, Fante village children climbed happily on the castle turrets, supervised by fun-loving West African college students. All were unfazed by Elmina’s horrific history of slave-trading. On that day, I was the only white person at Elmina Castle. But there were many American tourists.

Elmina was Europe’s first settlement in West Africa. Elmina Castle is the oldest European building in the sub-Sahara, built by Portugal in 1482 to protect its gold trade from the Dutch. The castle later became a slave depot. Africans stolen from interior kingdoms were held in inhumane conditions, later led in chains through a “Door of No Return” for shipment to Brazil or other Portuguese colonies. This suffering took place below spacious officers’ quarters with airy, scenic Atlantic views and even a chapel. After the Dutch seized Elmina from Portugal in 1637, slave trading continued at Elmina until abolished by Holland in 1814.

Only 12km away, Cape Coast became British headquarters for transatlantic trafficking after Holland ceded the entire Gold Coast to Great Britain. African men, women, and children were sold and shipped to the Caribbean, North and South America. From 1664, Cape Coast Castle was a slave depot for over 150 years. In 1833, led by William Wilberforce, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. In 1957, Gold Coast became the first British crown colony to gain independence, as the modern nation of Ghana.

Whether Portuguese, Dutch, or British, the West African slave trade continued for almost 400 years, until the mid-19th Century. Cape Coast and Elmina Castles are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

This was only local history to the African college students at Elmina. This was not their personal story. Their ancestors had not been stolen or trafficked by Europeans to economically benefit the colonies. But Elmina was part of my story. I was raised in the Jim Crow era, and in a southern culture that was built upon, stained by, and structured upon slavery.

To African-Americans at Elmina Castle in 1970, my white presence no doubt felt like a profane transgression of their sacred ancestral ground. I cannot imagine how I appeared to fellow Americans as they retraced their family histories and pondered the horrors of Elmina. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt out of place. I did not feel guilt for slavery. But I did feel ashamed. That was God’s gift.

As I witnessed my fellow Americans taking in the gravity of Elmina, I realized they were processing centuries of slavery, silently grieving all that was stolen from their ancestors, who had themselves been stolen from their land. And yet, as uncomfortable as my presence felt, I knew that my momentary shame would never compare with or compensate for their accumulated experiences of racial injustice. That day, I committed myself to a lifelong journey of compassion and repentance.

It is easy for white Christians to be dismissive: “Slavery was bad, but I didn’t steal or buy slaves.” But, while not personally guilty, my southern family history is bound up with the stories of African-Americans, and with the shame and legacy of slavery.

Summer in Ghana fifty years ago began my process of reflecting on and repenting from my earlier experiences in race relationships. For a follower of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross must, should, and ought to open up new perspectives on racial justice.

In 1970, I began a journey to “look on victims of abuse as if what happened to them had happened to you.” Through God’s gift of shame and through truthful, loving friendships with believers of color, my life story continues to be more deeply bound to a shared pursuit of justice and righteousness in Christ.