President Obama’s recent tour of Ghana included a well-publicized visit to the Cape Coast Castle, better known as Elmina, the site where thousands – perhaps millions – of African tribal POWs and innocents were led to ancestral exile and slaughter in the fledgling United States of America.
I can hardly add anything regarding the horrors of slavery, but I was struck by how, when asked by Anderson Cooper, what they would tell Sasha and Malia of the trip, the president responded:
“That slave merchant might’ve loved their children and gone to that place of worship,” he said, pausing to point to a church on the grounds, “right above the dungeon. And get them to make sure that they’re constantly asking themselves questions if they’re treating people fairly and whether they are examining their own behavior and how it affects others.”
The relationship between the Christian faith of slaves and slave-holders defies description. Baffling, fascinating, horrifying, mystifying – all fall short in some way, and are only muddled by curious pairings. It remains an astounding mystery of human experience.
Above the Portuguese chapel frequented by the slaveholders is a reference to Psalm 132 – a psalm of coronation – of the desire to build an eternal home for God in Zion. It reeks of chosenness and ego – the likes of which would hardly be tolerated in any peer setting, but is local currency for oppressors of all stripes.
Beneath the stone floor lies the women’s dungeon, replete with a trap door, heavily guarded so as to only facilitate carefully planned “escapes” to the chambers of the oppressors.
Milton said: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
He was half-right.
Whatever the mind may make, the will can purpose to create. The chapel that ought to have been a place of genuine worship and study – of expression of the majesty and glory of God – stands as the lone testament to the hypocrisy of an age, even of a people.
The “castle” is but a monument now, a lifelong reminder of our own “capacity for cruelty” as the president rightly put it. There is no gilded altar or gold-leafed Bible, which is only proper. Christ left the chapel before it was even built, descending instead into hell to suffer with the women there.
Beneath the vain claim on the words of David, the people of Africa – whose fathers and uncles, wives and mothers passed through the castle, only to return in DNA-following descendants – they have left their own indelible epitaph.
In Everlasting Memory Of the anguish of our ancestors
May those who died rest in peace
May those who returned find their roots
May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity
We the living vow to uphold this
Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel “Beloved” is dedicated to “60 million and more.” The reference is to the number of human beings who were killed or transferred through the Middle Passage, many through the wooden gates of Elmina.
As people of faith, we say a great deal about bringing the Kingdom of God to Earth, about transforming the hells of the present into places of freedom and justice. To make such a claim means we must also acknowledge the rampant hypocrisy of our own history that so often renders heaven hell.
Be it our own efforts to withdraw from the world’s suffering or our inability to reconcile it with a belief in a benevolent God, we must realize that indifference, however small, becomes but one more layer of concrete between the chapel and the dungeon.
May we hear their cries and tear through the floor.
May we chisel away at our own indifference.
May we leave the brick building of our own lavish cathedrals to meet the poor, only to find Christ has already made his dwelling there.