Useless Tokenism & Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) is one of the most prominent missionaries and Reformed theologians to have ever lived. His most notable sermon, which characterises his ministry, was ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ In Conservative Reformed Christian circles he is held up as an exemplary figure – ‘a great man of God’.

As bold and courageous as he may well have been in the pulpit, he, like many of his contemporaries, was a slave owner. Of course he was a compassionate slave owner, a slave owner who preached on the virtues of treating one’s slaves fairly, and yet he never directed his anger or his considerably religious clout at undermining the institution of slavery itself.

No doubt his token gestures and attempts to modify some of the more unpleasant practices within the institution eased his conscience on the issue. However, had he been bolder, had he been willing, willing even to be a figure of derision, what then?

Edwards must have felt as if he was doing the right thing, he probably felt as if he was a step in the right direction. But really he was part of the problem. His very persona as an advocate for the bondsman made him an enemy of them. Such tokenism does not undermine the institution, rather it further legitimises it. As such, tokenism of this kind or support of the oppressive institution are really one and the same.

So, are we then propping up the system? Are our token gestures legitimising what we claim to stand against? There is but one way to change a system – to ignore it. To live and be as if the way you think it should be is the way it is now.

These were the truly revolutionary figures in the abolitionist movement of the 18th century: not the preachers, or politicians who bartered for small victories, but those who lived alongside their brothers and sisters as equals, and suffered the scoffers.