Suffering as a Christian in the persecuted church is not quite the same thing as the suffering experienced by black Christians in pre-Civil War America, but it’s not entirely separate, says Karen Ellis, who was recently appointed director of Reformed Theological Seminary’s new Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity.

Ellis, an African American woman, is studying the comparisons between these two groups as part of her work as a Ph.D. candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

Karen Ellis, image courtesy of RTS

“Satan is remarkably uncreative, but he’s adept at marketing,” Ellis explains. “God has mercifully limited Satan to just a handful of tricks. When we see history through this lens, dehumanization takes on repeatable patterns — same destruction, different packaging.”

In America, both the enslaved and free people of color experienced many of the same religious freedom violations as Christians living in hostile countries across the globe, says Ellis, who travels as an advocate for the global persecuted church. For instance, Bibles were often withheld, limited, or redacted on American plantations, as they are today among Christians living in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. Slaves often had to hold secret worship meetings in “hush harbors.” Today, Christians in North Korea, Iran, and China meet for church in “the underground.” And more outright acts of violence against American black churches look disturbingly similar to what Christians experience at churches across Sri Lanka, Northern Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Egypt.

In drawing these parallels, however, Ellis is quick to acknowledge the differences: “Suffering for race and for religious belief are understandably conflated in historical tellings of the African American church. Two ontological realities were assaulted at the same time, at times with different approaches, solutions, and outcomes.”

Legislation and cultural practices that broadly targeted race negated the imago Dei for entire people groups, she points out. Yet often, legislation and cultural practices also violated religious freedoms, targeting a believer’s imago Christi.

“God has mercifully limited Satan to just a handful of tricks. When we see history through this lens, dehumanization takes on repeatable patterns — same destruction, different packaging.”

Concerning the first group, Ellis points out, “Christians rightly and wisely used biblical principles to push America toward a more biblical moral order.” On the other hand, those who suffered primarily for their spiritual identity found an eternal power in their suffering.

“If someone suffering civic injustice is told to simply live with that injustice, it is salt in a festering wound of human rights violations. Yet when one is denied their religious freedom, it’s understood that there’s intended power and privilege in modeling Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this second rubric, suffering injustice for one’s faith actually builds the kingdom of God … or, as we’ve been taught, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Ellis says that our history books rarely focus on those who lived this other-cultural, other-political presence in a world hostile to a genuine Christian transformation. While they were concerned with legislative and cultural change, they also showed the deeper spiritual reality of the New Testament church.

“Their narratives show that many Christian communities recognized Satan as mankind’s ultimate enemy; they knew the racist who practiced a dehumanizing, truncated ‘Christianity’ was the real slave. They hoped not in his destruction, but in his conversion into the Greater Kingdom.”

The Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity equips leaders to minister effectively within multiethnic, cross-cultural, and monoethnic contexts by fostering an appreciation for the histories and cultures of people groups that are outside the dominant culture.