Sunday, March 13, 2011

How Would Jesus Read the Constitution?

I am reading a new volume from Willard Library, a “preacher book: about what preachers say: Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present. (Simmons & Thomas. NY: WW Norton, 2010). My friend James Earl Massey is a contributor to this 800+ page volume from America’s black pulpit.

Frederick Douglas (originally Nathan Johnson) is but one that captured my thinking. If you remember, Douglas was sired by a white man rumored to be his master, and birthed by a black slave woman. The slave boy copied from the Bible, learned from a Methodist hymnal, speller, and other books he accessed, and became attached to an older black man that led him to “preach the gospel”.

This brilliant, self-educated, highly articulate communicator and ex-slave served his church and country well. He began preaching in 1840; he supported Abolition and pursued a publishing career. Having already served as a U. S. Marshall under President Hayes, in 1889 he accepted appointment as Consul General to the Republic of Haiti.

On July 5, 1852, Douglas delivered a Community July 4th oration, by request. He chose as theme: “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” It is a stunning indictment of the support of slavery by his church and nation. I quote from it for what it contributes to our contemporary thought.

Speaking against the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law, Douglas declared “I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian Liberty, and, if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind, or most wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it. . .”

He continued; and here, I quote to give you a feel for his argument …
“For my part, I would say, Welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! In preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!

“These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man stealers, and thugs. It is not that ‘pure and undefiled religion’ which is from above, and which is ‘first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.’

“But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.

“All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation--a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, ‘Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth.

“They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! When ye make many prayers, I will not hear: Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.’ . . .”

“Americans! Your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent … You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of our country …”

Let us throw off the bondage of party spirit and politics of race and religion, and let us be consistent with the common good as we “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In holding our entrenched positions, let us not “hold securely, in that bondage which, Thomas Jefferson described as “worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose…”

In Frederick Douglas‘s mind that was “a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country” (slaves). In our case, it may be people we “subject” in different ways. Douglas, nonetheless, took hope in the American Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.” Go a step further and read that document with the eyes of Jesus when he considers judging the nations:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: ‘for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me . . .” (Matthew 24:34-46).

Jesus calls us to re-assess our social and political views and align them with his love for a suffering and confused world, rather than subject them to our political machinations, be they whatever they are.

From Warner’s World,


Sestias said...

I have always been interested in the early writings of African Americans and especially Frederick Douglas. In the 19th century literacy was usually forbidden to slaves and incurred terrible punishment. Therefore, they passed down their wisdom through music and the spoken word, both of which they usually kept secret from their masters. Still, there are some remarkable works that were written, especially as some slaves escaped or were freed by their masters or emancipation in the 19th century. One I would particularly recommend is "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs, first published in 1861, a few years prior to the emancipation proclamation.

Although I am somewhat familiar with the works of Douglas, you have provided quotes which I had not read.

To Frederick Doublas, and to your remarks in this blog post, I say "Amen."

Wayne said...

I got into Douglas through reading Sojourner Truth of Battle Creek, where she is still honored annually. I live just blocks from her burial site. I like Douglas, but am impressed with the quality and character of many, male and female.