Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Liberation of Frederick Douglass…and the Bible

I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class-leader…he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! All the time quoting scripture, for his authority…
Frederick Douglass, National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841)

When Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery, dressed up as a sailor and boarded a train for freedom with fake papers (undocumented!!!) 186 years ago, it took him 24 hours to get from Baltimore to home base in Rochester. Today, as we officially launch RadicalDiscipleship.Net, we honor Douglass’ underground road trip and, how he utilized the Bible as a radical script to narrate the life of activism he was devoted to.

In addition to his more well-known abolitionist work, Douglass was the only African-American to speak at the women's rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1948, calling for an absolutely revolutionary proposal: full voting rights for all American women. As always, he spoke passionately and clearly:
In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.
He saved his most critical, anti-imperial words, however, for a speech delivered to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
From early on, Douglass learned to read and rehearse the biblical text as his world of language, reflecting on and critiquing not only the horrific nature of slavery, but also “the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America” who, echoing Matthew 23:24, “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Douglass reflected the normative African-American biblical reading strategy which, living an oppressed experience, had a biblical perspective “from below.” Douglass could not help but characterize “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” as the modern-day scribes and Pharisees. His own horrific experience in chattel slavery created a lens to interpret the text: every bit of Christian Scripture screamed for liberation.

Douglass lived in Rochester on and off until 1872 when his house was scorched by arson. He left for D.C. and frequent trips to Europe where he was greeted as a rock star. We must always remember, though, that here in the States, far too many Christian leaders (in both the academy and the church) awkwardly argued against Douglass, quoting the Bible to defend the Confederate “way of life.”
One of Douglass’ contemporaries was Princeton's Charles Hodge, perhaps the most well-known theologian during the mid to late 19th century. Much of his work was devoted to arguing for Princeton to adhere to rigid “biblical inerrancy.”

The Presbyterian Hodge, however, on the issue of slavery, was stuck between “biblical purity” and the fear of taking a side in his own denomination's debate (this, of course, is all too familiar for today’s Presbyterian leaders, especially in the suburbs).

Hodge wrote:
If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong.
He rebuked the biblical reading strategy of the abolitionists as an “attempt to tear the Bible to pieces, or to extort by violent exegesis, a meaning foreign to its obvious sense.”

According to Evangelical historian Gary Dorrien, “[Hodge and his theological predecessors at Princeton] had aspired only to carry on the received doctrines of traditional Reformed orthodoxy, which included the doctrine of infallibility.” When this is the vocation, the seminary, sanctuary and street will never intersect.
In conclusion, I offer two simple historical lessons, borrowed from the proposals of two contemporary (and too-oft overlooked) biblical scholars. African-American Brian Blount’s conclusion in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh (2001) is that Christian communities need to have a “dialogue between spaces that enriches the process of meaning discovery.” Blount’s work analyzed biblical interpretation through the eyes of the African-American slave experience and beckons us to learn how to have biblical-ethical conversations with “the other” in the 21st, transferring the seeking of truth out of the lonesome ivory tower into a place where more voices can be heard.

The work of 5th generation Californian Ched Myers on the Gospel of Mark is quite similiar. In Binding the Strong Man (1988), he claims that all biblical interpretation rooted in the context of the American Empire must seek ‘the perspective of the periphery’ in order to faithfully hear the Word of God for our lives today. This entails listening to readings from the Third World (with their diversity of biblical reading strategies) as well as from the pain and suffering of inter-city America and other pockets of poverty and oppression.

Of course, no historian of biblical interpretation with any integrity can simply peer back into the 19th century and shun Hodge because he failed to seek the perspective of the periphery. Nor can we simply equate the biblical battle over slavery with, say, our present debates over biblical positions on homosexual marriage or the war on terror. However, these two interlocking proposals can give us more wisdom and discernment to uncover where our cultural worlds lead us to unfaithful interpretations in order that the diverse Body of Christ in America might interpret the text a little more faithfully.
On this anniversary of Frederick’s freedom, we lament what Dr. King called the “white moderate” Christian response to so many of the world’s controversial justice issues. Silence, straddling the fence, spiritualizing & personalizing Bible readings all lead to the continuation of the status quo. This is more bad news for all those shut out, locked down & cast aside in our world. Far too many professional religionists—from pastors to seminary professors—refuse to speak truth to power. After all, power is where they get their paychecks. Like Frederick Douglass, may we all be narrated by a text that beckons us into a vocation of liberating the least of these from oppression and abuse.

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