Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fredrick Douglass, the Gospel and Me

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Fredrick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist had this to say about American Christianity:
“…I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. …I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members….The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life and the path of salvation. …He who proclaims it as a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. ...The warm defender of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families—sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers—leaving the hut vacant and the heart desolate. …We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls.” [Fredrick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass (1845), n. p., http//gbgm-umc.org/UMW/ bible/douglass.stm --cited in Global Voices on Biblical Equality, eds A.B. Spencer, W.D. Spencer and Mimi Haddad (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2008), pp. 6-7.]
As I read that text I find it so hard to believe that people could treat other human beings as mere objects or possessions, as merchandise to be sold as one would sell stocks and bonds – or worse! It reminds me again of how much harm has been done in the name of Christ and by people whose conscience showed no awareness of just how unjust and inhuman their behavior is.
Of course such reflection can make me feel quite superior in the knowledge that I would never dream of treating anyone that way. That is, until the next time I treat the person behind the counter, or the person who pumps my gas, or the person who serves me food in a restaurant, as just an instrument or means to accomplishing my goals. I may not beat them or sell them or rob them and I may not do anything to them that would be considered immoral or unethical by other people. But I am still quite capable of looking past them as though they are invisible or engaging with them as I would engage a candy machine or a Coke machine or some other inanimate machinery or flesh-covered household appliance that will accomplish some task for me as long as I just crank the right handles or push the right buttons.
And I am more than capable of considering my own needs (or the needs of my friends or the needs of my church’s latest project or campaign of great importance while turning a blind eye to human suffering going on around me, suffering that continues and is perpetuated because I and others with me decide that although it concerns us and should be addressed it just cannot be my/our priority today. Our agenda has us busy attending to other urgent matters….
But I hear the voice of my Lord reminding me of the place of lost and suffering people in his agenda and remember the lengths to which he went to see to it that we might know God’s love and be redeemed from the plight in which we find ourselves. And I am reminded of the words of the apostle Paul:
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5 NIV).

May God give us the grace today to recognize our own propensity to subtly treat human beings made in his image as though they are actually something less than we are – as though they are merely means to achieving the goals and objectives we have for our day or for our lives. And may he give me (and you too, if you need it as much as I do) the grace to recognize and act on the opportunities he gives me to follow Christ’s model of treating others not only as fully human beings, but also as the special objects of God’s love and of Christ’s self-sacrifice. May the Christianity I affirm and proclaim with my lips not be betrayed by my own blindness to the injustices around me. May no Fredrick Douglass of the present or future find cause in my behavior to consider my faith a fraud.

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