A homily commemorating Frederick Douglass at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio
“The truth will make you free” (John 8:30-32).
So Jesus told his disciples – but often we prefer the safe cages of half-truths, legends, or outright falsehood to the freedom, the burdensome responsibility of free agency and authority to love God before all, and our neighbour, in truth, as ourselves.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Bishops United Against Gun Violence in Chicago. The title was “Unholy Trinity: Poverty, Racism, and Gun Violence.” It was, as you may imagine, three days filled with powerful, uncomfortable truths set free by bible study, communal worship, shared experience, and by the gospel. Then, the Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas addressed us. That prominent theologian of the Episcopal Church freed her tongue and told the assembly boldly, “You cannot be White and be a Christian.”
Can you imagine how that incendiary package of truth exploded into the silence of her audience – a silence broken only by the sharp intake of a few hundred breaths? You cannot be White and be a Christian in America today. The truth will set you free.
To preach the commemoration of Frederick Douglass is an exercise in humility for a white woman of considerable privilege. To try to bring his words and example to bear upon the way in which we hear the gospel today, without reduction or exploitation or appropriation, is an exercise in repentance. My repentance will not be perfect, so I ask your forgiveness up front. But in the words of Dr Brown Douglas, I remembered what Frederick Douglass had to say, a couple of centuries ago, about slaveholder Christianity. You remember the truth he told, in an Appendix to his first autobiographical Narrative, regarding what he called “the slaveholding religion of this land”:
… between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. …
Shall I not visit for these things? Saith the Lord. Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?”
Douglass had told in his Narrative the unfortunate tale of the kind Sophia, his mistress when he first was sent to Baltimore city. She was the one who began to teach him to read. She treated him with dignity, and with kindness. But it was not enough for Sophia to be kind. When her husband discovered their lessons, he instructed her that it was wrong and dangerous to teach slaves literacy; it would make one unfit to be a slave: “there would be no keeping him,” he said. Douglass, a child of around eleven or twelve at the time, seized upon his words:
From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. …. What he most dreaded, that I most desired.”
He was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering – that to treat a slave with the dignity and invest in him the ability to learn and seek and find for himself all truth – that would unfit him to be a slave forever. The truth would set him free; and his master dreaded freedom.
On the other side of the page, Sophia found herself seduced, corrupted, and finally chained to the profitable lies of slaveholding. After her husband’s rebuke, she began to change. Douglass described how
Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. … Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone.
To borrow a turn of phrase from Kelly Brown Douglas, You cannot be a slaveholder and a Christian. The lies that you tell yourself, wise Sophia, in order to justify your position in the world are incompatible with the truth that sets Frederick free: the dignity of a man made in the very image of God, loved and redeemed for freedom by Jesus Christ.
It is not enough, Sophia, to be tender-hearted, kind, and merciful. Unless you actively resist your husband’s decrees; unless you will oppose yourself to the slaveholder’s life that you lead, and pull down its structure, dismantle its scaffold, you cannot call yourself a Christian. Because, as a slaveholder, you will one day curb the truth, and cut wood for the cross, and find that you have whitewashed your prayers as though they do not run with the blood of Frederick and his mother, his sister, his brothers, his ancestors, and his descendants.
The young Frederick Douglass befriended the poor little white boys who ran around his neighbourhood, and turned them into his teachers. Whatever book-learning they had, he bartered for bread from Sophia’s kitchen. And it is clear from his tender tone that he loved them for it. He loved that he was able to make an equal exchange with them, and they accepted him as one of their own brothers, and amongst themselves, they made a true friendship, a community in which they sustained one another. He freed them from hunger; they freed him to read.
Later, boys like these might have been among the mob that attacked him at the shipyard, afraid that his slave labour might undermine their own wages. They could not grow up White and remain Christian. Unless we are on guard against the corrupting influence of slavery, and its bastard offspring, systemic racism, personal prejudice, implicit, inescapable bias, White self-interest, White supremacy; then we who are descended from Sophia and street urchins are subject always to fall into its snares of sin.
The truth shall make you free. When Dr Brown Douglas addressed the Unholy Trinity, after we had recovered their breath, a few in the audience found their voice again. “We hear the truth in what you say, but you can’t say it like that,” they said, trying to tame her truth and settle it softly into the trap they had not even seen themselves setting, the false promise of peace without righteousness, the false prophecies of redemption without repentance, mercy without justice, the mirage of freedom without the breaking of chains.
The truth will make you free, said Jesus. What is truth? asked Pilate (John 18:38). I am the way, and the truth, and the life, said Jesus (John 14:6), and
the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him (Luke 4:18-20)
* A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, a public domain book via Kindle