Monday, March 25, 2024

Amazing Comments on Methodism from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass*

From AP American History (High School) to Afro-American History (Trinity University) to Black Church History (Duke Divinity School) to Doctoral Studies (Perkins School of Theology), the fact that Frederick Douglass' biography was not required was a monumental omission of the curriculum and leadership. Especially when Douglass' statements on religion, Methodists and Christian leaders are considered. I include two notable excerpts referenced below.

In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting. held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both respects. It neither made him more humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it and him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretentions to piety. His house was a house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren and was soon made a class- leader and exhorter.  p. 56

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes- a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,- a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,- and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being a slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. pp. 72-3


In my classrooms, any consideration of the nature of American human enslavement based solely on race, or Blackness, was overlooked.  Prior to 1865, to be Black  was to be enslaved. Those born into slavery, like Douglass, had no hope of freedom. Douglass' father was a white enslaver. It paid to multiply the enslaved through Black mothers.

Most of my education stopped with a cursory mention of indentured servants and slavery of the colonial era and pre-Civil War.. With no critical exploration of the workings of human enslavement, conclusions one could draw were wrong. For example, there is no comparison between indentured servanthood and human enslavement. 

Douglass suggests that the holidays were used to inebriate slaves into thinking they would forget about their hopelessness and think their lot not so bad after all. A drunken stupor was required to think the slave's life was acceptable. 

There were other vast shortcomings in my formal education. The institutional racism which was established before, during and after the Civil War was rarely, if ever, explored. What about the systemic inequalities that persisted because of race? What about the violence and lynchings that were perpetrated to support that system in the Jim Crow era?**

Whether it was the major labor unions excluding blacks from membership or banks systemically denying credit and home mortgages in the north, or requiring black children to be transported in worn down vehicles many miles from town to dilapidated, rural school houses in the south, why were these things not explored in my studies? We had debates about slavery vs. abolition, but had no exploration of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of the 1960's, why these Acts of Congress were necessary. 

There is great resistance to learning of the black experience and history today, of course. State and local school boards attempt to limit or define which Black history can be taught and what should be excluded. For the most part, the outcry, or better, the backlash is about what Black history whites are most comfortable with. The resistance is hardened in our churches. Sunday morning in the U.S. remains the most segregated time of the week. 

Douglass' words can be discounted by white congregations today because, after all, enslavement is dead as an institution. The challenge of most congregations of the cultural middle would be to explore why, historically, inequities exist in generational wealth and educational attainment. The Pandemic exposed inequalities on a massive scale. *** 

Instead of seizing this as an historic teachable moment, the terrible dualism between material and spiritual, the corporate and individual continues to be a dominant theme in preaching and teaching. The Advent Gospel is reduced to inner, individual peace. Lent is reduced to how Jesus and I feel about my sin. Easter is all about my private, individual eternal life, not entering more fully into God's rule and realm.  

*Originally published in 1845 by the Anti-Slavery Office. For pages cited, see Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Barnes and Noble,2003.

**James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, offers a rigorous analysis of the history of lynchings in Jim Crow, and their absence in the writings of  Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is still considered one of the leading social ethicists of the 20th Century. 

**See How Covid Exposed Racial Disparity in all Aspects of the Health Care System, NPR, 2022.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Is it possible or necessary to recreate the mythical past?

We came to believe that a Higher Power could restore us to sanity.* But what if sanity or clarity was always, from day one, the rarity? Recovery is a journey where I discover a new way of living sanely, safely, and with clarity about boundaries and inner resources-reserves.

1. It is impossible to change without a decision to do honest, searching, and blameless inner work.
2. Do I need restoring to a mythical past that never existed?  Is it possible? **
3. Doing differently requires practice and patience, and a willingness to be a beginner.
4. Find a fellow-traveler. The disruptive forces- the ones we choose and - those we don't - are too powerful to work with alone. 

*I speak for my own experience only, and I certainly to do not represent any 12 -Step program. I am sharing my strength, hope, and experience and that is all.

**Religion portrays a mythical perfect beginning for humankind, starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 1-2. Is it total bliss? The presence of the serpent is part of the story. The serpent was part of God’s creation but also represents, to me, that as humans, we are a mixture of good and harmful intentions. I do not believe in talking serpents. 

***I used to think addiction involved only substances that are consumed. I now realize the the "inner drug store" (ACA terminology) is another source of addiction and dysfunction. Jim Jackson defines these as "ambient addictions," in A Guide to Behavioral Change," Banlican House Publishers, 2022. See chapters 15 and following. 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Why Not Make Human Flourishing- Not Degradation- the Standard?

Human beings are capable of anything great and terrible. Hear the words of the Indian Jesuit, Anthony DeMello: "I am no great improvement on the men who killed the Savior." (1) I once heard Martin Marty suggest that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christianity. (2) We see it play out every day in murders and mayhem, violence and destruction, and in every harm we perpetrate on others. 

But is the doctrine itself a self-fulfilling prophecy? Further along, if everyone is a sinner- inclining to reject love at every turn, and only randomly-or by God's help- choose the good, why should a more a loving and just world be possible- or even an aspiration? Why expect anyone or any nation to share? Why hope for anything better? Do miserable sinners deserve to flourish?

But if all humanity is created in God's likeness and image, and is very good as created, and further, if the whole creation is good, then everyone and everything fulfills their purpose just by being. Intrinsic worth is the baseline, not the exception. We love because we are capable of both loving God- and others. We are capable of covenant love because God created us. 

Original Sin is normative in Christianity. (2) It's the rule, the standard for sound doctrine. Candidates for ministry preach it before boards and committees, hoping for the passing grade on orthodoxy (right belief). Humanity is condemned, helpless, and deserve whatever it is we get. 

But really, why is degrading humanity so important? For educational purposes, telling people they are sinners is, in practice, mere indoctrination. What if we understood our brokenness as descriptive, exposing the harm we do to each other and the creation? And what if we, by faith, believed in the goodness of creation and the God-likeness of humanity, the norm for belief and practice, teaching and preaching? 

(1) De Mello, Wellsprings, 1986, p. 51
(2) Article VII states, "Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually." The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016.
(3) Even though the doctrine of the goodness of God, creation and of humankind is implied throughout Scripture, Original Sin as a doctrine, and all creation and humankind as "fallen," is the rule. The invitation of faith, young and old, is to explore the importance and meaning of the doctrine of Creation as primary, not secondary.  


Oldies but Goodies