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I just finished the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, and I am numb. The cruelty, horror, and inhumanity depicted in that short little book of roughly 75 pages disturbed me. I am shook to the bone.

My first emotion: anger. How did this happen? How did our world allow this to happen? How did God allow this to happen? Why are men so evil and so blind to their own evil? Why did institutional Christianity not only fail to prevent cruelty but even endorsed and underwrote it, and thereby defiled the name of Christ. After reading about the white nationalist rally in Charlottsville, I wonder how much evil and hatred reside in the hearts of men even 200 years after abolition? How can evil take root and fester and spread in man for so long? How is it possible for a man to fold his hands in prayer, or hold the hands of his family, embrace his fellow man in a hug, wipe the tear of his child, while with the same hands tie a woman to a post, strip her naked, and lacerate her with leather until her skin raises one end like flaking bark off a tree? What kind of man is this? Does this man exist in me?

Douglass adds an appendix defending his love for Christ and true Christianity, while excoriating the religion of America as Jesus did the Pharisees. He applies Matthew 23, the hell raising tirade against the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes, to the religious people of America in both the north and the south. I am nearly ashamed of my association with Christianity, and even Douglass still stays faithful to God and even acknowledges his providence in his escape from slavery in the book despite Christianity also being the religion of his captors and robbers.

I wonder – is there a blind spot for me, for us, today that causes us to ignore the cries of the oppressed? Who are the oppressed around me? Why have we chosen to ignore rather than to help? 

I once talked to a pastor about church, and he said we would never be a “social justice” church. That is fine. I love our church and how it strives to learn and know the word of God. But I wonder – does attending a mono-ethnic upper-class church affect the way I see the world? Do the sermons, Sunday school lessons, and more importantly, the discussions with people in my economic class help me become more generous and aware of oppression? Do we even give a fuck?

I wonder – will we hear anything from the pulpit about Charlottsville? Will we condemn evil when we see it? Hear it? Does mentioning this mean the polluting of our religion with politics? Is our desire to preserve unity going to muzzle our ability to speak against evil? I mean, we had no problem promoting Prop 8 when that was up for election, why do we shy away now?

Sigh. I need to remind myself your church is fallible and not the Word of God. It cannot do everything. Maybe all it is good for is potlucks and feel-good discussions about the Bible so we can feel spiritual about ourselves. Maybe it’s a place where we can feel less lonely and find roles to feel significant.

I understand these are not new arguments or sentiments. They have been around since the beginning of time. I know that such facts, especially put forward by others, are used to dissuade us from trying and from moving. And I am disappointed by my own lack of movement and understanding.

Reinhold Niebuhr is right – we can be moral towards our personal friends and family members but lack the necessary empathy towards out groups and the Other. And I am devastated.

 

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Random thought: Frederick Douglass deserves to be called a Founding Father. He pioneered his way into freedom, and in a way his narrative became a pamphlet for a new nation for his black brothers and sisters who suffered the lot of dogs and pigs for hundreds of years, and was not granted entrance into a new nation until Civil War. His short book should be required reading for every high school student in America. If they want to keep Robert E. Lee on the hill, then we should force every student in America to read and confront the history of our past with this book. History books, with their pictures of tattered black backs and cool analyses of the cultural, economic, and political conditions that allowed the institution of slavery to occur, do not even come close to demonstrating the utter depravity of the situation as Douglass’ short narrative account does.

 

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