When we were in Tillamook, I picked up a little book off Doug’s mom’s bookshelf: the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. It was a fascinating read, and I consumed it almost in one sitting. I actually knew very little about his life and I found his story remarkable on so many levels. He details life as a slave from childhood. Perhaps the most gripping passages for me were his descriptions of how his mother was forbidden from seeing him more than a handful of times after he was six months old. He tells of how she would walk through the evening to come and lay down next to him for part of the night, then rise to walk back to the estate where she worked. There were only a few occasions where even this was permitted. The brutal, outright inhumanity of that deprivation, for both of them, affected me more than the stories of violent beatings, of which there are many.
Toward the end of his story, he writes this: â€œAnother advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitantly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, â€”a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, â€”a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, â€”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 the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all the 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.â€
As I read his words, I felt a huge knot grow in my stomach. To imagine his story of one enslaved, deprived, abused, and to consider how that had been done with the covering of a faith in the God I serve made me sick. And it also made me scared because those who defended slavery under the umbrella of God’s will for creation were capable of so far missing the mark, to the point of embracing something so appalling; so visibly evil. And they did so with utter confidence in the rightness of what they were doing. And it made we wonder what things we, those who call on the same name of Jesus, are capable of doing today?
He continues: â€œThe slave auctioneerâ€™s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious maser. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The salve prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his bloodstained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each otherâ€”devils dressed in angelsâ€™ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.â€
Hell presenting the semblance of paradise. This is within our reach, as much as we would like to deny it. We have the capability of getting things terribly wrong, especially when money and power and the economy are involved. There are places today where Christians are invited to find themselves on one side or the other on critical issues that impact our neighbors locally and around the world and, like the landscape of America in the time of slavery, there are those who profess Jesus as Lord standing fiercely on opposite sides. We do well to recognize the voices of the oppressed in our midst and give ear to the Frederick Douglasses of our world today. May it be that we would see the places today where devils are roaming in angels’ robes.