I used to attend a Methodist church, in which my master was a class-leader…he could pray at morning, pray at noon, and pray at night; yet he could lash up my poor cousin by his two thumbs, and inflict stripes and blows upon his bare back, till the blood streamed to the ground! All the time quoting scripture, for his authority…
Frederick Douglass, National Anti-Slavery Standard (1841)
When Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery, dressed up as a sailor and boarded a train for freedom with fake papers (undocumented!!!) 176 years ago, it took him 24 hours to get from Baltimore to home base in Rochester. Today, as we officially launch RadicalDiscipleship.Net, we honor Douglass’ underground road trip and, how he utilized the Bible as a radical script to narrate the life of activism he was devoted to.
In addition to his more well-known abolitionist work, Douglass was the only African-American to speak at the women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1948, calling for an absolutely revolutionary proposal: full voting rights for all American women. As always, he spoke passionately and clearly:
In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.
He saved his most critical, anti-imperial words, however, for a speech delivered to the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society on July 5, 1852:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
From early on, Douglass learned to read and rehearse the biblical text as his world of language, reflecting on and critiquing not only the horrific nature of slavery, but also “the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America” who, echoing Matthew 23:24, “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
Douglass reflected the normative African-American biblical reading strategy which, living an oppressed experience, had a biblical perspective “from below.” Douglass could not help but characterize “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” as the modern-day scribes and Pharisees. His own horrific experience in chattel slavery created a lens to interpret the text: every bit of Christian Scripture screamed for liberation.
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