abolition, adoption, Amazing Grace, anti-racism, disrupting privilege, evangalicalism, family, Good Samaritan, John Newton, justice, love, racism, Romans 8:14-16, sermon, slavery, spirituality, SURJ, transracial adoption, white privilege
Readings: Luke 10:25-37 and these words from Ella Baker: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
Once upon a time, in the year 1743 to be exact, a teenage boy named John Newton was kidnapped on his way to visit friends, and pressed into service with the British Navy, which was accepted practice in Great Britain for hundreds of years, even though it was regularly criticized as a violation of citizens’ rights. This boy, John, did not take to naval life right away. He attempted to escape, was caught, and, in front of a crew of 350 men, was tied down and subjected to 8 dozen lashes of the whip. Yes, that is 96 lashes.
John healed physically from this ordeal, and was eventually transferred to another vessel, a slave ship. However, he seems to have been unpopular with the crew of that ship, because the crew abandoned him in West Africa to a slave dealer named Amos Clowe, who enslaved John and gave him to his wife/mistress, who abused and mistreated John as she did all her slaves. John was eventually rescued by a friend of his father’s, but—and here it gets even more shocking—John himself became a slave trader. He claimed he sympathized with the enslaved people on his ships, he certainly understood much of what they went through, and yet he trafficked in their bodies and lives.
Scholars claim that John “healed” from those early experiences, but how could a “healed” person, a person who had direct experience with being taken and pressed into labor against his will, who had been flogged like any runaway slave, who had experienced the dehumanization of actually being enslaved and abused—how could such a person then participate willingly in the kidnapping, enslavement, and abuse of other people? How could one willingly make a living off dehumanizing human beings?
This is something John struggled with years later, after he’d left the slave trade, become a preacher and eventually an ordained minister, and joined the abolition movement. He wrote a pamphlet later in life called “Thoughts upon the Slave Trade,” in which he described the terrible conditions he had witnessed on his own ships, and in which he lamented his participation in such evils. He apologized for “a confession, which . . . comes too late. . . . It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
I share John Newton’s story because it clearly shows how a person can become conditioned to accept evil as necessary, or even simply natural. Very few British citizens questioned slavery, and those who did were met with the reply that slavery was necessary to the economic health of the empire. Just as kidnapping and impressment were necessary to the health of His Majesty’s Navy. What was right took a back seat to what was profitable or expedient.
I wanted to share John’s story also because it illustrates a miracle. John Newton is one of the most famous Evangelicals in history, and he shows the best of what Evangelicalism can be: a personal experience of God that overcomes all one’s defensiveness, that impels one to repent of sin and evil and seek restitution. An experience of grace that allows a person to move beyond the guilt and shame that can so easily paralyze us so that they can actually do the work of God in the world. An experience so powerful that one cannot possibly remain silent, but must tell the world, “This is what God has done for me. This is what God is capable of. I was blind but now I see.”
Newton is, of course, the author of our beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” While he was not literally healed from blindness, his spiritual conversion was no less miraculous than such a healing would have been.
There’s another conversion I want to talk about, as well. Many of you know the seminary I went to is very much focused on social justice, on the prophetic witness to social injustice and Jesus’ call to be agents of transformation. While I always believed in that call and that prophetic witness, there were a lot of things I found challenging about the setting. I found myself often defensive when discussion turned to racism and racial justice issues. I think I made baby steps along the way, but that defensiveness just came around every time and kept me from fully committing.
It wasn’t until Tim and I thought about starting a family that things changed. You may not know this, but Tim lived and studied for a while in Kenya in college, and also traveled in Uganda and Nigeria, and felt a great connection to Kenyan culture. So we looked into adopting an orphan from that area. We immersed ourselves in everything related to adoption, especially interracial adoption. It quickly became clear to me that, if we adopted transracially, our children were going to have experiences very different from our own. I realized that my defensiveness around racial issues was preventing me from acknowledging the ways I had internalized racist attitudes. My desire to be accepted and affirmed as a good person was, at times, more important to me than simply listening to what people of color—professors, fellow students, friends—were telling me about their experiences. I was too preoccupied with my good intentions, with other people seeing that I was not a racist. And so I was preventing myself from taking stock of myself or getting any real self-knowledge. I was missing this basic humility.
And now, here I was, the potential mother of a Black or biracial child. In retrospect the change in my attitude feels sudden, though I know it took several months of intense soul-searching and wrestling with myself. But eventually I found myself actually listening without defensiveness—or at least with a lot less of it—when I was challenged for saying something ignorant. I was hearing Black friends talk about the ways racism daily affected their lives—the myriad daily “little” offenses against their personhood, and the larger, more shocking affronts—and feeling this urgency, this need to do something. Actually working to end racism became much more important to me than being seen as a good person. I went from being someone for whom the dread of offending was paralyzing, to accepting that standing on the side of right was going to offend people sometimes. The fight to end racism became my fight, something I take personally.
This past week a white friend of mine posted on Facebook a statement that she would not “keep calm,” because she was the mother of a Black son. Two Black sons, actually. And though, as it turns out, I never did become a mother, the process still made me feel more part of the diverse human family. An often clueless part of the family, yes, but part of the family nonetheless, and passionate about it. Though I never became a mother in the way the world sees (and often glorifies), I see and mourn the victims of racist violence as part of my family. I’m not saying I get it all right; I don’t want anyone to hear this confession and think I’m holding myself up as perfect. What I hope you hear is that I am far from perfect, but learning. We are all imperfect people, but we can learn, we can disarm ourselves, we can put aside our fear for how we will be perceived and put others first. I am telling you this because I feel passionately that if I do not, I am as guilty as the priest in Jesus’ parable who passes by the beaten man on the other side of the street. More so, because I have passed by my own brother.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We did not receive a spirit of slavery, that is, slavery to fear, slavery to the sense of never being able to live up to expectations, but a spirit of adoption. I cannot hear these verses without thinking of what might have been for my family, and I cannot hear them without reflecting on our common family, the family of God. All who claim God as Mother or Father are siblings. The Bible tells us through the story of the creation of Adam and Eve that all of us, regardless of belief, are family.
* * * * *
I was going to use this time today to talk more about the role Evangelicals played in ending slavery and in pressuring Congress to pass Civil Rights legislation. There is a social justice tradition in Evangelicalism that should be more widely known. Instead I am pleading with all here, with Christians of all denominations and traditions to take our common adoption as children of God seriously, to cast aside the spirit of fear that keeps us enslaved, defensive, and resistant, to claim our freedom and our interconnectedness. I am beseeching all of us not to turn our hearts away from the racial violence in our culture, and pass by on the other side simply because we don’t feel like it affects us personally. What Jesus was saying in today’s parable was, partly, that to be people of God we need to cross those racial, ethnic, and religious lines of division. What we, the human race, accomplished in ending slavery was at one time unthinkable, just as racial justice, the full citizenship of our Black siblings, sadly seems unthinkable when we are bombarded by news of police shooting compliant and peaceful Black men, just as peace seems unthinkable when we see the rage that vents itself on white police officers, even good and peaceful white police officers.
The steps that lead us from this place of fear and division to a place of transformation and love start small: at the very beginning they start with commitment to listening and reading the experiences of people of color in America. Read voraciously; it is the best way for those of us in rural, white communities to become educated and exposed to the Black American experience. Read and listen even when it’s hard to take in, even when defensiveness wants to butt in and stop you. Find a place where you can talk about what you’re learning—St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in White River Junction started a reading/discussion group in Lent with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. They’re continuing now reading Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. There is also a weekly demonstration in Hanover sponsored by the Vermont-New Hampshire chapter of SURJ, which stands for “Showing Up for Racial Justice.” Connecting with these groups and with other concerned citizens can answer some of the questions we still have, provoke us to ask questions we didn’t realize we needed to, and give us practical ideas about how we can change conversations and our communities.
What it comes down to is this: the narrative of the world is a narrative of fear. It is the narrative of all those who would pass by on the other side of the road and ignore the whole thing. The narrative of adoption is that the beaten man is our brother, our son, our loved one. It is a narrative of love, of outreach, of selfless risk. Love doesn’t always win, as we’ve seen over and over in the deaths of innocents. But it has no chance of winning until we confront ourselves and our biases and choose connection over division, risk over safety, solidarity over selfishness. We must realize, in the words of our call to worship this morning, that we are the ones anointed to proclaim God’s good word to the poor and oppressed, and that now is the day of God’s favor.
Please join me in prayer: O God, open our eyes that we may see the needs of others; open our ears that we may hear their cries; open our hearts that we may feel their anguish and their joy. Let us not be afraid to defend the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, because of the anger and might of the powerful. Show us where love and hope and faith are needed, and use us to bring them to those places. Open our ears and eyes, our hearts and lives, that we may in these coming days be able to do some work of justice and peace for you. Amen. *
*(prayer from the Sabeel Center, Jerusalem)