“The Past Isn’t Dead…”
I highly recommend the new novel, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It’s an essential read. It tells the story of a slave woman who risks, and risks again, escaping to freedom all the while knowing that with every step away, she could pay the price of her life for it. It’s graphic and heart-wrenching as one enters the world of slavery in the United States during the 19th century.
One would probably think that it’s an historical novel, telling this tale of oppression. It is that for sure. But it also casts a shadow (more than a light) on the present situation of racism in our country.
Repeatedly I thought of the Wesleyan quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Through the eyes of various characters in the novel, one sees how unconsciously and subjectively the quadrilateral was used in justifying slavery. For the main character, Cora, she rightly doesn’t care about anybody’s interpretation of slavery. It’s all oppression to her and she’s working for freedom. To others, such as the slave owners, a handful of underground railroad “workers” and the slave trackers, that’s where it gets interesting. While the novel doesn’t use the words of the quadrilateral, the narrative reveals the thinking of these characters in terms of their interpretation of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
For the slave owners and slave trackers, it’s clear that the scriptures interpret the African/black slaves as descendants of “the poor sons of Ham” who are forever subordinate. The scripture is clear and justifiable to the slave owners and trackers. Slavery is embedded in the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. No sooner are the slaves free from Egypt than they are given the Commandments (Exodus 20) but Exodus 21 is about regulations related to owning slaves. The Bible accepts slavery. End of discussion for them!
Same for the tradition of slavery. Tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. Certainly that was the case with slavery and the narrative tells the story of slaves being passed down from generation to generation as well as the ensconced acceptance that “this is just the way it is.” Tradition included the perception that slaves weren’t really human beings which of course affects the way in which slave owners and trackers related to them.
Then there is reason. The narrative of the book doesn’t address this head-on but history does. There was every reason to continue slavery because it was a free labor source. Free in the sense that slave owners didn’t pay much more for it than you would a good workhorse. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if in fact the North was more inclined to oppose slavery because it was disadvantageous to the economy of the North and eventually the expansion into the West to have free labor in the South. How can you compete against free labor?
But it’s experience that makes it interesting. There are those who worked in the underground railroad whose experience somehow has caused them to challenge the slavery economy. These are white persons; sometimes from the north but mostly from the south. Something happened in their lives that caused them to challenge the economy and system of slavery and they literally put their lives on the line to help people find freedom. The slave trade and system didn’t regard blacks as people but these folks who challenged the system did. A revolutionary perspective at the time.
This narrative is just generations away from today. In the scope of history, not that long ago. The trauma to blacks and the embedded racism in whites (especially but not exclusively in the South) lingers way too long. Through Jim Crow and the new Jim Crow (war on drugs and mass incarceration).
One can’t read this narrative about slavery without thinking about the way in which many Christians (including United Methodists) view the quadrilateral (consciously or unconsciously) regarding LGBTQ persons. They hang their hat on a few scriptures. Really, slavery is embedded in the scriptures, unlike homosexuality.
Passing the prejudice on throughout the generations makes racism, sexism and homophobia traditions. Without questioning why or what, LGBTQ persons are regarded as “less than” heterosexuals and subjugated to second class citizens in the church as well as society.
And reason? Probably several reasons but for one, there are people who are raising money on the anti-LGBTQ bandwagon, supporting their organizations and rallying for their control. Maybe even working for a schism in the church over human sexuality for some personal gain; maybe not economics but it’s something.
What about experience? I believe that there have been people throughout the ages who have interpreted scripture about slavery and women and now LGBTQ persons differently than the prevailing tradition because of deep and faithful scholarship. I believe that there are people who have jettisoned tradition, recognizing that individual and institutional racism and sexism as well as bias against LGBTQ persons are attitudes and practices passed on from generation. Finally someone scratches their head and realizes it doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be that way! And there are those who have resisted the reasons—often economic—to stop prejudice against others, even at their own expense.
But experiencing someone who is a different ethnic group, women in different roles, and LGBTQ persons probably is the leverage point on the quadrilateral for many people. “My experience doesn’t match what I’ve been told the Bible says and what has been passed down to me in my family and culture.” With fresh eyes and an open mind, they see their brothers and sisters differently from what has been taught through scripture, tradition and (economic) reason.
I don’t think those who would call for a schism in the church over an unwillingness to live under a big tent have any idea how much experience the ordinary person in the pew has with LGBTQ persons because LGBTQ people R us! They are in our families, circle of friends, communities and churches…and I’m just not sure that grandmas will be willing to choose against their loved ones if it comes to that. They are us and the people we know and love!
Read the The Underground Railroad. Rather, immerse yourself in the narrative as it tells you something about who we are both then and now. As William Falkner once said, “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even over.”