Give ME Liberty!

Look into America… see that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there ‘no difference’ between him and his master? Yes; the one is screaming ‘Murder! Slavery!’ the other silently bleeds and dies! ‘But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery?’ Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruits of our labours: This is liberty. The Negro does not: This is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?  – John Wesley, on the American Revolution

Rev. Kara Slade shared that quote on Facebook this morning, and I read it here in my hotel room in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I am vacationing with my family.  This past April, Andrew O’Hehir wrote a wonderful piece for Salon on the changing face of Colonial Williamsburg.  I grew up in Virginia, making the circuit of the historic sites, and I can attest that slavery, while mentioned, was not prominent, much less examined here (nor at Mount Vernon, nor Monticello, nor or any of a dozen or more similar places for that matter) twenty to thirty years ago.  My critical engagement with the institution of slavery was encouraged nowhere until my high school AP history class.  Two years later (in 1991!), it was still possible for me to hear a sociology professor (in a freshman seminar on “the immigrant experience” at a northeastern university) compare African-Americans unfavorably to “other immigrants” who had overcome “similar” barriers to social and economic advancement in less time.  This professor dated the emigration of African-Americans to the end of the Civil War – ignoring the incomparable backstory of generations of chattel slavery. It seemed too clear to me: “We have talked about how other immigrants came to America with a dream of this being the ‘land of opportunity,'” I argued, “but for those released from slavery, they had already experienced America as a land of zero opportunities.” (This is not even to address the greater staying power of discrimination against African-Americans as compared to the Irish, for example.)

I am glad that the narrative tide is turning in Williamsburg. For instance, when we were getting a backstage tour of the stables (for my little animal lover) – the guide said to us, “The carriages can give you the impression that everyone here was well to do, but at the time of the Revolution, half of the people who lived in this city were enslaved.” They used to end similar sentences with “most people walked.” Instead, “half of the people… were enslaved.”  The guide at the Governor’s mansion echoed this line in another context; later, when discussing the flight of the governor with his family and most of his white servants, she wondered aloud what would happen to the people who had been his slaves – would they take the opportunity to escape? Or would they immediately be seized and sold – perhaps separated from their families? When I asked her later what had actually happened, she said it had largely been the latter – families were split up as individuals were sold.

As a native Virginian who grew up going to these historical sites, let me tell you – it is a lot different to hear about “people who were enslaved,” than it is to hear about “slaves.” It is all too easy for “slaves” to become abstract.  Just as Simone de Beauvoir famously said that there are two kinds of people – people and women, in historical homes in the South there are too often two kinds of people – people and slaves. By saying, “enslaved people” instead of “slaves,” the interpreters at Williamsburg are disrupting the old white narrative (and modern white temptation) to make “slaves” exceptional – to exclude slaves from the category “person.”

At Powell house, when we were waiting for a tour to begin and I inquired about who had lived in that house, the guide answered Mr. and Mrs. Powell and their two daughters, as well as a number of slaves.  The number varied, she said, because he owned a few slaves, and rented the rest from the jail. “Rented them from the jail?!” “Oh, yes!” she replied – and told us about how the jail was mostly populated with runaway slaves, as well as a few runaway indentured servants and runaway apprentices. “They don’t just sit there idle!” she said, adding that it was one of Mr. Powell’s responsibilities to assess new prisoners at the jail – so that a fair rental price could be set based on their skills and industry, and so as to determine how likely they were to run again.  When outside of the jail, prisoners who had run away from their owners could be identified by their large metal collars – sometimes with metal posts sticking out from them to make them even more unwieldy.  “They cannot get much work done while wearing those collars!” she said. “They are so heavy and uncomfortable.”

I had never heard that before – prisons were for runaway slaves? But upon reflection, it made sense. How many horse thieves could there have been, really? And it was not long before I was making the connection with our modern prison system, and with the “stop and frisk” abuses in NYC, and with how (in general) whites’ impressions of who looks suspicious has not changed much over the centuries (hint: if their skin color is darker than mine, they are probably up to no good.)

Patrick Henry’s speech is stirring, but it behooves us to remember that when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” he was speaking for himself – and other white male landowners who agreed with him that the King of England was seeking to “enslave” them.  Everyone else – white male landowners who had no problem with the King’s policies, women, African-Americans (both slaves and “freedmen”), children, apprentices and indentured servants, and other whites of the servant classes – all of these either lost or were at least unhelped by the events of the Revolutionary War.

Yes, I will be going to see fireworks tonight, but not as a celebration of the fruits of a long ago war. Instead, I am going because my six-year old daughter celebrates any opportunity for sanctioned rule-breaking – for her, the Fourth of July means “I get to stay up late tonight!!!” On this day of national conformity, I am doing my part to facilitate a little anarchy, a little transgression, a little reversal of traditional power dynamics. Or maybe I just enjoy seeing gunpowder used not for killing, but to decorate the night sky.

Either way, this day means something different for me than “liberty and justice for all.” Our state and federal governments still haven’t shown any interest in delivering on that idea. I’m not holding my breath – anyone with earthly power does no differently than King George – anxiously grasping at their fragile sovereignty.

No worse than an infidel

As in much that I believe, I am here particularly indebted to John Wesley – more specifically (in this particular post) to his sermon on The Use of Money.

1 Timothy 5:8 is a famous passage among U.S. Christians of a certain political persuasion. Quoting from the KJV (which is how I first learned it):  “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”

I find it curious how many Christians aspire, in their spending, to be no worse than an infidel. What lofty goals we aspire to!

There is a place where Jesus talks about the relationship between our behavior and that of unbelievers, too. It is found in Matthew 5:43-48.  In these verses, Jesus suggests that loving those who love us is a minimal standard, understood by all to be good manners. But in a verse that haunts those who follow in John Wesley’s theological footprints, Jesus instead suggests: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” And one of the examples he gives, just a few verses before, to demonstrate what he means? “Love you enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”

It strikes me that this verse in 1 Timothy was meant as a corrective: do not take food out of the mouths of your own children to give to other children. In case there were any question about it, this verse makes it clear that it is not a virtue to deny your own children’s needs in order to supply the needs of others.

However, for those of us who believe that God loves our children better than we do, and further that God loves every other child no less than our own dear ones – that is to say, for Christians – it would be equally perverse to prefer to give our children luxuries that are unneeded, and perhaps even dangerous to their salvation, when doing so prevents us from providing food, shelter, and the like to those in need – even to those we do not like very well, even to our enemies.

In the age of advertising, I believe that we have become more confused than ever about what our selves, our children, and our other loved ones truly need, and what instead serves an insatiable desire born of a God-shaped hole in our hearts. I am sorry to say that in this, I fear that I too have become no worse than an infidel…

Could my tears forever flow…

These days, I am up to my ears in John Wesley’s economic theology, preparing for a series of Sunday school classes on the topic. I am scratching the old itch — what does following Christ mean in detail, in how I eat, how I shop, how I give…

This was an all consuming issue back in the days before I had a sense that God’s love was not something that I needed to earn (thanks for the big kick in the pants, Robert Farrar Capon!), but I still have a strong sense that grace is not an absolution from working the details out.

For years, I have used the analogy of my marriage to talk about the grace/works relationship: Brian’s love is not contingent upon me doing housework. Which was such a relief to me that I went a couple of years without doing the dishes. I guess I was sort of testing the theory. But one day, I just had the urge to do the dishes – as a response to the kind of love that did not require me to do them. And as the years have gone by, as I have grown into the assurance that Brian’s love is not contingent upon my housewifery, I have been freed to do things around the house because to do them makes our lives better – in our marriage, when I fold laundry or wash dishes or tidy the living room, I am acting out of love instead of fear, out of freedom instead of bondage.

But all this Wesley had me wondering if God does not in fact require me to do the dishes, so to speak. And this crisis is (for the first time for this Wesley acolyte) making me see the point of some of his contemporary critics, including Augustus Toplady, who apparently wrote “Rock of Ages” as a sort of anti-Wesley protest song. Which is sort of ridiculous, since it is not like Wesley did not believe that we were saved by grace, right? Right? Poor guy – the answer to that appears to have even been a head- scratcher for Wesley himself, at times.

CAKE has a song that begins, “Jesus wrote a blank check, one I haven’t cashed yet…” When I hear it, I think of those checks that, right below the endorsement line, have something to the effect of, “by signing this, you are agreeing to…” There is so much disagreement about what would follow the ellipsis on the back of Jesus’ blank check – just what are we agreeing to when we endorse it? What would it mean to cash this check? No wonder there are so many who are wary, who are not interested in cashing that check – at least not yet.

The Bible could be more transparent here. Many love to point to John 3:16 – “whosoever believes in him…” But what does that mean? What does believing in Jesus really entail? Believe what about Jesus? That Jesus is God incarnate? And if Jesus is God, shouldn’t believing in him, I don’t know, mean something? Like maybe we should pay attention to some of the stuff he said we should be doing with our lives. And if those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true want to put their money where their mouth is, then I double dog dare them to take every teaching of Jesus’ at face value. Like not storing up treasures on earth, for instance. This is a big one for Wesley, by the way. According to Wesley, the rich are those who have something more than adequate food and clothing to their names. Televisions? Computers? CD players? Forget about it – a rocking chair is decadent by Wesley’s standards.

The thing is, if faith without consistently following Jesus’ teachings is not faith at all, and if there really is a hell to which unrepentant sinners are consigned, then it is hard to believe that as many as 144,000 could escape it. Roger Williams is more likely to be right – it will just be him, with the rest of us burning like those magic birthday candles that cannot be blown out.