Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery and went on to advocate for the equality of all human beings. Sadly, while Douglass was leaning against the evils of slavery, evangelical leaders such as Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) were defending it, and by doing so were bringing dishonor to Christ’s church. The gospel—or good news—of Christianity begins in the story of Creation, which asserts in no uncertain terms that all people are made in the image of God. All people therefore, stand before God as equal, and any view that sees human beings differently is contrary to that gospel.
Last night before bed, as we often do at Toad Hall, we read the day’s liturgy in Common Prayer for February 20, which included this paragraph from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography:
Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.
It is a strong word, a hard word, a word that needs to be heard. My hearing it causes me to reflect on a few things:
It is easy to be reactionary instead of discerning. My tendency is to dismiss Robert Lewis Dabney as beyond contempt, and to leave it at that. Far harder to treat him as also created in God’s image, and like all fallen people, to use Francis Schaeffer’s term, a “glorious ruin” as Sean Michael Lewis does in his biography of the Southern Presbyterian theologian.
It is comforting to know we are not the first. It is not for nothing that Tim Keller preached a series of sermons titled, “The Church: How to Believe Despite Christians.” (I recommend them by the way, highly.) It is a form of cowardice, actually, to withdraw too quickly from community because the community fails to live up to its own ideals.
It is hard to be humble. Why is it that I always assume I have it right? That my beliefs and life are on the right side of the Scriptures, the right side of history, the right side of justice? May I be open, and ever more open to the light of God’s Spirit as he probes ever more deeply into the carefully guarded corners of my heart, exposing shadows I wish could be kept hidden and recesses that I hardly know exist.