This is the second of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer.
Chapter one, “Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash,” illuminates the physical hardship of young Douglass and Lincoln. In this blog post, my focus is on Frederick Douglass. As a “domestic” slave, he tended the gardens and stables of “affectionate” owners. Stauffer explains,
The closest [Douglass] came to acknowledging his privileged status was to say that as a slave, “my troubles from the beginning had been less physical than mental.”
But in time, Douglass was sent to live at “Mount Misery” with a man named Edward Covey, a sadistic slave master who took pride in his reputation as a “nigger breaker.” For a while, Douglass was broken, but he eventually found the confidence to defend himself against Covey. Covey sold Douglass to Thomas Auld, who sent him to live with relatives.
Douglass escaped to freedom in the North, not while he lived under the savage treatment of Covey, but while he lived with the Hugh and Sophia Auld, slaveowners who “neither beat Frederick nor justified their power over him with pious Christian bromides” as Covey had. They “revealed a sense of humility that most slaveowners lacked.”
Thieves and Tyrants
The thing that struck me most about this chapter was that Frederick viewed Hugh Auld as a thief and tyrant. Stauffer explains that Douglass became an expert caulker, but
…at the end of the week [Douglass] had to hand over every penny to Hugh. When Hugh gave him a sixpence as a token of thanks, Frederick interpreted the gift “as an admission of my right to the whole sum.”
[…] It wasn’t until after the war that Frederick publicly reconciled with his former owner. He told Thomas Auld, ” I did not run away from you, but from slavery.” […] With slavery gone, Frederick concluded, Auld was no longer his enemy.
Mere recognition of the injustice in the system of slavery was a passive and silent experience that did nothing at all to bring about change.
For Douglass and other former slaves, public disclosure of the wrong behaviors and bad decisions made by people in positions of authority in the system, i.e. masters, were necessary. In order to fully convey the incredibly oppressive nature of the system, Douglass had to describe how his hard-earned wages were stolen from him and take off his shirt to reveal the deep scars on his back. While it may have been true that the offenses varied from master to master, the system made offenders of them all. What Douglass said and did made slaveowners in the South terribly uncomfortable.
Similarly, one’s personal, private awareness of something very wrong with the institutional church does nothing at all to bring about change.
Public disclosure of the wrong behaviors and bad decisions made by people in positions of authority in the system are necessary — not personal junk that everyone deals with, but behaviors and decisions made in behalf of the entire congregation as representatives of the church. Spiritually oppressed believers must describe how their freedom in Christ is stolen from them under the guise of “divine authority” by detailing specific circumstances. They must stop pretending all is well and reveal their deep, spiritual and emotional scars in order to fully convey the incredibly oppressive nature of the system. Unfortunately, the transparency of believers fed up with the system makes people fully invested in the system terribly uncomfortable.
Stauffer describes a push back against the forthright strategy Douglass employed:
In each of his three autobiographies, Frederick cast Covey as the unforgettable demon of the story. Eastern Shore farmers sometimes protested; in 1847 one neighbor attacked Frederick’s portrayal of Covey, calling “the snake” a good, honest, hardworking man and “a tried and faithful member of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” who treated his workers well. “By his honest industry,” Covey had “purchased a fine farm, and is now reaping the reward of his labor. But Frederick’s characterization stuck; for over a century Covey’s old home has been known as “Mount Misery.”
It would be very unfair of Douglass to create an inaccurate impression of Covey, just to forward his own agenda to see the institution of slavery abolished.
But the scars on Douglass’s back tell us otherwise. Douglass wasn’t making up stories. The brutality really happened. People in the slave system didn’t recognize or acknowledge it. Covey had the authority to regularly beat the living shit out of Douglass yet still maintain his high standing in the community:
Every week for six months Frederick was ritually flogged, either with a braided cousin whip or with a coarse wooden club about the length of a baseball bat but somewhat lighter. […] The old wounds did not even have time to heal before Frederick’s flesh was ripped up all over again.
Similarly, it would be very unfair of bullied believers to create an inaccurate impression of pastors, people in positions of authority, or others in the congregation, just to forward their own agenda to see the Church (capital “C”) liberated from church (lower case “c”).
But the scars on their backs speak volumes. They aren’t making up stories. Spiritual oppression perpetuated by the system really exists. Pastors, people in positions of authority, and spiritual police in the congregation have a convincing (but false) appearance of authority enabling them to regularly beat the spiritual shit out of unorthodox believers yet still maintain their sense of self-righteousness and high standing in the community.
Believers who speak out…
…who proclaim their freedom in Christ and ignore the sham authority of those who hope to control what they can believe, say, do, and think — those believers’ stories are viewed by many institutional church members just like Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies were viewed by the Eastern Shore farmers. Instead of defending the defenseless, they perpetuate the golden reputations of offenders in the institution. They kill the messenger and discard the message. Perhaps they do so out of ignorance. I know I did just that, at one point. Perhaps they do so out of fear. I did that as well.
I write these words from experience as both the oppressor and the oppressed. I’ve played the parts of the slave owner, the privileged “domestic” slave, and the field slave tied to the whipping post on a weekly basis. I’ve lived and learned and decided that I want no part of a system that makes offenders, slaves, and enemies of us all. I am an abolitionist. But I am not anti-Church. I am anti-church. Are you following?
Is it possible to be in but not of the system?
Sure. There were slave owners who found inventive ways to free their slaves without suffering financial ruin and without becoming full-blown abolitionists scorned by their southern peers.
There are believers, institutional church members, who are extraordinarily adept at employing creative discretion to maintain the bond of fellowship with both unorthodox believers and believers in positions of authority who actively, and sometimes ruthlessly, hinder such fellowship. In my opinion, God has given them the grace to navigate through the spiritual junk, because He has purposed it for reasons I do not comprehend.
Douglass made a distinction between the slavery system and the human beings caught up in that system.
I hope to do the same.
Today many people (including not-yet-believers) are seeing a distinction between systems of organized religions and the human beings who are pitted against one another via system functions. If only people overly-invested in the system could understand what it really means when outcast/outraged believers say, “I did not run away from the Church, but from the church.”
When fear-based, authority-driven spiritual oppression is eliminated, enemies will discover they were actually friends all along.