Giants

This is the fourth of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer. It’s been over a year since the previous blog post in this series. If you want to refresh your memory, here are the first three blog posts: Book Review of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”Privileged Slave, and Poor White Trash.

In chapter two, Douglass arrives in New York City as a penniless fugitive slave, but eventually becomes a gifted, famous, world traveling orator and a legally free man.

Douglass traveled with John Collins, a white lecturer. When Collins wasn’t with him, Douglass faced logistical problems because of racial discrimination. In Grafton, Massachusetts, Douglass had to get creative to secure a venue and promote his lecture. Stauffer writes,

So he went into a hotel, borrowed a dinner bell, and walked through the main streets, ringing the bell and crying out, “Notice! Frederick Douglass, recently a slave, will lecture on American Slavery on Grafton Common this evening at 7:00.” The strategy worked: a large audience came to hear him and the next day a church opened its doors to him.

Even when Collins was with him, there was no guarantee for smooth sailing. They paid for seats in an Eastern Railroad car, but a conductor tried to make Douglass go to the freight car used for blacks. Douglass and Collins wouldn’t budge. Stauffer writes,

…he and Collins clung to their bench. The conductor rounded up half a dozen toughs to “snake out the damn nigger.” They finally ejected them, but in the process ripped out the floor bolts and destroyed the seat.

Not all white abolitionists were as loyal to Douglass as Collins:

He received about half the pay of white lecturers even though he was the most effective speaker in the organization. After criticizing John Collins, he was reprimanded “for insubordination to my superiors.” […] He hated the way coms of his white colleagues patronized him: just “give us the facts,” John Collins told him; “we will take care of the philosophy.”

Thankfully, Douglass did not listen, and in 1845 the American Anti-Slavery Society published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Soon after, Douglass had to go into hiding, because when the slaveowner who still had legal rights to Douglass read the book, he was outraged and vowed to put Douglass back in the cotton fields.

Douglass spent two years in the British Isles, and wanted to stay permanently, but what he wanted even more than his own personal comfort was to end slavery and racism. His British friends raised enough money to purchase Douglass’s freedom. The abolitionists in Boston, believe it or not, were opposed to the transaction:

…because it recognized the right “to traffic in human beings” and thus compromised abolitionist principles.

They were also opposed to Douglass starting his own newspaper. Regarding such opposition, Stauffer makes a very important observation:

[Douglass] had already learned that as he continued to remake himself, he left friends and allies behind. […] While he constantly changed, they remained much the same or evolved in divergent paths. In a protean sea, love and friendship rarely survived.

As readers already know from the scarcity of blog posts lately, I’ve been busy following and promoting the Bernie Sanders campaign. I can’t help but notice a parallel between Douglass/white abolitionists and Sanders/Democratic National Committee.

The white abolitionists did not want an intellectual, analytical, and rhetorical giant, they wanted a simple-minded ex-slave. They welcomed him among themselves, as if they had already overcome racism. Granted, they were morally light-years ahead of slaveholders, but in the movement to end slavery, they still saw themselves as superior and resented his greater potential to effect change than them. In Douglass, they saw the potential of their movement to bring more change than they were ready to handle — a nation where a black man might hold a higher position of power or influence than a white man.

Similarly, the DNC welcomes the energy, the potential new general election voters, and the dividends for down-ticket Democrats that Sanders brings to their party. They even give lip service to Sanders being good for Democrats because he is helping bring progressive reform. But they’ve made it abundantly clear in a plethora of ways that they absolutely do not want Sanders to be the Democratic nominee. In Sanders, they see the potential of the party to bring more change than they are willing to allow — a nation where voters might hold a higher position of power or influence over politicians than lobbyists and corporations.

 

This is the third 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 Abraham Lincoln.

I range the fields with pensive tread,

And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)

I’m living in the tombs.

Penned by Abraham Lincoln, this poem is about about Pigeon Creek where

…his mother died from “milk sickness” (brucellosis) when he was eight; his sister and only sibling died in childbirth; he almost died after being kicked by a horse and was for a while assumed dead; and the skills he had learned consisted of farming, fence-making, and a little carpentry, which he hated.

When Lincoln turned twenty-one, he became a free citizen.

…for the first time in his life, he could not only vote but legally keep his earnings rather than give them to his father. […] Time and again, [Lincoln’s father] Thomas had rented out Abraham, much as Thomas Auld rented out Frederick. Abraham had to plow fields, split rails, and harvest wheat, and at the end of the week turn over every penny. Worse still, his father yanked him out of school to rent him as a way to ease his own financial burdens. “I used to be a slave,” Abraham recalled, “but now I am… free.” Until he turned twenty-one, he felt little different from the black boys: “we were all slaves one time or another,” he noted. But if Abraham were now free, why was he still following his father, working for him for nothing?

Unfortunately Stauffer never answers the question.

Perhaps Lincoln felt obligated to help with the move. It’s not as if they could just rent a U-haul and sign a new lease. The move involved covered wagons, oxen, and mud. Once they arrived, they had to build a log cabin, where they spent the harsh winter. But in the spring, Lincoln wasted no time getting on with his life.

Lincoln moved to the frontier town of New Salem, a place with people “more refined than those at Pigeon Creek; there were more books around, and not quite as much drunkenness and fighting.” Nevertheless, Lincoln found himself in a wrestling match with Jack Armstrong, “strong as an ox,” and “a regular bully.” Although the fight was a draw, it “immediately established Lincoln as a leader,” and he earned the respect of Armstrong and the community and eventually ran for state legislature.

Frienemies

Stauffer draws a brilliant contrast between the Lincoln-Armstrong fight and Douglass-Covey fight and how these events shaped Lincoln and Douglass in their positions of influence during the Civil War:

Lincoln’s fight and subsequent friendship with Jack Armstrong taught him something that would remain a central aspect of this career: “if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his friend,” as he said a few years after the fight. Conciliate with your enemy, up to a point, and then put your foot down and fight. While Lincoln was willing to sacrifice principles for friendship, the young Frederick Bailey [he later took the name Douglass] had learned a quite different lesson from his fight with Covey: never befriend an enemy unless he first converts to your side, for friendship depends upon common cause and shared principles. They would later apply these lessons in the testing years of the Civil War.

For Lincoln, the hope for a common cause is what drives him to make a friend of an enemy, whereas for Douglass, common cause is a prerequisite for friendship.

When it comes to friendship among believers, many believers take Douglass’s approach.

Seeking unity (friendship) through unity (common cause) may produce instant gratification, but it is false, because it automatically excludes anyone with an opposing cause. It doesn’t produce the kind of unity God would have for us.

Consider the words of Christ:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Consider the example of Christ:

Very few people will die to save the life of someone else, even if it is for a good person. Someone might be willing to die for an especially good person. But Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:7-8 ERV)

Love is our common cause with Christ.

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence, he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice of a kind of taste. […] But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics and Orthodoxy)

Going on a mission trip might cause a certain kind of pleasurable discomfort, being away from home, sacrificing time and money, going without indoor plumbing or familiar foods, etc., but this kind of self-sacrifice also enables one to earn the respect of his or her peers, gain the satisfaction of making a positive difference in the lives of others, and experience something different and adventurous compared to the regular daily routines at home. There’s nothing wrong with mission trips, homeless ministries, community outreach, hospital visitations, baking casseroles for new mothers, and the like. These activities are a form of the cause of Christ, because they demonstrate love and result in good. By all means, go, minister, outreach, visit, and bake. But this is not the depth or extent of the kind of self-sacrifice Christ demonstrates to us and calls us to demonstrate to others.

Demonstrating love to someone that you, personally consider other, enemy, or otherwise unworthy — this is the common cause with Christ.

The cause may require the sacrifice of comfort in relationships with family or friends or fellowship with other believers. When you demonstrate love to someone known for having betrayed trust through adultery, violence, theft, deception, hateful words, sexual misconduct, false accusations, racism, jealousy, addiction, cruelty, etc., people will be surprised that you don’t treat the wrongdoer with the same contempt they do, likely because they see any goodwill or grace toward such a person as an act of agreement with what they have done. If everyone showed forgiveness and grace toward those who don’t deserve it, this could eventually lead to social upheaval, they assume.

But couldn’t the world use some social upheaval?

What about consequences? you may ask. We can’t permit violence and sexual misconduct and that sort of thing! you may say. We don’t want social upheaval. And to this I would wholeheartedly agree, because I’m talking about a different kind of upheaval — one that has the potential to prevent someone from harming others by freeing them from the power of the Accuser.

Similarly, among many believers, one who questions or opposes orthodoxy is counted as a betrayer of God Himself and all that is good and right with His Church. To allow such a person to continue in fellowship might result in spiritual upheaval, they assume.

But couldn’t the church use some real spiritual upheaval?

What about consequences? you may ask. We can’t permit heresy and divisive behavior and that sort of thing! you may say. We don’t want spiritual upheaval. And to this I would wholeheartedly agree, because I’m talking about a different kind of upheaval — one that has the potential to bring spiritual maturity and unity, even among believers with opposing views, by freeing them from the power of a religious social construct that demands we behave like the Accuser. Just as G.K. Chesterton said of loving your neighbor, “He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us,” even so, in the Church, the so-called heretic or spiritual trouble-maker is the sample of humanity given by God to love.

Let me explain what I mean by upheaval.

Christ submitted to death on the cross as the penalty for radical, reckless love rather than preserve His own life for the sake of acceptance within a religious social construct that demanded contempt toward wrong-doers. We believers ought to do the same. If we actually did the same, it would be an incredible…

coup d’état over spiritual naiveté.

anarchy against pseudo-authority.

disordering of deception.

influx of innovation.

metamorphosis of methods.

revolt against religious red tape.

outbreak of objectivity.

reformation of relationships.

shake-up of status quo.

uproar of understanding.

Stauffer asks his readers, “But if Abraham were now free, why was he still following his father, working for him for nothing?” We should ask ourselves, if we are now free, why do we still follow the Accuser, working for him for nothing? Do we trudge through the mud like oxen because we feel obligated to build his house? Winter is over. Spring has come. We should waste no time getting on with life in Christ, wrestling with bullies to make them our frienemies. We aren’t privileged slaves or poor white trash, we are conquerers.

Demonstrating the love of Christ is more than fulfilling some obligation to human decency. In fact, it goes against human decency sometimes, that is, if human decency were defined as shunning those who have proven themselves unworthy. Jesus walked this earth for only thirty-three years and actively ministered for only three of those years, yet His life and ministry caused more social and spiritual upheaval than in all recorded history — it’s still in the process of upheaving! Loving your neighbor has the potential to be the “most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience,” but “we were all slaves one time or another.” In this internal Civil War between the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus and the law of the sin and of the death, love is freedom.

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.”

Mount Misery

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.

This is the first of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer.

As a child, my fascination with Abraham Lincoln began when I heard the story of how Lincoln, influenced by a letter from an eleven-year-old girl, decided to grow a beard. You can read the letter here. That he paid attention to the opinion of a child set him apart from all the other Presidents (and grown-ups in general) in my little girl mind.

Although I’m sure at some point during my formative years I had heard of Frederick Douglass, it wasn’t until my final year of earning my undergraduate degree, in a literature class focusing on slave narratives, that I developed a fascination with Douglass. I wrote several blogs about his writing: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, The Soul’s Complaint, and The Climax of All Misnomers.

In the preface of Giants, Stauffer writes,

This collective biography opens a window on the transformation of American society by the Civil War. The two men’s personal conflicts often paralleled the nation’s conflicts, their inner turmoil reflecting national turmoil. In fact, the two men’s responses to each other provide a roadmap for the changing political landscape. Douglass repeatedly lost faith in Lincoln, only to find it again. His changing perspectives chart not only the political journeys of both men but also the nation’s journey toward its Second Revolution. Their intertwined story, of changing and self-making, alliances and conflicts, is also the nation’s story.

In the prologue, Stauffer paints an interesting picture of the first time Douglass and Lincoln met,

[…] Douglass sensed a kindred spirit in Lincoln, and the affection was mutual: “Mr. Douglass, never come to Washington without calling upon me,” Lincoln told him after their August 10, 1863, meeting. He regarded Douglass “as one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man, in the United States.” And Douglass called Lincoln “the king of American self-made men.”

Why the mutual affection and respect, despite their vast differences? Their meeting was the first time that an African American and U.S. President had met as near “equals” in the sense that they were cultural ambassadors of their respective races. They could help each other to vanquish slavery and create a new Union. They wanted to like and respect each other, and they were also alike in numerous ways. They shared strangely similar backgrounds.

Stauffer draws several parallels throughout the book:

  • between lives and backgrounds of the two men
  • between the two men’s personal conflicts and inner turmoil and the nation’s conflicts and turmoil
  • and “the two men’s responses to each other provide a roadmap for the changing political landscape.”

In this blog series, I will note the spiritual implications of Stauffer’s parallels, both historical and modern, and draw another parallel, that is, between slavery and spiritual oppression.