Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Abolitionists

Yesterday I finally had the chance to catch up on "The Abolitionists," a three-part series being broadcast by PBS under their American Experience banner (yes, PBS shows other things besides Elmo and Downton Abbey).  Living without cable as we are, I typically go online to and watch; having missed the previous week I doubled up on parts one and two yesterday (part three airs next Tuesday).
The program begins quite early in the nineteenth century, picking up on the careers of its featured activists as it marches forward.  Some of the names of those featured are quite familiar; Frederick Douglass is prominent, and I suspect you might remember the name William Lloyd Garrison if you think back to your American history class hard enough.  Harriet Beecher Stowe remains famous for Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Brown infamous for Harper's Ferry, as well as a career as an anti-slavery fighter back in my old stomping grounds in Kansas.  Other names were less familiar, to me at least; I was not that aware of Angelina Grimke before watching this show.
During much of the early nineteenth century, figures like these were regarded as anything but respected leaders or public figures.  Douglass, of course, was a slave; Garrison, a struggling publisher of a radical anti-slavery newspaper; Stowe basically unknown; Brown a failure in several business endeavors; Grimke the runaway daughter of a proper (slaveholding) South Carolina family.  Not one of them would have seemed a likely candidate to wield any kind of broad public influence.
And yet, by mid-century, after years of frustration and disaster, the abolitionists had swayed much of the country to their side.  How they did it is hardly anything superheroic; mostly, they simply reported what they saw or experienced.  Grimke described slavery as she witnessed it in the South, in a book called American Slavery As It Is.  Douglass (encouraged by Garrison at first) told his own story.  Stowe  found a way to put the horror she saw into a fictional narrative that nonetheless captured the very real terrors of a slave's life, and encouraged readers (and later theatrical audiences) to see the characters as human beings instead of slaves.
One of the interesting aspects of these lives, particularly of Garrison and Grimke, was the degree to which their abolitionist views were generated from their intense Christian faith.  In Grimke's case, it literally drove her apart from her family; she quit South Carolina and decamped north in 1829.  For Garrison it was the motor behind his entire adult life of anti-slavery agitation.  Both largely found themselves cut off from the "mainstream" churches of their time for their trouble.  Quite a few preachers had found it pretty easy to defend slavery with the Bible, after all.  Yet they remained dogged in the pursuit of what their faith insisted; they could not stand silent in the face of injustice.
Faith wasn't necessarily such a salutary influence on the others.  Stowe struggled, in the face of the death of her young son, with the cold comforts of the hyper-Calvinism in which she had been raised.  As for Brown, the lone non-pacifist in this group, his religious motivations curdled into a white-hot eye-for-an-eye rough justice on the Kansas frontier.  You have killed five of us; very well, I will kill five of you.  Most moderns can't embrace Brown, who is easily painted as a crazy man.  (And yet we moderns have made something of a folk hero out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who willingly plotted with others to assassinate Hitler.  I'd really like to see this discussed a bit more in depth.)  At the very least there seems to have been something amiss with Brown's christology; yet it would be dishonest to deny that his own faith, skewed as it may have been, was a major source of his motivation as well.
Grimke and Garrison have stayed with me, though.  Acting on the convictions of their faith was a lonely occupation.  Garrison suffered violence along the way at the hands of pro-slavery thugs.  Grimke's health failed her.  Both knew long stretches of personal and financial hardship.
We are encouraged today to speak out against injustice where it persists in the world.  To do so is a fairly easy affair for us, by comparison to such figures as these or others who fought against injustice and cruelty throughout the church's history.  We might write a letter to a congressional representative.  We might shop or not shop at a particular store, or dine or not dine at a particular restaurant.  My point is not to belittle actions such as these -- I engage in them regularly.  Still, we modern American Christians know very little of suffering for our convictions.  We are awfully quick to fashion ourselves as being persecuted for our beliefs when in fact we've merely been disagreed with.  I wonder how we would fare in the face of real opposition, even violence.  I don't know.  But I have been usefully reminded, by these outsider, rabble-rousing, scorned history-makers, of what it can mean to follow the dictates of faith and oppose injustice, no matter what it takes.

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