The Feast Day of Frederick Douglass, Prophetic Witness
Today is the feast day of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, suffragist, orator, writer, and statesman. This was a powerful and gifted man who began life as a slave and who, after having escaped in his 20s, ascended to the counsel of two presidents, dedicating his life to freedom and equal citizenship for all people. After the Civil War he became a reformer and a statesman, serving in several key leadership positions at home and abroad. He was also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It is difficult as a 21st Century white woman to put myself in his shoes. What must he have gone through as he moved from thinking of himself as the lawful property of another human being to understanding that he was a person in his own right, with rights, God-given ones. What was it like for him to escape his oppressors, leaving home and family behind? How did he find the courage to throw himself on the mercy of strangers as he sought refuge in the North? What was it like to live daily with the fear of being captured and again enslaved? Out of what inner resources did he draw the gumption to speak the truth and write it in a very public way, over a long period of time, until he finally saw the end of slavery and the beginning of reform?
There are ways in which we are all enslaved. The attitudes and values that keep us each from living as who we most deeply are make for a kind of bondage. And while this lack of freedom is not anywhere near as severe, as limiting or as debilitating as the slavery the ancestors of many of us Americans experienced, it harms us, and it harms the world.
How do we think of ourselves in limiting ways? Definitions of success and responsibility play a part. The gestalt of our society — what everyone just simply “knows” about what you need to do in order to “make it in the world” — guides our choices, crushing the longings and dreams that do not fit.
Jesus says, in today’s Gospel reading, “and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” He is talking not about any sort of book-learning, but about a counter-cultural awareness that comes about as the result of being his disciples. Following him, we recognize something: he is of God. He speaks and acts out of that place that knows in a way that is deeper than conventional wisdom.
From that point of view, what is important? It isn’t paychecks or retirement funds, homes, cars or investments. It is simply that we belong to God. We are God’s, through and through. And, belonging to God, we also belong to one another.
Like Frederick Douglass we are invited to change our self-perception. Can we see ourselves as fully free – free to do what our hearts most deeply yearn for? How are we challenged to leave our oppressive imaginings behind, even though they smack of home? Can we find the courage to throw ourselves on the mercy of strangers who know a different way? Can we find the courage, as well, to speak about our perceptions, loudly and over the long haul?
Being God’s is a blessing and a challenge. We are called to be creative, and compassionate, people who put relationship before acquisitions every single time. What better tribute to Frederick Douglass, a man who lived large on behalf of the people, than to live with that kind of true freedom? What better tribute to Jesus as well?
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado