Commemoration of Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), Harriet Tubman (ca 1822-1913), Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1850-1902), Pioneers and prophets
1 Peter 4:10-11
Religion without humanity is very poor stuff. — Sojourner Truth
I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.— Harriet Tubman
Man represents us, legislates for us and now holds himself accountable for us? How kind of him, and what a weight is lifted from us! We shall no longer be answerable to the laws of God or man, no longer be subject to punishment for breaking them. —Amelia Jenks Bloomer
The happiest people I know have been those who gave no concern about their own souls, but did their uttermost to mitigate the miseries of others. — Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The commemoration today highlights the lives for women, all of whom made a contribution to freedom and faith through their words and actions. Their lives span a period from the birth of Sojourner Truth 1797 to the death of Harriet Tubman in 1913. It was a time of great change and yet it is a change that is still going on to this day. To quote Harriet Tubman, “Every great dream begins with the dreamer. Always remember, you have the strength, the patient’s and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were speaking to the plight of African-American slaves, struggles that they knew from first-hand. Amelia Jenks Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke of the repression of women throughout the ages, including those of all races, religions and experiences, including their own. Yet if you took quotations from each woman without attribution it might be somewhat difficult to pin down precisely who said what. When four such strong voices over the course of close to a century speak to basically the same problem, namely the lack of freedom for one or more groups of people, then perhaps there’s something there that needs to be listened to.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, being not only strong but rather blunt sometimes, stated, “The Bible and the church have been the greatest stumbling block in the way of women’s emancipation.” Had she spoken half a century earlier or so, she probably could have said exactly the same thing about the emancipation of African-American slaves and, instead of campaigning for women’s suffrage, might have been one of those many helpers on the Underground Railroad of which Harriet Tubman was a part. Stanton spoke of truth that we still find hard to accept. Her quote would be considered almost blasphemy in some quarters. How easy it is to forget that in one version of the creation story of Adam and Eve were made at the same time, making them equals. The injustices against which Tubman and Truth struggled represented the same kind of thing, namely that people were created equal and should be treated as equals.
Slavery and domination go hand-in-hand even though many recognize the use of one term and not the other. Slavery was condoned in the Bible as was male domination, both of which were common to the time and place and so were made part of the Scriptures by those who wrote, compiled, and canonized them. When they went to war oftentimes they died in the struggle but noncombatants like the women, children and slaves were frequently brutalized or slaughtered. Today we call that collateral damage but then it was accepted practice and still is in some parts of the world. It was this kind of injustice that all four women spoke, challenging male Christians to consider a different reading and a different interpretation of the very Scriptures they preached and felt enforced their own position of power. Some churches teach that a woman should submit to a husband’s beating or a stranger’s rape because she probably deserves it for some reason or the other but often just because (in their teaching) the woman is always supposed to submit to the man no matter what. Some churches teach that the elect are chosen for power and privilege, not needing to be aware of or even care that they are enslaving others in poverty just to maintain their own standard of living. There are also some churches who preach what is called the social gospel namely care for the poor, the enslaved, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless ones. Which ones teach “Biblical truth”? Or is the problem in how the “Biblical truth” is interpreted?
Another of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s sayings was, “It is impossible for one class to appreciate the wrongs of another.” How often do we even think about the wrongs of another much less empathize with them or try to do something to resolve them? Like the old saying attributed to the Native Americans that you shouldn’t criticize someone until you walked in their moccasins for a period of time, we each need to learn to not just look to problems around us but try to walk in the shoes or even the bare feet of those who actually experience those problems. Granted, not everyone needs to be homeless for a week or go hungry for a week to learn what it feels like and so to more clearly understand the problems that cause and are caused by those difficulties. In Sojourner Truth’s time, whites had no concept of what it was like to live as a slave on their own property and under their own control. For Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the realization was that it was incomprehensible to men and even some women that the clothing women wore was hazardous to their health simply for the sake of fashion or to cater to the whims of the opposite sex. I wonder, are things really all that different now?
The epistle for today’s commemoration seems particularly apt:
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Each of the four women commemorated had to bear scoffing and ridicule for their words and their positions. It took courage for them to continue to speak and to act as they felt they had to, for themselves and for others. Sometimes their words might have been very harsh, almost rude at times, but the words they spoke still speak to us and remind us of our own responsibilities not just to “our kind of people” but to all people equally. They spoke as good stewards of God’s grace and with at least some reliance on strength God supplied. The work they started has not yet been finished, and in some cases, the finish is a very long way away.
A key phrase in Peter’s epistle is “…so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” How can God be glorified when one group assumes mastery of another and maintains it without consideration what it is they are really doing? Quite often they will justify it by saying that it is for the other’s benefit, because others are not capable of making their own decisions on certain issues or that religion mandates that it be this way. As Harriet Tubman said, she could’ve freed more people if they had understood they were slaves. Many today are slaves of convention, a manner of thinking that simply accepts that this is how it is because that’s the way it’s always been and there’s no need or even desire to change it. Unfortunately our churches have to take some responsibility in that regard. We are finally beginning to understand, I think, that slavery is it was practiced was wrong on many levels. We haven’t realized yet that we still condone slavery by our silence to domestic violence, crime, marginalization of certain groups because of race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, language, or any of a hundred classifications that we used to separate them and us.
Truth, Tubman, Bloomer and Stanton spoke prophetic words and received about the same reception as many of the biblical prophets. Even Jesus had to say things a number of times in order to get the point across, but like Jesus, the women kept repeating the truth they were given and that they had experienced before finally being heard and achieving some desired results. From them I believe I can learn several lessons including persistence, courage to speak even when told to sit down and shut up by those who want to maintain the status quo, and realization that the job is too big for me alone but with God’s help I can make a start. These women weren’t saints, canonized for their piety or their mystical visions, but were saints because whether they quoted Scripture or not, they spoke God’s truth to people who were slaves and knew it and also to those who were slaves and didn’t realize it. The work isn’t finished and needs to be continued until all — men, women, black, white, brown, gay, straight, old, young, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, able-bodied or differently abled, rich, poor, privileged or deprived — know the quality that was God’s original gift and which, when achieved, will have brought the kingdom of God much closer to the here and now.
It’s a big job, but it can be done simply by thinking less of one’s own soul and more of others. It seems so simple, so why is it so hard to do?