Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren. – Motto of the newspaper The North Star, Rochester, NY, (1847-1851)
Today is the commemoration of Frederick Douglass, a man born as a slave who escaped from slavery to become an abolitionist, a writer, an orator, a newspaper owner and editor, a U.S. marshal, and a U.S. minister to Haiti. He is also known as the father of the Civil Rights Movement. Among his significant contributions was the publication of The North Star, an abolitionist paper published weekly. He was also a supporter of the rights of women and other groups, as well as African-Americans. See Frederick Douglass–Social Reformer for a fuller biography.
Thinking about Douglass and his escape from slavery, I began to ponder the beginning of Lent and the 39 days following Ash Wednesday. It came to me that Douglass escaped to save his life and try to grow into a man who could be respected, not just someone else’s property, used and abused. That meant breaking from one way of life to another. It took courage and faith to break away, knowing he would be dragged back into his former life if he were caught. It was a risk he had to take.
The Bible refers to slavery as sin, both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Some denominations place much emphasis on sinfulness as a form of slavery, from which Jesus came to release humankind. During Lent, we reflect on our sins and work to overcome them with God’s help and grace. We wear ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday to outwardly show that we are inwardly contemplating our mortality – and probably morality as well.
In the Hebrew Bible, slavery is a punishment for sins, corporate ones more than individual ones. However, personal sins also had to be atoned for through sacrifices. In Leviticus, a scapegoat was sent into the desert on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), bearing all the people’s sins so that they could be cleansed and freed from their transgressions.* Entire tribes were captured and sent into slavery because they did not obey God. Even the Exodus was a 40-year penance for beginning to forget God and take on foreign ways and beliefs.
Lent gives us time to think not just of our individual sins but also our corporate ones. Many institutions, including churches and seminaries, are apologizing for racist words and actions as a way of acknowledging the sin and asking for forgiveness and a new beginning. Lent offers us a time to consider our actions against African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others with histories of being wronged by our ancestors and even ourselves.
I think we may possibly be beginning to realize that what is available for one person, such as a right to vote, to be educated, to live without fear of oppression from some group, should be a right for all, regardless of sex, age, culture, religion, or any other box into which we like to confine people. That’s what Douglass was getting at with the motto on top of his newspapers. It should be a good motto for all people, not just brethren. We need to shed the sin of thinking that we are better than others because of our skin color, educational level, financial bracket, or any other privilege or status we may have.
Privilege is a sin that has enslaved some of us for generations, even millennia. Some live in a dream world where every wish is available and provided. In contrast, millions of others dream only of a dry house, enough food to feed the family, and a reason to hold their heads up as children of God.
What enslaves us? From what do we need to be freed? What do we need to do to become free? What can we do to help others free themselves from their own sins and slavery? What would be the result? How would the world look if all humanity saw itself as children of God rather than as nationalities or any other labels?
Image: Set of shackles, late 18th century from Tamale, Ghana, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. Author Rept0n1x, 2012.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.