As we approach Racial Justice Sunday, apologist Adam Coleman of Tru-ID looks at why all humans have intrinsic worth. He shares examples of abolitionists who took matters of justice into their own hands as well as those who opted for non-violence, trusting God to act on their behalf
Racism in Colonial America wasn’t just a matter of preference as in a dislike or even simply a hatred of African people. It wasn’t just a feeling of superiority among Europeans. Racism was actually more concrete than that. In America’s formative years, among the main justifications for slavery in the West were the widely held beliefs that Africans were not ‘human’, did not have souls or were, at best, like a race of children that needed to be cared for by the white ‘civilized’ races.
It is on this point that we can see how Christianity played a dynamic role as a liberating factor in African American history. The conversion experiences for many African enslaved persons who accepted Christianity served to anchor their sense of worth in something that was beyond the reach of the slave masters’ ability to degrade them. In the foreword of his book ‘God Struck Me Dead’, Dr Albert Raboteau, professor emeritus of Princeton University, puts it this way:
“Amidst a system bent on reducing them to an inferior status, the experience of conversion rooted deep within the slave converts’ psyche a sense of personal value and individual importance that helped to ground their identity in the unimpeachable authority of almighty God.”
In other words, for many African enslaved persons, Christian conversion was like a statement of personal defiance. This conviction – coming from a place of God given intrinsic worth – was foundational for the black Church and the black community more broadly during the period that African-Americans were fighting for the abolition of slavery and throughout the civil rights movement.
African Americans appealed to this notion of equal personhood through the biblical framework, which afforded them the moral currency, if you will, by which they could advocate for themselves to the predominant culture. This theme of personhood and transcendent morality can be seen echoing throughout the speeches and writings of some of the most prominent voices for African American freedom such as Dr Martin Luther King, JW Loguen, Henry Highland Garnet, Absolom Jones, Ida B Wells and many others.
A house divided
In 1852 while America at large was gridlocked as a house divided against itself over slavery, the abolitionist movement wrestled with an ideological divide of its own that came to a head at an anti-slavery convention in Salem, Ohio. There were two prominent abolitionists present for the convention who exemplified the competing perspectives on how to pursue justice on behalf of enslaved persons: Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Early in their careers as public figures both Douglass and Truth were aided and heavily influenced by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as they established themselves on the national stage as front-runners for the anti-slavery cause. That being the case, they were significantly shaped by Garrison’s approach to abolitionism which revolved around the principles of non-violence, non-participation in politics and the use of moral persuasion as a principal method of bringing about liberty for enslaved persons. However, by the early 1850s, Douglass’ sentiments began to sour toward the Garrisonian model.
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A necessary evil?
America’s road toward abolition had proven to be long, arduous and consisting of many troubling turns that Douglass feared were meandering away from liberty for all in the near future. Douglass felt setbacks like the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – which required escaped enslaved persons to be returned to their ‘owners’ even if they were in free state – demonstrated that slavery had such a grip on the nation that appealing to the consciences of Americans was not enough to loosen it. Douglass came to entertain the view that, given the violent nature of America’s system of chattel slavery, violence may very well be necessary to rid America of it.
Sojourner Truth, on the other hand, maintained the Garrisonian view and, by all accounts, truly lived out a steadfast commitment to non-violence in her fight against the injustice of slavery. This shines through in a section of Truth’s biography, ‘The Narrative of Sojourner Truth’, wherein she recalls facing down an angry mob who had come out to stop her from speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in Angola, Indiana.
Having heard the threats from the mob prior to the meeting, Truth’s friends advised her to take a sword or pistol with her. Truth’s response to them was: “I carry no weapon; the Lord will preserve me without weapons. I feel safe even in the midst of my enemies; for the truth is powerful and will prevail.”
Sojourner Truth’s adherence to non-violence sharply contrasted the position Douglass had come to adopt, which set the stage for their brief yet famous exchange at the Salem, Ohio anti-slavery convention in 1852.
Is God dead?
According to Douglass, he had begun a speech in which he “…took the ground that slavery could only go down in blood – that slaveholders and the country had sinned too long and too deeply to escape”. As Douglass attempted to bolster his argument by describing “the power of slavery in the Church and the state”, Sojourner Truth interjected with the question: “Is God dead?!”
As Douglass describes the impact of Truth’s question in a letter written many years later, he recalls: “We were all for the moment brought to a standstill – just as we should have been if someone had thrown a brick through the window.” Douglass noted he then responded to Sojourner Truth by affirming that God was not dead before proceeding with the remainder of his speech. The interaction between Douglass and Truth reverberated so far beyond that moment at the Ohio abolitionist meeting, the question “Is God dead?” was later inscribed on Sojourner Truth’s tombstone.
Is God dead?! To get to the heart of what I believe Sojourner Truth was putting her finger on and what it means for us today, there are a few things I want to unpack.
The Civil War
Just over a decade after this incident, the matter of slavery in the United States would be decided largely due to the bloodiest conflict of America’s history – The Civil War. Sojourner Truth herself actively supported the Union war effort and even recruited African-American soldiers for the North. However, in 1852 Truth was persuaded that the time for violent action had not yet come and God was well able to bring about justice for enslaved persons through other means. One might argue that her point of contention with Douglass was not so much about the issue of violence versus non-violence but rather she took aim at something deeper.
Sojourner Truth seemed to interrogate an underlying disposition that she suspected individuals like Douglass had given in to by essentially taking matters into their own hands. In so much as Truth believed non-violent resistance to be in keeping with faithfulness to God and his ways, she was sceptical that Douglass’ view flowed from a larger perspective that made no room for God. With that said, I would like to briefly turn our attention to another Frederick, or Friedrich I should say – Friedrich Nietzsche.
The murderer of all murderers
Nearly three decades after Sojourner Truth famously chided Frederick Douglass by asking “Is God dead?”, Nietzsche, in one of his most renowned works, ‘The Parable of the Madman’, used the main character of his parable to assert “God is dead”. To summarise very briefly, Nietzsche’s ‘Madman’ is an atheist who confronts a crowd of other atheists in a village about the implications of the non-existence of God.
Initially, the Madman claims he is seeking God, but doesn’t know where to find him. As the crowd ridicules the Madman for his “foolish” search for God, the Madman then takes the discourse further: ”’Whither is God?’ he cried: ‘I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.’” The Madman then employs a series of questions to spur his audience to think more deeply about the costs of having got rid of God.
“What were we doing when we unchained this Earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?…God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…” Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Gay Science’.
Nietzsche’s Madman has been interpreted to suggest that in the absence of God, man is faced with the startling fact that things like objective meaning, purpose, value and morality have no place in the real world. If God is dead, then those things are dead too.
Unfortunately, the scope of this article does not allow for me to argue for each of these points. That said, I do take it to be a rational position to hold that if God does not exist, then reason calls us to bite the existential bullet that we live in a world with no objective meaning, purpose, value, morality, and so on. I also believe our deepest intuitions about the world offer us reminders that such a sad ‘objectivity-less’ state of affairs isn’t so.
There are many ways in which the implied meaning of Sojourner Truth’s question to Frederick Douglass presses against the worldview concerns Nietzsche’s Madman gives voice to. As I draw this article to a close we will consider just one point that I believe to be pertinent to Christians today.
We are not alone
While God has called his people to pursue justice, he has not called us to pursue it alone; he is with us. If the answer to Truth’s question “Is God dead?” is “Yes” or the Madman’s claim that, “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…”, is in some sense correct, then we human beings are all on our own. If such is the case, it is difficult to see how abolitionism or any other justice movement has any ultimate meaning and foundation.
To the contrary, Sojourner Truth’s message to her fellow abolitionists was that there is a real God who cares about human affairs, fights for the oppressed and can work through movements like theirs to achieve objectively good ends. In other words, her question, “Is God dead?” can be interpreted as an attempt to disperse clouds of pessimism with the light of truth by pointing them back to an acknowledgment of and reliance upon a God of justice who was on their side.
Sojourner Truth held fast to a conviction for justice that was undergirded by scripture and to that effect I would like to leave you with a few passages to consider. As you read over them today, take time to reflect on what the Bible commends to us about a God who is intrinsically good, loves justice and calls us to pursue justice as we walk with him. If you should find yourself wearied in the pursuit of justice, I would encourage you to think back on these verses and ask yourself: Is God dead?
“Now this is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in him.” 1 John 1:5
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; faithful love and truth go before you.” Psalm 89:14
“He is the maker of heaven and Earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free.” Psalm 146:6-7
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Psalm 82:3
“Mankind, he has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
Adam Coleman leads a busy life as a husband, father of five children, social worker, published author and public speaker. Educationally, Adam has a background in the mental health field with specialisation in public advocacy. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in social work, Adam began a career of youth/family therapy, service to our nation’s veterans and community organisation. As a Christian apologist, Adam is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his Tru-ID Apologetics Youtube channel, Tru-ID Podcast, writings, social media engagement and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ while educating believers on how to be effective defenders of the faith. https://www.truidapologetics.com/
A Schwartz (2021) ‘“Is God Dead?”: Frederick Douglass’s Recollection of a Contentious Moment in Antislavery History.’
‘New North Star: A Journal of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass’
O Gilbert, FW Titus (1884). ‘Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondswoman of Olden Time, Emancipated by the New York Legislature in the Early Part of the Present Century ; with a History of her Labors’
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