by Daniel Harrell
One of the challenges of living in Minnesota with our families living back east is packing a whole year’s worth of visits into four weeks spread over two states: two states which might as well be two countries. My side resides in deep red (and even redneck) Madison, North Carolina, named for Dolly rather than James. Grits and real barbecue are standard fare with sweet tea and Jesus under searing Southern pride. A local car dealer proudly flies his Confederate flag and Confederate memorials still guard city squares. Black and white live alongside, close but divided as so many differences shall not be overcome.
Dawn’s family lives in Massachusetts, a foreign country as far as Southerners are concerned. Deep blue and pretentiously elite, scolding spews forth on healthcare and politics, technology and sports. Tom Brady turned 40 on Thursday. Massachusetts is both the birthplace and graveyard of American Protestantism where the church feels mostly life support. Likewise the President’s approval ratings, and no wonder. Politics there are among the most liberal in the country. And yet, ironically, Boston remains by any measure one of America’s most racist cities. Certainly worse than Southern cities like Raleigh or Durham or Atlanta.
The divide in America is long and cavernous. We kept up on the Minneapolis news while away, and grieved with everyone the police shooting that happened just a few blocks from our house. That the officer was Somali and the victim a white woman from Australia fuels a smoldering fire. So many differences shall not be overcome. We allow our differences to separate us further. Our wounds as a nation make it easy to surrender to the separation. Our world divides into mutually exclusive categories: this or that, us or them, red or blue, for or against, black or white. It is a diabolical. Our space shrinks. We becomes isolated. Driving the rural back roads of North Carolina in search of true barbecue, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, a popular joint nestled deep in a black part of the county. My father immediately recognized the difference. I wondered whether we should just keep driving. He said no. You never pass up good barbecue. And it was good.
In a better world we might not have noticed the difference. But centuries of separation—reinforced by suffering—won’t allow it. African-Americans were enslaved longer than they’ve been free. Sometimes we imagine the antidote to our national wound is to ignore the suffering separation causes. We’ve gotten good at this in America. Yale scholar Wille James Jennings writes, we’ve “cultivated ways to not see what is in front of our eyes, to not hear the screams and sirens that echo through our cities and towns. We have cultivated a selective focus on suffering, looking either at the kinds most immediate to us or those that do us no harm and demand nothing from us. We vacillate between narcissism and voyeurism.”
Eventually suffering finds us all. Turn to our passage from Romans and we read that God does not withhold it from us. In Christ, he joins in it. As followers of Christ, “we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” This is somehow good news. In Christ, suffering joins us to Jesus and does not separate. “Hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword–nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Again, Jennings writes, “This true word has breathed through centuries to Christians, providing inexplicable confidence and irrepressible joy in the midst of monstrous horrors. It has turned suffering from a killing field to a place where God is working out flourishing life for us and with us.” As Romans decrees, and we have witnessed, “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
This does not mean God makes suffering good or allows suffering for our good. This is a common misinterpretation. Suffering is not good. But suffering is powerful. In God’s hands, suffering contains a transformative capacity. In the right hands, God’s hands, suffering unites and does not divide us. It joins us to Jesus and even to each other.
In 1865, with the American Civil War drawing mercifully to an end, Abraham Lincoln sought to articulate his understanding of the unparalleled bloodbath the war brought. In his Second Inaugural Address, arguably the greatest speech given by any President, Lincoln moved from the historical to the political to the theological, ultimately attributing the war’s ferocity to God’s judgment on America for its 250 years of human bondage. Citing Jesus’ words from Matthew 18 (in King James), Lincoln spoke, “Woe unto the world because of offenses; it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” He then drew this conclusion: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” OFF
Given its horrors, we struggle to understand how any concession to war would fail to diminish that immense love we ascribe to God. And yet to page through Scripture reveals a God whose love does not withhold human suffering. In Christ, he joins in it. Again, this does not make suffering good. But in Christ’s hands, its power intensifies and bends toward that which is good and right and just and full of grace. As Lincoln himself acknowledged, “if God wills that [war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Skeptics, aghast at such misshapen logic, counter that a good God would have never allowed human slavery, as if somehow our sin is God’s fault. Such speculation is a diversion; another way of trying to ignore the truth suffering forces us to concede.
This morning is the last of this season’s Church Father’s Starting with the Letter S. We focusing on two mothers: Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sojourner Truth was a slave for whom bondage did not cast aspersions on God’s goodness. In 1847, responding to a suggestion by the African-American statesman Frederick Douglass that God had abandoned African Americans, Sojourner Truth said, “Frederick, do you think God is dead?”
Named Isabella by her parents, Sojourner Truth passed through the hands of several masters before escaping in 1827, one year before being freed by New York state mandate. Many years and adventures later, she took on the name “Sojourner” and took to preaching repentance. She reprimanded ministers who seemed resigned to slaveholding reality, who ignored the suffering and gave in to the divisions , banking instead on Jesus’ return someday to make everything right, to give out rewards for good faith and change the righteous into glory. What else can people really do in the meantime? Sojourner Truth shot back against such selective focus, against narcissism and voyeurism. “If the Lord should come,” she said, “he’d change you to nothing! You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back . . . I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”
In 1843, Sojourner Truth was met by another monumental figure of Civil War America, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Part of the famed Beecher clan (daughter of Lyman Beecher and sister to abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, renown pastor of Pilgrim Church in Brooklyn where former Colonial Minister David Fisher served), Stowe is best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, acclaimed by many as the greatest book of its time. Almost universally read, the novel, written out of Stowe’s own particular passion, generated intense empathy for slaves and their families. Her characters freely debated slavery’s causes, the Fugitive Slave Law, the future of freed people, what individuals could do, and the evils of racism. According to legend, Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” In an article penned for The Atlantic, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of her meeting with Sojourner Truth. Of Truth, Stowe wrote, “I do not recollect ever to have been conversant with any one who had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal presence than this woman.”
Sojourner Truth narrated how her mother had told her that when troubles must needs come, she should “jes’ go to God, an’ He’ll help ye.” In a transcript of her autobiography, she recalled praying to God:
‘O God, I been a-askin’ ye, an’ askin’ ye, an’ askin’ ye, for all this long time, to make my massa an’ missis better, an’ you don’t do it, an’ what can be the reason? Why, maybe you can’t. Well, I shouldn’t wonder ef you couldn’t. Well, now, I tell you, I’ll make a bargain with you. Ef you’ll help me to git away from my massa an’ missis, I’ll agree to be good; but ef you don’t help me, I really don’t think I can be. OFF
Convinced the Lord would have her run, she fled to a house owned by an abolitionist Quaker family who readily took her in.
They jes’ took me in, an’ did for me as kind as ef I’d been one of ’em; an’ after they’d giv me supper, they took me into a room where there was a great, tall, white bed; an’ they told me to sleep there. Well, honey, I was kind o’ skeered when they left me alone with that great white bed; ’cause I never had been in a bed in my life. It never came into my mind they could mean me to sleep in it. An’ so I jes’ camped down under it, on the floor, an’ then I slep’ pretty well. In the mornin’, when they came in, they asked me ef I hadn’t been asleep; an’ I said, ‘Yes, I never slep’ better.’ An’ they said, ‘Why, you haven’t been in the bed!’ An’ says I, ‘Laws, you didn’t think o’ such a thing as my sleepin’ in dat ‘ar’ bed, did you? I never heerd o’ such a thing in my life.’ OFF
Rather that keeping her promise and keeping faith, however, Sojourner Truth described her faith getting harder as life got easier. She neglected the Scriptures and she forgot about prayer. Such is the spiritual peril of goodness. Score a promotion or bonus at work, buy a big house or have a kid get into Harvard (in Massachusetts, by the way)—when things are going good, the last thing you need is the Lord to mess with your success. At his Damascus Road conversion, Jesus did not condemn Paul’s wickedness as a Pharisee. Jesus condemned Paul’s goodness as a Pharisee. Perhaps this is why the Lord does not withhold human suffering. “It must needs come.”
Paul wrote of his own stellar accomplishments: circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, a persecutor of the church; as for righteousness, faultless. But “whatever gains I had, these I count as loss because of Christ. … For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
In modern America, continued black suffering tempts many to wonder whether white people can be changed by the gospel and whether black people can ever truly be free in a society so systemically stacked against them. But if Paul is right—that suffering cannot separate us from God—then it must not separate us from each other—even if we are the causes of the suffering. In Christ’s hands—in his nailed hands—the suffered separation of his body and blood unto death become the source of new life. To resist suffering’s power to unite through Jesus is to yield it to those who would only segregate and isolate and build as many walls as possible to keep us safe—even safe from God.
God is not safe. He does not withhold human suffering. As we read this morning, he did not even withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all. Will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, neither will death, nor life, nor angels, nor governments, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Love conquers everything.
After slavery ended in New York, Sojourner Truth’s former master invited her to come back and pay visit to the place she’d spent her years enslaved. For old times’ sake. Remarkably, she went. It was her own Damascus Road.
Well, jest as I was goin’ out to git into the wagon, I met God! an’ says I, ‘O God, I didn’t know as you was so great!’ An’ I turned right round an’ come into the house, an’ set down in my room; for ‘t was God all around me. … An’ then the whole world grew bright, an’ the trees they waved an’ waved in glory, an’ every little bit o’ stone on the ground shone like glass; an’ I shouted an’ said, ‘Praise, praise, praise to the Lord!’ An’ I begun to feel such a love in my soul as I never felt before, — love to all creatures. An’ then, all of a sudden, it stopped, an’ I said, ‘Dar’s de white folks, that have abused you an’ beat you an’ abused your people, — think o’ them!’ But then there came another rush of love through my soul, an’ I cried out loud, — ‘Lord, Lord, I can love even de white folks!’