Today we honor Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born as a slave in 1818 and separated from his mother at age eight. His new owner’s wife tried to teach Douglass to read, but the owner put a stop to the practice. Douglass learned to read in secret, earning small amounts of money when he could to pay people to teach him. At the age of fourteen, he experienced a conversion to Christ in the AME Church and the spiritual music sustained him in his struggle for freedom. In 1838, at age twenty, he escaped slavery. An outstanding orator, Douglass was sent on speaking tours of the Northern States by the American Anti-Slavery Society. His renown made him a target for recapture, so in 1845, his friends raised enough money to buy out his master’s legal claim to him. Douglass was highly critical of churches that did not disassociate themselves from slavery. He was an advocate of racial integration, and edited a pro-abolition journal. Douglass died in 1895.
In thinking about Douglass and our country’s relationship with slavery, I have often wondered about the presence of Christianity in the mix with slavery. Christianity was at times seen as a way to subdue slaves; at other times, Christianity was seen as a threat that could stir rebellion. Of course, I imagine many slaves were attracted to Jesus and the story of God’s people more deeply than we will ever understand. The epistle lesson asserts that, “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Surely that message was both one of comfort and of liberation for slaves in our country. In fact, Douglass even once said of the old spiritual humans that they followed him, deepened his hatred of slavery, and quickened his sympathies for his fellow slaves in bonds. For Douglass, his faith strengthened him, emboldened him, and gave him a passion for helping others.
This is the invitation for us as well. Though we will never fully know the pain of slavery, we do know the power of suffering. What scripture and Douglass do today is remind us that, first, Jesus Christ suffered as we do to help others, and, second, our faith can strengthen, embolden, and give us a passion for helping others. We may not affect change on the grand scale of Douglass, but his life reminds us that we still have work to do – that we can be a positive voice for change. Our suffering will never be as great as Jesus’ or of slaves in this country – but any suffering we encounter can make us agents of change and help us to help others who are suffering. Amen.