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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Follow the Drinking Gourd | February 14, 2021 Message from Dr. Blake

As we honor Black History, I believe that it is important to recall, if only briefly, the courage of those who confronted the evils of slavery on their journeys to a new day and way of being. Many of us know of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and John Brown whose bravery, tenacity, and audacity help to end the immoral practice. There were others, many others who challenged the system. Many inwardly embraced the idea that Before I’ll Be A Slave, I’ll Be Buried in My Grave and Go Home to My Lord and Be Free.

The fugitives who traveled the Underground Railroad were the greatest of the abolitionists. Far from being passive, as they are usually portrayed, they were major antagonists in the sectional drama. As much as William Lloyd Garrison, as much as John Brown, they made men face up to the evils of the slave system. In an age when most people wanted to forget, “running abolitionists” made them remember.

Fugitive slaves scaled mountains, forded creeks and threaded the forests, they came across the Ohio River and the Chesapeake Bay; they came with ailing women and sick children; softly sometimes and sometimes imperiously they rapped on windows and begged help: a piece of bread, a spoon of medicine, directions to the next town. Wherever they stopped, men and women had to make a decision – either for or against slavery. Fugitive slaves reached people who were cool or hostile to the “speaking abolitionists.” Whigs helped them and Democrats, too; Quakers helped them, and Southern Baptists. Frederick Douglass said “we seldom called in vain upon Whig or Democrat for help. Men were better than their theology, and truer to humanity than to their politics, or their offices.”

Thousands of fugitive slaves – estimates range from 40,000 to 100,000 – escaped from the South in the years of crisis. .”—Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower

I love Bennett’s writings. He not only gives a factual account as an historian; but, also gives the import, meaning of the actions in the life of history. The fugitives made people face up to the evils of the slave system. This required courage for the fugitives as well as those who aided them along the way. The opposite of courage according to Rollo May is not cowardice; rather, it is complacency. For those who were not enslaved, the fugitives rocked them from their complacency, nudging them to assume a critical role in dismantling the lethal theatre of slavery.

Similarly in The Luminous Darkness, Dr. Howard Thurman sets forth the idea that the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 shook the very foundation of Southern society. No longer could liberal whites merely advocate loosening chains within the pattern of segregation. They had to declare themselves either for or against integration.

I have often used quotes from Alan Payton’s great novel Cry the Beloved Country – the final manuscript was typed and delivered to the printer by a member of Fellowship Church. Below is probably my favorite. It was written in a journal by a young white South African lawyer who fought against the system of apartheid and, ironically, was killed by a young Black person whom he had been helping:

Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa. I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I shall do this, not because I am a negrophile and a hater of my own, but because I cannot find it in me to do anything else. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe, I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black men, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will approve. Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true. I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all.

Yet it would not be honest to pretend that it is solely an inverted selfishness that moves me. I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is right, at whatever cost it may be.

Rollo May talks about courage in many instances. Of particular relevance to today’s message is the following: "the acorn becomes an oak by means of automatic growth; no commitment is necessary. The kitten similarly becomes a cat on the basis of instinct. Nature and being are identical in creatures like them. But a man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage.”

Dr. Thurman states: I must select, must choose the option which will make possible the largest fulfillment of my own life plus the other lives of which I am the shared expression. One option is always available to me – I can choose the things for which I shall stand and work and live and the things against which I shall stand and work and live. To yield this right, is to fail utterly my own self and all others upon whom I must depend. The highest role of freedom is the choice of the kind of option that will make of my life not only a benediction breathing peace but also a vital force of redemption to all I touch. This would mean, therefore, that wherever I am, there the very kingdom of God is at hand.

The people were made to remember because the fugitives, the running abolitionists, were flesh and blood, spirit and consciousness in their spaces and faces. They were engaged with other human beings, creatures of the same divine architect. Wherever they stopped, men and women had to make a decision – either for or against slavery. And, there were people of varying identities – Democrats, Whigs, Quakers, and Southern Baptists – who answered the call to camaraderie, who understood their interdependence.

This is an important lesson for us. There are always those who have not bowed their knee to systemic idols. Or, if they have, can be recalled to higher loyalty, truth, compassion, justice, freedom, common ground, authentic living. We must remember this when we feel helpless and hopeless in dealing with what we correctly assess as principalities and powers arrayed against us.

Remember the young South African lawyer’s statement: I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is right, at whatever cost it may be. What is that something? Is it the All Pervading Presence, the More Than, the Holy Spirit, the Cosmic Christ, God, the I am what I am? Whatever one may call it, it is that which gives our lives deep meaning, that lifts us to our highest resolve, that lets us know that we are not alone, that gives us strength from day to day, that brings us through the nights and days of our lives, blesses us with strength, vision, imagination, with horizons ever expanding, souls ever deepening. A song from my earlier years speaks to me now:

Something within me that holdeth the reins, Something within me that banishes pain: Something within me I cannot explain, All that I know there is something within.

Bennett also quoted Douglass as saying: Men were better than their theology, and truer to humanity than to their politics, or their offices.”

Yes, sometimes our theologies, dogmas, creeds, politics, traditions, allegiances, status, and loyalties prevent the greater self from emerging, flowering, and flourishing. Queen Esther rises above conformity, tradition, and law. . . and so will I go to the king, though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16), Moffatt Translation. Too often engrained ways of thinking and being obscure the potential self that seeks to emerge and become the realizing self. Yet, Every human being must have a point at which he stands against the culture, where he says, this is me and the damned world can go to hell. (May)

The gospel of John records Jesus as saying: I give you a new law. That law is, "Love each other." As I have loved you, so you also love each other. This is how all people will know that you are my disciples. (John 13:34-35), Worldwide English (New Testament)

Our theologies are stations, not the journey; anchors, not the high adventure; feet, not the race; paths, but not The Way. We are like a stray line of a poem, which ever feels that it rhymes with another line and must find it, or miss its own fulfillment. This quest of the unattained is the great impulse in man which brings forth all his best creations. Man seems deeply to be aware of a separation at the root of his being; he cries to be led across it to a union, and somehow he knows that it is love which can lead him to a love which is final. (Rabindranath Tagore)

May the internal drinking gourd guide each of us while we run this race.

Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built. ― Rollo May

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