God and the Abolitionists

My son got to stay up late last night to watch the premiere of PBS’s new docu-drama The Abolitionists.

This three hour film attempts to tell the incredible story of America’s first civil rights movement, when a strange coalition of ordinary people banded together across lines of class, race, gender and politics to work for the end of a terrible injustice at the heart of our nation’s economy.

The telling will be criticized, no doubt, for what it omits. Black women, for example, played such a central role in this struggle, but neither Harriet Tubman nor Sojourner Truth are central characters in the film. As a North Carolinian, I noted the absence of Quakers, who started the Underground Railroad on their farms here in Guilford County in the early 19th century.

There are always more stories to tell, and I hope this telling will encourage all of us to learn more about people who devoted their whole lives to becoming citizens of a country that did not yet exist.

But I want to say that The Abolitionists gets this right: the crazy idea that America could exist without slavery was intimately tied to a personal relationship with God.

In each of the five interwoven lives that this docu-drama chose to profile, faith is not ignored or downplayed, but rather highlighted. About the publisher of The Liberator and founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, historian James Brewer Stewart says in the first episode:

William Lloyd Garrison’s religious background was not just a background, it was at the core of who he was. It was an indwelling spirit inside of him that constantly thought about making God’s will come into being on this earth.

To a person, this telling of the story highlights the role that faith played in a decades long freedom struggle that reshaped America.

As I think about the Everyday Awakening that I see happening today, I think about the parallels to the abolitionists–how we cannot imagine what it would mean to consider undocumented people as fellow citizens; how mass-incarceration isn’t even on the table as a policy issue in our elections; how conversations about national debt almost never include the predatory lending practices that are exploiting low-income communities in our country; how almost none of us can conceive of an America that doesn’t depend on oil.

Almost to a person, the people I know who are challenging these injustices–the people who are carving out spaces for some alternative with their very lives–are inspired and sustained by faith.

I’m grateful for an hour of national television that helps me show my son that this is how it’s always been.

  • Tracy

    I can’t argue with your experience, but I do know that plenty of people outside religious circles are working on changing the world. At a nearby Ivy League University, the number and types of students tutoring in prisons, buidling wells across the world, studying to change the lives of women across the world — is astonishing. Others are studying communal and multi-economic housing models, — I could go on and on.

    Don’t get me wrong, I advocate for everyone to have a relationship with God. But I think we are quickly reaching the place where we can recognize other people are doing amazing things — maybe especially outside the Bible belt where churches are not the organizing principles of every community. I just don’t think we’ll be able to hold on to a notion of our “uniqueness” in these ways.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for this, Tracy. You’re right: not everyone who’s working for good is motivated by faith. (For that matter, both in the 19th century and now, many people of faith are resisting positive social change.) I’m just aware how deeply important faith is to those who’ve given their lives to impossible tasks, both then and now–and how often our telling of these stories tends to gloss over faith as a non-essential part of people’s stories.

      I work with an organization called “School for Conversion.” Our whole mission is to re-claim the power of faith for change in society today.

      • Samuel Post

        Tracy is certainly right that those of no religious faith (and of faiths other than Christianity) are not excluded from participation in social justice and change. There may never too many for the formidable and eternal task of making society better and thwarting the baser facets of human nature, whether such efforts are based on religious convictions/beliefs or on a humanist view of the perfectibility of mankind. However, it is religions, especially Christianity, which has taken (and continues to take) such a beating in the public arena during much of the 20th and into the present century, often and increasingly unfairly. Without doubt, Christians (or some) were instrumental in bringing about this state of affairs by evolving theological dead end paths which many faithful believe to wrong headed and deadly to a truer vision and interpretation of the intent and call to action of our faith’s founding figure.

        It is good to have our eyes opened and to learn that our faith (Christianity) has not always been situated in the opposing camp of those who seek reason, understanding, equality, compassion for the suffering, justice for the oppressed and persecuted, economic sanity for our dominion over and use of creation, economic fairness for the compensation/rewarding of each of us who labor in the vineyard, whatever our capacity, and charity for all our fellow beings.
        Many harsh and hateful things have been and are being said about Christians today, especially evangelicals, fundamentalists and conservatives Christian. Historically it is good to remember that the evangelical conservative Christians of today are not the same evangelicals of the past. Many (myself included) believe that some took a wrong path. Much in the way of social justice issues today, that the secular left would like to claim as their own exclusive domain was, in fact, initiated, advocated and lived by our religious ancestors, especially so in England and the US. It is good that we recognize that we (Christians) are not the evil/bad guys, even though some have strayed, but are and have been rooted in social justice, as early as any other. Redemption. The evangelical emergent movement is a warming sight to many of the faithful who see the reality of redemption. Without taking anything away from that which is the secularist/humanists glory, it is good all to see that the religious faithful stand with the angels or the good guys in the good fight/struggle for social justice.

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