Updated: Sep 8, 2020
About two months ago, RockRidge Church called me to be their new Lead Pastor. One of the first requests members of the congregation made of me was to discuss the maelstrom of racism and riots that had taken over our locked-down nation just as it was beginning to re-open. George Floyd had been killed on May 25th, and by June 7th, when I preached this message, the image of immolated buildings and mass protests had already become familiar. We are seeing them anew in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after another officer-involved shooting.
I remembered abolitionist characters like William Lloyd Garrison, who in 1831 founded the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator and two years later formed the American Anti-Slavery Society, which gave Frederick Douglass a public platform. Members of my church have heard more than once about the Sarah and Angelina Grimke, White sisters who fled lives of wealth and luxury in South Carolina to re-settle in the Quaker community of Philadelphia. They became prominent abolitionist lecturers and writers. Both Grimke sisters published treatises in 1836: Angelina’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South and Sarah’s Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States made them pariahs in their former home state (and drew the ire of some northern men who felt they, as women, were too outspoken).
Garrison and the Grimke’s did their most important work nearly 30 years before Abraham Lincoln became President, before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and before the Civil War formally began, all of which took place between 1861-1862. Becoming vocal abolitionists at that time made them targets for hatred, even in the allegedly free North. Others who joined the new abolitionist movement along with them became victims of that hate. In 1837, six years after the Grimke’s started writing, Presbyterian Reverend and fellow abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Illinois. Six months later, Pennsylvania Hall, a public forum space built and owned by abolitionists, was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob (perhaps a parallel to our own time: true public forums are no more popular today than they were then). People like the Grimke sisters and Garrison were unwelcome, except in their own small community. No amount of violence or persecution could deter them; their motivations came from the ethics and approval of the eternal and transcendent God, and not any worldly source. They show us that Christian movements are at their most powerful and meaningful when motivated by our theology and ethics. It is how they pressed on, despite the great risk to their earthly lives.
Under the constant threat of violence, this small core of Christian abolitionists drew their courage and conviction primarily from their theology. Most of what they wrote and published argues against slavery from the Scriptures. They compelled anyone who would listen to abandon slavery on the basis of Jesus’ words and actions, that is, biblical theology. To deny the truth of what they were saying was to deny the Word itself. The entire discussion about slavery and abolition was framed as a theology issue, one that would force detractors to wrestle with their theology as much as their social and political stances.
Let’s return to 2020. When I remembered these characters, I wanted to talkto to my congregation like the Grimke’s or Garrisons would: to speak about racism and rioting by doing biblical theology. Basing my message on temporal social and political movements or expressions would only invite division. Movements are led by and made up of people, and people can be argued with. The reasoning, demands and expectations of people are often dangerously flawed. Jesus, on the other hand, presents us with perfect ethical thinking.
In His church, it’s always His words that should be amplified and spoken at full volume. It’s His behaviors that should be modeled. It’s His thinking that should be emulated and brought to bear on the world. It's His Word that should guide our thoughts and ethics. So, as we continue to engage discussions of racism and riots, that's precisely what I am going to do here. If you're interested in what our Bible-based beliefs and ethics can contribute to the conversation, then you'll enjoy the other posts in this series. So, grab a notepad and a cup of coffee, and join the conversation.
Riots and Racism Series
Pt. 4: Racism and the Disciple (You!)
Pt. 5: Racism and the Body
Pt. 6: Final Thoughts