These are difficult matters and difficult times, we should be more careful of how we discuss history.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
For the third time this year I find myself in quite the awkward position of critiquing someone for whom I have great respect. Perhaps some think it is disrespectful to do so, but I disagree, to interact with ones ideas seems to me to be the highest compliment, even if that critique and interaction is negative. In the case of men like Carl Trueman, R.R. Reno and now Scott Sunquist, it is essential that we hold them to the standard of the offices of which they find themselves. And we should pray that if we find ourselves in their positions some young theologian or historian would do us the honor of critiquing us out of love. Because as Christian’s we no longer have the luxury, or should I call it a privilege, to say whatever we wish to without taking the time to think deeply about what we are saying. This is why, after all, as a pastor and theologian I actively maintain deep friendships with people who think differently then I and when those friendships do dissipate for whatever reason it is saddening to me.
I do understand what Dr. Sunquist was attempting to do in his piece “Fredrick Douglass, Thirst for Knowledge,” and I believe his intent is sincere, however, there is a history that one such as he should be aware of and when delving into a historical example, one should be careful in how that historical example is employed and what is said about a historical figure, if possible, one should use that persons own words. In this case, the person was Fredrick Douglass and in our current times, that may be a powder keg when not handled well. It is not enough to simply “mean well” one should approach with absolute cautions, especially if one is the historic oppressor discussing the historically oppressed. When one does so using the patronizing language that white supremacy and dominion theology have assigned to be used for the topic, one has lit a fuse that is incapable of being snuffed out. One should always prefer the historical context of a situation and be willing to acknowledge what was wrong about a situation in history and perhaps use a different example. Because these guidelines were not followed the point was lost and the fuses lit.
Sunquist fails to follow through with sensitivity to his audience and as an Alumni of Gordon-Conwell who worked, while there, to decolonize the curriculum, it is unfortunate to see the language of colonization employed by one who, in private conversation at least, has spoken about completing the work. To describe Douglas time with the Auld’s as: “Hugh and Sophia Auld had not owned slaves before and so they treated Frederick, uncharacteristically, as a son.” Is to ignore the fact that underneath that description is the fact that the Auld’s bought Douglas and then later sold him as if he was not a son, but property and a child. According to his own Autobiography and the most recent authoritative biography by David Blight (which Sunquist quotes in the article), Douglass was never not aware that he was in fact a slave whose teacher, Sophia Auld, was illegally teaching to read and write. To say they treated him as a son, is to employ language that Douglass himself does not employ and detracts from his awareness that he was in fact owned. While he was learning to read, he was also beginning to develop his ideas about abolition which would move him to become a leader among the abolitionist movement after buying his freedom. When he calls what Sophia Auld did: “reasonable and kind as a Christian Woman” the implication is that in doing what was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, she was doing the right thing when the right thing would have been to grant him his freedom and help him to adjust to life as a freeman. Some Abolitionists actively practiced this although the Abolitionist movement was fraught with its own racism and paternalism and many did not.
The approach Sunquist takes here is similar to George Marsden in his authoritative biography of Jonathan Edwards when he notes that Edwards treated well and freed many of the family slaves and many of those freed slaves and their families were full communicates in worship at Northampton. We are expected to revere Edwards for his fair and kind treatment of enslaved people, people who had been kidnapped from their homes and placed in horrifying conditions and then sold for a price. We are also supposed to brush over the fact that one of the pieces of “property” in Edwards Will was one of the families enslaved. No amount of kind treatment excuses exploitation of a human being against their will. This was true when the Stonewall-Campbell Churches were defending Southern Slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War and it is true now. “Chattel Slavery” as Schaff wrote in 1856: “Has no place in the Christian world and it cannot be compared to or defended by the Bible.” This is the kind of excusing language we should avoid because what it communicates is destructive: “It does not matter if the Auld’s owned Douglass, they treated him like a son.” I am sure Sunquist would not affirm that statement said so frankly, but it is what was communicated to some, if not most, of his readers and that has once again repeated the cycle of pain many of us were fighting against and many still are fighting against at Gordon-Conwell.
Sunquist is correct that it is remarkable that Douglass achieved all he did, but the same could be said about someone such as I who was told by peers I should “kill myself because (my disability meant) I would never amount to anything.” It is a form of tokenism to take the exception to the rule and place them on a pedestal while excusing what was done to them, in this case, his status as a slave who had to buy his freedom and who had run away after enduring brutal beatings at the hand of Hugh Auld, Sophia’s husband. This tokenism is something our brothers and sisters of Color have asked us to stop doing for 60 years, simply because you know someone who either disagrees with someone else in the popular sphere on Ethnic relations, or someone of Color defies the norm, that does not mean we should hold them up as tokens for all to see, this is no better than slavery, we end up using the person for our own means instead of letting them speak on their own terms, something, by the way, Douglas has no trouble doing. It becomes a means of assuaging our consciouses instead of allowing us to drill down and deal with the issues head on. A form of escapism so we can justify ignoring the pain of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced this kind of trauma for generations. Sunquist likely thought he was platforming a person of color, honoring them, but the result is paternalism and tokenism and both are indefensible.
Finally, Sunquist paints an…um…rosy picture of slavery in the cities which simply does not add up when compared to the historical situation which Douglas found himself in. Lynn Austin, in her “Turning Back the Dark” Trilogy does a much better job addressing the historical situation of city slaves, but even she falls short in some areas. In many ways, life for the city slaves was much worse than it was for the plantation slaves, though neither should ever be romanticized as Sunquist does here. Both Plantation slave city slaves lived with the constant fear of beatings not just from overseers and masters but from anyone who might think them a threat. The life of a slave was one of fear and longing for freedom, there is nothing romantic about that, no one should have to live day to day like that, but unfortunately many did and still are to this day. Slavery as an institution should be considered one of the great atrocities of human history, nothing more, nothing less. Dehumanization is still dehumanization even if you try to gussy it up to look nice, a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Dehumanization of anyone is not something to romanticize. In fact, it should be condemned on the grounds that stripping someone of their humanity and reducing them to property is a violation of God’s created order. We are made in the image of God, we should uphold that in one another, if we refuse we will answer for that, dehumanization is a sin, it requires repentance, not romanticism. In short, those who rail against the dehumanization of a human in the womb, should not turn around and dehumanize a group of people by romanticizing a painful moment in their history.
It is these things, and more, that our brothers and sisters of color have been asking us to consider for 160 years and yet, we are still wrestling with the ghost of our history. A thing cannot be dealt with if our intuition is just to push it down and move on. No healing comes for a nation that refuses to recon with its history. Yet, we are being asked to do just that and continue to repeat the same mistakes, rip open the wounds that never stopped bleeding. This is not a Liberal or Conservative issue, to reduce it to such is to make it Partisan. No, this is a human issue, a life issue. The language employed by Dr. Sunquist continues a long history of dehumanization that we need to rectify if we are ever to be one again.
I was reminded today, as I rode to a pastors lunch with my area pastor that when Paul writes to the Colossians in 3 and says that there is: Now no Jew or Greek, Scythian or Barbarian, Slave or Free, man or women.” That the majority of those mentioned were dark skinned men and women from North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome and the light skinned people from the north were referred to (not just here but in all Roman Literature) were the Barbarians. We who claimed to be the overseers and paragons of Christianity were, in fact, once referred to as Barbarians, a term that was central to the Pope’s Inter Catera in 1493 and to the Stone-Campbell Theology that defended slavery because the enslaved were, in their words: “Barbarians.” This view, the Stone-Campbell view, would have been central to the Auld’s view of Douglas, regardless of how they treated him and if it was unacceptable for Christians then, it is unacceptable now. Paul says it should not be part of our language at all because of Christ, and yet, here we are.
I am saddened by Dr. Sunquist’s use of language that is better left on the scrap bin of history. When he was first elected president, reading his resume and things which he had written in the past I was hopeful for the future of my Alma Mater. I pray that he may take the lessons of the on-campus backlash from this piece not as an attack, but as encouragement to listen to the voices of those whom he has hurt and disappointed. We do not have the privilege of these blunders; it is a wonder to think that we never did but made excuses anyway. May God bring healing to the situation and to those who were hurt and may genuine reconciliation be found through the power of the Holy Spirit which has made us one.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center