Out of SlaveryOut of Slavery

Out of Slavery

Looking at the black church in North America and placing its history alongside Pope Francis' new encyclical Laudato si´, the author hears the call for freedom coming from the heart of Christian faith.

John Walsh
9 minute read
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I was honoured to be invited as the guest speaker at the 10th anniversary of the Imani Family and Full Gospel Church, a church of the black community in Montreal. Charleston. S.C., was fresh on everyone's mind. It is hard to imagine nine black people massacred by a white racist youth —in a church during a bible study meeting. In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote, "For those who see Christianity itself as a faith that encourages quiescence and conservatism, the tradition of the black Church is a sign of contradiction… As has happened before in our history, much of this learning is prompted by tragedy… The African American Christian tradition has been vital in our history for reasons of the spirit but also as a political seedbed of freedom and a reminder that the Bible is a subversive book."

The black Church is subversive. Learning moments in black history are important to interpret the subversive word: from the perspective of tragedy, through the eyes of the poor, from where the marginalized sit, where the oppressed and the homeless are left isolated. The Word of God is subversive in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in his "I Have a Dream" speech, he said:

"With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…

"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of the black community and no one should be left to walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. In Canada, we do not struggle for civil rights; we enshrined our struggle in the repatriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians may celebrate the victory of Rosa Parks when she defiantly sat in the front of the bus when the back of the bus was the designated place for coloured people. Canadians may admire the Freedom Riders, cheer when we see film of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading people of all religious stripes in Selma, Ala., whites and blacks arm in arm, be amazed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew 200,000 supporters, 50,000 of them white, but, in the end, Canadians are not emotionally attached to a subversive Word of God.

In the days of slavery, masters emphasized the parts of Scripture that called for obedience to legitimate authority. But the slaves took another lesson: that the authority they were under was not legitimate, that the Old Testament prophets and Exodus preached liberation from bondage and that Jesus himself took up the cry to "set the oppressed free" with passion and conviction unto death. A liberating Gospel is also a Gospel of love. The family members of those slain at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal astonished so many Americans by offering forgiveness to the racist shooter, Dylann Roof. Dionne quoted Rev. Cheryl Sanders: "There was ‘something radically different' about their worldview. The act itself ‘was a radical refusal to conform to what's expected of you. It's a way to avoid hating back.' They were following Jesus, who declared on the Cross: ‘[Father,] forgive them, for they know not what they do.'"

Pope Francis, in his first Apostolic Exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium), wrote, "I want a poor Church for the poor and I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.'"

The black Church tradition "teaches that Christianity's message resonates far beyond the boundaries of any racial or ethnic community," according to Dionne, and "shows that particular groups of Christians give it their own meaning. The idea that all are divinely endowed with equal dignity is a near-universal concept among Christians." But as Rev. Sanders says, "an insistence on the dignity and humanity of people in the sight of God has exceptional power to those who have suffered under slavery and segregation. The whole story to them is 'I can be free… If I am poor, poverty doesn't invalidate my humanity. If I am humbled, I can be lifted up by God.'"

"God will make a way out of no way" was Martin Luther King's answer to those whose spirits were flagging and a confederate flag of oppressiveness was flying. No shootings, no bombings, no fires can destroy this faith.

In Montreal's Le Devoir, Jean-Claude Ravet writes: "Francis reawakens the subversive memory of Jesus," which inevitably flows from the subversive Word of God. The author speaks of an unprecedented meeting and an exceptional talk that went unnoticed in the media.

Last October more than 100 representatives of popular and social movements from all over the world were invited to the Vatican: from movements of the impoverished to farmers to indigenous organizations, those who gather cardboard in the slums, organizations of workers without rights, defenders of the rights of the person, organizations of women peasants, blacks, the oppressed, the homeless, those without credentials, those who cannot be recognized and those without a name.

They were there to outline the state of the world from the point of view of the poorest and to speak of their struggle to leave the "money empire," which is devastating the earth and human lives, and of their initiatives to tear asunder the chains of exclusion, of injustices, of inequalities and to invigorate democracy through popular action. They were there to look at the world from the point of view of the people from the bottom up. The originality of the meeting is that in the past, popes invited bankers, successful people and business people to discuss the stakes of the world. Pope Francis acts in keeping with his preferential option for the poor and wants to listen to those who are representatives of the poor.

Pope Francis delivered a talk that is truly earth-shattering. He recognizes that the poor at the heart of the Church are those who "not only suffer from injustice but also fight against it" and it is a sign of the times. "The poor are not only victims: they act, organize themselves, protest, revolt and fight against the structural cause of poverty, inequality, lack of work, land, housing, the denial of social rights and of work." The Pope appreciates this solidarity of which the popular movements are offering proof, which is a true "way to make history," adding, "I hope that the wind of this protest becomes a storm of hope."

In hearing a hitherto unheard of talk given by a Pope, a Church at the service of the dispossessed, the humiliated, Catholic or otherwise, Christian or otherwise, believer or non-believer — humans, sisters and brothers in humanity — why do the media remain silent when they present themsleves as champions of the downtrodden. Are the media antennas dulled by the prejudiced view that nothing good can come from the Vatican? Even if an interior crack is opening that allows for the dawn of a Church that has found once more the taste of the Gospel?

Perhaps this event was not "radical" enough — a despised word in our big-show society, which causes shivers among the right-thinking person. It shakes up everything and puts into evidence the unspeakable cult that is giving massively to cruel idols and, without hope, demanding servitude and sacrifice, until death if necessary, to the disposable beings that we have become, condemned to be devoured in the grand machine of globalization that devastates body and soul, and nature even, unto life to accumulate riches and capital. Do we really want to hear from a Church that reawakens the subversive memory of Jesus? Is Francis not rebuilding the Church from the bottom up?

Then, in 2015, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, Francis continued the dialogue at the World Meeting of Popular Movements. In his talk, he said that the Bible tells us that God hears the cry of his people calling for land, lodging and labour for all our brothers and sisters. These are sacred rights, and it is well worth fighting for them. Change is needed. He asked a number of pertinent questions to suggest what is wrong in the world and concluded: "So let's not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.… real change, structural change…. The globalization of hope, a hope which springs up from peoples and takes root among the poor, must replace the globalization of exclusion and indifference!"

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I like the image of a "process." We are moved because we have seen and heard not a cold statistic but the pain of suffering humanity — our own pain; our own flesh. Francis says this loudly in Laudato si´ (Praise to you). It is something quite different than abstract theorizing or eloquent indignation. It moves us; it makes us attentive to others in an effort to move forward together on the basis of interdependence.

So don't expect a recipe from this Pope. Neither the Pope nor the Church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues. I dare say that no recipe exists. History is made by each generation as it follows in the footsteps of those preceding it as it seeks its own path and respects the values that God has placed in the human heart.

The first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples. A truly communitarian economy, one might say an economy of Christian inspiration, must ensure peoples' dignity and their "general, temporal welfare and prosperity." This includes access to education, health care, new technologies, artistic and cultural manifestations, communications, sports and recreation. A system that while irresponsibly accelerating the pace of production, while using industrial and agricultural methods, damages Mother Earth in the name of "productivity," continues to deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social and cultural rights. This system runs counter to the plan of Jesus.

Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: It is a commandment. It is about giving to the poor what is theirs by right. They will never be able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion that provides worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidarity work. Popular movements play an essential role, not only by making demands and lodging protests, but even more basically by being creative. There are examples of that popular economy that is born of exclusion and that slowly, patiently and resolutely adopts solidarity forms that dignify it. How different this is than the situation that results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves.

The second task is to unite people on the path of peace and justice. The world's peoples want to be artisans of their own destiny. They want to advance peacefully toward justice. No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty. The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain "free trade" treaties and the imposition of "austerity" measures that always tighten the belt of workers and the poor. The bishops of Latin America have denounced this with utter clarity. Similarly, the monopolizing of the communications media, which would impose alienating examples of consumerism and a certain cultural uniformity, is another one of the forms taken by the new colonialism. It is ideological colonialism. Let us say no to forms of colonialism old and new. Let us say yes to the encounter between peoples and cultures. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Efforts to bring peoples and cultures together in a form of coexistence that I call polyhedral, where each group preserves its own identity by building together a plurality that does not threaten but rather reinforces unity.

The third task — perhaps the most important facing us today — is to defend Mother Earth.

Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin. Laudato si´ further expands how our faith is at stake and how we need to become involved in the protection of Mother Earth. The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and bring conviction through a process of change. The Word of God is subversive; the message of Jesus is subversive; and now the Roman Catholic Church is becoming subversive, building itself from the bottom up.

John Walsh

​A retired priest in Montreal, Father John Walsh is the author of God Is Calling: Don’t Leave Him On Hold and is a high-profile figure in the city’s interfaith and media circles.​

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