Sunday, June 19, 2016
The God Who Sets Us Free

As some of you may know, I studied at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. I have only fond memories of my time at Georgetown – it was a beautiful campus located in a scenic part of the city. More than that, it was a Jesuit university where the chapel was at the heart of the campus, and many students and faculty took their Christian faith seriously. When I studied at Georgetown, there were over 70 Jesuit priests who lived on campus. From my perspective, every one of them was a pillar of faith, decency and compassion.

So my heart sank when in April I read a story in the New York Times that back in 1838, 272 slaves were sold to save the university. The Jesuit priests who ran Georgetown were in dire need of money to keep the university alive. The Jesuits happened to own slaves, lots of slaves, some donated by benefactors, some purchased to maintain Jesuit-owned plantations throughout Maryland. These slaves were relatively well treated by the Jesuits, permitted to marry and raise a family. Almost all of them were Catholics, baptized and Confirmed, who practiced and took seriously their Catholic faith.

Back in 1838, the Catholic Church did not view slaveholding as immoral. The Jesuits had owned slaves since the 18th century and they had sold off individual slaves before. But this time, the decision to sell almost all their slaves was different. They worried that the new owners might not allow the slaves to practice their Catholic faith. They also knew that life on plantations in the Deep South was notoriously brutal, and they feared that families might end up being separated and resold. They were right on both counts. The slaves would not be allowed to practice their Catholic faith and families were indeed separated from one another.

Some Jesuits did protest the slave sale. The head of the Jesuits in Rome, Father Jan Roothaan said, “It would be better to suffer financial disaster than suffer the loss of our souls with the sale of slaves.”

But, in the end, the decision to allow the slave sale was allowed to go forward.

On a fall day in 1838, the slaves were loaded onto ships at a bustling wharf in Washington, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance. But no one was spared – not the two month old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker, not the young boys and old men. There were enslaved grandmothers and grandfathers, carpenters and blacksmiths, pregnant women and anxious fathers, children and infants, all of whom were fearful, bewildered and despairing as they saw their families and communities ripped apart by the sale of 1838. (1)

Where was the moral voice of the Church in these circumstances? Why was there no protest of outrage from religious leaders who had eighteen hundred years of Christian teaching to guide them in their decision-making? How could they allow these slaves, who were children of God, both by virtue of their humanity and their baptism, to be treated with such callous indifference and cruelty as if their lives did not matter?

Like the treatment of native children in our residential schools here in Canada, Georgetown University is now being asked to pay reparations for the mistreatment of its slaves, and well it should. The conduct of the university was reprehensible.

In our lesson from Galatians, St. Paul provides us with the Magna Charta of the Christian faith. He is reflecting on the reality in the ancient world that because you were born into one tribe or race or nation or class or ethnic group, you could never be a member of another tribe or race or nation or class or ethnic group. A person born into one social sphere could never break into any other. In the ancient world, differences among people were seen as something negative. Because you are different, you are an outsider. Because you are not Roman or Greek or Egyptian, you could never be part of the one true group.

All that changes with the Christian proclamation of a new society – one in which not race or class or sex or nation but baptism removes all the distinctions among people. St. Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What a revolutionary statement! To those who are baptized into Jesus Christ, all the barriers that divide people one from another collapse. The whole business of privileged status goes by the board. All racial, social and sexual distinctions are deprived of their advantage. Quite simply, in Jesus Christ there is an end to all the barriers that allow one group to be valued over any other.

As the New Testament church reflected on this principle of equality in Christ, more and more people were included into its fellowship as one barrier after another collapsed. But the principle did not come fully developed. Like a seed planted in the ground which only becomes what it is through growth, so the Church had to struggle with the implications long after the principle was formulated.

It took William Wilberforce almost his entire political life to end the slave trade and then slavery in the British Empire. When the Georgetown Jesuits sold their slaves to the Louisiana plantations, slavery in the British Empire had been abolished. It would take the United States a Civil War to finally bring slavery to an end in that country.

There is a story about Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the 1860 election that would bring him to the White House. Lincoln was checking the estimate of how his home town would vote. When he expressed particular interest in the clergy, and was shown the results, Lincoln is reported to have said: “Here are 23 ministers of different denominations, and all of them are against me but 3; and here are a great many prominent members of churches, and a very large majority of them are against me.”

Then, with tears in his eyes, Lincoln continued: “I know there is a God, and he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that his hand is in it. If he has a place and work for me I believe I am ready. I am nothing but truth is everything.”

Lincoln then went on in a “lengthy and dark meditation” on God, Christ, slavery and the teachings of the New Testament, and concluded: “I may not see the end, but it will come, and I shall be vindicated; and these men will find that they have not read their Bibles aright.” (2)

Lincoln perceived the biblical logic correctly – barriers of race like barriers of nation are to be broken down. In Christ there is neither slave nor free.

In the 19th century women began demanding equal rights with the rise of the Suffragette Movement. Outrageous legal decisions were issued, women were scorned, ridiculed and even went to jail demanding justice until finally in the 20th century they finally got the vote.

The church was no better in its treatment of women. Only since the mid twentieth century have women been allowed to be wardens and serve on decision-making bodies. During the second half of the 20th century, the Church in North America went through a similar struggle with the movement to ordain women as priests and bishops. Just what did it mean that in Christ there was “neither male nor female”? There was controversy a plenty as clergy and laity vehemently disagreed on whether women could be ordained priests or bishops. There was a lot of heated debate, and some people even left the Church over the issue. One argument against women’s ordination, I recall, had a theologian actually say that women could no more be ordained priests than a dog could be a priest – in both cases the “matter” was defective!

In the end, however, the biblical logic for women clergy was clear: Since men and women are full and equal members of the Church by virtue of Baptism, they also should have full and equal opportunity to be the Church’s ordained ministers.

Today we have a Church where women are bishops and priests, where people of all races and nationalities are welcomed, and where slavery is officially condemned as inconsistent with the Christian ethic. But the struggle for inclusion is not over.

The church continues to wrestle with the question, “How wide is the embrace of God in welcoming all people into the fellowship?” The Anglican Church of Canada is struggling with that issue in terms of our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.

I recognize the legal, political, social, theological and even scientific complexity of these issues arising out of sexual orientation and sexual identity. The transgender issues are particularly baffling and will need to be sorted out over time. However, we Christians believe everything that reduces any group of people to second-class status has been drowned in the water of baptism. The old divisions that divide people one from another are left behind. We are all equal in Christ. And so, at the very least, we treat people with full and equal respect as children of God, created in God’s image, and loved by the Christ who loves us, without exception or condition.

Eighty-five years after that infamous slave sale by the Georgetown Jesuits, on a Saturday afternoon in Washington D.C. in 1923, the Ku Klux Klan held an open parade down Pennsylvania Avenue right passed the White House. It was the largest Klan parade in the history of the United States. Thousands upon thousands of Klansmen from across the nation paraded in their white robes. Hundreds of thousands of spectators cheered from the sidelines.

That Sunday, at the end of the service at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, the pastor received into membership the Honorable Charles Evans Hughes, the then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a Chinese immigrant, the son of a slave, and a washerwoman. As he saw the unusual group standing before him, the pastor paused and said, “My friends, I will have you notice that at the cross of Christ the ground is level.”

Before Christ the ground is level. If we Anglicans need any reminder of this, we need only look to the Holy Communion. Together we kneel at the communion rail to receive those precious tokens of Christ’s redeeming love. Here is an image of different people from different backgrounds becoming one with the Christ who makes us one with each other.

God has broken down all the barriers – and calls us to do the same.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
Text – Galatians 3: 23-29
June 19, 2016
Proper 7 (12), C

1. Rachel L. Swarns, “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown: What Does It Owe Their Descendants?” New York Times, April 16, 2016, http://nyti.ms/1qwGoor
2. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (Mariner Books, 2002) II.372-373