July 5, 2019

Adult Bible Study Online

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Wisdom’s Vindication
Matthew 11:7-19

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I think about Frederick Douglass every Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States. (Canada Day is July 1.)

On July 5, 1852, the man born into slavery who claimed his freedom and became an esteemed orator, writer of great literature, and one of the most important reformers in American history delivered what biographer David W. Blight calls a “rhetorical masterpiece,” “political sermon,” and “one of the greatest speeches in American history.”[1] Addressing a crowd of more than six hundred white Northerners in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, Douglass invoked the words and the people of Scripture to demonstrate profound love for the nation—by way of profound condemnation. A modern prophet, he spoke with sacred courage and the wisdom of learning, experience, and faith:

The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . . Above the national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions![2]

Douglass, an iconic, angry, Black man, fought every day to expose a great paradox—the great sins of the United States versus faith and hope for the nation. He spoke from the only patriotic posture he could: judgment. In an 1846 letter, Douglass put it clearly: “The best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy who, under the specious . . . garb of patriotism seeks to excuse, palliate or defend them.”[3] Douglass casts deserved rebuke as friendship, deserved judgment as loyalty, deserved condemnation as love.

I hear Frederick Douglass in Gordon Matties’s closing allusion in response to the Wisdom incarnate of Matthew 11. Matties alludes to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt in a peaceful protest of American racism to ask if we as “Jesus’ apprentices” might wisely interpret this alleged “antipatriotic act” as “a commitment to the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith” (ABS, p. 31). We might ask the same about those who, in living out the wise “deeds” of verse 19, are today filling the streets, toppling monuments, changing policies, asking for forgiveness, and making amends or the beginning of amends, for the generational, structural, and living racism that is a cornerstone of this nation, Canada, and many others.[4]

In an appendix to his famous 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life, Frederick Douglass made a bold distinction between the “Christianity of Christ” and the “Christianity of this land,” the faith wrapped up in the long legacy of racism. Just as he condemned the racism of the nation, he condemned the racism of the church, a church undeserving according to Douglass of the name of Christ: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”[5]

I think about these words not only every Fourth of July but every day, truly, as I pursue the “Christianity of Christ” against the temptations of the “Christianity of this land.” May we together, as “Jesus’ apprentices” claim the rich inheritance of wisdom that filled Douglass’s faith, words, and deeds. May it be so.

—Kerry Hasler-Brooks, kerry.hasler.brooks@gmail.com

© 2020

1. David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2018).
2. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Teaching American History.
3. Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000), 29.
4. For an introduction to the Canadian experience with systemic racism, see Matthew McRae, “The Story of Slavery in Canadian History: It Happened Here, Too,” Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
5. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Kerry Hasler-Brooks is a professor of American Literature at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania. She researches and teaches at the intersections of race, gender, literature, and vocation and has written on diverse American women writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Maria Ruiz de Burton, Katherine Anne Porter, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat. She lives on an organic vegetable farm run by her husband, Nathan; loves to explore in the fields and woods with their two young children; and recently joined the 300-year-old community at Salford Mennonite Church, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, where she is learning to hear and practice anew the call of Jesus to radical peace, love, and welcome.

This article supplements Adult Bible Study, a quarterly Bible curriculum for adults. Adult Bible Study provides in-depth, challenging Bible study from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective, written by an intercultural group of pastors, teachers, professors, and leaders across Canada and the United States. Sessions include daily Bible readings, resources for additional study, and free downloadable resources.

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