By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
The last couple weeks I’ve been reading Vincent Harding’s book, “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America.” I chose the book’s cover as our bulletin illustration this morning. I’ve had it on my shelf for years. In the midst of the uprisings and the surging Black Lives Matter movement, I decided now was time to read it.
What I’ve found in its pages is one the most compelling narratives I’ve ever read. I think part of the reason I hadn’t picked up the book until now was because I was afraid it would be too heavy. I remembered talking with Vincent Harding’s niece, Gloria, soon after he died. She reflected that when he was working on “There is a River” in the late 70s that there were days when he would cry unconsolably. She had been there with him as his typist while he worked.
Knowing the broad strokes of American history and the ongoing deep, rooted white supremacy, I worried the realities of oppression in the book would be overwhelming in the midst of an already overwhelming world.
But, wow, I was wrong. In his eloquent and provocative way Dr. Harding weaves together story after story of resistance to enslavement, beginning on the shores of the African continent. Using original sources he honors the thousands upon thousands of people who vehemently opposed the degradation of their humanity.
The narrative includes the commandeered ships that returned to African shores, the mutinies on many more, the honorable choice of death rather than enslavement, the outlier communities that always existed in the South evading the slave patrols, the never-ended trail of Black people fleeing their bonds, the uprisings against masters, the prolific number of Black conventions in the North prior to the Civil War where Black people determined for themselves how they would fight to end slavery, the masterful orators and writers that challenged Fredrick Douglass (among others) to a more radical vision of Black liberation, and the way in which Black people emancipated themselves and then forced the hand of the Union to make it official.
And that’s just a sliver of the story that continues, in Dr. Harding’s telling, through the 1860s. It’s not that he shies away from any of the brutality or the ongoing, vicious white supremacy. It’s that his focus is on the hope and resiliency and power of this Black river moving, always moving, toward freedom. And this freedom didn’t only affect the lives of Black people. I remember how Dr. Harding always corrected people when they used the term Civil Rights Movement. He would say no, “it was the Black-led movement for the deepening and broadening of democracy in America.” This river has always offered the choice to oppressors to turn from the evil of white supremacy and be healed.
He writes, “We may sense that the river of black struggle is people, but it is also the hope, the movement, the transformative power that humans create and that create them, us, and makes them, us, new persons.”
It is a story of rising up, a story of resurrection. A story deeply rooted in hope.
This backdrop is what inspires my interpretation of Romans this morning. So let’s turn to that text, Romans 8:12-25.
This is one small excerpt written by the apostle Paul to the struggling community of Jesus followers in Rome. They were living in the heart of that empire as slaves, indentured servants, poorly paid workers, and a few as Roman citizens. They were forced to met in secret and were seen as traitorous to the empire because they did not worship Ceasar as their Lord. Instead they worshiped a country Rabbi who had been executed by the state as their Lord.
In this part of the letter, Paul writes:
So then people, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
What is the flesh? Whereas some of us have been taught it is anything sensual or sexual or dealing with the physical body, in this case Paul is actually eluding to something quite different. He referring to the status quo of the Roman empire. Elaine Enns put it this way, flesh or sarx in Greek is “Paul’s favorite metaphor for the deeply-rooted, socially-conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing, the sum total of personal and political constructs and conventions that define a given culture—the way most folk think and act.”
It’s not a stretch to say that “flesh” in our world today is white supremacy. Let’s hear the passage again with that word inserted for flesh.
So then people, we are debtors, not to white supremacy, to live according to it — for if you live according to white supremacy, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of white supremacy, you will live.
Black people in the United States were very clear about this reality. In reflecting on the Black radicalism of the 1830s, which included the powerful “Appeal” by David Walker (a 76 page pamphlet) and the uprising by Nat Turner, Harding wrote, “Walker and Turner had come speaking words of judgement, proclaiming news received from the living God, messages which white America found unbearable. Both men presented profound challenges to American definitions of their white-owned God, questioned the white commitment to the nation’s espoused religion, flatly declared that the American people did not know the way of their Lord. It attacked the roots of their being. Indeed, it suggested that whites were chosen only for destruction, unless black people were set free.”
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
In the book, “Romans Disarmed” that Discipleship Group read this past year authors Sylvia Keesmaat and Bryan Walsh point out that this language of Paul echoes the exodus from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew people called out to God and were freed from their enslavers and were given a covenant as God’s children.
This story of Exodus was also at the heart of Black Christianity, affirming what Black people knew to be true. That God was a God of justice and that one day God’s judgement would come and the armies of Pharaoh would be drowned. Their resistance was ongoing because they knew God was on their side.
and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
This early Christian community was heir to nothing in the eyes of Rome because either they were slaves and non-citizens or they had given up those privileges in joining with the Jesus followers. So in naming them heirs of God, Paul was creating a reversal. Their lives were of upmost importance. Their lives mattered. And they knew they would suffer because they were not following the rules of the established Roman order. They were not bowing to that supremacist system.
In 1854 the Black convention in Cleveland declared the following, “that no oppressed people have ever obtained their rights by voluntary acts of generosity on the part of their oppressors. That it is futile hope on our part to expect such result though the agency of moral goodness on the part of our white American oppressors. That if we desire liberty, it can only be obtained at the price which other have paid for it.” The way toward freedom they declared, was clearly a commitment to struggle and suffering.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Although imperial Christianity has interpreted Paul as only concerned with theological orthodoxy and personal piety, it turns out he was very concerned with the material. In this passage he is making the connection to the break with the Creator in the Garden, when creation was subjected to futility, and how that has continued to play out. As Sheri has articulated in the past, the mythology around the Garden was not disconnected from historical reality. It was reminding the Hebrew people of a way of life that pre-existed the formation of hierarchical, settled agricultural states.
So Paul is not using creation here as a clever illustration but rather he is naming the serious ways in which creation continues to suffer due to the environmental disaster of empire(s). All of this is rooted in being disconnected from the Creator. Just as the people are groaning under the weight of Rome, so is creation.
Keesmaat and Walsh put it this way, “All of creation is groaning as with the birth pangs for the restoration of all things, not least the restoration of human beings as faithful homemakers in this good creation. All of creation waits. Waiting goes all the way down. So we are not alone in our waiting. We are in tune with the very nature of things. Indeed, our groaning, our lament, is evidence that the Spirit of God is at work within us.”
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Where is hope born? It is born in the tension between what is seen and unseen, between the undeniably painful reality in which we live and the vision of a coming restoration of all things. This was the hope of the followers of Jesus. Because Jesus (Yeshua) had risen up despite the death-blow of empire, they could also rise up. They could claim new life. They could claim their value as children of God. They could create communities of mutual support. They could face suffering and even death.
This was not a passive hope. It was alive and creative. It was creating a new reality.
This creative, alive hope is what Vincent Harding so clearly illuminates in his telling of the Black freedom struggle. Hope inspired Black people to resist and imagine a reality beyond white supremacy. Their actions to these ends inspired so many more people and the river rose. The hope is a transformative power that humans create, Dr. Harding says, and then it recreates them.
In hope, for years, people have advocated for the defunding of the police and the re-funding of crucial social services to actually help and heal those who are most vulnerable. In hope, for years, people have organized for the removal of Confederate statues and for the beginning of a right remembering of our history. In hope, for years, Indigenous people have led the struggle for the renaming of the Washington football team (and many other team) as they grossly misrepresent Indigenous people and history. In hope Indigenous people have always advocated for the recognition of their homelands, in recent times particularly in Oklahoma. In hope undocumented people have organized for legal recognition and demanded that the Supreme Court uphold the protections they have won. And due to this active, creative hope we have seen amazing transformation in these days. Many people hoped for what they could not see, and now it is among us.
We continue to live in the tension between what is seen and unseen, between the undeniable painful reality in which we live and the vision of coming restoration. We are invited to the banks of the river of transformation, to help create and be re-created in the process.
Our scriptures tell this story, and the true history of this country, the history of the many rivers of resistance tell this story. There is a river, the psalmist writes, there is a river whose streams gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High. (Psalm 46:4)
Let us have hope that is alive and creative. Let us hope for the unseen. The Spirit is at work and the Spirit is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine. May it be so. Amen.