Preaching grace and justice (at the same time) to whole people

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week a few video clips from some amazing preachers made their way across my social media feeds. The first was from Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign who, despite vehemently opposing this presidential administration, made it clear that he doesn’t hate the president. He mourns for him. Drawing from Psalm 139, Rev. Barber pointed out,

Whatever one human does is possible for another one to do. Y’all better hear me tonight. But for the grace of God you can become your enemy… So Lord I need you to do something: search me Lord. Search me. Don’t ever dislike somebody so much that you don’t realize that some of what you see them doing lies in you too. But for the grace of God.

He’s drawing deeply from the gospel here to make the point that there are none who are righteous, not a single one. We are each of us profoundly dependent on the grace that has been won for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The second clip is also from Rev. Barber. A couple of days later he spoke at an MLK event in Tennessee. There, in front of the governor, he made plain the hypocrisy of those who celebrate Dr. King while advancing policies that undercut his agenda of justice and equality.

Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity but then you deny and refuse to support his agenda, right governor? I mean, since you came, right congressman? Let me show you want I mean: Dr. King would not have been for a wall.

If you are a preacher of the gospel and you are asking your people to tithe but are not fighting for them to have a living wage you are lying!

You love Dr. King? Since 2001 the Tennessee state government has passed multiple voter ID requirements… under the lie of voter fraud. What you should be passing in Tennessee is early voting and same day registration and more access to the ballot. The courts have said voter ID is a form of systemic and surgical racism. Nobody talked about voter fraud until black people and brown people started voting in mass.

Here’s what strikes me when these two sermonic moments are held together: Rev. Barber has absolutely no problem moving between the gospel foundation of grace and the biblical mandate to pursue justice. On the one hand, he refuses to hate or dehumanize those whom he sees as a genuine threat to the well-being of poor people because he knows his own sinful tendencies. And on the other, he is willing to publicly call out the state’s elected officials to their faces for the way they have oppressed those they represent.

It’s been my experiences that this ability – holding together grace and justice – is almost entirely lacking in white pulpits. It’s either one or the other. A preacher will mostly proclaim justice or grace. Those who preach one over the other may very well believe in the theological importance of both, but they choose which is most important and relegate the other to an occasional sermon or an optional Sunday School class.

In his important book, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Randy Woodley points out the dualism that underlies much of western society. It’s this tendency that separates people from land and, more subtly, people from ourselves as minds are elevated above bodies.

One of the ways this dualism gets brought into white pulpits is seen when we preachers bifurcate grace from justice. We tend to preach to people’s minds, believing that grasping theological concepts like justification by grace through faith is what preaching is for. We forget that those in the pews are fully embodied people for whom tangible and visceral experiences of injustice are equal concerns and threats to their humanity. Even when a white preacher is convinced of the vital importance of both grace and justice, she will likely struggle to hold them together, choosing to focus on one or the other. At least that’s been my own personal experience.

But, as Rev. Barber makes plain, the grace and justice which are held perfectly together by Jesus can also be held together in our preaching. And that brings me to the final clip. My friend, the Rev. Charlie Dates, also for MLK Day, preached down in Arkansas. And like Rev. Barber, Charlie directly addressed the elected officials in the room about the systemic injustices that remain in both Arkansas and Chicago. But then, at his close, Charlie looked over the gathered crowd and said, “But I’d be half a preacher if I stopped there.” And for the final minutes of his sermon, having just boldly identified and denounced injustice, Charlie proclaimed the beautiful gospel of grace. Please watch the entire thing.

We need more preaching of this kind these days. More sermons like those that can be heard from Rev. Barber and Rev. Dates and so many other African American clergy on a weekly basis. We need to hear these sorts of sermons not only from black pastors but from the rest of us too. The place to begin, though, is not to copy any other preacher’s style, but to notice the holistic, non-dualistic view of people that under-girds such powerful preaching. And that, I think, is something we can all learn from these black preachers, whether or not we’ll ever step foot in a pulpit ourselves.

“All of these fanatics were white.”

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

There was one place I wanted to visit during our recent 48 hours in Paris. Well, there were a bunch of places I hoped to visit, but there was one place in particular I wanted to sit. The Café de Flore was, according to believable legend, one of James Baldwin’s regular writing spots. Baldwin’s essays have been important to me over the years; I recommend him before any other author to those wanting to understand what it means to be white in America. I wanted to sit in that cafe, while munching on a croissant, sipping an espresso, and imagining the expatriate hunched over his notebooks.

Maggie was gracious enough to get up early the morning after we arrived so that we could get to the cafe as it opened. It was a rainy morning, but the newstand next door sold the international edition of the Times and the awning was enclosed and heated, so we found a table and got comfortable.

It was great. Between the rain and the early hour, we seemed to be some of the only tourists in the place. We chatted and read and I thought about what Baldwin came to Paris looking for, a reprieve from the racism that plagued him in Harlem and anywhere he stepped foot in his country.

I was first exposed to this instinct to sojourn in Paris by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he used to blog for The Atlantic. I remember sitting in the living room of a friend’s cottage in rural Illinois, about as far from Paris in every way possible, reading his posts about that city.

And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.

This is when I fell for Coates and his writing. He wrote with urgency and conviction but also – and this continues to be a hallmark – with great humility. He was a man unashamed to admit what he didn’t know, hungry to learn and understand, especially those histories which make sense of those things which seem inevitable in this world but which, as Coates has shown us again and again, are not.

Not far from Café de Flore is a bookstore I wanted to visit. I’d forgotten this, but I must have first learned about Shakespeare and Company in one of Coates’ posts.

Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect.

I walked into that bookstore looking for The Water Dancer, Coates’ first novel which had just been published. After scanning the tables of new releases and checking the fiction shelves, I went to the counter to ask, worried that the book hadn’t been released overseas yet. But the clerk walked me over to a table and handed me the book; I’d not recognized it because, here in Paris, it was a paperback with a different cover.

The book tucked under my arm, I made my way upstairs to Coates’ perfect room. He was right. I sat in an ancient armchair near that window and read the first chapter. It was inevitable that the shop cat would make his way over and jump onto my lap. Perfect.

I finished The Water Dancer earlier this week. I don’t read enough fiction so take this with a grain of salt: I really liked it. Coates has created a world full of detail and surprise. There’s much to notice even as the story pulls the reader forward. It’s full of sentences like this one, which Coates has coming from a fictionalized Harriet Tubman: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” That, as my pastor friends might say, will preach!

And then, toward the end, is this passage which made me think of Baldwin scribbling away at the Café de Flore and Coates and his family eating and drinking their way through the city. The narrator is describing a white woman, an important leader of the underground railroad.

All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of the goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.

In recent weeks I’ve had two occasions, within the company of some African American friends, to notice this sort of vanity. There is a certain kind of white person who is committed to opposing racism and white supremacy. They have read many books on the topics and are conversant in the ideas and histories. And yet, as Coates writes, they love the fight against oppression more than they love those who’ve been oppressed. Like the white woman in this passage, they are fanatical and even effective. We surely need them in this work. And yet I can imagine that Baldwin disappeared into Paris to escape not just the scary racists but them, the fanatics, too.

And this, as one prone to fanaticism, is worth pondering.

The Offense of Grace

Photo: Stefano Corso.

Botham and Brandt Jean and White Christian America’s Refusal to be Forgiven

When Brandt Jean extended forgiveness to the police officer who murdered his brother in his own apartment having, apparently, mistaken it for her own, I saw a poignant example of grace. Given the racial dynamics however – Brandt’s brother, Botham, was Black; the woman who killed him is white – many others didn’t see grace at all, but a tiresome and infuriating repetition of an old reality: an African American is mortally wounded by a white neighbor and is expected to forgive publicly and quickly. The word of forgiveness is a stabilizing word which leaves the racial hierarchy undisturbed and allows both the perpetrator and the supremacist system that shaped them to walk away unscathed.

First Lady Dorena Williamson, in an important article for Christianity Today, identifies the way racism distorts our understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?

Indeed, this was one of the many insights shared on social media following Brandt’s forgiveness. Why is it always Black people who are expected to forgive the assaults of their white neighbors? We think back to those relatives of the slain members of Mother Emanuel in Charleston who, despite the explicitly racist motivations of the murderer, chose to forgive him.

After the courtroom forgiveness, my friend Dr. Marcus Board shared an article that investigates the Mother Emanuel massacre to better understand this racialized forgiveness. In “‘But I Forgive You?’: Mother Emanuel, Black Pain and the Rhetoric of Forgiveness”, authors Andre E. Johnson and Earle J. Fisher write that when “atrocities grounded within a racist socio-historical framework explode upon our collective consciousness that causes Black pain and suffering, there is an expectation that those victims forgive their perpetrators.” Within a white supremacist landscape “white emotion usurps the affirmation of black humanity. This is why African Americans in times of such tragedy cannot express ‘black rage’ or anger.”

The authors quote an op-ed by Roxane Gay in which she explains why, contrary to this racist assumption of Black forgiveness, she will not forgive the many who murdered the worshipers at Emannuel AME Church.

What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

These warning and complaints are more than legitimate; they are true. Yet in them I still see an example of grace, both for the reality of forgiveness to which it points as well as the reality of justice which such an act of grace creates. Brandt’s choice to forgive, I believe, testifies to something that has long been accomplished, a grace whose offense is largely lost on us until we’re confronted by something like his courtroom forgiveness. And it also calls into existence a possibility of justice- genuine justice that has long eluded the racialized imaginations of our nation’s justice system.


Despite the understandable protests elicited by Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive, I still see in him the closest example to Christ’s costly grace that this racist nation is likely to experience.

In the forgiveness offered to the woman who murdered his brother, Brandt Jean offers a window to the grace of Christ not despite our long racist history but precisely because of it. Many have pointed out the endless ways white people presume upon the forgiveness of Black people who we have purposefully and systematically oppressed for centuries. We might worry that by elevating Jean’s act of grace we are rendering it meaningless. After all, this is the sort of thing that always happen in this nation and to what effect? Black people continue to be attacked and murdered; those entrusted to protect them aid and abet their killers.

Yet to rightly understand grace in the Christian tradition, we must reckon with this offensiveness. For those willing to grapple with our nation’s racism and white supremacy, Jean’s forgiveness is unpalatable. It feels unjust, undeserved. It is. But if we are to even get close to understanding the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, we must be willing to drift into this kind of objectionable territory. The grace of God extends to us through the Christ’s bloody sacrifice – and only though it – because of our corruption and complicity, because of our propensity to sin and to sin again. If this divine grace is less offensive to us than Jean’s forgiveness it is our own fault. It is not grace that does not offend but our tepid and self-serving interpretation of it.


This is the reality to which Jean’s forgiveness points. This, for Christians, is our sure foundation. It is offensive, a stumbling block as the apostle Paul rightly understood. Yet to those who’ve realized our sinful corruption and complicity, it is the way to life. And here is where we see that in Jean’s forgiveness, and in the similar acts of grace by African American Christians over the centuries, a new reality is being created. Christian forgiveness, as a reflection of Christ’s grace, is creation-al and allows for the possibility of true justice.

In Luke 19, when Jesus invites himself over to the despised tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus responds to this grace in a public and accountable manner.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The assumption, readily understood by Zacchaeus, was that Jesus’ grace required a costly response. By accepting it genuinely, he had to repent of his previous way of life which had depended on the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors.

The rich young man in Luke 18 also understood the nature of the Christ’s grace. Having been told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he “became very sad, because he was very wealthy.” Though their responses differed, both the wealthy young man and the corrupt tax collector understood the nature of the grace offered by Jesus. Accepting it required a complete reversal of their previous ways of life. They would become new people, living in harmony with the righteousness and justice of the Christ.

This, I think, is what white Christians persistently misunderstand about grace. Roxane Gay’s indictment of us is dead on: we want absolution. So we cheapen grace, desecrating the costly sacrifices of our Black (and Brown and Native and…) neighbors. Or to put it differently, we reject the gift that is being offered for a counterfeit of our own diseased imaginations, one that justifies our ongoing oppressive ways. In this context, it’s reasonable to think that the most gracious thing a Black Christian can do is to withhold forgiveness so as to not, in Jesus’ evocative phrase, cast their pearls before swine.

What would it look like for Botham Jean’s murderer to receive the grace offered by his brother? It would mean confessing her sins and dropping her defense. It would mean reflecting honestly on the ways her imagination and assumptions have been infected – like mine – with, in Bryan Stevenson’s phrase, the malicious narrative of racial difference. It would mean living in solidarity with those, like Jean’s mother, Allison, who tell the truth about police brutality and political corruption. It would mean losing her life in order to find it.

Were this costly grace to be received it would lead to justice. Like Zacchaeus, recipients of this grace give themselves to repairing what we have exploited. There is no spiritualized absolution here, only sacrificial and accountable action.

This is what Christ’s costly grace can create. It is a reality in which the woman who murdered Botham Jean becomes a new person. That white America, as shown not by our occasional tears or social media shares but by our sustained actions, has for centuries refused this grace is evidence not that Brandt Jean’s offer was not genuine, but that we have not genuinely received it. The fault is ours alone. As are the consequences.

Living Justly Amidst Moral Complexity

I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In it he shows how central the nation’s debate about slavery was to its understanding of its identity. In the introduction he writes,

It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil, not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed. “Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of the United States.

Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically, as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine, for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?

I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as David Blight shows in his recent biography, his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before us?

Who killed Eric Garner?

A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.

Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.

I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.

He’d been selling loose cigarettes.

Photo: Paul Silva

In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”

I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.

I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.

Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”

In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.

Who killed Eric Garner? We did.

Call the Evildoer to Account for His Wickedness

Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and the CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has declared today a Special Day of Prayer for the President. On the Facebook post announcing the Special Day of Prayer, Graham wrote,

President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency. In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has. I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God.

This is a critical time for America. We’re on the edge of a precipice. Time is short. We need to pray for God to intervene. We need to ask God to protect, strengthen, encourage, and guide the President.

Graham has been an enthusiastic supporter of this president, overlooking the countless expressions of his character and policy decisions that have made many other Christians voice their strong opposition. His call to prayer is couched as a battle against evil in which the president is God’s chosen man to bring about the nation’s salvation.

Interestingly, Graham chose 1 Timothy 2:1-2 as the Biblical backdrop for the call to prayer:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

He seems to assume that the more the president succeeds with his agenda, the more people will be able to live peaceful and quiet lives. To which I’m compelled to ask, Which people?

This presidential administration ignores climate change and its impact on the most vulnerable, criminalizes and mistreats migrants and refugees, and prosecutes Good Samaritans who aid undocumented immigrants. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of people who are willfully excluded from the vision of a peaceful and quiet America by Graham and his ilk.

People I love and respect have been and are associated with the organizations Graham leads. I once worked with a church to raise a bunch of money for Samaritan’s Purse for their relief work in southern Sudan. It’s been particularly rough seeing this Christian leader associate himself so closely with this president.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that praying that this president would be strengthened is a prayer against the well-being and flourishing of vulnerable and marginalized people. It is a prayer against shalom. With that in mind, I offer the following as an alternative to Graham’s Special Day of Prayer.


Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— who remains faithful forever. You uphold the cause of the oppressed and give food to the hungry. You set prisoners free and give sight to the blind. You lift up those who are bowed down and love the righteous. You watch over the foreigner and sustain the fatherless and the widow, but frustrate the ways of the wicked. (Ps. 146:6-9)

Forgive us Lord for turning away from the suffering inflicted by this president, his enablers, and his representatives. We have quickly grown callous and turned to cheap distractions to quiet our consciences. We have refused to see the humanity in the stranger and the immigrant. We have found our identity not in the shared Eucharistic blood and baptismal waters but in the idols of race and power. Forgive us.

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Is. 10:1-2)

Hold back, Lord, the wicked intentions of this president and his administration. Frustrate the agendas and policies that will increase inequity, perpetuate injustice, and further the demonic goals of racial supremacy.

Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness that would not otherwise be found out. (Ps. 10:15)

Draw near to those who have been made to suffer the pride and violence of this nation and its leaders. Comfort the afflicted and cover the oppressed. Inspire your people to costly and sacrificial solidarity. Align our bodies with those who are even now being dehumanized for destruction.

All this we pray in the name of Jesus, who proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; who set the oppressed free and proclaimed jubilee for all. (Lk. 18-19)

It is not light that is needed, but fire.

frederick douglassIndependence Day is always a good day to re-read Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, given to an abolitionist group that had gathered in Rochester on July 5, 1852 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass – the former slave, abolitionist, and renowned orator – used his speech to draw attention to the absurdity of African Americans celebrating a holiday which did not include them in its nostalgia for independence. For him, America’s sins against slaves and former slaves were never more obvious than on the day the nation celebrated its freedoms. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

In the very next paragraph the masterful orator anticipates his audience’s objections to his purposefully blunt language.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. 

Douglass has identified a tendency that remains potent in 2018. He identifies – after, I imagine, having encountered it countless times among his white abolitionist allies – a reaction to his harsh language that demanded he shift his tone from denouncement to argument, from castigating his white audience to more gently helping them see the work that remained to be done.

This is the sort of thing that is common to hear today when advocates and activists precisely and directly oppose injustices perpetuated against, say, migrants and their children or, as is currently playing out here in Chicago, young victims of gun violence. Reacting to plainly spoken demands for justice, well-meaning people ask for more time, more understanding, even more empathy from those who are suffering. So, for example, those working for an equitable public school system that will serve all of its children are chastened that they must understand how bureaucracies and governments work and that, if they did, they would be more gentle with their critiques. In fact, these advocates, and the underserved families they represent, understand exactly how these institutions work since they’ve experienced firsthand how resources are consistently allocated for the privileged at the expense of those on the margins of the city’s power structures.

But Douglass will grant not a single inch to these kinds of banal requests: “I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” He goes on to list a number of arguments his hearers might wish him make, arguments that are so plainly obvious that they are an offense to those Douglass represents. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” And then: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body?” And then, with fire:

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?

The fundamental mistake that Douglass’ fellow-abolitionists consistently make is one that remains with us; they move the focus from the wrongs of the sufferer to the emotions and perspectives of the advocate. He’s sick of it!

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

Those who are offended by unequivocal demands for justice would do well to remember that our offense is nothing compared to the outrage experienced by those who suffer injustice, outrage that is exacerbated by the entrenched reticence by those of us who have the capacity to right what is so obviously wrong. We are not the point. Our feelings are not the point. Our comfort is completely and totally besides the point!

What then, if not argument and persuasion? What tact did Douglass take a decade before the Civil War, when freedom for enslaved people was far from a foregone conclusion?

For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

It’s not that Douglass chose fire over light as a way to vent his righteous anger. He believed, rightly I think, that convincing the comfortable was a battle without end. Beginning with the perspectives and concerns of the privileged meant never extending beyond the limits of extraordinarily limited imaginations. It would require constantly negotiating between delicate white sensibilities and bloodied black bodies. It was an immoral negotiation and one in which he was no longer willing to be implicated.

If they were to move forward into the battle with him, Douglass’ abolitionist friends and allies must leave behind their tender feelings and patriotic delusions for something more difficult, more honest, and, as Douglass concluded that day, more hopeful. Of course, to those of us steeped in the patriotic privileges of this unjust nation, this way will not feel hopeful. But that, in Douglass’ pursuit of lasting justice, was exactly the point.