Is God Dead? - Sojourner Truth and the Despair of Race Conversations
Beauty in Repetition
Repetition is a beautiful part of nature. Concentric circles in a rippling pond, carbon copied rose buds on neighboring rose bushes, deep brown eyes from parent to child. However, repetition in history tends not to have the same inspiring effect. When contemporary events mirror the dark past, the adage “history repeats itself” is a slow death knell indicting people that have not yet learned to progress beyond history’s mistakes. Repetition in history is not seen as a beautiful thing. It does not inspire. It does not hope. At least, that has been the oft repeated sentiment. However, to yield to the dread of repeated history sometimes misses the beauty and hope repeated events can produce. The beauty is not in the event itself, but in the new opportunities presented in the reoccurrence of conversations allowing God’s life-giving rule to be on display. Despite the frustration of repeated events, God is still ruling in his ever-present Kingdom. There is a continual hope the Christian must hold fast too, lest our despair testifies God is dead.
New York abolished slavery in 1817, freeing Sojourner Truth from 40 years of slavery. She rose to prominence as a former slave turned itinerant preacher, lecturer, and abolitionist. Truth was an intriguing lecturer who brought to audiences a combination of common sense, her lived reality as a slave, and the freeing message of the Gospel with the hope of encouraging acts of love between white and black Americans.
As an abolitionist, Truth traveled to church meetings, congress, and public gatherings lecturing on the atrocities of slavery and advocating for justice for black people. Truth spoke at public meetings with her contemporaries like Frederick Douglas, and Harriet Beecher Stowe recounts one such meeting in a narrative of Sojourner Truth published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863.
“It was at a crowded public meeting in Faneuil Hall, where Frederick Douglas was one of the chief speakers. Douglas had been describing the wrongs of [towards] the black race, and as he proceeded, he grew more and more excited, and finally ended by saying that they had no hope of justice from the whites, no possible hope except in their own right arms. It must come to blood; they must fight for themselves and redeem themselves, or it would never be done.
Sojourner was sitting, tall and dark, on the very front seat, facing the platform; and in the hush of deep feeling, after Douglas sat down, she spoke out in her deep, peculiar voice, heard all over the house, “Frederick, is God dead?” (The Narrative of Sojourner Truth p. 114)
Her rhetorical theological question demands the despaired Douglas answer whether God can do, yet again, what He has always done. Can God exact justice, change people, and ensure deliverance to those in need? If not, then Douglas is right to assume exacting justice is left solely in the hands of the oppressed. But if God lives as King of his ever-present Kingdom, then He can and will repeat His actions beautifully displaying His glory.
Repetition of History
Herein lies the tension of repeated history in our current moment.
The speeches for racial progress, harmony and justice are not new. Sojourner Truth took part in the cause in the late nineteenth century for abolition. Dr. Martin Luther King carried the banner in the mid-twentieth century during the Civil Rights movement. Tom Skinner led conversations in the late twentieth century calling for racial reconciliation among evangelical Christians. Today, many are still leading the charge calling for systemic and interpersonal changes that reflect the Kingdom Christians claim to be a part of. While we shouldn’t deny the progress that has occurred over the years, from emancipation to civil rights, Christians are encountering similar mentalities that made all this progress a hard-fought struggle.
Some, like Douglas, are losing hope.
The same conversations are being had, the same books are being written, and the same panel discussions are happening across churches in America all pressed to find a true peaceful and constructive existence for black and white brothers and sisters in the face of such a damaging history. The repetition is bringing dread. Dread that people are not listening, dread that people are not changing, dread that there is no more reason to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – with grace and love on lips not just in hearts. To this dread, Truth’s question to Douglas resonates as it did in that room:
“Beloved, is God dead?”
Sojourner Truth has gone before us, lived through slavery, met Jesus in a radical conversion moment, and was overcome with a love for her neighbor. She labored for decades petitioning Congress to provide black freed men and women land, education, and homes to better themselves. She lived in the racial turmoil that presents itself in different iterations today, yet she still had hope. She sought to do good works on behalf of others because of the Kingdom to which she belonged. “She said that she felt that she was called to her work, and that if we are inheritors of the kingdom of God there must be some work that is to be done by us” (The Narrative of Sojourner Truth p. 166).
A Kingdom Ethic
John the Baptist declared the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15). Dallas Willard explains in his book The Divine Conspiracy that this declaration means we now have access to His Kingdom, that has always been and forever will be, through Jesus Christ. “The reality of God’s rule, and all of the instrumentalities it involves, is present in action and available with and through the person of Jesus.” (italics mine, p.28). Christ engages the totality of our lives in a way that compels us to engage in the world as kingdom activist for the kind of life people around us should live. He not only changes the eternal well-being of our soul, but he is conforming our character and actions into His image for our ife in his kingdom now. Therefore, the Christian’s social engagement in matters of racial justice and racial equality testifies to this “kingdom” reality verifying the life-giving work of our Savior. This is where the repetitious conversations about truth telling, reconciliation and justice can be a beautiful testimony to God at work in our midst. God is forever present, forever ruling, and forever able to move in dark moments of our time, just as Truth implied. He is not dead.
Today, Sojourner Truth’s question must be met with a resounding “NO!” She encourages us to press on in the repetitious realities of history. It is because of this “NO” that Christians can be assured that every repeated conversation, every repeated work in the pursuit of racial justice, does not accumulate to a wasted life. The repetition of reconciliation efforts points to a beautiful hope in Christ. This hope declares that God has reconciled before and will do so again. This hope testifies that God has redeemed man from sin and will redeem interpersonal brokenness. This hope affirms that there can indeed be beauty in repetition.