I try not to make assumptions, but I’m going to assume that for most of you reading this article your first encounter with the post-childhood, Bible-story Moses was different than my first encounter with Moses. Perhaps you pictured Charlton Heston in a grainy movie setting. I pictured a dark skinned woman running for her life.
I didn’t realize that was my first understanding of Moses until I watched Harriet, the recently-released film dedicated to the great Harriet Tubman who rescued around 750 enslaved people into freedom. As I watched, it was no surprise that my Moses and the biblical Moses have always been intertwined.
“If it is hard to understand why justice is so important for ‘us people,’ it might mean that you have been on the side of injustice.”
Enslaved Africans were forced to reject African gods to accept the white Christian God. Most people who claimed people as property refused to allow the enslaved person to obtain “salvation” because spiritual freedom would be too much like physical freedom. For enslaved people, the Sunday service became more than just a time to worship; it was here they were able to discuss their collective problems, concerns and “solutions.”
Traditionally, enslavers hired white preachers to preach to black people, telling stories of the importance of God’s will to include slavery. While the preacher and the enslaved told the same stories, they interpreted them differently. In Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Caine Felder writes:
“The black congregation tended to interpret biblical events differently – the white preacher interpreting biblical events figuratively while the blacks interpreted the events more literally and concretely. Thus, the events in the Bible spoke powerfully and directly to their situation, and led them to shape a distinct and creative interpretation of the Bible.”
Enslaved people were particularly drawn to stories like the one describing the children of Israel fleeing from their Egyptian slave masters. These stories became more than just a retelling to gain converts and produce faith; they became a language and a way of communicating with one another. The biblical imagery was used because it was at hand; it was adapted and invested with the experience of the enslaved.
The stories gave back to the people an example of what God did for other slaves. They evoked memories of what God did in their own history, and provided a perspective of faith and hope with regard to what God will do in the future. The Bible plays a role in the slavery experience because, even though the experiences change, the use of the Bible does not.
In Harriet, the implications of victimization are clearly portrayed. Eliza Brodess, owner of the plantation from which Harriet escaped, is confronted by a herd of other enslavers coming to demand payment for all the slaves Tubman helped escape. Without hesitation, Eliza cries and moans, claiming that she is the “real victim” here, losing her property. But what she has actually fallen victim to is the false doctrine used to promote stolen labor, knowledge and skills.
When the enslaved became more than the stolen labor for the enslavers, the enslavers felt oppressed. During the movie, this notion of enslavers being “victims” created some rage in me – or at least a need to get an Icee to help cool down. I think the reason for my anger is that the distorted use of victimization is still prevalent today. When black people and other people of color move beyond the stereotypes that have been in place in the United States for hundreds of years, the narrative becomes, “Look what they are taking from me!” and “See what affirmative action did!”
As equity slowly trickles into the decades-old cracks in the foundations of our system, rather than recognizing the ways in which our nation has contributed to systematic oppression, the movement often sounds like persecution for people who have never experienced systemic oppression. The resounding response often causes people to gather like the enslavers and yell, “We are the victims here!”
When signs state “Black Lives Matter” in response to the continued years of oppression directed at black bodies, the retaliating crowd yells back, “No! All lives matter.” But that is not what is being questioned.
“While the preacher and the enslaved told the same stories, they interpreted them differently.”
What is being protested: children who are kicked out of schools because of their beautiful natural hair, while cultural appropriation is excused and allowed because “it’s not really hurting anything.” And many times, these are the schools in which they have been placed due to biased redlining, and in which they are tracked into classes by the color of their skin. The protests are for those same children who now sit in America’s prison system, a system that often preys on the poor and innocent. The protests are about resistance, about using agency to effect change.
When crowds gather forces to protest injustice and call out police brutality, the “victimized” crowd often yells back, “You are protesting America! What more do you people want?”
The answer is equity. If it is hard to understand why justice is so important for “us people,” it might mean that you have been on the side of injustice.
It is not lost on me that Harriet was released on All Saints Day. The saints now gone depend on us to continue the work for which they lived and died. While only a trickle now, may equity soon roll down like waters, flooding the streets and filling the voices of the people called by Christ.
As we commit to the work of the saints, may Harriet Tubman’s words become our words: “I said to the Lord, ‘I’m going to hold steady on to you, and I know you will see me through.’”