Calvin Seminarians Wrestle with Racism in reading Autobiography of Frederick Douglass

Calvin Seminarians Wrestle with Racism in reading Autobiography of Frederick Douglass

“We want theology that’s comfortable. No. Go toward the uncomfortable, because I believe the Spirit of God is where we are uncomfortable. I want to push you toward that.”

Danjuma Gibson, associate professor of pastoral care, addressed the audience with those words while facilitating Calvin Theological Seminary’s Book of the Semester Town Hall on Thurs., Nov. 29, in Grand Rapids, Mich. The autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, was the Fall 2018 selection, chosen for its challenging historical and firsthand account of slavery, racism, and injustice in the 19th-century society that openly condoned slavery.

The Town Hall included table discussions prompted by videos and three excerpts from the book.

Videos included a “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien” interview with Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass, and a personal video blog by Gibson, who visited Douglass’s birthplace of Tuckahoe, Md., while conducting research for his recently published book, Frederick Douglass, a Psychobiography: Rethinking Subjectivity in the Western Experiment of Democracy.

As a seminary community, the theme of clergy sanctioning the slaveholding of the day sparked much concern about the role of biblical hermeneutics in ethics. “There is still a culture in the church, no matter where you land on ‘XYZ,’ that will encourage and support terrible misreadings of Scripture,” said Matt Mulder, a third-year M.Div. student. “This isn’t a distant thing. It happens in church today.”

Participants also discussed how a person previously indisposed to slavery could later so easily adopt it. One excerpt chosen by Gibson recounted the sudden transition of Mrs. Auld, the wife of Douglass’s slaveholder, from a kind woman who taught him how to read into a demonized woman who abused him.

Pushing participants to experience discomfort, Gibson challenged the groups to expand their conception of victimhood. “We could talk about the Holocaust. We could talk about slavery, the Armenian Genocide—whatever marginalized group. We talk about how they have been dehumanized, and that’s good. But we rarely talk about how those who have been in power are also dehumanized—not in the same way, as far as victimization, but how their Christian character and how their humanity has been dehumanized when they participate in the same evil.”

For the remainder of the Town Hall, students, faculty, and staff shared personal stories and wrestled theologically with the ecclesiastical implications of these concepts, while also discussing the parallels between 19th-century society and today’s sociopolitical climate.

The event concluded with a sense of hope, even as the seminary community continues to wrestle with how their faith informs the culture and vice versa.

“Because of his [Douglass’s] faith in Jesus, even after . . . [living] this life where he escapes from slavery; when there is war, when there is reconstruction, and then the Supreme Court strikes it all down—his hope was that the kingdom of God would still be manifested on the earth,” concluded Gibson.

“And that facilitated him to write a fourth autobiography for posterity’s sake even though he knew he would die in an era where he basically saw the law eradicate all that he had fought for all of his life. I think that is a perfect example of hope; hope that doesn’t say, ‘I’m dependent on a positive outcome,’ but hope that rests in the promises of Christ. And because Christ has promised it, this should motivate us to good works in Christian praxis,” Gibson said.

About the Author

Christi Anne Zeiger, Calvin Seminary 

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