Let me tell a story of grace. My father grew up on a 600-acre family estate in Virginia. The land was granted by the English Earl of Dunmore in the mid-1700s. “Back Creek” is situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, some of the most beautiful country in the world.
My first ancestor there built a Presbyterian Church which his bride’s family insisted upon before she could marry him. Behind the church, many of my relatives are buried. Being there feels like being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” as Hebrews 12:1 describes our present lives: a visible part of a vast cloud of those who have gone before us in the faith.
Ours was a slave-owning family. Though my great grandfather and his three brothers were Presbyterian ministers, owning slaves was not considered inconsistent with Scripture; in fact, it was believed to be justified by Scripture. Visiting Back Creek today, you can see the blood-stained floor of the slave quarters which were used by the Union Army as a field hospital during the Civil War.
How could good, decent people participate in one of history’s great travesties of justice? Part of the answer always will be shrouded in mystery. Part of the answer is simple and underscores a danger applicable to many well-to-do Christians, you and me included.
What is the danger?
The Bible is a sacred collection written “from the bottom up,” but among wealthier Christians is usually read “from the top down.” What do I mean? The early Christians were at the very bottom of the social heap. My ancestors were at the top. When they read Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it … with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord …” they read it as divine justification for slavery.
Far from intending divine justification for slavery, when Paul wrote this letter he simply took for granted the social structure of his day and wrote directions for those on top (masters and husbands) and survival instructions for those at the bottom: not only slaves, but women and children as well because slavery was not the only problematic cultural reality of Paul’s day (see Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, etc.).
Beating of wives and children was as commonplace then as it is in many “less developed” cultures where Food for the Hungry (FH) works today. Entering a community, we start with asking questions like: “Is it okay for a husband to beat his wife and children?” Both men and women, Christians and non-Christians, typically answer “yes.” If we can’t “walk with” these communities over time to change the answer to a resounding “no,” we have failed.
When my father was dying in a hospital in the South, incontinent and in pain, one of his nurses was a committed African American Christian named Willie Mae. She and my father got on like brother and sister. She would tease and prod him whenever he started feeling sorry for himself. After a while she was assigned to shifts in a different wing of the hospital. When her “graveyard shift” was over she would come to my father’s room, off the clock, and clean and change him. When I marveled at this and asked my father about her he said, “I’ve known her for a thousand years.”
Thank God so many Americans gave their lives so Willie Mae could be free. Thank God Willie Mae’s freedom went far beyond political freedom. Hers was a freedom to forgive one whose heritage represented all that was worst in hers and not just to forgive, but to love. For us, she was grace personified.
Our desire is that FH be grace personified in every hurting place we work. Will you join us?