Following the God of Liberation

Preached by Rev.Kelly Jane Caesar on July 19, 2020

Would you raise your hand if you have heard of the “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the [N.] Slaves, in the British West-India Islands.”?  

It was a “Slave Bible” published in 1807 by British Missionaries who went to the Caribbean to convert slaves to Christianity. The “Slave Bible” left out a good portion of the standard Bible – 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. Here is one story that was left out and I’ll let you guess what common thread governed the removal of 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT.  

[References:  https://www.history.com/news/slave-bible-redacted-old-testament 

https://www.npr.org/2018/12/09/674995075/slave-bible-from-the-1800s-omitted-key-passages-that-could-incite-rebellion]

SCRIPTURE READING: Exodus 1:8-22 [Slides 9-10]  

HYMN [Slides 11-13] 

Immediately after this scripture we hear the story of the mother of Moses,  

Let us sing it now along with the stories of two other mothers acting courageously for their child and nation. 

A Mother Lined a Basket  (Jerry sings verse 1; verse 2 repeat each phrase after Jerry; verse 3 sing together) (Liberated individuals: Jochebed, Hannah and Mary)  

(Jerry only)  

A mother lined a basket 
to keep her baby dry, 
then rocked him on a river, 
lest he awake and cry. 
She let a princess name him 
her son that he might live. 
God’s people had a leader. 
She had such hope to give. 
(Repeat each phrase after Jerry)  

A mother sewed a jacket, 
lined in the softest wool, 
then dressed her little boy-child, 
her cup of blessing full. 
She brought him to the temple 
where he would serve and live. 
God’s people had a prophet. 
She had such faith to give. 

(All together) 

A mother laid her baby 
in manger lined with straw; 
then, in the shepherds’ story, 
his call from God foresaw. 
She nurtured him and taught him 
the way that he must live. 
God’s people had a savior. 
She had such love to give. 

SERMON  

The story of the midwives Pam read, the story of Moses being placed in the basket and lifted out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter we just sang are parts of what was omitted in the “Slave Bible”. Can anyone guess the common thread that removed 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT for the “Slave Bible”? 

Anything that could incite rebellion of the oppressed and enslaved people of color.  

This tells us that a HUGE overarching theme to the Bible – the whole Bible – it is that God stands with those on the margins – not only stands with, but actively works with and for the liberation of the oppressed.  Just now we sang about three such mothers and sons whom the God of Liberation works with to bring about freedom and justice for many.   

We see the God of Liberation in the story of the Exodus  

God delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt  

and bringing them to the Promised Land. 

We see the God of Liberation in the prophets of ancient Israel, 

Constantly calling for the people to care for the widows, the orphans, the refugees, the strangers, those down and out.  

We see the God of Liberation in Jesus preaching release of the captives, food for the hungry, and healing for the outcast. 

We see the God of Liberation in Jesus the Christ, crucified on a cross by state-sanction powers, 

But resurrected by the God of Liberation to prove that love overcomes hate – 

Even state-sanctioned hate.  

It is no surprise then that many slaveholders in the Caribbean and the United States sought to limit the exposure of slaves to the Bible. They might start to believe the God of liberation was on their side.  

As we consider how to follow the God of Liberation today in our everyday lives, a deeper look at how the Holy has worked through history from the biblical exodus to today will help us to see our place in the story today.  

On Tuesday night at the Ministry for Racial Justice Meeting, guest speaker and innovative principal and educator, Rodney Powell, spoke about racism as a system of power that privileges whites over people of color. Racism is not just bias or dislike of another group, but the system of power that oppresses people of color. So, we see this system of power at work when… 

Slaveholders would hire preachers to preach a specific message to the slaves – obey your master, do not steal, etc. No mention of Exodus or liberation or a God who works with the oppressed to overturn injustice was preached by the slaveholding preacher. 

In order to keep slaves from reading the whole Bible, laws across slave states in the union were enacted to forbid the education of slaves. Slaveholders would cut off fingers and toes of slaves caught reading or writing. 

An example of such a law is the 1833 Alabama law asserting that “any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall upon conviction thereof of indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars.” (The fine would be the equivalent of about $7,600 in today’s dollars.) [Citation] Not just dislike of another, but laws and structures to hold people of color down,  

Those in places of power and privilege feared that literate slaves would write their own travel passes or, worse, organize a rebellion.  

[References: https://www.history.com/news/nat-turner-rebellion-literacy-slavery and https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-33/secret-religion-of-slaves.html]  

The fear of rebellion was real because it had already happened.  

The Haitian Rebellion had succeeded in overthrowing French colonial control and abolishing slavery, allowing for Haiti to be formed in 1804. It was so successful that it depleted France, making Napoleon eager to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States in order to fund his military pursuits in Europe. [Citation] The Haitian Rebellion also put US slaveholders on alert: the oppressed had succeeded in overthrowing their captors. Their fears materialized in the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 in Virginia which left 55 blacks killed and 55 whites killed. [Citation] 

In the wake of these rebellions strict laws were passed to further suppress slaves, restricting their ability to read and write was first and foremost.  

This cycle of increased oppression after resistance was not new and continues today. 

In the Bible, the death sentence laid on Hebrew boys in Exodus came out of fear of the growing numbers of Hebrews in Egypt. Fear of the power of the “other”. 

In this century, many social scientists point to an increase in overt racist attacks and slander as a “backlash” against the first African-American president in the USA. [Citation] When an oppressed people rise in power and honor, those who benefited from the exclusive hold of power can grow fearful. Sadly, insecure people can see the equality of others as a threat and seek ways to suppress through scare tactics, unjust laws, and limiting truth.  

The attempt to limit truth has not gone away either.  

While the “Slave Bible” is no longer in circulation and very few copies still exist, 

The attempt to edit out stories of resistance and sanitize scripture continues. 

  • Many churches stay out of “politics” and limit religion to the personal, spiritual realm, even though the Bible speaks of God acting in history, in community, in concrete, material ways that impact the social structures and economic realities of people, in particular people on the margins.  
  • Children’s Books feature a plethora of white, often male, characters leading the way. In fact, in 2018, 50% of children’s books featured white characters, 27% animals and 10% black characters. Asians and Native Americans even less. [Citation] Teachers and parents must be conscious and intentional in choosing books that feature a variety of main characters. [Some options here
  • West Hartford elementary school required the students to do a report on an important person in Connecticut history. Of the list of people to choose from, none were people of color and there were very few women. When a colleague of mine inquired about this, the teacher said they simply did not have children books of important people of color in Connecticut history.  
  • This is harmful on multiple levels – children of color fail to see people from their culture and background lifted up as heroes or important. The history that is shared all too often is one in which African were slaves. Period. This is also harmful to white children who, when it comes to history of racism, only see whites as the evil slaveholders. When resistance to racial injustice only shows whites as bad, white children grow up to avoid conversation on racism out of fear of being seen as evil or bad. Avoiding the conversation doesn’t make them good nor does it do anything to help racial justice along.  

Imagine the liberation that can be had if children and adults learned more about the resistance both blacks and whites took to overcome slavery and racism through the centuries. Children of color see themselves as strong and brave. White children see that they can have a place of love and compassion in the fight for racial equity. All are inspired to act for justice and real, deep, everlasting peace.  

To reach such a place of peace requires us first to stop and acknowledge the sin of racism and oppression of the past and its echoes today. So let us take a moment to pause and confess the ways racism and oppression continue to infect our world near and far.  

TIME OF CONFESSION 

UNISON PRAYER OF CONFESSION [Slide 14] 

Pastor: God of all our ancestors,  

PAM: we are truly broken by the sins of the past and present, sins personal and political, sins we have personally committed, sins we watched happen, and sins we passed on.  Grant us faith enough to remove racism and all forms of oppression from this world.  

Pastor: May each one be free to worship you. May each one be free to love with a whole heart. May each one know the peace that is found in you.  

SILENT CONFESSION 

SUNG RESPONSE: “Know Justice, Know Peace” [Slide 15] 

Sung Response (composed and sung by Jerry)  

No justice, no peace,  

Know justice, know peace.  

No Jesus, no peace,  

Know Jesus, know peace. 

WORDS OF ASSURANCE/SERMON CONCLUSION 

After the confession I usually offer words of assurance and indeed I will, for there is hope. Indeed, at least 90% of the OT and 50% of the NT offers hope for liberation and freedom from systems of oppression that harm everyone.  

Today’s story is just one of many. The story from Exodus today points to the ingenuity of the midwives in resisting Pharaoh’s unjust laws. The midwives could be Hebrew themselves or Egyptians serving the Hebrews – the text is ambiguous and allows us to wonder. The very next story in Exodus lifts up Pharaoh’s daughter blatant resistance of Pharaohs’ edict to kill the baby boys and Moses’s mother and sister great courage to act for life. Later in Exodus 3:21 we read of Egyptian women giving the Hebrew women goods before they flee from slavery. We see that liberation in Exodus was not only through the hands of Moses or even the plagues issued by God. Liberation was enacting by a number of women working together across class and ethnic divisions to literally save lives and provide concrete resources for new lives in freedom. [Lapsley & Fentress-Williams] 

As Pharaoh failed to suppress the Israelites, slaveholders failed to suppress Africans. Despite the efforts of slaveholders, the sacred story of the God of liberation was known to the African slaves and sympathetic whites. The God of Liberation cannot be tied down, edited out, crucified or ignored.  

The God of Liberation inspired whites to provide places of safety and blacks to risk their lives on the Underground railroad, sometimes led by the famous Harriet Tubman – not coincidentally dubbed “Moses” by her community.  

The God of Liberation fueled the building of schools for black children after the Emancipation Proclamation. Schools taught by whites who sought liberation instead of subjugation of black children and black teachers who had risked their lives to learn when it was illegal. [Citation] 

The God of Liberation delighted in the centrality of Black Churches during reconstruction and the civil rights era of the 1960s, providing space for leadership and self-governance long before white society was, “ready”. The prophetic leadership continues today in Hartford as clergy of the historically black African Methodist Episcopal church across the state speak out with wisdom and prophetic clarity on the need for police reform – not defunding, but a refocus that weeds out racial injustice and offers liberation. They call for all departments to do what East Hartford police have done for years or are beginning to do now. [citation] 

The God of Liberation inspired my colleague in West Hartford to organize the writing of children’s books of black and female CT historical figures so children could learn a fuller picture of history.  

The God of Liberation shined with love on a little lemonade stand set up to raise money to buy more racial equity and diversity book for public schools in Farmington. The lemonade stand set up in front of a fellow UCC church raised over $3,000. [Citation] 

The God of Liberation has worked throughout history and still today.  

As people of the Bible we are followers of the God of Liberation. We all have a part to play in the story. Whether you were born into privilege as Pharaoh’s daughter or born into a system of oppression like Moses’ mother or born somewhere in between like the midwives, you have a holy part to play in God’s story of liberation and equity.  

On Tuesday night at the Ministry for Racial Justice meeting, Guest Speaker and innovative principal and educator, Rodney Powell said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that people can choose to be “white” – they can choose to take on the role of oppressor and continue the legacy of racism – this, I argue, is the default that those born with light skin will unconsciously do – unless they, we, consciously choose differently. The Good News is that we can choose differently. The midwives could have followed Pharaoh, but they “feared God” more. That word fear in this context means awe or wonder. [Nowell] 

May we be so in awe of God, so in awe of God’s liberation, so in awe of God’s goodness, so in awe of God’s creation, that we resist the systems of power that place people of color as less. May we be so in awe of the God of Liberation that we resist systems of power by reading and sharing stories of people of color and whites who worked courageously for equity and justice in times past and today. May we be so in awe of the God of Liberation that we resist racism and oppression in our world by working together – as the women in exodus do – to bring about the liberation of all of God’s beloved people. Amen.  

[Theological References: 

Fentress-Williams, Judy. “Exodus”. The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora. Hugh Page Ed. Fortress Press. 2010.  

Lapsley, Jacqueline E. “Saving Women”. Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament. Westminster John Knox Press. 2005. 

Nowell, Irene. “Women of Israel’s Passover”. Women in the Old Testament. The Liturgical Press. 1997.] 

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