The Legacy of Solomon Northup

As Black History Month comes to a close, I have a moment to reflect on my journey with Solomon Northup, both through his book once again and now twice through the movie. After last night’s presentation on Northup’s theologizing in Twelve Years a Slave, I received a question by text: What did the book mean to you?

To this question I texted back: “I become Solomon every time I read it and I ‘see’ more than I could before.” As Jerry Sanson, professor from LSUA, reminds us, reading Northup allows the reader to experience, in a limited way, what slavery was really like. Sanson remarks, “Solomon Northup’s story helps us to identify with him and others held in slavery against their wills. One of the reviewers of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, the PBS documentary, succinctly summarized the importance of his experiences with these words: ‘It is this movie and Solomon Northrup [sic] that brings you closest to being able to say, ‘I’ve walked in the shoes of a slave.’ Indeed they do.” There is something about sharing Solomon’s experience that moves us deeper than the mere recognition that slavery was evil.

How prophetic was Samuel Bass, the Canadian emancipator of Northup, when he told the sadistic Edwin Epps, “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”

We now live 160 years since the publication of Northup’s book and we have witnessed the outworking of the “peculiar institution” in our nation. And the fruit has been extremely bitter–yet progress has also been made. Northup also witnessed this.

For every Epps, there was a William Prince Ford, who Northup compared to the Good Samaritan. When  Northup had fled from his second owner, John M. Tibaut, who was seeking to kill him, he made his way through the swamp to Ford’s place. Once there Ford and his wife took care of him. They provided him with food and a safe place to rest, but, Northup writes, “neither food nor rest afforded half the pleasure as did the blessed voices speaking kindness and consolation. It was the oil and the wine which the Good Samaritan in the “Great Pine Woods” was ready to pour into the wounded spirit of the slave, who came to him, stripped of his raiment and half-dead.”

The legacy of Solomon Northup is not that his book is about the evil of slavery (which it is) but that his story is about what it means to be human. For Northup, to be human was to be created in the image of God and “images” of God are to be treated with extraordinary respect.

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Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!