Strong Medicine from Frederick Douglass and C.S. Lewis

Published August 4, 2020

Here are two passages I ran across recently. The first is from Frederick Douglass and is perhaps the single most damning indictment of American Christianity’s capacity for combining gooey piety and demonic brutality and oppression ever written:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch … His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.

If Douglass’ description of racism-justifying piety sounds troublingly familiar, its’ because far too many pious Christians still use the same lies, particularly the lie that people demanding civil rights for the brown are really part of an anti-Christian conspiracy.

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'Jenna Ellis @JennaEllisEsq I'm going on record now: If they try to cancel Christianity, if they try to force me to apologize or recant my Faith, I will not bend, I will will not waver, will not break. On Christ the solid Rock stand. And I'm proud to be an American. Eugene Scott @Eugene_Scott The fact that so many conservative Christians have interpreted many people's desire eradicate white supremacy a precursor canceling Christianity America is incredibly telling...'

The people who talk like this lady suffer from the narcissism that plagues MAGA Qhristianity. Everything is all about them. When somebody cries, “Help! I’m suffering!” a normal person capable of empathy says, “What can we do to help this person?” A narcissist responds, “Don’t blame me! You’re just saying this to get sympathy! Stop attacking me!”

People trapped in such a mindset are incapable of caring for others and incapable of doing the painful work of “fearless moral inventory” to so much as find out if they have any sins they need to repent.

Interestingly, C.S. Lewis saw a good deal of the problem back in the middle of the 20th century, from the perspective of an Irishman living in the ruins of the postwar British Empire. Here and in Out of the Silent Planet (among other places) he laments the devastation European (and American) colonialism and racism have visited on the witness of the gospel:

I am inclined to think that we had better look unflinchingly at the work we have done; like puppies, we must have ‘our noses rubbed in it’. A man, now penitent, who has once seduced and abandoned a girl and then lost sight of her, had better not avert his eyes from the crude realities of the life she may now be living. For the same reason we ought to read the psalms that curse the oppressor; read them with fear. Who knows what imprecations of the same sort have been uttered against ourselves? What prayers have Red men, and Black, and Brown and Yellow, sent up against us to their gods or sometimes to God Himself? All over the earth the White Man’s offence ‘smells to heaven’: massacres, broken treaties, theft, kidnappings, enslavement, deportation, floggings, beatings-up, rape, insult, mockery, and odious hypocrisy make up that smell.

What particularly interests me about Lewis’ hard-nosed approach is its insistence that nothing less than clear-eyed, head-on confrontation with the fact of our being accomplices with sin–and of the benefits we continue to derive from denying that–is what is necessary to heal the suppurating wound.

Lewis knows his Shakespeare and understands that without a “firm purpose of amendment” then we are just Claudius at our prayers and that we, like him, have killed our brother, stolen his life, and are clinging to our ill-gotten gains. We have to make restitution or we full of hooey. Claudius is more honest than the racism-justifying piety of a ton of American Qhristianity and Qatholicism:

Qatholics and Qhristians more offended by Kaepernick kneeling on a football field than by cops kneeling on the neck of their murder victims, who keep insisting that they owe nothing to a population whose exploitation and abuse has benefited them and continues to benefit them in a thousand ways are less honest than Claudius because he, at least, admits that his words without thoughts never to Heaven go, while the Greatest Qhristians of All Time lie that they are better and holier saints than the Pope and consider themselves, in their abject denialism, sent by God to save the Church from him in order to glorify a massive white supremacist crook in the White House.

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'Daniel Dale @ddale8 Normal 1% Swan: "Lyndon Johnson! He passed the Civil Rights Act.' Trump: "Ask, ask: how has it worked out? If you take a look at what Lyndon Johnson did. How has it worked out?" Swan: "You think the Civil Rights Act was a mistake?" 9:29 AM Aug 4, 2020 Twitter Web Web App 379 Retweets and comments 1K Likes'

What I love about Lewis is that, though he is unsparing in his demand for what AA calls a “fearless moral inventory” he is also insistent that if we screw our courage to the sticking place and let God crucify our addiction to sin (in whatever form it takes) we shall find peace and happiness on the other side of that death we undergo in God’s hands. This scene from The Great Divorce beautifully illustrates Lewis’ faith (and experience) of “dying to self”. It applies not simply to the sexual sins the character struggles with, but to the sins of racism Lewis speaks of above and to the sins of pride with which he grappled. There is no sin that cannot be redeemed and turned to glory, if we will only let grace in:

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.

‘Off so soon?’ said a voice.

The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.

‘Yes. I’m off,’ said the Ghost. ‘Thanks for your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) ‘that he’d have to be quiet if he came – which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’

‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit – an angel, as I now understood.

‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.

‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward.

‘Oh – ah – look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.

‘Don’t you want him killed?’

‘You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.’

‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’

‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here – well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’

‘May I kill it?’

‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’

‘There is no time. May I kill it?’

‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please – really – don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’

‘May I kill it?’

‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’

‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’

‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’

‘There is no other day. All days are present now.’

‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’

‘It is not so.’

‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’

‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’

‘Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.’

‘This moment contains all moments.’

‘Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me in pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me – before I knew it? It would be all over by now if you had.’

‘I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?’

The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite. Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.

‘Be careful,’ it said. ‘He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live? You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now. He doesn’t understand. He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract thing. It may be natural for him, but it isn’t for us. Yes, yes. I know there are no real pleasures now, only dreams. But aren’t they better than nothing? And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams – all sweet and fresh and almost innocent. You might say, quite innocent…’

‘Have I your permission?’ said the Angel to the Ghost.

‘I know it will kill me.’

‘It won’t. But supposing it did?’

‘You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.’

‘Then I may?’

‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’

Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.

‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man – an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.

The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I knew well what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.

While I still watched, I noticed that the whole plain and forest were shaking with a sound which in our world would be too large to hear, but there I could take it with joy. I knew it was not the Solid People who were singing. It was the voice of that earth, those woods and those waters. A strange archaic, inorganic noise, that came from all directions at once. The Nature or Arch-Nature of that land rejoiced to have been once more ridden, and therefore consummated, in the person of the horse. It sang,

The Master says to our master, Come up. Share my rest and splendour till all natures that were your enemies become slaves to dance before you and backs for you to ride, and firmness for your feet to rest on.

‘From beyond all place and time, out of the very Place, authority will be given you: the strengths that once opposed your will shall be obedient fire in your blood and heavenly thunder in your voice.

‘Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves: we desire the beginning of your reign as we desire dawn and dew, wetness at the birth of light.

‘Master, your Master has appointed you for ever: to be our King of Justice and our high Priest.

‘Do ye understand all this, my Son?’ said the Teacher.

‘I don’t know about all, Sir,’ said I. ‘Am I right in thinking the Lizard really turned into the Horse?’

‘Aye. But it was killed first. Ye’ll not forget that part of the story?’

‘I’ll try not to, Sir. But does it mean that everything – everything – that is in us can go on to the Mountains?’

‘Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot come to the Mountains. Not because they are too rank, but because they are too weak. What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.’

The biggest problem the American Church faces is that it fears the first death far more than the second, it wastes time worrying being persecuted, not about being seduced persecutors, preferring to inflict suffering on others rather than repent the seductions of money, pleasure, power, and honor. Its sufferings are nearly all due to the profound spiritual poverty this has caused it.

10 Responses

  1. Mark, I want to thank you for your past few offerings on The Q Christianity Phenomenon. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what you presented, and it has caused me no end of personal heartburn – damn you and thank you. The heartburn comes from not knowing how to respond to both aspects you have described and then also examining how I am like those you describe.

  2. At mass several years ago our pastor made the point that in his experience (and I would imagine he would know best, being someone who hears confessions)–much or *most* of sin has to do with a perverted need to *control* others–to overpower them. I had never thought about it that way, but I think he is right.

    I saw this dynamic blatantly displayed in Latin America. The powerful not only love to be served, but they love the feeling it gives them with their foot symbolically resting on the head of another. When the fate of another person is subject to their whims, it often means more to them than the actual service that is being rendered. I was shocked when friends and family didn’t even try to hide it.

    Here in the U.S. we have learned how to say the right things and obfuscate, knowing it is shameful, but our motivation is very similar. We want to keep the power structure the same and are even wistful for a time when we were worse.

    I actually remember my thought process when I was a young teen, and realized that God wouldn’t approve of my sense of superiority and entitlement. An incident happened that made me confront my hidden thoughts. I knew it couldn’t be of God, and asked God to excise it from my soul. I didn’t feel different from one moment to the next but I was confident that my prayer would be answered because it was a worthy one. Those are the kinds of prayers that God answers lavishly.

  3. Thanks. That is another favorite quote. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. Good stuff from CSL too.

  4. So were the slaves in Brazil, or in the Congo under King Leopold, better off because they had masters who weren’t adhering to “Sola Scriptura”? or is this one of those “Surprisingly, Catholics are remarkably like human beings” situations where the presence of Evil X in a historically Protestant society proves Luther was wrong but the presence of the same or worse Evil X in a historically Catholic society proves only that everyone should submit ever more dutifully to the authority of the Magisterium?
    Mark is quite correct that high-church Protestants were lukewarm about the evils of slavery. But the ones who actually abolished it – pretty much uniquely among human societies – were low-church Protestants, like Quakers. The Papacy sided with the Confederacy during the US Civil War (the South was an agrarian and feudalist society, you see, and had so far averted the evils of modernity and capitalist greed). Pope Pius IX sent sympathetic letters (and, according to apocryphal stories – apocryphal in the sense of “unconfirmed and therefore probably untrue” – a crown of thorns woven by the papal hands themselves) to the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, the deposed Confederate president.
    I agree completely with Mark’s criticisms of the Trump regime but these would be stronger, not weaker, without idealised history about an imaginary Catholic Church that was a reliable guide and ally for those who took on the status quo in the cause of justice. If you want to argue “Catholicism now is doing better morally than many Protestant churches”, no argument here, but this is a relatively recent conversion – the Maga Qatholics have a stronger case if “historical tradition” is one’s criterion of the right.

  5. Slavery did not end in Catholic South America until 1888, when the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro finally ended it. Abraham Lincoln called Pedro a very good man, yet…

    Slavery ended in Brasil 23 years after the confederacy ended. Most of Catholic South America got rid of slavery before our Civil War.

    Draw your own conclusions.

    1. Moreover the defeated slave-owners headed to Latin American countries after 1865, to set up their “Confederado” colonies and brood over the Lost Cause. For some reason, they deemed Brazil and Mexico more culturally congenial than, say, Scandinavia or Switzerland or even Prussia.
      Perhaps there’s some significance in the fact that the most famous African American Christian of all time was a Baptist named after Martin Luther? That somehow the majority of descendants of slaves themselves missed the memo that America’s racial caste system was a result of the Reformation, of Henry VIII abolishing the priesthood, of Cromwell expelling the Jews from England for their limpreza de sangre, and the rest of the standard Anglophone Catholic creation myth?

      1. To clarify, I don’t think Protestantism historically does much better on average than Catholicism on issues like slavery or racial discrimination; it does seem, though, that its range is wider (between the Klan preaching “curse of Ham” at one extreme, and William Wilberforce, John Brown and the Underground Railway at the other). Which casts doubt on any causal hypothesis linking those evils to Protestantism in general or even Calvinism in particular.
        No problem if Mark’s argument is a less sweeping claim that slavery and racism in the US, a country with a historically Calvinist culture, adopted characteristically Calvinist justifications (“God predestined them to be enslaved”), even if these are heresies (Calvin and his early followers consistently taught that God’s election was inscrutable and did not follow bloodlines, whether at the micro-level of families or the macro-level of tribes and nations. As I’ve noted elsewhere, most Catholic and Arminian – let alone non-Christian – understandings of Calvinism’s teaching on predestination is at about the theological level of “If the Pope is infallible, why can’t he predict the next Presidential election result?” but to be fair, this teaching is easily distorted, which is why the 39 Articles tells Anglicans to believe in predestination but not harp on it).
        By contrast, in a non-Calvinist society, slavery would typically still exist but would adopt different theological justifications. Rather than “this ethnic group are all cursed because their ancestor uncovered his father’s nakedness”, a Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim society would instead justify slavery or racial subjugation on the basis that “they are heathens and infidels who have freely and obstinately chosen to follow pagan gods instead of the true religion.” Certainly I doubt there were [m]any Sola Fideists among those named and shamed by Bartolomé de las Casas.
        Similar with fascism generally. Among German Prussians, Hitler quoted Luther, but Father Charles Coughlin and Father Jozef Tiso found no shortage of Catholic historical and theological resources to justify essentially similar policies. Catholicism is by no means the cause. It;s just no antidote either.
        The reason Protestantism tends towards the extremes is because it is more open to new doctrinal appraisements. Even the worst pre-Vatican II popes would have smacked down the “children of Ham” doctrine is a heretical innovation. But at the other extreme, left-wing Protestants are by temperament less disposed to treat “We’ve been doing that for centuries, so it must be right” as a reason for continuing practices they think contradict the message of Jesus.

  6. Certainly, if I were some brutal Solon or Lycurgus with no moral constraints other than to secure the dominance of my descendants over everyone else, I could imagine setting up a slave society, and forcing the slaves to convert to my own religion… but the holy book I made them memorise would _not_ be one that ends its season one cliffhanger with an omnipotent deity smiting a society of slave-holders (down to sending the angel of death to kill their firstborn children, and drowning their army), as well as losing their slaves, as punishment for their persistent cruelty
    Prof Eugene Genovese in “A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South” made the point that white Southern Christians had to reconcile their beliefs in their divine election and in Biblical approval of slavery with the brute fact of their defeat in the Civil War. The savvier theologians squared the circle by citing the Exodus precedent and arguing that, while Jehovah allowed you to own slaves, He also demanded you treat them with care or else he would smite you and set them free. The South, they said, had failed this test.
    Others also cited the example of polygamy – permitted in the Old Testament, but then unambiguously forbidden by Jesus when he taught that no, you can’t normally take a second or third wife even if you formally divorce the first one; a fortiori you can’t take a second or third wife without divorcing the first one.

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