By Wendy M. Wright
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
It is a bitterly cold mile-walk away from the Baltimore Harbor uphill to the Basilica of the Assumption. But after the half-weeklong tedium of enforced sitting at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the exercise is welcome. After all, this is America's first Cathedral, its white-columned colonial architectural design guided by John Carroll—brother of Daniel and cousin of Charles, signers, respectively, of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—who himself was this nation's first Catholic Bishop. A must-see, I am assured, despite the frigid November wind.
Once inside I settle into the warmth of a last pew and give attention both to the liturgy at the altar just commencing and to the spacious domed environment so uniquely early American in its feel. A pamphlet lying on the wooden pew informs me that on one of his visits to the United States Pope John Paul II described the Baltimore Basilica as “the worldwide symbol of religious freedom.”
In fact, the very architecture of the place bespeaks early America with its emerging radical vision of religious and political freedom: the simple Neo-Classical grandeur of a spacious bright white interior: a worship space that draws the eye both upward and outward, elevating the mind to things eternal yet encompassing the earthly horizon with equal capaciousness. Its actual architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was invited here to capture the new republic's spirit in structural form by President Thomas Jefferson, also designed much of the young nation's iconic Capitol building.
As I follow the communion line up the aisle under the skylights that Latrobe designed to filter in rays of natural light, my thoughts drift to a recent lecture I attended sponsored by the Nebraska Humanities Council. The distinguished speaker was the author of the Pulitzer-prize winning The Hemingses of Monticello, a book that chronicles the intertwined story of founding father Thomas Jefferson and the extended family of Sally Hemings, one of his house slaves who, after he was widowed, became his mistress and bore him six children.2 A strange and uniquely American story, the controversial relationship between the two, while singular, is embedded in and the product of the tangled socio-economic web of institutionalized slavery. If freedom's echo rings out from these sacred walls, I find myself thinking, so do the anguished groans of human oppression.
Oppression, of course, is nothing new, nor distinctly American. When at the inauguration of his public ministry as recorded in the gospel of Luke, Jesus articulated his mission, he focused squarely on oppression. He was, biblical scholars agree, proclaiming Jubilee, that yearned-for hope of ancient Israel that permeates the Old Testament. Jubilee: the year at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years, when land is allowed to lie fallow, inequitably accumulated wealth is redistributed, debts are forgiven, and the indentured and enslaved are set free. A fitting inaugural portrait, for Luke's Jesus is vividly concerned with the plight of the poor, the afflicted, the oppressed and the socially marginalized: the cast-offs of the world. A deeply communal vision, the sort of freedom proclaimed by the young Nazarene as he read the ancient words from the Prophet Isaiah aloud in the synagogue is definitely not the “Don't tread on me” type of freedom symbolized by the coiled rattlesnake on one of the flags hoisted during the Revolution that is sometimes heralded as quintessentially American. The Lucan vision is equally radical as its serpent counterpart but has little to do with freedom from interference from others or freedom to do what one pleases. In contrast, it points to a profoundly communitarian ideal of human society that requires the redistribution of land and goods, sacrifice for the common good, a willingness to level opportunities, the forgiveness of debts, and the equalizing of opportunity.
In the centuries since Jesus held up this Jubilee vision many Christians have taken the gospel imperatives about freedom literally, especially as they pertain to human enslavement. While slavery has been part of human societies from ancient times including the biblical era, and while the Bible has been cited to justify as well as to condemn human bondage, nevertheless from 1700 to 1900 an increasingly widespread Christian moral intuition that slavery was contrary to God's design fueled an Abolitionist movement in both the old and new worlds. In the new republic, anti-slavery sentiment contributed to and eventually became the cause célèbre in the fratricidal conflict that threatened to undo the nation itself.
Maryland, just as the Virginia in which Jefferson and Sally Hemings made their home, was classified as a slave state during the brutal Civil War that divided Americans a mere half century after Latrobe's plans for this magnificent basilica were drawn. What was for Bishop Carroll, his brother, and his cousin an oasis in which they might freely practice their Catholic faith, was for many of Maryland's population a place where any sort of basic freedom was never realized. Following the lead of British Quakers, Methodists, Anglicans, Non-conformist Christians, and the Black Churches as well as French Enlightenment thinkers, in 1808 America had abolished the slave trade from Africa. But the legal ownership of other human beings and the children they produced did not cease in the United States until the cessation of the bloody civil conflict in 1865.
It is Christ the King Sunday at the basilica, the last Sabbath day of the liturgical year before the hues of the sanctuary decoration will change to the lavender or violet occasioned by the Advent season. Our celebrant is decked out in vestments of white and gold; the music is triumphal; the universal reign of Christ the focal attention of the radiant celebration. Slouched in front of me in the next-to-last pew are two women who perhaps find themselves here as refugees from the bitter cold outside—on my brisk walk I had passed numbers of similarly swathed persons huddled over subway grates or hunched in the corners of outdoor bus shelters. These two are bundled in layers of frayed, hard-worn garments and have tucked bulging plastic sacks beneath their seats. At the appropriate time, I pass them, my sisters in Christ, the sign of peace.
The disenfranchised, the poor, the homeless, the outcasts are all around us.
The Sally Hemings saga may still haunt the American imagination in a particularly complex way, but the oppression of individuals and groups of persons has not disappeared in the century and a half since the Civil War. The disenfranchised, the poor, the homeless, the outcasts are all around us. The legacy of Jim Crow is still a part of our national DNA. Equally as horrifying are the staggering statistics about global human trafficking: the post-slavery iteration of enslavement.3 Trafficking may be global in reach, but it is not something that happens only on far away shores: Interstate highways, like the one that passes through my home state of Nebraska, are major arteries for the U.S. transport of humans used for sexual exploitation, forced domestic service, and agricultural labor. Today Christians of all denominations are still in the forefront of the battle to eradicate this profitable and monstrous trade.4
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”
This morning I entered this historic basilica not only physically chilled but spiritually frozen as well, plagued by a strange later-life dryness practiced in all the motions of faith yet devoid of inner warmth. It is now an odd comfort to greet these slouched sisters whose outward appearance matches the interior one I hide so effectively under fashionable attire. As the service ends, I wander up the center aisle to gain a clearer view of the building's entirety. Vague musings about the enigma of Enlightenment-educated Jefferson and his enslaved mistress and about the heart-wrenching present day realities of poverty and human trafficking swirl in my mind.
There is, I know, another kind of freedom, a freedom less obvious perhaps than the one for which generations of abolitionists and advocates have so ardently struggled: a freedom as essential as the freedom from physical bondage. Saint Paul alludes to this when he speaks to the Christians in Rome of the “freedom of the children of God.” (See Romans 8:21.) Paul had in mind the eschatological hope that Christians hold for a final liberation, a foretaste of which can be enjoyed in the present through the inflow of God's dynamic Spirit.
In less a theological way, I think I can understand something of what Paul was talking about by acknowledging that there may be an inner freedom uncoupled from all the enslavements that typically bind us psychologically and spiritually: addictions, obsessions, hatreds, prejudices, terrors, anxieties, distractions, rigid expectations or various orthodoxies. Some of this un-freedom is encouraged by the frenetic cycle of productivity, achievement, and consumption that feeds our society. Some of it is inhaled as the very native air we breathe. Some of it emerges from personal or family history. All of these collective and individual enslavements are rooted in fear. They are, we are told, banished by Love Itself. As a shaft of sunlight falling from the wide side windows illuminates the aisle on which I walk a familiar Johannine phrase rises to consciousness: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
Toward the front of the church, on the left side of the great domed central sanctuary is a side altar upon which rests an elegant white marble statue of the Virgin Mary designed to harmonize with the rest of the decor. As I move closer—a railing separates the area from the view of the main church—I realize that someone is singing. Quietly, reverently, in a hushed voice meant for a lullaby, an older woman of color leans back against the inside rail and gazes up at Mary. I pause, not wanting to invade the intimacy of the moment, yet at the same time feeling encircled, welcomed, by the woman's low song. A length of skirt fashioned of a brightly patterned African fabric peeks out from under her beige winter jacket. She sways slightly. Face upturned, light emanates from her features. Radiance, I think briefly, this is what radiance looks like. As we face the Marian altar, a bit apart yet side by side, I feel her song, feel the depth of her melodious prayer gently yet firmly surround my small dry heart. I cannot at present pray myself, I know that. But her prayer with its strong current carries all that I cannot say, cannot hope, and cannot dream with it as it flows inexorably toward some unfathomable mystery. I sense too that her prayer arises from some hidden life-giving ground water that has always and will always carry me and all of us, no matter what our capacities. This, I instinctively grasp, this is the freedom promised to the children of God.
I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
How does Love help to enact “the freedom of the children of God”?
From “Freedom’s Ring” by Wendy M. Wright. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, August/September/October 2014, Vol. 29, No. 4. Copyright © 2014 by The Upper Room.
1 All scripture quotes are from the New American Bible.
2 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2007).
3 Among the hundreds of faith based and secular non-governmental organizations dedicated to fight trafficking are the Faith Alliance Against Human Trafficking, International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, and Tiny Hands International.
4 At any given moment today an estimated two and a half million persons are involuntarily enslaved, more than at any other time in history. Cf. United Nations Global Initiative to fight Human Trafficking http://www.unglobalcompact.org.