REFLECTION – Acts 16:16 – 34
In this passage of Acts Paul and Silas are unjustly jailed for curing a young woman, a slave suffering from an unknown affliction, possibly epilepsy. And in doing so, they deprived her owners of a lucrative income. Looking for revenge, the girl’s owners convince the local magistrates to have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten and thrown into prison.
There is much to consider in this brief scripture passage – the earthquake, the conversion of the jailer, the jailing of innocents without charge, the rule of law and so on. But whatever happened to the slave girl? The author of Acts never does reveal her fate. We could safely assume it would not have been a pleasant one though.
Since the dawn of time, slavery has been a generally accepted way of life despite its often cruel and harmful effects on both those who are enslaved as well as their slave masters. But in modern, civilized society slavery is generally considered to be second only to murder as far as crimes against humanity are concerned. And yet less than 200 years ago, slavery was both legal and commonplace throughout many parts of the world including much of the United States. And unfortunately, for the most part, the Bible tended to support this shameful practice.
We in Canada suffer from a certain amount of smug self-righteousness when it comes to the subject of slavery for after all, what does slavery have to do with us. We like to think that slavery and its ugly stepchild – racism as largely an American problem. However we are not immune from this insidious disease for slavery can take on many forms and disguises.
Just this week, in Cleveland, Ohio three young women were freed after having been held captive in a residential neighborhood for over 10 years – 10 years! Victims of similar crimes include as young girls, Elizabeth Smart in Utah and Kace Dugard in California. And we in Canada are not exempt. A teenage boy was recently held captive in chains in Nova Scotia. Another young man was discovered last year in Regina near death after being beaten and tortured for many months.
And then last week there was that collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations on earth. The death toll now exceeds a thousand. A thousand people, mostly young women, enslaved by poverty, wiped out in the collapse of a decrepit 7 story building. All to produce clothing for us at rock-bottom prices. The price in human lives and suffering can never be measured.
Yes, slavery may no longer be legal, but it still happens. It happens.
But when most of us think of slavery, it is the shameful history of the American South and its afro-american slaves and associated racism that immediately comes to mind. Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s can vividly recall the blurred black and white television images of Freedom Rides and Selma Alabama, Mississippi Governor George Wallace, Klan cross burnings, Malcom X, the Black Panthers, race riots in Watts, Chicago, and other American cities and the reverend Martin Luther King. The United States seemed on a course of self-destruction, a sea of racial prejudice, hate and despair. And yet, a little more than 40 years later this all seems outlandish and bizarre to say the least. Our American neighbors have come a long way in their efforts to erase the effects of their storied past.
In 1960 the thought of a black president was laughable at best. Now it is accepted as the norm except where small pockets of ignorance and racial intolerance lives on.
Over the last hundred years or so, there have been many books written that tell the sad stories of the horrors experienced by West Africans who were taken as slaves and transported to the New World, particularly those who settled in the American South. Some that come to mind for me are “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron, “Roots” by Alex Haley, and most recently “The Book of Negroes” by Canadian author Lawrence Hill. What makes Hill’s book especially of interest to Canadians is that his story tells of the transport from New York to Atlantic Canda of many freed slaves who had fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, life for those “Black Loyalists” was little better in Nova Scotia than where they had come from and many eventually left Canada choosing to relocate to Sierra Leone, a country for which most had no knowledge of.
Although these books and many others realistically describe the North American slave experience, there remains one book that is the yardstick by which all others are measured. And that is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
The 19th century American author, Samuel Clemens writing under his pen name, Mark Twain authored over a dozen novels as well as many non-fiction works however it is his first two books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer followed by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for which he is best remembered.
When Huckleberry Finn was first published, it was met with howls of protest from the literary critics of the day. It was widely condemned and described as being obscene, crude and vulgar. This criticism was partly due to Clemen’s novel technique of having his characters, both black and white speak in their crude native, Southern dialect rather than in proper English. However, it was Clemens’ anti-racist and sympathetic portrayal of the runaway slave, Jim that fueled much of the book’s harsh condemnation. And of course as is usually the case, all this free publicity only made the book that more popular with the reading public.
Despite its ongoing popularity, Huckleberry Finn has been one of the most-challenged books in the United States, both for exposing the ignorance and racism of the South and paradoxically for being accused of being racist itself. Until recent times, Huckleberry Finn was part of the reading curriculum in many American High Schools. However, Twain’s occasional use of the infamous “N” word has resulted in the book’s untimely removal from many school libraries.
In recent times, Twain has also been condemned by modern critics for his portrayal of the slave, Jim as being two dimensional and far to gentle and simple-minded. This may be so, but I suspect Clemens new his subject far better than some academic living a century and half later. And except for Huckleberry himself, the white characters in Twain’s book are a disreputable prejudiced lot, being largely a collection of ignorant rogues, charlatans, thieves and murderers.
And Sam Clemens was anything but a racist.
He was an adamant supporter of abolition and emancipation, even going so far to say “Lincoln‘s Proclamation … not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” In his autobiography Twain wrote, “I vividly remember (as a child) seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”
He was an outspoken opponent of the Klu Klux Klan writing editorials condemning their racist activities and of lynch mobs in particular.
He argued that non-whites did not receive justice in the United States, once saying “I have seen Chinese abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible . . . but I never saw a Chinese righted in a court of justice for wrongs thus done to him.”
He paid for at least one black person to attend Yale Law School and for another to attend a southern university to become a minister.
Clemens was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and an active campaigner for women’s suffrage. His “Votes for Women” speech, is considered one of the most famous in history.
Although Clemens was a practicing Presbyterian, he was often highly critical of organized religion and was considered by many to be a heretic.
Well into his 70’s, Clemens, near bankrupt as a result of a number of ill-advised investments was forced to go on a worldwide public speaking tour where he would regale audiences with his sarcastic humour, commenting on events of the day, and giving readings from his many literary works. Invariably, he would include a reading from “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn” and he would introduce it with something like this . . . .
“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind – and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure.
If the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery, well, they were wise and said nothing.
Now, I want to tell you a story from Huckleberry Finn and you have my permission to laugh ( or cry ) if you should feel moved to do so.
Now Huckleberry has been kidnapped by his own father who is a thief and a drunkard and who beats him. Huckleberry manages to escape and encounters, Jim, a runaway slave. Now Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, has decided to sell his wife and children and Jim is afraid that he will never see them again . . . And so he runs away.
And in this book, Huckleberry tells his own story, all by himself . . .”
* * *
I run off from Pap and I hid out on Jackson’s Island. That’s where I met Miss Watson’s Jim. He says he run off too. Well . . . I promised I wouldn’t tell on him. I knowed I done wrong; I knowed people would call me a low-down abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t a-going back there again, anyways.
Jim and me, we found an empty section of log-raft and we set off down that river. We run nights and laid up and hid daytimes, and we just let that raft float wherever the current wanted her to.
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they were made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they were made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a’laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
“Once or twice of a night we’d see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and every now and then she’d belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty. Then she’d turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her powwow shut off and leave the river still again. And by and by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the raft a bit. After that you wouldn’t hear nothing, ‘cept maybe frogs or something.
“I’d go to sleep, and sometimes Jim didn’t call me when it was my turn to stand watch. He often done that. And when I waked up just at daybreak he’d be sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning. I never took no notice nor let on I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and children away up yonder, and he was feeling low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.
“We kept looking for Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois, where the Ohio River comes in. We said we’d sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go away up the Ohio amongst the free states, and then be out of trouble.
“Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. He says the first thing he’d do when he got to a free state he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm near Miss Watson! then they would both work to buy the two children; and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Abolitionist to go and steal them!
“Why, it most froze me to hear such talk! Jim wouldn’t ever dared talk such talk in his life before—coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children. Children which was owned by a man I didn’t even know, a man who’d never done me no harm.
“You see, I begun to get it through my head that he was most free. And who was to blame for it? Why, me. It hadn’t never come home to me before what this thing was that I was doing.
“My conscience got to stirring me up hotter and hotter until I says to it, ‘Aw, let up on me, will you?—I’ll paddle ashore at the first light . . . and tell.’
“Pretty soon one showed. Jim he got all excited because he thought it was Cairo. But I says, ‘No! it might not be Jim. Let me paddle ashore in the canoe and see.’
“Well, he got the canoe ready for me, and give me the paddle, and I shoved out; and when I was about fifty yards off he calls out:
” ‘Da you goes, de old true Huck. De on’y white gentleman dat ever kep his promise to old Jim.’
“I just felt sick. There I was paddling off all in a sweat to tell on him, but when he says that it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me. And I warn’t right down certain whether I was glad I started or whether I warn’t. But I says to myself, ‘I got to do it—I can’t get out of it.’
“Right then along comes a skiff with two men in it, with guns, and they stopped and I stopped; and one of them says, ” ‘What’s that yonder?’
” ‘A piece of raft.’
” ‘You belong on it?’
” ‘Yes, sir.’
” ‘Any men on it?’
” ‘Only one, sir.’
” ‘Well, there’s five niggers run off tonight up yonder, above the head of the bend. Is your man white—or black?’
“I didn’t answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn’t come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I see I was weaking, so I just give up trying. I says:
” ‘He’s white.’
“They went off.
“I knowed I done wrong. I see there warn’t no use for me to learn to do right. A body that don’t get started right when he’s little ain’t got no show.
“Then I says to myself, ‘Hold on. If you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than what you do now? No,’ I says, ‘I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now. Well, then,’ says I, ‘what’s the use of you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong? And the wages is just the same.’
“I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.
Then I went back to the raft where Jim was waiting. The stars was just beggining to show and they was awful pretty. We lit up our pipes and didn’t talk or say nothing ’til we was way below town. It was kind of solemn drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs, looking up at the stars
We said “there just warn’t no home like a raft, after all.”
* * *
And so today is Mother’s Day.
Now I obviously am not a mother but I’ve had considerable experience with mothers and know something about them. I lived with one for the first 20 years of my life; I’ve lived with another for past 31 years. And I would have to say that all things considered, mothers are a good and necessary thing for without them, where would we be.
And I have to concur with Mark Twain who once said
“My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.”
And so we remember and celebrate all mothers today; those who are still with us and especially those who no longer are.
Let us pray.
Holy and loving God. On this day, we thank you for our mothers, those who gave us life, our mothers who nurtured us and loved us unconditionally.
And we also pray for the release of all those who are enslaved whether it be those falsely imprisoned, those who have been criminally abducted or those who are enslaved through poverty or substance abuse.
In Jesus name, we pray that all may be set free.
Now we’re going to return to Paul and Silas sing a song about their experience in jail. This is an old bluegrass song and is likely unfamiliar. Now bluegrass music originated in the Appalachian region of the United States and has its roots in Irish/English/Scottish folk music with a heavy influence of afro-american blues and includes many songs like this one that are typically of evangelical Christian tradition. I’m not going to say much more about bluegrass music since Dave is more the expert in this regard than I but I can say most bluegrass tunes are played as fast as humanly possible.
“Huckleberry Finn” selection is an abridgement from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.