Published May 5, 2017 in the Ames Tribune
By Eileen Gebbie
Over the last few days I have been watching a friend’s Facebook feed as she tours a plantation-turned-national-historic-place in South Carolina. My friend and the tourist site share the same name because that is where her people were once owned. My friend has been walking freely on the ground where her great-grands once walked while being shackled, bloodied, and denied their humanity. And she reports that such denigration endures: The slave quarters were moved to build a restaurant and a hotel now sits on top of the un-excavated slave cemetery. The experience of the “founding father,” who signed the Declaration of Independence and who lived there, has been restored. But that of the captive humans who made his success possible has been re-written or ignored in favor of commerce and convenience.
I have been reading all of this while watching the U.S. President sign a declaration of religious independence and talk about how rarely enforced tax codes have oppressed people of faith and houses of worship.
The photos of people behind the President as he signed the “Religious Freedom” executive order suggest that the order has diverse, multi-faith support. I cannot speak to the Jewish or Sikh Americans shown on the White House lawn; that is not my place. But to my fellow Christians standing there grinning while wearing vestments and habits and crosses, I say for shame. No American Christian has any right or reason to ever claim persecution or oppression on the basis of religion.
Yes, Western Christianity as it has functioned for the last 1,700 years is losing its cultural and political dominance, worldwide. But we still live in a society steeped in Christian references and norms: “Good Samaritan” laws; the Golden Rule; laws about bathrooms and bodies; contracts based in badly, ignorantly, and a-historically interpreted Christian scripture; and businesses closed on Sundays.
Some Christian leaders complain that they cannot put up the Ten Commandments in public parks, lead prayer to Jesus in public schools, control consensual same-sex activity, keep women silent in the polls or the workplace or the doctor’s office, and campaign from the pulpit for a particular political candidate. But keeping fellow citizens free from such religious positions is exactly what the Declaration of Independence upholds. The minute loss of power and relevance felt by American Christians in the last fifty years are not the same as being killed for our faith (Kurds), driven out of our homeland because of our faith (Syrians), or being enslaved because of someone else’s interpretation of their faith (my African American friend’s ancestors).
In the Christian portion of the Bible we hear that by having faith in God, through the stories and mystery of Jesus Christ, there is “no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” (Galatians 3.28) Meaning, when we opt look to the Jesus and Jesus Way stories for wisdom, grace, and holiness, we are free from having to divide and judge, we are free from being divided and judged. The only religious oppression American Christians might suffer under is that which we perpetrate onto ourselves through division and judgment. When we cast people aside or confine them we are rejecting the very freedom found in God that we say we are trying to protect.
I cannot begin to guess at how it feels to walk on land on which my family was enslaved, with no right to leave, to bear the name of someone who perceived my family as a kind of cattle (or who knew perfectly well our full humanity but ignored it in favor of cash and power). But I do know what it feels like to have my own faith tradition used against me to try limit my civil rights and my personal, bodily integrity. Those are the oppressions people of faith must fight and resist.