Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

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Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Never Forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki

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I tell myself never to forget the horrible things of history that we must not let happen again.

Despite years of participating in Hiroshima Day memorials, this year August 6 made no impression on me.

The havoc and chaos of following the daily outrages of this vile regime have warped my brain into a single, obsessive thought: What will it take to bring these criminals to justice?

But today I did remember that President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima to lay a wreath and meet survivors of the atomic bomb just a little over two years ago.

In his reporting for The New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote on May 27, 2016:

“President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, telling an audience that included survivors of America’s atomic bombing in 1945 that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a ‘moral revolution.’

“Thousands of Japanese lined the route of the presidential motorcade to the memorial in the hopes of glimpsing Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age. Many watched the ceremony on their cellphones.

” ‘Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,’ Mr. Obama said in opening his speech at the memorial.”

A 91-year-old survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, met the President. ” ‘I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.’ ”

The world has changed again, just since May 2016. An immoral revolution took place and we have heard the regime say that it will strike North Korea with “fire and fury” and threaten Iran with a disaster never before unleashed on a country. I have already documented many, many of the other daily outrages and high crimes and misdemeanors wrought in fewer than two years.

This is why I must never forget August 6. Tomorrow, August 9, is the 73rd anniversary of the day when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.