Sunday, August 21, 2016

Be Still & Know: The Underground Railroad as Moral Compass

By Ernest Disney-Britton

Kids love Underground Railroad stories, and most also believe that they would have been part of it. Today there is almost universal belief that American slavery was evil but also that the Underground Railroad was God's hand at work. In that spirit, I bought the new book titled "Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, Oprah's book club pick. It's a work of fiction but like most books on this subject it prompts an important question, especially for Christians: If I lived in America during the 1800s, would I have supported the status quo of slavery; been a quiet bystander; or would I have fought against it?

Novel imagines an actual railroad built underground.
The book reviews have been so amazing that I bought a digital copy for myself and a signed edition for my mom who is a docent at Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad. It has sparked a good number of conversations about motivations and actions when facing injustice. At our church, we often ask, "What would Jesus do?" but in when it comes to the Underground Railroad, the question is "What would you do?" Most adults, like the school children in my mom's museum tours, consider themselves the stand-up and take action types. Most black people assert they would have fought back or escaped, and none would have been a slave owner although there were black slave owners too. Most white people are sure they would have worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad ferrying escaping slaves to freedom.

The problem is if history is correct then today's museum visitors, both black and white are wrong. Most of us are bystanders waiting for someone else to be the sacrificial lamb. Most historians agree even though 4 million were enslaved in 1860, less than 100,000 blacks ever took the risk to escape on the Underground Railroad. Those same historians tell us that while there were 27 million white Americans that only 10,000 risked their livelihoods to work on the Underground Railroad. Because of the many lessons, I learned from the Underground Railroad when facing injustice, I always ask myself "What will I do?" Will I advocate for the status quo; be a bystander; or will I risk my personal safety and fight against that issue? Taking a risk is not sending a check, attending a rally, or even voting. The Underground Railroad is the story of sacrifice. It's the story of people who sacrificed their jobs; sacrificed their homes, and even sacrificed their lives.

"RefuJesus" by David Hayward
If you still believe that you would have escaped or been a freedom conductor then prove it by looking around at conditions today. According to experts, over 42 million people are enslaved today around the world. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 33,000 Americans were killed with guns last year. The CDC also reports that nearly 700 million babies die in abortions each year. And  according to the United Nations, 65 million people are refugees or asylum seekers. The list of injustices goes on-and-on, and I still ask myself "What will I do?" Am I on the front-line each week putting myself out as a sacrificial lamb for a change? In Isaiah 53, the writer talks about the horrible conditions that ancient Jewish people were facing in Egypt, and of God's promise to send one who would serve the role of God's sacrificial lamb. Like the stories of the Underground Railroad, Isaiah 53 is about motivations, choices, and actions.

Too often when I see problems, I am too quick to criticize but unwilling to answer the defining question, "What will I do about it?" As Christians, I don't believe we are called to be bystanders but sadly, most of us gripe, but we won't take action. Most of us ignore the personal challenge to be a sacrificial lamb. However, if you are willing to be the sacrificed, then you are indeed a freedom-seeker, and I'll bet you would have been one of the 10,000 on the Underground Railroad.

Thought for today: What cause means enough for you to risk it all, or are you just another bystander?