Sunday, February 3, 2013

Do You Believe in Miracles?

I'm currently reading Milton C. Sernett's Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Duke, 2007), which discusses the way Harriet Tubman's life has been interpreted and used by others since her own day.  It's a curious book, as revealing of Sernett's own perspective and its limits as of anyone else's.  One example, not atypical: when Sernett discusses comparisons between Tubman and Joan of Arc, he says, "So powerful was the legend of Joan of Arc that she was beatified by Pius X in 1909" (121).  So she was, but she was declared a saint by Benedict XV in 1920.  Why mention only her beatification?  It's like saying that Barack Obama's political ambitions were so effective that he was elected to the US Senate in 2004, while neglecting the small detail that he also was elected President a few years later.

But what got me going today was Sernett's discussion of Tubman's religious beliefs.  Like Joan of Arc, Tubman claimed to have visions and to hear voices that guided her throughout her life, including her career as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.   Tubman's was more successful than Joan: she was never caught by white authorities as she traveled between the (more or less) free North and the slave South, and she never lost one of the seventy or so people she guided.  (Joan, after a few spectacular successes, was allowed by her divine guides to fall into the hands of the English, who burned her as a witch.)

Sernett discusses the difficulty Tubman's religiosity gave some of her white abolitionist allies, especially Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white woman who wrote the first book-length biography of Tubman in 1869, based partly on interviews and conversations with her subject.  Bradford came from respectable Presbyterian stock, and while she and Tubman were both Christians, their Christianities took distinct forms.  Bradford touched delicately on this disconnect when she wrote, "Here was not the religion of a morning and evening prayer at stated times, but when she felt a need, she simply told God of it, and trusted Him to set the matter right" (quoted by Sernett, 132).

Sernett tries to place Tubman in a specific Christian tradition:
Tubman's sense of a personal God, immanent and accessible, correlates well with evidence found in many ex-slaves' accounts of their religious conversions and in the spiritual autobiographies of other African American women of the nineteenth century, such as Jarena Lee, Rebecca Jackson, and Amanda Smith.  Visionary experiences, an extensive dream language, a belief in an immanent and personal deity, and notions of having the "charm" have also been associated with black revolutionaries such as Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser [138-9].
This is true enough, and I don't dispute that elements of African religion found their way into African-American slave Christianity.  But what Sernett describes here is nothing specifically African-American, except maybe the "charm," attributed to Tubman by some of the people she liberated, that enabled her to escape capture for so long.  (But compare the phrase "a charmed life," which isn't specifically African-American either.)  Visions, belief in an immanent and personal God who talks back when you talk to him, and of course the sense of having been personally chosen by him to carry out a mission, have also been associated with many non-African Christians: Jesus of Nazareth, the apostle Paul, Moses, Joan of Arc, William Blake, and many, many others.

Bradford's nervousness about Tubman's faith is better explained in other terms.  One is that visionary prophetic individuals are often troublemakers, not as respectful or obedient as duly constituted authority thinks they should be.  Claiming a direct line to a deity is a way of going over the heads of human authorities, who generally have their own divine mandate.  This is why Christianity had to get its prophets and visionaries under control as it became a respectable Imperial religion, though outbreaks of such people continued throughout Christian history.  Religious "enthusiasm" was also associated (at least by the upper classes) with the lower classes, as well as with women and people of color.  Bradford therefore was walking a rather fine line: she admired Tubman greatly, but since her book was aimed at an audience of well-to-do white establishment Christians, she had to find a way to depict Tubman's religiosity sympathetically, in a way that wouldn't alienate her readers.

I find this pattern interesting because it's so common, and so general.  Today's liberal Christians, eager to claim Jesus as one of their own, like to depict him as a nonconformist, a long-haired hippie who preached a rather nonspecific regimen of Peace and Love.  Jesus wasn't a liberal, nor was he probably long-haired.  But when I point out that Jesus was also a preacher of hellfire and damnation, a faith healer who drove out demons and proclaimed the imminent end of the world, they aren't happy.  That kind of Jesus is too much like the fundamentalists they hate and deride.  Professional Bible scholars are often torn between the disreputable figure Jesus cuts in the gospels and their personal religious commitments, so they tend to play down his apocalyptic teaching and his faith-healing -- even his resurrection.  Even quite conservative scholars brush aside Paul's claim that he received the Gospel he taught not from Jesus' original followers, but directly from the resurrected and ascended Jesus.  But if they believe in miracles, unlike the skeptical secular liberal critical scholars who try to destroy simple Christians' faith, why not take Paul at his word?  Why don't they believe that the early Christians prophesied like the prophets of old, when the Spirit of Jesus possessed them in worship?  Many fundamentalist scholars -- let alone liberal ones -- don't like practices like speaking in tongues or prophecy because of their denominational affiliation, so they ignore the plain meaning of Scripture when it suits them.

I don't believe that Harriet Tubman was in personal direct communication with Yahweh either, but that doesn't make her less fascinating.  She wasn't the only ex-slave who returned to the South to free others, but she was successful and charismatic, and she consistently evaded capture though she was a high-profile fugitive with a price (exaggerated by later devotees) on her head.  Just as a secularist, I want to stress that she didn't work alone, nor did she found the Underground Railroad: she worked with an already existing network of people, black and white, who hated slavery and were willing to defy state and federal law to help slaves to freedom.  (I can't help but wonder what President Obama or other mainstream politicians would have to say about her if he were dealing with such a person or such a network today.  It wouldn't be pretty, I'm sure of that.)  I think that Milton Sernett is as uneasy about Tubman's religiosity as Sarah Bradford was, and I wonder why.  Does he feel tempted to believe she did get help and instruction from Yahweh?  I don't feel any such temptation, if only because if Yahweh hated slavery enough to intervene in the antebellum US (which you couldn't prove from the way slavery is treated in the Bible), he could have done so much more effectively than by helping one woman lead seventy slaves out of thousands to an ambiguous liberty in the Northern states.