“A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when in abundance lay moldering in the safe and smoke-house, and out pious mistress was aware of the fact; and yet that mistress and her husband would kneel every morning, and pray that God would bless them in basket and store!”-Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17 (NRSV).
I thought I would post these two excerpts side by side to allow the emptiness of faith without works to sink in. The image Douglass describes as a standard norm during American slavery. In his autobiography, Douglass details how he and fellow slaves had to eat cornmeal mush, had to wear the same beat down or tattered scantily clothing for seasons on end while their slaveholders enjoyed lavish clothing and bountiful luxury from their profits from slave labor.
Yet, these same slaveholders were devout, in their sense of the word, Christians that saw slavery as a divine mandate to be carried against property, not humans. These same slaveholders were sometimes preachers, church clergy, and widely respected officials but yet they didn’t count slaves as human.
Equally important, think of all the sermons, advocacy, and legitimizing the Mark of Cain as a defense of slavery in Christianity should also be considered.
These same slaveholders saw their faith simply justified by their faith alone and not by their treatment to the least of those in society, the slaves. They accumulated wealth from massive forms of slave labor. Douglass even mentions that many slaveholders had an overwhelming number of slaves on different properties that they didn’t even know their names. Similarly, slaves didn’t even know their masters because they were inundated by the vast system of overseers and managers.
How similar this is to the practice of capitalism in our modern world. One could argue, which I’ve read, that capitalism originated from slave labor. Regardless if you believe that or not, the mantra has been consistent: profit, profit, profit.
This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church can boldly declare regarding the Seventh Commandment “Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism (2424). ”
Yes, indeed there are a great number of atheists, a lot of Black people still find this difficult, who are hardened by the injustices advanced by Christian slaveholders in the past. Recently, I saw a headline that read a prominent Black comedian has questioned the Bible’s legitimacy when it has been used to uphold white supremacy.
Even within Holy Mother Church, some diocese practiced racism. I’m reminded of Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Black diocesan priest, had to travel to Rome in order to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders because seminaries denied him.
But while bad apples always grow, they don’t spoil the bag. No indeed! When evil is around, goodness thrives. God rises up saints to be prophets so they can bring people back to an authentic Christian life.
Look at St. Katharine Drexel, who was an American multimillionaire religious sister that paved the way for missions to colored people. From her million-dollar inheritance, she helped create Xaver University, the ONLY historically Black Catholic college in America, and helped with civil rights advancement for colored people for many generations after slavery ended.
On the topic of faith, work, the dignity of human people and Christ, there are a few important things to consider that are imperative.
1) In Jesus Christ, we are all united. Our biological or cultural identifies are shattered when we’re one in him. Jesus transcends the natural order of the world and membership in his Kingdom isn’t based on socioeconomics or creed, race, or sex.
2) Faith and works are inseparable markers of Christian faith. With faith, the Holy Spirit helps us perform divine acts of charity that aid in our salvation.
3) The Body of Christ always needs to be purified from sinful individuals and divisive ideologies that disenfranchise or exclude members from full participation in the sacramental life that Christ established and extends grace in.
4) The dignity of workers is an imperative requirement-this is exactly what the Prophet Isaiah spoke of when he mentioned engaging in religious practices that oppressed and subjugated the marginalized ( Isaiah 58:3-7).
5) Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of faith. His model of mercy, love, are the roots of the Church. Let his model be the supreme lead into eternal life.
How does one reconcile being a Christian without works is beyond belief. May we all grow to be better lovers of our neighbor and show Jesus’ love and mercy toward others.
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