One of my favorite Native American authors is Robert Francis. I had the opportunity to meet Robert when he spoke at the Theology Of The Land conference at George Fox Seminary a few years back. His writings have a way of bringing life to my soul because they help me see the gospel of Jesus through the eyes of a Cherokee man. Robert is a Chickamauga Cherokee. I was recently reading one of his books when I came across a profound connection he made to a scene found in Mark Twain’s famous book Huck Finn. This is a story of a poor white boy named Huck and a runaway black slave named Jim whose lives intersect as they share a raft on the Mississippi River.
As they make their way down river, deep inside, Huck is troubled because he knows that helping a runaway slave goes against everything he had been taught in church. Eventually as the story goes, Jim gets captured and then gets locked up at Reverend Phelp’s farm. And so the angst in Huck Finn’s soul intensifies as he considers what he should do. His experience in church in church would have taught him that slavery was a God approved institution. He also knew that the fires of hell await anyone who would dare help a runaway slave. So Huck decides to repent, and writes a letter to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, telling her where she can reclaim him. He must have breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that by writing this letter his sins had been washed away by doing the right thing. But things aren’t always that easy… After writing the letter, Huck starts to think back on all the memories he and Jim shared their raft. He remembers a moment when Jim called him, “the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now.” Jim’s words got to him. As Huck held the letter to Miss Watson in his hands listen to what he did next:
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a- trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
– Huckleberry Finn
Robert Francis describes this episode in Huckleberry Finn as the high point
of European-American literature; I see it as a great description of my life. I am a white male and I’ve been deeply influenced by Western Culture and Evangelical Christianity for many years. I’m learning to face the truth, and it is a hard truth, that much of what I’ve believed about the good news of Jesus over the years hasn’t been so good for some people. In fact, at times I’ve seen it to be oppressive.
Where Huck and I are different is that I’ve actually delivered a lot of those letters throughout my lifetime. The sad thing is that each time I delivered one of those letters; I thought I was doing the “right thing” for God. When I think about it now I can see that I was more concerned about me doing the right thing than I was about my relationship with others. I was taught to stand on solid doctrine, which usually meant that I had to be in complete compliance with everything the preacher was preaching. This was the way, the only way, I was taught to avoid becoming apostate and ending up in hell. Huck trembled, and for good reason, because his decision to help Jim escape would confirm to those back in his hometown church that he’d be signing his own one way ticket to hell. The beautiful thing about this story is that Huck had the courage to put his relationship with Jim before the racist doctrines he’d been taught in church. Imagine that, why it almost looks like something Jesus would do, oh wait, that is exactly how Jesus lived.
Like I said, I’ve sent a lot of letters out over the years and I’m not proud of that. But that’s no excuse for me now not to take responsibility for the ones I still hold in my hand. My letters of judgment were based on a Christian worldview that was handed down over the past 2,000 years and then taught to me by white male Christians. These men were products of their cultures and they were people just like me. We were taught to see our world through a western world ethnocentric lens. The problem with this is that most, not all, white male Christians don’t seem to see any problems with gender or race issues in the church. I never did, until people of different color and gender started to help me see it. Once I started to see things, I started asking questions. I started asking people different than me: “Has it been as good for you as it has been for me?” The answers that have come back to me are not fun to hear.
Once I started to see this hard reality of how relationships were suffering because of my stance, it forced me to make some choices. I could continue to dig my self righteous heels in deeper, and defend my ethnocentric theological turf, or I could choose relationships like Huck did, even if it was going to cost me.
One of the first letters I’ve had to tear up is the one I had written based on how I was raised and what I was taught in church to believe about women. For years I operated under a male dominated world view- complete with biblical texts to back it all up. I would argue that women can’t teach men, they can’t be pastors, they can’t be elders, they are inferior to men due to the fact that after all, Eve was the one who was deceived by the devil. It really wasn’t a problem for me due to the fact that I had been born at the top of the food chain. But it was a problem for my wife Cathy, and the years of living in this oppressive system had taken a toll on her spirit. When I look back at the churches we’ve belonged to over the years, until a few years ago, I can see how she (along with all the women in the congregation) had been shut out from a seat at the leadership table. Women were shut out because of their gender and it sad to say that many in those churches don’t seem to see that there is anything wrong with it. After all, its Biblical. You can also find references to the slavery in the Bible but most of us living today in the 21st century will not try to justify it in the way many Christians living in the 1800’s did. Yet when it comes to women in church, many choose to hold onto the same beliefs.
It took their trip together down the Mississippi river for Huck Finn to discover that Jim was not just a black man, or a runaway slave, he was his friend. And friends don’t hand one another into slavery. Friends also don’t just talk about injustice and freedom; eventually they know they must do something about it. Huck knew that tearing up his letter to Miss Watson was only going to be his first step. His second step would be to stand in solidarity with Jim and do everything he could do to help him to be free. Huck knew it was going to cost him, but it was a cost he was willing to pay.
A few years ago Cathy and I came to a decision that we would not regularly attend a church that imposed a male dominated hierarchy on their congregation. This was a big decision for me, and in the end not only did it set Cathy free, but it has set me free as well. No doubt many of my hometown brothers and sisters from years gone by will think I’ve gone off the deep end, listening to false teaching and on my way to hell. The ironic thing about all of this is that many women have told me that the male dominated hierarchy of the church feels like oppression and slavery to them; it feels like hell to be shut out and silenced.
I’ve still got more letters to tear up. I’m thankful for all my nonwhite friends, as well as the different women who continue to teach me how to become a more whole human being. The life of Jesus continues to inspire me. Since he lived his life in truth and solidarity with the poor, the suffering and the oppressed human beings in his community, I’d like to do the same in mine. Huck Finn chose a relationship over a letter, and the more I think about it, the more I see how Jesus did the same. I have a lot to learn about how to do this.
Love always chooses relationships over letters, always.