Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Familiar but not Reconciled

In the spring of 1805, Charles Ball was working hard for his owner and dreamed of purchasing his freedom and that of his wife and children, who belonged to another man.  In Maryland’s decaying tobacco economy, many slave owners were letting African Americans purchase their freedom.  Ball was strong, intelligent and of even temper.  He had demonstrated the ability to find faster better ways of doing things.  He was excelling in the position in which he found himself. 
One morning as he was finishing up his breakfast, he saw through the window his owner talking emphatically with another white man.  When Ball emerged and began to unhitch his owner’s oxen, he felt someone behind him.  He turned to find himself surrounded by a dozen white men. One of them announced that Ball now belonged to him; Ball’s master had sold him.  The man said:  “You are my property now.  You must go with me to Georgia.”  Bound, they began to lead him away.  Ball asked if he might see his wife and children first.  The man replied that Ball could get another wife in Georgia.  Thus began Ball’s harrowing march to servitude in Georgia.
Edward E. Baptist writes of Ball on the journey to Georgia:

Ball’s emotions continued to oscillate.  Yet slowly he brought his interior more in line with the exterior face that men in coffles tried to wear.  “Time did not reconcile me to my chains,” Ball recalled, but “it made me familiar with them.” Familiar indeed—at night, as everyone slept, Ball crawled among his fellow prisoners, handling each link, looking for the weak one (The Half has Never Been Told—Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, p.24).
I found Ball’s words “reconcile” and “familiar” a telling juxtaposition. 

Life had allotted to  Ball a certain place in the structure of things—a piece of property to be bought and sold like livestock.  He was familiar with his chains.

Yet he was not reconciled to them.  He knew he was more than a piece of property.  He knew what the world was telling him about himself was a lie.  To reconcile himself to his chains would have been to believe that lie.
In modern terms we might say Ball was a well self-differentiated person, meaning, in part, he knew who he was apart from what others around him were telling him about himself.  When he looked at his reflection in a pond, he did not see what others saw.

Ball did not let the world tell him who he was.

Paul writes that we should no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).  The Phillips translation puts it this way:  “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”
Part of this remolding of our minds is to see ourselves through the grace-filled eyes of God rather than through the darkened eyes of others.  Our world tells the poor, the marginalized by birth or life or gender or ethnicity, and the strangers among us that they do not matter as much as others.  They are told their place in the world is fixed and they ought to accept it with grace.

God does not share in this system of categorization.  In scripture, God seems to show what has been called a predisposition for the poor, the outsider, and the powerless.  The Hebrews were told in Deuteronomy 10:17—19:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The world works hard to tell people who they are.  God sees thing a bit differently.

Ball was familiar with the world’s assessment, but he did not accept it.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State