Sunday, March 11, 2007

1 Chron 12:32 report, 33: The relevance of the Olaudah Equiano story

Over the past several weeks, we have begun to look at how we, as a Gospel-blessed region, can contribute to the positive transformation of the emerging global era, in the face of a myriad challenges and confusions -- in which lurk several dangerous threats.

Among other things, that led us to briefly look into the significance of the Amazing Grace story, and the three men touched by grace who form the centre of that movie: William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Olaudah Equiano. Since Equiano is culturally close to us, and indeed can be counted as a Caribbean person [having been a slave for an extended period in Montserrat], let us now focus on highlights from his story. For, Equiano was an evangelical Christian and African abolitionist, who had been kidnapped and enslaved in his homeland as a child then was sold into servitude in the Caribbean, but who eventually managed to obtain his legal and spiritual freedom, and has many lessons for us through the still telling impact of his own story in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative . . .

A taste of that story can be seen from the closing words of Chapter 2, where he has told of his early life and of how he was taken and sold into slavery, ending up on a slave ship bound for Barbados. Along the way, he vividly ilustrates the brutality and horrors of the slave trade. For instance, having himself been separated from his sister who had been kidnapped with him in Africa, he then speaks of the routine and callous separation of families of newly imported slaves in the Caribbean:
I remember in the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men's apartment, there were several brothers, who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting. O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.
It is little wonder then, that he -- a victim himself -- had significant impact as a spokesman and writer against slavery, especially the slave trade. However - as with John Newton (who returned to his accustomed trade in the early 1770's [i.e. before there was an organised antislavery movement], but who finally left the sea and became a Minister of the Gospel and an antislavery leader) -- this was after quite a personal evolution. For, even after his conversion and purchasing of his freedom, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to save John Annis (a fellow freedman) from re-enslavement, he became involved in a slave-owning venture on the Mosquito Coast of Central America:
Equiano . . . went out to the Caribbean again, in 1775, and this time he became involved in a project to set up a new plantation - or colony - on the Caribbean coast of Central America, probably in present day Nicaragua. This 'adventure' seems somewhat problematic to us today as Equiano was involved in two projects which are specifically associated with European colonisation. First of all he appoints himself as a Christian missionary, hoping that he can bring Christianity to the native Americans in the area. Secondly, he and his associates buy slaves to work on the plantation and Equiano is clearly involved in this at a high level, although he is at some pains to point out that he did 'every thing I could to comfort the poor creatures, and render their condition easy'. We have to remember that in the mid 1770s there was as yet no organised anti-slavery movement and, indeed, there were very few individuals who thought that slavery should or even could be abolished outright. There were, however, a growing number of people who argued that just because people were slaves it didn't mean that they should be treated cruelly. These people sought to ameliorate the conditions of the slaves by stopping corporal punishment, and by making sure the slaves had access to decent housing, food and medical care. Equiano can be placed with the ameliorationists at this point, although clearly he is not yet an abolitionist.
Thereafter, he became a part of a project to resettle Africans in Sierrra Leone. He had the integrity to expose the corruption and warn on the resulting logistical defects in the project. This cost him his job, commissary of provisions and stores. Unfortunately, precisely because of the same resulting improper provisions, only sixty of three hundred and sevcenty four people shipped there survived the first four years. It was after these adventures, that he wrote his autobiography and became a public spokesman against the slave trade and slavery.

While the above is a mere smattering of excerpted points from Equiano's indeed "interesting" story, they already speak powerfully to us as we seek ways and means to promote godly transformation in an emerging global world tottering on the brink of global catastrophe:
1] Here we see a victim of our painful Caribbean history of slavery, overcoming by God's grace, and finding a way to positively contribute to his world, thus becoming a model for reformation leadership.

2] His story intersects the same triangle of global forces that so marks the crises and opportunties of our own age: [a] the nominally Christian but too often apostate and/or largely secularised North, [b] the partly Islamised South, and [c] the emerging Church of the South. (In this regard, his appeal to the "nominal Christians" of the North in the name of the God whom they have acknowledged, is especially telling.)

3] The focus of that appeal is also quite significant: he points to the pivot of morality, the Golden Rule [Mt 7:12 etc], and uses it to prophetically appeal forcefully in the name of God for repentance and reformation.

4] Nowadays, of course, given the dominance of evolutionary materialism and secularisation leading to dismissal of Judaeo-Christian ethics, such an appeal would most luikely be brushed aside with a rhetorical barb or two. But in fact, the root principle of sustainability is the self-same Golden Rule, in another form. (To see that, reflect on what the Bruntland principle means when it says that development initiatives are only sustainable if they allow usto meet our needs equitably today, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Is that not simply another way of saying that we should do as we would be done by?)

5] In this light, it is sadly telling that the specifically evangelical Christian dimension of Equiano's story is often censored out today:
[By the early 1770's he] had been exploring the scriptures and examining his own faith for some time, but it was on a voyage to Spain that he tells us that he saw 'the bright beams of heavenly light' and was 'born again'. To many secular twentieth-century readers this has seemed like the least important part of his narrative, and in some editions of The Interesting Narrative the section describing Equiano's conversion is cut out entirely. But to many readers in the eighteenth century - and, of course, to Equiano himself - this really was the key moment of his life.
Thus, plainly, there are many lessons we can draw from Equiano's example and story, as we take up the challenge of the unfinished mission of the Church to, and from, the Caribbean. END

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