I can imagine a mingling of terror, fire, and joy within Rev. Henry Highland Garnet as he hobbled to the podium on a chilly February Sunday in 1865. There was certainly a sense of terror during the last months of the Civil War and its steadily climbing death toll of 620,000 souls. Garnet’s fire came from his drive to abolish the institution of slavery and its horrors. Joy must have overtaken him, considering he had been born into slavery not far from the podium from where he spoke. And now he stood as the first African American to deliver a speech within the United States Capitol.
Rev. Garnet, an avid anti-racist, aimed his speech at the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which had been passed by Congress a month earlier. Deconstructing the American problem, Garnet called out a demon, one that mocked the nation’s profession of Christian faith. In bringing his own testimony to bear, Garnet shared the circumstances of his humble birth, saying, “The first sight that met my eyes was a Christian mother enslaved by professed Christians.” He then pointed out American confusion over the demonic and the divine.
Let us view this demon, which the people have worshipped as a God. Come forth, thou grim monster, that thou mayest be critically examined! There he stands. Behold him, one and all. Its work is to chattelize man; to hold property in human beings. Great God! I would as soon attempt to enslave Gabriel or Michael as to enslave a man made in the image of God, and for whom Christ died. Slavery is snatching man from the high place to which he was lifted by the hand of God, and dragging him down to the level of the brute creation, where he is made to be the companion of the horse and the fellow of the ox. It tears the crown of glory from his head and as far as possible obliterates the image of God that is in him.
Even as the words flowed from his mouth, much of the nation opined that it was activists such as Garnet who were the demonic problem in America, those who would subject the nation to free negroes taking over and the threat this would pose to white women and hardworking white men. By the time of Garnet’s speech, America was deeply immersed in a reprobate narrative and had learned to employ a twisted Christian theology to support lies and delusions. For rightly positioned men, it was a golden age, where one could find absolution for almost any cruel and immoral practice; it was an age where the unpardonable sin was any attempt to exorcise the slavery demon from the American soul. Thus, 620,000 lives were expended to the cause of worshipping the “grim monster.”
Though Garnet’s call for the American demon to be cast out was met with hardy applause among the friendly crowd gathered at the Capitol, the actual removal of the foul spirit of slavery, injustice, racism, and oppression has proven to be virulently resistant proposition. It has remained an American pathogen through the short-lived reconstruction period, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the ritual of lynching, the Jim Crow years, legalized segregation, the prison-industrial complex, the targeting of black people by abusive policing, and lusts to build walls and separate families at America’s borders.
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan?
I find it interesting in today’s text, that of all the things Jesus is affecting in his miracle-based ministry, it is the issue of casting out the demons that gains the ire of the religious leaders. As was true in the time of Jesus and H. H. Garnet, today’s systems that serve to deform and debase the image of god still find lucrative employ throughout our world. Aided by attitudes of fear, scarcity, rivalry, and the inability for us to imagine better, our sisters and brothers continue to have crowns of glory torn from their heads.
It is the joyous work of the disciple to continually work in opposition to such systems and proclaim the reality of God’s identity, differentiating Him from the demons still worshipped as if they were Gods. This is our work with Jesus in the margins—among the voiceless, oppressed, enslaved, exploited, and unloved.
This work best points to what is to be worshipped and what is to be exorcised. I pray for grace and peace for God’s faithful servants as they proclaim liberty from demonic forces and show forth the God—constructed path of liberation.
Tim Merrill Street Psalms Fellow
Founder and Director | Watu Moja Camden, New Jersey