Dylan Penningroth: Unearthing Hidden Facets of Black History

Dylan Penningroth: Unearthing Hidden Facets of Black History

BLACK HISTORY DETECTIVE: Northwestern University professor Dylan C. Penningroth was named one of 2012’s MacArthur Fellows. His ‘Genius Award’ will facilitate his ongoing study of ways that African American slaves participated in the legal realm of public life, even before emancipation. (Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

The annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” Award winners always offers us a moment to pause and marvel at the richness and unconventionality of the intellectual and artistic game changers among us. They are scientists and poets, musicians and mathematicians, filmmakers and neurosurgeons. Their backgrounds are as varied as their vocations. But they all share a common creative brilliance. Each of the 23 award recipients, chosen for their unique intellectual contributions to society and culture, was awarded an unrestricted $500,000 grant to celebrate and support their work. (Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if the MacArthur judges were fans of UrbanFaith?)

For those of us who follow such things, each year there are usually one or two winners who especially stand out among the honorees and grab your interest. Last year, for me, it was Jeanne Gang, the Chicago-based architect whose adventurous and eco-friendly designs led the MacArthur judges to observe that she challenges “the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form.”

Of the 23 honorees announced this week, it was the work of historian Dylan Penningroth that caught my immediate attention. Penningroth, a 41-year-old associate professor of history at Northwestern University, explores the concepts of property ownership as it related to African American life under slavery and during the era following slavery’s abolition. “I study the ownership of property by slaves,” he says in a video at the MacArthur website. “I wanted to figure out how was it that slaves were able to own property when they themselves were property.”

Consequently, Penningroth has spent thousands of hours digging into historical court records, sermons, and slave narratives to piece together the antebellum and post-antebellum experience of black Americans. His research reveals a surprisingly robust participation of African American slaves in public life — owning land, getting married, making contracts, suing people. Penningroth explains, “The thing that studying law during this period has shown me is that African Americans were in it. They were participating in it. … As long as those claims didn’t threaten white supremacy, many whites were perfectly happy to let them make those claims.”

By studying this obscured aspect of the African American experience, Penningroth is breaking new ground in American history and revealing important antecedents to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Chicago Tribune culture critic Howard Reich keenly recognizes this dimension. He writes of Penningroth’s work, “Though at first glance this might seem like merely a historical curiosity, in fact it points to a people strategizing under oppressive circumstances and setting the stage for expanding their rights in the 20th century.”

Penningroth also draws important connections between the early participation of African Americans in the law and the gradual development of the black church. According to Penningroth in the Tribune interview, the descendants of freed slaves “used the law to build the independent black church. We think of the church as the seed of the civil rights movement, and it was that. But the church was also a legal institution.” Though whites owned the church buildings during the slavery era, once emancipation arrives, the law allows black people to “build this religious institution, which is so central to black history,” adds Penningroth. “At the same time, building the black church pulls them into the law.”

As Penningroth continues his research, no doubt with added impetus from his newly conferred MacArthur grant, his work bears watching. “This fellowship is enormously important to me,” he says, clearly grateful. “It’s going to make it possible for me to take a story that might otherwise be limited in time and space and make it a bigger story.” A story that sheds new light not only on African American history, but American history.

‘Obamacare’ Is About Access, Not Excess

‘Obamacare’ Is About Access, Not Excess

MASS REPEAL: Calls for the dismantling of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation have gone into overdrive since the Supreme Court ruled the law as constitutional last month. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)

The federal government has not taken over health care. The federal government has taken over access to health care. There is a difference.

When I was a student at Morehouse College in the early 1970s, activists launched a campaign to address the shortage of African American doctors in the state of Georgia. They produced bumper stickers that asked “Only 100 Black doctors in Georgia?” with a map of the state’s 139 counties in the background. With many of those 100 doctors concentrated in urban areas such as Atlanta, people voiced clear concern over access to health care for thousands of African Americans in rural, poor and remote areas. Morehouse College President Hugh Gloster responded to this concern by founding the Morehouse School of Medicine, which joined Howard University Medical School, Meharry Medical College and the Charles Drew School of Medicine (similarly founded to address access issues in the Los Angeles area) as the nation’s only predominantly Black medical schools.

Were the government to have taken over health care, the government would be proffering medical diagnoses, prescribing medicine, and performing surgery. This is not the case. What the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld on June 28 was not government-controlled health care, but a federal system that expands access to health care for millions of Americans, mostly poor and many people of color. In a country where national strength finds measure on barometers of military might and economic prosperity, Scripture connects a nation’s well being to its care for the poor. In the fifth chapter of the biblical book bearing his name, Jeremiah challenges his nation, saying:

5:26 For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.

5:27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich.

5:28 They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.

5:29 Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?

And among the judgments God speaks through Ezekiel, health care stands prominently:

34:4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

Interestingly, the arguments against the healthcare reform upheld by the Supreme Court do focus on the problem of systemic access, and the price to be paid for it — whether the price is monetary in the form of the penalty for failure to carry health insurance or individual liberty in the form of governmental coercion. Yet in both cases, the plight of the poor and needy, the sick and infirm, goes unaddressed. How to make health care accessible for those on the margins of society receives little attention from those who would dismantle “Obamacare.” Promises to repeal the legislation without offering a clear alternative for how we as a nation make health care available and accessible to all persons reduces “the least of these” to political pawns, whose lives represent fodder for a political machine designed to appeal to the self-interests of America’s middle class.

UPHOLDING THE LAW: Supporters of President Obama’s healthcare reform rallied outside the Supreme Court chambers prior to the Court’s historic ruling on June 28. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)

Such a move must be resisted by President Obama and supporters of the legislation. The president campaigned for much of 2008 by appealing to that same middle class. He has lost some of their support with his championing of this version of reform, but that is precisely because our electoral system makes it difficult to appeal to a moral high ground as a strategy for garnering support (unless the issues revolve around sexuality and/or abortion). Some who have been disappointed by the president but still support him for reelection need to become more vocal in raising this issue above individual self interest to the moral high ground, much as Jim Wallis and Sojourners put forth the notion that poverty is a moral issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.

The question of access to health care ought matter significantly to people of faith. But it is easy to see how a church whose own theology promises personal prosperity apart from systemic issues of justice can miss the mark of its high calling to care for the poor. Indeed, it is as if a central claim of many messages draws directly from the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, better known as Reverend Ike: “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”

Our ministry to the sick must move beyond prayer and visitation, and our work amongst the poor requires more than acts of charity. Justice questions continue to loom large in a nation with rampant inequality in quality of life, minimized access to maximal care, and economic stumbling blocks that tie the quality of health to possession of wealth. The spiritual gift of healing is not restricted to those in a specific economic category. If God’s divine, miraculous intervention to bring healing cannot be tied to social status, why should not a national healthcare philosophy be similarly non-discriminatory?

The Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act provides the opportunity for the various agencies: government, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and employers to move with plans for implementation. It is good news for many who currently have little if any access to health care.

While many decry the “intrusion of big government,” an unanswered question for Christians who have opposed healthcare reform is “how has the church mobilized on behalf of the sick and the poor?” In other words, could it be that the intrusion of “big government” in part reflects a gaping hole in our mission to care for the least of these through ministries of mercy, prayer for healing, and advocacy for the oppressed? Are we so busy with “destiny and prosperity” that our attentions have been taken from our responsibilities to fulfill Jesus mission in Luke 4 and Matthew 25?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.

To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?

The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.

• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.

• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.

• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.

• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.

“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.

“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”

But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.

“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.

“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”

Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.

In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.

What do you think?

Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

Trayvon Martin, Patience, and Self-Reflection

SEEKING HEALING: On March 31, congregants prayed for slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin and his shooter, George Zimmerman, during a service at the First Church of Seventh Day Adventists in Washington, D.C. The prayer was focused on racial healing and asked that people exercise patience to allow the judiciary to follow its course to bring about justice. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

Many words have been and will be written about the death of Trayvon Martin, and the cocktail of grief, outrage, and confusion will likely linger long after the matter is resolved in one way or another. The circumstances of this unfortunate event have directed our attention to some of the challenges we face as a nation and as human beings, with considerable focus on the persistent difficulties connected to race. Whether or not Martin was racially profiled, this tragedy presents the opportunity to take paths that will lead us to better expressions of our humanity.

As director of Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics I had the privilege of participating in an event entitled “Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War” (co-sponsored with The Raven Foundation). Two points raised at this thought-provoking conference can be helpful as we consider the long shadow of our history with race, particularly for followers of Christ. First, I continue to hear the echo of the following statement (paraphrased here) from Luke Harlow of Oakland University: “At the time of the Civil War, white supremacy was essentially held as an article of faith.” By this, he meant most citizens in the United States, North and South. Upon hearing this, I thought, No wonder it is so difficult for us to overcome the negative legacy of race.

The fact that racial superiority was so unquestioned suggests that the social, cultural, and political fabric of the Modern West in general and the United States in particular was constructed with a view of human beings that could be generalized as “whites” (or ethnic Europeans, who admittedly had their clashes) and “others.” Though the latter were identified according a range of racial categories, they definitely were not regarded as equal to “whites,” even among Christians. Of course there were those who did regard all humans as equal, but this was truly a minority report.

While many changes have occurred in the 150 years since the Civil War began, race consciousness remains in our social and cultural DNA like a stubborn mutation, rendering it difficult for us to truly and consistently regard “others” as equal before the eyes of God and fully human. This problem of otherness is not new, but it has manifested in a particularly malevolent fashion in the construction of racial identity. Today, this means that though great changes have occurred that would have been unimaginable 150 years ago, much more needs to change if we are to really live together as caring neighbors, at least in the church if not elsewhere. Yet this is an area where Christians continue to struggle, and many find themselves exhausted in reconciliation efforts.

The stubbornness of our race problem could lead us to despair, but taking a long view in light of where we have come from instead reminds us that we must have great patience as we pursue fundamental change. This patience is not the twin of apathy, but the disposition of steadiness and faithfulness in the face of at times imperceptible transformation. Change has occurred and can occur again.

Second, and more briefly, Dr. Tracy McKenzie, chair of Wheaton College’s history department, urged us to consider the difference between moral judgment and moral reflection. Whether it is the views held by most citizens 150 years ago or today in moments of racial conflict, moral judgment is the easy path which leads us to say “I can’t believe they held/hold such views and did such things.” Moral judgment keeps us separate from those we find reprehensible or disappointing. With moral reflection, while we may be surprised, disappointed, or offended by the ideas and actions we see in others, we are also prompted to consider our own moral architecture. In the question of race and otherness, moral reflection helps us to ask: What would I have thought if I were living at that time; how do I think about those that I readily regard as “other” from me; and does someone’s “otherness” make it easier for me to conclude that they are deficient in their humanness in some way and thus make it easier for me to disregard Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself?

Moral reflection does not refuse to identify moral failings, but it leads us to look for them in places we might not peer otherwise. Moral reflection can prompt us to look at ourselves, our church, and our world in a way that brings us to a place of repentance that leads to transformation of life and even society.

Steady, faithful patience and moral reflection hardly exhaust our strategies for changing how we honor God in addressing the problem of race, but I find them helpful. What helps you?

This essay was adapted from an article at The Christian Post and was used by permission.

Gay Marriage Paranoia

Gay Marriage Paranoia

GAY UNION: Reginald Stanley and Rocky Galloway became the first homosexual couple to legally wed in Washington, D.C. in March 2010. (Newscom Photo)

“Lord, we’re definitely living in the end times.”

“It’s about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

I heard these complaints from callers to a Christian radio talk show in Virginia alarmed by New York’s June 24 vote legalizing gay marriage. Similar cries are being voiced across the country among Christians who apparently believe homosexuality is THE unpardonable sin and biggest threat to marriage. America is headed for hell, they say.

But government legalization of gay marriage may be a blessing in disguise that the church in America needs today. Gay marriage isn’t what Christians should worry about. Conformity is the bigger threat.

Romans 12:2 warns:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Separation of church and state is not just a philosophy concerning the relationships between governments and organized religious institutions. It’s ultimately about the church (people) being the moral conscience that influences the nation (society), as the Founders intended. When people of faith become too close and comfy with society’s secular standards, we get negatively influenced. This is evident in the case of marriage and divorce rates.

The accuracy of divorce rates has been questioned because of difficulties obtaining clear data, but according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national divorce rate is about 34 percent.  According to a study by the Barna Group, the Christian divorce rate is 32 percent. A U.S. Census study released in August indicates that southeastern states have the highest divorce levels. Explanations are that people there tend to marry younger, have less education and lower incomes compared to, for example, their northeastern counterparts whose average divorce rates are the lowest. With the Bible Belt leading the way in divorce, and the national Christian rate mirroring the nation, we’re certainly not the “salt of the Earth” God intended when it comes to marriage.

Not only lay people, but many of Christianity’s most well-known figures are divorcees, even multiple divorcees. Their scandals read like the pop culture celebrity breakups blogsites. How can Christians claim to believe that marriage represents Jesus Christ’s love and eternal bond with the church and is between a man and woman only, yet have equally high divorce rates? How is it that the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) community that many Christians say is headed for the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah is a stronger advocate for committed marriages?

Could it be that Christians have “conformed” as the Scripture warns?

America’s Founding Fathers wisely established the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the disastrous results the church/state union had in Europe. The bond has been a bad dealfor the church for centuries since Emperor Constantine I wedded the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church in A.D. 313 for strategic benefit. Christianity grew and spread, but at the cost of much horrific state-motivated sins, such as the Crusades, colonialism, and slavery, that were sanctioned by the church. Christianity’s moral stature suffered.

Secular and spiritual motives on marriage have often clashed. The marriage debate was at the heart of Protestants splintering from Catholics as King Henry VIII established the Church of England because the Pope refused to annul his marriage. The king wanted to wed a different woman who could bare him an heir to the throne.

If we believe marriage is under God’s higher authority, why would we need the government to change the Constitution to define marriage to our liking? Our greater concern should be that the government never infringe on church freedoms, including whom individual churches choose to marry. Instead of petitioning the government to adopt a definition that not even all Christian agree on (there are also LGBT Christians), show by example why marriage between a man and woman works best. Be the conscience of society by significantly reducing the Christian divorce rate. Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites who have conformed to the world.

I’ve been married once, for nearly 20 years to the same woman. We’ve successfully reared three children into adulthood. It has been wonderful and challenging; my shortcomings and stubbornness over the years haven’t helped. Marriage is not easy and there are situations where couples are better off parting ways. I realized this at age 12, watching inside the courtroom as my parents split.

Still, as Christians our best witness to society on marriage is to put our energy into making our marriages work, not speculating about the end times, or pressing to block two consenting adult citizens from pursuing their equal rights to privacy and happiness under the government’s laws as guaranteed by our Constitution.

In the end, only God’s judgment of all of us — straight or gay — matters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.