Why I’m standing on the shoulders of Frederick Douglass

February 14, 2018

“I can’t believe I grew up in Mississippi my entire life and didn’t learn a thing about Fannie Lou Hamer.”

Last month, I kicked off a book club in my living room. My hope had been to gather together a big, multi-ethnic group of women from all different stages of life—married, single, house full of children, childless, stay-at-home-moms, full-time professionals—to discuss 12 books about topics that have shaped our culture.

Our first meeting, though, turned out to be four black women—all of us in our mid-to-late 20s, and early 30s. We talked about everything from being black in the South to our city’s brand new Civil Rights Museum, to Fannie Lou Hamer.

After our book club, one of my friends asked, “If more white people do end up coming . . . do you think we’ll speak this honestly about our experience?” Will we still tell our story?        

An inheritance       

It might seem odd for me to start an article about Frederick Douglass waxing eloquent about book clubs, four black women, and Fannie Lou Hamer. But, when I was growing up, Douglass was my gateway to all of these things.

My first introduction to Frederick Douglass was simply as a writer. I was homeschooled and, for me, black history wasn’t just something that was segmented away from my education for a special month each year (although my mom made sure to usher in the theme of February with pomp, circumstance, and a round of Eyes On The Prize on VHS). Douglass’s autobiography was presented to me as a work of literature, foremost. And as an aspiring author myself, I devoured every word.                        

Of course, though, as a little black girl, I saw his words not just as his own memoir, but as a part of my story—which can be traced back about six generations, to slaves owned by a German family in Tennessee. I don’t know much else about my family’s origins, and I’m not alone in that fact. But I do know that Douglass spoke up for them. I know the name of one of their most dynamic advocates.

And so did Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi spitfire who so many Mississippi students never learned about. Because, in a very real sense, Fannie Lou, and Martin Luther King, Jr, and Medgar Evers, and fill in the blank with the Civil Rights champion of your choice—they all stand firmly on the foundation that Douglass built.

A foundation 

That foundation began sprouting up almost 200 years ago in Talbot County, Maryland. Douglass never knew his exact birthday, but he chose to celebrate it on February 14.

After escaping from slavery in 1838, Douglass threw in his lot with famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who encouraged the young man to tell his story. Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass stirred a diverse surge of reaction, from sympathy in the North to outrage in the South.

Because of his boldness, the good, Southern Christians he was lambasting questioned his devotion to the God they claimed to serve. In response, Douglass wrote:            

[B]etween the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.                        

And he didn’t stop writing even though he had to move overseas to escape recapture. After his freedom was purchased by advocates in the North, Douglass returned to America and championed the rights of slaves (and the rights of women, notably at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848), penning more memoirs, delivering fiery speeches, and proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the caricature of blacks as being best or only suited for menial labor and the lowest rung in the American caste system was categorically false.            

A lost history

Douglass lived to see slavery abolished and died just before the systemic terrorism of the Jim Crow South became a legislated reality (with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1886).

If we’re not careful, it could be easy to relegate Douglass’s words to a specific time and place in history, mistakenly thinking that the sharp precision of the truth he spoke was only needed during the time he existed.

But, I recently read a headline that proclaimed that only 8 percent of high school seniors could pinpoint slavery as the leading cause of the Civil War. The number was circulated with incredulity: what are these teachers thinking? They’re probably thinking what one student of mine said during a unit on slavery: “It ended 200 years ago. I don’t get why people are still so obsessed with talking about it.” It’s old news.

A history reclaimed

My student rolled her eyes because talking about slavery—particularly with her black teacher—made her uncomfortable. And, generally, it’s discomfort that keeps us from digging into any hard truth. We don’t want to talk about slavery anymore, because it’s “dwelling in the past.” Frederick Douglass was needed back then, but we think we’re all good now.                        

It’s true that, because of the foundation built by Douglass and others, black Americans have overcome so much more than we ever thought imaginable. Because he was bold enough to separate himself from the hypocritical Christianity that surrounded him, he challenged America to live out the implications of the gospel that they claimed to prize.                        

In many ways (though not in all), we are fighting completely different battles than Douglass was. But even still, we are fighting them standing high upon his shoulders. Two hundred years later, I’m living a life Douglass could only dream of—and in the Deep South, no less! And I’m gathering together a group of women to talk about his and other stories.                        

Because, yes, like Fannie Lou, and Frederick before her, we will speak up.

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn. Key speakers include Russell Moore, Benjamin Watson, John Piper, Jackie Hill-Perry, Matt Chandler, Eric Mason and many others. Learn more here.

Jasmine Holmes

Jasmine L. Holmes is the author of Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope. She is also a contributing author for Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Our Identity in Christ and His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God. She and her husband, Phillip, are parenting … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24