April 14, 2011 by Nicole
This week, I am teaching a wonderful novel written by Ernest Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying. Of almost every piece of literature I teach during the college semester, this is one that nearly all of my students enjoy and actually read (as opposed to sitting silently in class because they have skipped the assigned reading for the day), and about which we always have a good deal of intense and profound conversation.
If you are not familiar with the book, it is set on a Louisiana plantation in the late 1940s, and is about a young 18 year old black man named Jefferson who is falsely accused of murdering a white shop owner, simply because he is a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. In his closing argument, Jefferson’s lawyer, who is white, argues that Jefferson is innocent, but tries to convince the all white jury that Jefferson lacks the ability to premeditate this crime because he is an unintelligent, empty-headed fool who is not capable of planning anything. As the lawyer says, he would just as soon send a hog to the chair as this boy, for it would amount to about the same thing. Within the first pages of the book, Jefferson is condemned to be executed by electrocution.
To make a long story short, the protagonist Grant Wiggins, a fairly young, educated black man who is the local school teacher, is sent to teach Jefferson how to die like a man, and not the “hog” that Jefferson’s lawyer (and by proxy the racist white community) has labeled him.
Obviously, I cannot do justice to Mr. Gaines’ story here. But what occurs to me each and every time I have taught this novel, going on nearly 5 semesters now, is that this story is a Biblical allegory that, while about race, also transcends race.
Clearly, racism is an evil that has made thorough work of creating hatred and division between people because of the color of their skin. This is likewise true for many of us as Christians as well. Rather than being about race, however, it is about denomination.
As I think about how much enmity and mistrust there exists because of misinformation we’ve been fed because of how “my” denomination does things or how “your” denomination worhips God, it disgusts and bewilders me. I have heard and known Catholics in my own past who have sincerely believed that those who are not Catholic will go to hell. Likewise, as I mentioned before, I have been the target of the same ugliness at my husband’s ordination because I am a Catholic. While I will not share what was said, I can tell you that I was deeply hurt. Essentially, it was implied that my relationship with God was not genuine–it was severely flawed. I can tell you that I left that meeting feeling as though I was anathema–people like me were spiritual “hogs.”
As Paul writes in Romans 4:16, 22-25:
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham.. . .22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
So, ask yourself, if you hesitate to love or accept someone because of the path on which he or she earnestly, sincerely, and devoutly walks with God, do you believe that you somehow possess God’s ability to see into someone’s heart? That the virtue of your faith affords you the right to judge other Christians? We read the same Bible, we love the same Christ, we worship the same Lord for the sacrifice made to ransom us from eternal death.