By Frank Ramirez
In 2003, Lisa Sharon Harper undertook a journey to wrestle with her identity. The journey took her along the Trail of Tears as well as into the heart of slavery in the American South.
“I came to the end of the that journey and was profoundly moved by one question. I imagined myself going up to my great-great-great-grandmother, the last enslaved woman in our family, and asking this question.”
She imagined going up to her great-great-great grandmother Leah Ballard, who had been born and raised in slavery, and who gave birth to at least 17 children. What would her ancestor say if she announced, “I have good news for you. Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for [your] life.”
Of Leah Ballard’s 17 children, only 12 can be traced. The other five were born before the end of slavery and were likely sold away. She was probably a “breeder,” whose job was to make her master money by giving birth to more slaves. Harper asked herself, Would she have received the good news as good news? Would she shout for joy? After a pause she said, “I had to admit the answer was no.”
A speaker, activist, prolific writer, and founder of FreedomRoad.us, currently living in Philadelphia, Harper plunged into years of wrestling with the concept of Shalom. “If the good news of the gospel is not considered good news by my three times great grandmother, maybe it is not good news at all.” This led to insights gained from the first 14 chapters of Genesis, which she shared with NOAC.
Harper concentrated on four Hebrew words that “set free” the good news:
The first, tov m’od, often is translated as “very good.” Harper noted “very” can also be translated “forceful, overflowing, abundant.” She said, “This changes everything. When God looks around at the end of the sixth day [of creation] and says, ‘This was very good,’ God was saying not that the things God made were good, but the relatedness between all the things God made and humanity and between men and women was forcefully good…. No whales needed to be saved on that day because there was love flowing between humanity and the rest of creation.”
In the sixth day of creation God made humankind “in our image,” and that word, tselem, is translated into the Greek as “icon.” Harper said that same word appeared when Jesus asked the Pharisees to produce a coin, after they attempted to trap him into making either unpopular or seditious statements, when Jesus asked whose image (or icon) is on the coin? The coin may belong to Caesar, but “whoever bears the tselem of God belongs to God. You bear the image of God, the tselem of God.” The ancient Babylonians believed that only their rulers bore the image of their gods, but Genesis made the astounding statement that we all bear that image. “They democratized power on the first page of the Bible.”
Which leads to the third word: radah, often translated “dominion.” Harper noted, “This word has been sorely misused. Many people say it means to dominate, even unto obliteration.” She instead suggested that God’s command invites us to “maintain the wellness of the boundary between all things…. God puts the humans in the middle of the garden and says till and keep it…. Serve and protect my creation.” This means everyone, including “the welfare mother, uber driver, farmworker who picked the tomatoes that graced your salad, are all called to exercise dominion/stewardship of the world.”
Harper differentiated between the two creation stories in Genesis, saying that starting in the second chapter “God is crafting us out of the mud, kissing us to life.” When God created the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and said of the latter, “Do not eat of it, lest you die,” God was giving us a choice to follow God’s way or choose to follow our own way. When the humans ate the fruit, they chose their own way. “Their own way gave them the only thing it could give them: brokenness.” This led to the broken relationships between men and women, humanity and creation, as brother rose against brother, and languages were confused. “A couple chapters later there’s the first mention of the word war,” she said, “in the context of colonization, one king trying to force his will on the other kings. It only took 13 chapters from tov m’od to war.”
But that is not the end of the story. According to Harper, “God’s redemption story is the rest of the Bible.” Citing the history of the concept of race, from Plato’s Republic with his assertion that people are made of different metals that determine their race and how they are meant to serve society, through Pope Nicholas I blessing European explorers and giving them permission to claim land in Africa and the Americas and to enslave the people–and beyond, to eugenics and pseudoscientific claims that there are superior and inferior races–Harper countered the history of the concept of race with the argument of Jesus in Luke 4, that he had come to set the prisoners free. She said he came “to free the oppressed images of God,” again citing the use of the word for “icon.” Moreover, the baptismal litany in Galatians 3:27-28 confronts human ideas of race: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “Friends, that changes everything,” she told the NOAC congregation.
Imagining again that she was speaking to her ancestor Leah Ballard, she said: “The King of the Kingdom of God has come to confront the kingdom of men that have been hellbent on crushing the image of God on earth. The King has come, great-great-great-grandmum Leah, to set the image of God in you free, to fan the flames of your call to exercise dominion in this world.”
And she added, “Now, would that news cause Leah to jump and shout?” The answer was a decided yes.
She then imagined turning to her ancestor’s master and saying, “I have good news for you. It comes in the form of dmuwth”–the fourth word meaning “likeness.” Harper would tell the master: “You are not actually master, nor do you have to be. You can choose to come down off that scaffolding of human hierarchy. Come and join hands with us. We’re having a party down here. It’s good, it’s very good, to be just you.”
–– Frank Ramirez pastors Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind.
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