Freedom Center Reflections

Last Saturday, nearly 20 members of Columbus Mennonite got the opportunity to partner with around 20 members of Cincinnati Mennonite to tour the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati and discuss the ways our respective congregations are working toward racial justice.  The day was rich with good discussion, fresh insights, and a renewed sense of the horrible legacy upon which so much of our society has been built.  One moment of the day has stuck with me, however, and I have continued to wrestle with it. 

At the end of the tour, our group gathered inside the slave pen that had been donated to the museum.  We sat inside that reconstructed barn and learned about the conditions in which slaves were kept and the process by which they were bought and sold.  Even though it had been sterilized and treated to be able to keep the barn inside a museum, a heaviness hung over the space.  After sitting there and learning those horrible things, someone in the group asked a question that went something like this:

“Were there benevolent slave owners who were unaware of the things that were happening, or did people just not care?”

I’m not sure of the specific wording, but I distinctly remember hearing the words “benevolent slave owner” and cringing because it seemed like such a contradiction.  To be benevolent means to be well-meaning and kindly.  Can slave owners be benevolent?  Are well-treated slaves any less slaves? 

I don’t fault this person for asking this question because I think it came from a place that most of us, myself included, were also struggling with: How could anyone be aware of the realities of the slave trade and still participate in it? 

Even if I get swept up in the system, can I still be good? 

I have been left wrestling with the question of how much I try to live as a “benevolent slave owner” in a world where there are so many things that are not as they should be.  It is easy to look back on the horrors of the slave trade and think that if I were alive then, I would have been doing all I could to shut it down.  Hindsight can be a bit morally self-righteous in that way. 

The truth is, I don’t know what I would have done if I had lived back then.  No one does.  The only thing we can know is how we live now. 

And as we figure out how we hope to live now, maybe we should be asking ourselves whether we have settled for being well-meaning and kindly in a world that needs us to be holy and disruptive.